Eye on China is a weekly newsletter that covers developments in China from an Indian interests perspective.
I. India-China Ties
It took a long time to come, but the 11th round India-China Corps Commander Level Meeting was held at Chushul-Moldo border meeting point on Friday. The talks apparently went on for 13 hours. At the end of it all, the needle on disengagement doesn’t seem to have moved. For instance, there’s no joint statement this time around, unlike after the 10th round. Shiv Aroor reports, citing sources in the 14 Corps that “the Chinese side appeared for the 11th round of talks on Friday with a predetermined decision to be totally inflexible.” He says that India has proposed a phased reduction of troops in the Gogra and Hot Springs areas “where troop build-up on both sides remains significant.” But the Chinese don’t seem interested. He adds that “China remains deployed in significant strength at Gogra, Hot Springs and Kongka La areas, with a large PLA logistics facility supporting troops there. Elements from a motorised infantry division, an artillery brigade and air-defence unit also remain deployed in the area.”
Rajat Pandit quotes a source in his TOI report saying that “PLA did not agree to troop pullback from the friction sites at patrolling points (PPs) 15, 17 and 17A in the Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongka La area, where it is also maintaining considerable strength in the rear areas. De-escalation at Depsang is nowhere on the horizon.”
Looking at the statements issued by both sides, there’s a really interesting divergence. The Chinese statement, issued by the Spokesperson of the Western Theater Command, gives very little away. It says that “two sides exchanged views on issues of mutual concern and will continue to maintain communication through military and diplomatic channels.” It also puts the onus on India, adding that “it is hoped that the Indian side will cherish the current positive trend of relaxation and cooling in the Sino-Indian border area, abide by the relevant agreements…and the consensus of the previous talks, and meet the Chinese side halfway to jointly maintain peace and tranquility in the border area.” Also, Zhao Lijian at the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Friday sounded rather annoyed when asked about delayed talks. “There is no such thing as delay in talks as you mentioned. I’d like to stress that the ins and outs of the China-India border issue are very clear. The responsibility does not rest with China. It is hoped that India will meet with China half way…” he said.
In contrast, the Indian statement from the Defense Ministry and MEA is far more optimistic from everything you’ve read so far above. It says that the “two sides agreed on the need to resolve the outstanding issues in an expeditious manner in accordance with the existing agreements and protocols.” It further offers this curious carrot: “In this context it was highlighted also that completion of disengagement in other areas would pave the way for two sides to consider de-escalation of forces and ensure full restoration of peace and tranquility and enable progress in bilateral relations.”
Discussing both statements, this report in Global Times in Chinese and English points to the lack of a joint statement and notes that previously Chinese statements were issued by the Defense Ministry, but this time it was the PLA WTC spokesperson. “This indicated that the latest meeting did not result in an agreement of a full disengagement in other areas as expected, and the statement showed China’s dissatisfaction and concerns over the slow development of the current situation, Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times on Sunday.”
Moving on, China’s ambassador to India Sun Weidong spoke at a public event last week. He called for strengthening confidence-building measures to jointly maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas, adding further that “the lesson of last year’s border incident is profound and such incident should not be repeated.” But he also said that the boundary issue is “not the whole story of China-India relations.” This sounds reasonable on the surface, but I hope that this argument does not have purchase in India today. One cannot have such tensions on the boundary and Beijing refusing to clarify its claims and moving ahead on settlement while we pursue a normal relationship in other areas.
Meanwhile, speaking at another public event in the week, India’s Chief of Defense Staff Bipin Rawat warned of the cyber threat from China. He acknowledged that there was a “capability differential” between the two sides in this regard. “We know that China is capable of launching cyber attacks on us, and that can disrupt a large amount of our systems…What we are trying to do is to create a system in which we ensure cyber defence. And we have been able to, therefore, create a cyber agency, which is our own agency within the armed forces. Each service also has its own cyber agency to ensure that even if we come under a cyber attack, the down time and the effect of the cyber attack does not last long.” The idea here is to create a system that can sustain and operate during an attack.
Two more candid admissions during the event, which I hope will spur greater investment in technology and firepower over manpower are:
- Rawat acknowledging that China has been able to invest a lot of funds in ensuring that they imbibe technology.
- His statement that “we are trying to develop some kind of a relationship with western nations to see how better we can get some support from them, during peacetime at least which will help us to overcome this deficiency that we have.”
A few more interesting stories in the context of the bilateral relationship. First, Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said this week that Beijing was using its vaccine diploimacy to target Taiwan’s allies in Central America. He spoke about the case of Paraguay. According to Reuters, “the Chinese government was ‘very active’ in saying to the public that if Paraguay severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan they would get millions of doses of China’s vaccines, which put pressure on Taiwan to help, Wu added. ‘In the last few weeks, we have been speaking to like-minded countries, including Japan, the United States, India etcetera, and India fortunately has been able to provide some COVAXIN vaccines to Paraguay,’ he said, referring to a shot developed by India’s Bharat Biotech and a state research institute.” India’s MEA, however, says that while vaccines were provided to Paraguay, “no third party was involved in this.”
Second, while Indian and Taiwanese foreign ministries have been exchanging condolence messages over the train crash in Taiwan and then the naxal attack in Chhattisgarh, the Chinese embassy in Delhi has been lashing out at the Indian media. This came in the context of an editorial in the Times of India, which argued for deeper India-Taiwan relations. “Beijing clearly doesn’t respect ‘One India’. There is no reason then for India to be overly sensitive about China’s territorial claims,” it said. The Chinese embassy then called on “the relevant Indian media to take a correct stance on issues of core interests concerning China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, adhere to the One-China principle, and avoid sending wrong messages to the public.”
This particular exchange has led the Global Times to do what it does best, i.e., rabble-rouse. In this piece, Liu Zongyi says that while India “does not have the nerve to break the one-China principle…it has been playing tricks behind the scenes.” He adds that Indian media activism on Taiwan is “not simply because of the so-called freedom of press. To some extent, they are backed by the government to make breakthroughs step by step.” He also proposes not recognising Sikkim as part of India, in case New Delhi pushes hard on Taiwan.
Third, and this is rather important, Bloomberg reports that Sajjan Jindal’s son-in-law Vikram Handa is setting up the country’s first manufacturer of lithium-ion battery parts in Karnataka. The plant aims to produce 100,000 tons of synthetic graphite anode by 2030, or about 10% of estimated global demand. China dominates this market currently, providing 80% of global supply of anodes, while importing raw materials from India.
Fourth, SCMP reports that the “Tibet autonomous region on Tuesday introduced 15 border regulations ‘to maintain security and stability of the border area’…A military insider said the regulations – reiterating that actions such as moving border markers and damaging military facilities were illegal – were aimed at ‘preventing any infiltration activities’. ‘All the bans are updated rules based on previous border regulations, with the key mission being to prevent exiled Tibetans trying to infiltrate Chinese borders,’ the insider, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, told the South China Morning Post. They added that, according to Chinese officials, more than 10,000 exiled Tibetan were being trained as ‘special operation troops’ by India.” The report adds that some of these rules have been in place for decades. But the reiteration, of course, matters. In addition to “infiltration,” carrying or disseminating newspapers, books or electronic products deemed to endanger national security is among the acts banned under the rules.
Finally, let’s take a look at some of the commentaries from Chinese media about India. First, there’s this really long piece looking at the evolution of the Communist movement in India in the aftermath of the Chattisgarh attack. The core argument is about why Communism failed to take root in India, particularly through a violent revolution i.e., why did the sparks not ignite a “prairie fire”? The author talks about the legacy of non-violence in the freedom movement, role of religion in society, the establishment of a constitutional republic, infighting in the Communist movement, and so on. There’s, of course, a certain derisiveness to the tone at times because for the author, the lack of a Communist revolution is seen as a failure of the Communist parties in India, which are blamed for being riddled with infighting and driven by vested interests.
The Global Times’ English edition has put out a few pieces on India, but there’s little in the Chinese edition. In saying this, one must note that it did cover in detail the exchange between India and the US over the US Navy’s recent Freedom of Navigation Operation in Indian waters. The story also apparently trended on social media in China. Here’s a sample of some of the discussions on Weibo.
In another piece, Qian Feng writes that “high geostrategic expectations placed on India by Western countries” have “given India more and more ‘international visibility’ but it also puts a new test on how New Delhi handles Sino-Indian relations.” He talks about the US and Western allies all crafting strategies for the Indo-Pacific, with India being an important factor. He argues that “in India’s view, the strategic competition between China and the United States has given Western countries, such as the United States, more motivation to give it substantial support in the fields of diplomacy, military affairs, economy, trade, and science and technology to hedge against the geopolitical pressure brought about by China’s rise. This is self-evident for China-India relations, which are still sluggish due to border confrontations and bloody conflicts.”
He dismisses notions of common values and democracy to argue that Indian policy is rooted in realism, aimed at narrowing the strategic gap with the West. However, he implies that there’s still no decision on whether India is in an “anti-China alliance” or camp. He then says that India and China are neighbours and while ties are strained right now, “India needs to continue to work with China to resolve historical and practical conflicts through bilateral dialogue, rather than playing the ‘balancing act’ at all costs and consequences, or even taking sides and becoming a ‘frontline country’ against China.”