Eye on China: Indo-Pacific – LAC Buffer Zones – 5th Plenum – PLA’s 2027 Target – Biden’s Policy – Zambia Debt – AI Patents & 5G – Risky Vaccinations

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

There’s no date yet, but reports suggest that next week, India and China should be holding the 8th round of commander-level talks about the situation at the LAC. Lt. General PGK Menon and MEA Joint Secretary Navin Srivastava will be part of the delegation. Amrita Nayak Dutta reports for ThePrint that the talks “will focus on finalising the exact locations of the buffer zones to be created along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh with an aim to work out a partial disengagement of troops over the next three weeks before the heavy winter sets in…Buffer zones would be areas on both sides of the LAC where neither army conducts patrols.” Her colleague Snehesh Alex Philip reports that the PLA has proposed withdrawing tanks and artillery guns from the forward areas back to their peacetime locations. In response, it wanted Indian troops to vacate strategic heights in the southern banks of Pangong Tso lake and make Finger 4 in the northern banks a no-go area. The report also says that the PLA presented these ideas over time before putting forward a consolidated proposal on October 12 during the 7th round of talks. The unidentified Indian sources quoted in the report don’t seem keen on these proposals.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh told army commanders this week that they must be wary of talks with the Chinese side. This came after he’d termed Chinese actions on the boundary “reckless aggression” during the 2+2 dialgoue with the US earlier in the week. I’ll talk about the 2+2 in a bit, but before that, here’s Shishir Gupta’s report in HT with Indian national security officials talking about Beijing beefing up defense installations in Tibet. The report says that recent satellite imagery shows shelters to house fighter jets in an excavated hill at Gonggar airbase in Lhasa, massive storage facility at Golmud in Qinghai, a new road between Xinjiang region’s Kanxiwar, which was used as forward deployment base during 1962 war, to the Hotan airbase and border upgrade at Nyangulu and Nyingchi across Arunachal Pradesh. Nyangulu, 60 kilometres from the Arunachal border, was again used as a forward PLA camp in the 1962 war. It adds that “the development of Shiquanhe a mere 82 kilometres from the Demchok Line of Actual Control and construction of shelters near Mabdo La camp in occupied Aksai Chin means that while the focus of the global community will be on India-China stand-off, the Chinese communist leadership will continue to put its indelible stamp on Tibet.” Also, do note the remarks by Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar during a lecture on Saturday. While he said that Sino-Indian ties were under “severe stress” and that “any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo is unacceptable,” he also said this: “The relationship cannot be immune to changes in the assumptions that underpinned it. Large civilisational states re-emerging in close proximity will not have naturally easy ties.” To me, and maybe I am reading too much into it, this suggests a willingness to accommodate and be flexible in the approach to China.

Anyway, moving to the Quad and 2+2 dialogue now. The Malabar naval drills are going to be held next week, with the four Quad navies taking part. Consequently, there are pieces talking about Sino-Indian competition in the seas. I’ve highlighted some of the news pieces below, but I do recommend reading this November 2018 essay by Collin Koh titled China-India Rivalry at Sea: Capability, trends and challenges. Trust me, it’s worth your time. 

Okay, onto the 2+2 dialogue. The State Department’s fact sheet ahead of the talks focussed on the strategic underpinnings of the relationship, India’s role as a regional and international leader, defense cooperation and people-to-people ties. Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper then landed in Delhi, spending 26 hours in the Indian capital. Pompeo was rather blunt in his opening remarks, saying: “We have a lot to discuss today, from cooperating on defeating the pandemic that originated in Wuhan, to confronting the Chinese Communist Party’s threats to security and freedom, to promoting peace and stability throughout the region.” The Indian side refrained from mentioning China, but there was one sentence from Rajnath Singh that led to a kerfuffle (also this). Much ado about nothing or an example of the caution that Indian policymakers employ with regard to Beijing?

Anyway, the two sides issued a joint statement after the talks. Here’s a breakdown of the statement:

  • They talked about cooperation in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. “The Ministers reaffirmed efforts to enhance supply chain resilience and to seek alternatives to the current paradigm, which had come under severe strain during the pandemic and exposed critical vulnerabilities.”
  • “They reaffirmed that closer U.S.-India cooperation will support shared interests in promoting security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. They also emphasized that the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea should not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of any nation in accordance with international law.”
  • “They expressed their support for further strengthening Quad cooperation through expanded activities, including initiating a dialogue among the development organizations of partner countries.”
  • They applauded the significant step of the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). (Do check out Shubhajit Roy’s explanation on the foundational agreements between India and the US.) They also welcomed enhanced maritime information sharing and maritime domain awareness between their Navies and affirmed their commitment to build upon existing defense information-sharing at the joint-service and service-to-service levels and explore potential new areas of mutually beneficial cooperation.”
  • Also discussed were cooperation in energy, space, tackling narcotics, dealing with terrorism, and people to people ties.

Let’s quickly look at how Beijing responded to all this. The Chinese embassy in India put out a statement saying: “Pompeo and other senior official repeated old lies, attacked and made allegations against China, violated the norms of international relations and basic principles of diplomacy, instigated China’s relations with other countries in the region, which once again exposed their Cold War mentality and ideological bias. The Chinese side expresses its firm opposition to it.” It added: “The ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’ proposed by the US is to stir up confrontation among different groups and blocs and to stoke geopolitical competition, in a bid to maintain the dominance of the US, organize closed and exclusive ideological cliques.” MoFA’s Wang Wenbin echoed these views about Cold War mentality, saying “Unfortunately for Pompeo, he was not born into the right era.” This did make me chuckle. He’s really gotten under their skin. I mean here’s Global Times’ editorial calling him “poison” that Asia must guard against.

Let’s also look at some commentaries. Here’s Qiao Xinsheng from the Zhongnan University of Economics and Law basically saying that India was a British colonial construct and that has influenced its policies in the neighbourhood and with regard to China. Of course, he says that China wants a peaceful relationship with India: “the tree wants to be quiet but the wind keeps on.” He argues that relying on US military systems, particularly communications systems, means that India’s dream of being an independent military power are now history. There’s also this, which left me scratching my head: “The central government (in India) is somewhat helpless amid the conflicts created by the Indian army in the border areas. Of course, the Indian central government can restrict Indian troops’ operations in border areas by increasing or reducing the budget. But on the whole, the Indian ruling party must do everything possible to cater to the Indian army if it wants to get support.” Two pieces in Global Times by Fudan university’s Zhang Jiadong.

Here’s an excerpt from the first piece in English on Oct. 25, which talks about India’s strategic autonomy: “In the long run, in a multipolar world, US-Indian relations will continue to develop, but will also transform. It’s difficult for Washington to form (an) alliance with New Delhi like it has with Tokyo. On the one hand, India sees itself as a major world power, which determines its attitudes toward the US. As a country which believes it is destined to become even more ‘powerful,’ India will not be subject to any other global competitor.” And then here’s the one on Oct. 30 in Chinese, in which he says that India has retained its strategic autonomy despite the foundational military pacts being agreed. “The US-India relationship is basically the relationship between equals, which is different from the superior-subordinate relationship between the United States and traditional allies. When the United States signed the four functional agreements with other allies, the allies had little room for negotiation, and most of them could only passively accept them. But India is different. When negotiating each agreement, India made changes and made important reservations to prevent it from being controlled by the United States.” He then dismisses the mental model of a Cold War to describe the emerging world order, adding that: “Although there are differences between China and India, some of them are difficult to reconcile, but there is also a vast space for cooperation and common interests, which is also difficult for the two countries to avoid. Enemies and friends are not concepts that can be used to describe Sino-Indian relations. For both China and India, they cannot use the logic of the Cold War to organize their own India/China policies and corresponding quasi-alliance systems.”

And finally this: “In short, with China strong and India weak, US-India defense cooperation still has room for development, and the two countries may continue to check and balance China. However, once the power balance between the three countries undergoes major changes, such as the rapid rise of India and a more balanced power relationship between the three countries, the current US-India defense cooperation relationship will be transformed or even disintegrated. If India cannot develop rapidly, then no matter what defense relationship India develops with the United States, it will not have much strategic significance.”

Amid all this, I guess it’s useful; to highlight remarks by Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. This is what he said on a recent visit to Indonesia: “[What is meant] by a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, for Japan, is not targeting any specific country. And we think it is possible to cooperate with any country that shares the vision. And there is no intention at all to create an Indo-Pacific version of NATO.”

Read the full newsletter here.