Eye on China is a weekly bulletin offering news and analysis related to the Middle Kingdom from an Indian interests perspective.
I. India-China Ties
Let’s begin with the tensions in Ladakh. For the first time since September 30, both sides held a meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on border affairs. The MEA’s readout says that “the two sides reviewed the developments along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the India-China border areas.” It also said that both sides would “continue to work towards ensuring complete disengagement in all friction points along the LAC in the Western Sector at the earliest.” Finally, it talks about the 9th round of Corps Commander level meeting, which it says “should be held at an early date.” So there’s nothing definitive that’s come out. The statement from China’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, said that both sides agreed to “focus on the disengagement of front-line troops and take concrete measures to deal with the issues on the ground to further deescalate the border situation” and to hold the ninth round of commander-level talks “as soon as possible to properly resolve remaining issues on the ground and jointly maintain peace and tranquility in the border area.” In the meantime, Beijing has appointed a new General to take charge of the Western Theatre Command. General Zhang Xudong takes over from General Zhao Zongqi, who turned 65 this year. Zhao had been in charge of the WTC since 2016, i.e., throughout the tumult of Doklam and Ladakh. Ananth Krishnan’s report on this informs that “General Zhang has no prior experience in the Western Theatre, Tibet or Xinjiang, having spent much of his career in the northeastern Shenyang Military Region (now under the Northern Theatre Command) and since 2017 as the Commander of Central Theatre Command, which is responsible for the security of the capital, Beijing.”
Finally, on the border issue, do note this report by Shishir Gupta, which says that “satellite imagery and communication intercepts along the 3,488 kilometre Line of Actual Control (LAC) shows that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is undertaking a significant road and building infrastructure upgrade across Karakoram Pass and Aksai Chin to ramp up military capacities and capability against India.” The report says that “China has built an alternative 8-10 metre wide road to Karakoram Pass that would shorten the distance to the strategic gateway into Daulet Beg Oldi sector by two hours.” It further talks about “a new logistics depot that will have an underground petroleum and oil storage facility coming up at Golmud…(and) the building of two new underground facilities at the Pang Ta air base across Arunachal Pradesh.”
Moving on, PTI reported this week that telecom equipment from China may face fresh curbs after the Cabinet on Wednesday cleared a proposal to secure telecom infrastructure by designating a “trusted source” for the purchase of equipment by service providers. Briefing reporters after the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Law, Telecom and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said a National Security Directive on Telecommunication Sector has been framed keeping in mind the national security…Under the provisions of this directive, the government will declare a list of trusted sources and trusted products for installation in the country’s telecom network.” This, to me, seems like the way to go. In fact, I am sharing below a screenshot of the recommendations that we at Takshashila had put out in a June 2019 report on this issue.
This HT report has some more details. Apparently the certificate of the equipment coming from a “trusted source” will be issued by a security panel headed by Deputy National Security Advisor Rajender Khanna. A former chief of India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing, Khanna is said to be heading the technologies section in the National Security Council Secretariat. Also, this current directive does not require phone companies to replace their existing equipment and will not impact ongoing annual maintenance contracts or updates to existing equipment. There’s been no official Chinese government response to this that I’ve seen. But of course, the commentariat in China doesn’t seem pleased with this. Here’s Dai Yonghong, director of the Institute of Bay of Bengal Studies at Shenzhen University, writing that this “discriminative stance is certain to backfire on the relatively poor South Asian country.” Dai ends the piece with: “Unlike the developed economies which are shored up by solid economic foundations, playing geopolitical games with China is not affordable for a relatively poor country like India. Now it’s time for New Delhi to think it over.” I wonder why he worries so much about a “poor country” playing geopolitical games? Anyway, the flip side of this decision is likely to be some cost implications for telecom service providers. Here’s a piece that outlines some expected challenges, particularly for Airtel and Vodafone.
Finally, let’s look at the Quad meeting this week. Senior officials from India, Japan, Australia and the United States met this week, with each side issuing a separate statement. Here’s a table with the key points from all four statements: India, US, Japan, and Australia.