Eye on China is a weekly newsletter that covers news and developments related to China from an Indian interests perspective.
I. India-China Ties
Let’s begin with reports of the next round of Corps Commander-level talks that are likely to take place this week. Shishir Gupta reports that the talks are “expected to record forward movement in disengagement of armies in the Gogra-Hot Springs area of East Ladakh, people aware of the development said, citing progress made by the two sides during the recent meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on border affairs.” The story also quotes an unidentified Indian military commander as saying that the PLA was moving heavy equipment to its headquarters in Rutog county near the northern bank of Pangong Lake. “But he cautioned that the PLA was concentrating its deployment in Tibet and Xinjiang region across the LAC through long term military plans.”
Here’s more from the report, which tells us that the disengagement that’s happened so far has very limited ground significance. “‘It is quite evident that the PLA will monitor the LAC through electronic surveillance in the future with land force and air force kept on standby in the nearby bases. This way the PLA will not have to station its troops in very high altitude posts in subpolar temperatures while the capacity of the Red Army to deploy remains intact’, said a former Army Chief.”
Here’s how China’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) described the disengagement this week during its monthly press conference. It said that “Chinese and Indian front-line troops have disengaged in Pangong Lake area…Thanks to the joint efforts made by the Chinese and Indian sides, the tension in the border areas has been eased distinctly. We hope that the two sides can value the hard-won results, follow the important consensus reached by the leaders of both countries, maintain dialogue and communication, stabilize the situation against relapse, gradually come to solutions that can be accepted by both sides, and jointly maintain peace in the border areas.” So basically, there’s no clarity on next steps.
On the Indian side, Army chief MM Naravane was rather blunt. Speaking at the Times Network’s India Economic Conclave, he said that “The threat has only abated…It has not gone away altogether and unless substantial amount of de-escalation takes place, that is, all the troops who had come in from the other regions…from their permanent garrisons…now are within striking distance of the border if you would put it that way. Unless all these elements also go back we would not be able to really say that things are back to normal.” India’s Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat, meanwhile, said that India will catch up with China on border infrastructure within 3 to 4 years.
Moving on to matters of the Quad this week. Ananth Krishnan reports that the Biden administration highlighted the strength of US-India ties in its March 19 meeting with Chinese officials in Alaska. The reference to India, it is learnt, was not favourably received by the two Chinese officials. China’s MND this week hit out at the Quad, calling it a mechanism “entrenched in the Cold War mentality” that “advocates bloc confrontation and is obsessed with geopolitical gaming. The countries are ganging up on the pretext of the so-called ‘China challenge’ and blatantly stirring up troubles among regional countries. We are firmly opposed to that.” One more interesting Quad factoid from Chinese media was a Global Times piece, which is currently not accessible, that quoted Zhu Ying of Southwest University of Political Science and Law saying that the Quad could be next in line for sanctions in the context of the recent trading of sanctions around Beijing’s Xinjiang policies.
In another piece in the paper, Qian Feng from the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University writes about the potential for India to join NATO. This is honestly a non-issue. But okay, let’s see what he has to say: “Becoming a NATO partner will only bring disadvantages for India. Apart from China, India is also trying to balance between Russia and the US. If India becomes a NATO partner, it will be a huge disaster for India-Russia relations.” Qian then adds: “The practicality of India’s decision to become a NATO partner is almost zero. But if it really becomes a partner, this will mean that India’s strategy undertakes a fundamental change to completely throw itself into the Western camp. In this case, India will enter a “new” circle. In so doing, it will also offend all members in its “old” circle. This will only put more geopolitical pressure on itself.”
Nevertheless, there is a sense in Beijing about deepening Sino-Indian contestation, which is further extending into the values domain. For instance, here’s Fudan University’s Lin Minwang talking about Indian media’s China coverage. He’s obviously very critical of how the Indian media operates with regard to China. But what’s most interesting: he believes that Indian perceptions of China are increasingly being heavily driven by the ideological prism of democracy and non-democracy. This he says is getting worse.
Finally, there’s a really good, clear-eyed policy paper published by the good folks at the Pune International Center, outlining a vision and recommendations for India to deal with the China challenge. They authors argue that:
“in the short run, India will fare best through participating in coalitions to balance China. These coalitions would naturally consist of countries with shared values and interests…Three groups of countries are our natural partners in such coalition building: (a) the major democracies of the world, (b) the countries in the Indian region and (c) countries that share a border with China, including major powers such as Russia, who are our natural partners in this venture. Building such coalitions including the Quad and others is the need of the hour.” The argument further extends to such coalitions going beyond a situation in which “heads of states play a chess game of foreign policy.” Instead, what is needed is to cultivate “deep connections between the people and from shared interests.”
In the long run, they argue that “there are three critical challenges which India faces: (a) The increased tendency towards government micromanaging the economy, (b) The expanding administrative state and (c) a growing erosion of the rule of law…Indian policy thinking needs to change course in a fundamental way, around these three big themes of scaling back state intervention, restoring the separation of powers and achieving the rule of law. These changes will induce a next phase of high GDP growth, in which India should be able to match Chinese GDP.”
Here’s more: “In economic thinking, China is ahead of India in terms of shedding the autarkic mindset. This is visible in Chinese openness to international trade and FDI and most visible in the area of international finance and RMB internationalisation. There is a need for Indian economic policy to do much more by way of embracing international trade and finance.”
“In military affairs, China is substantially ahead of India on the agenda of modernising the armed forces, of reducing the headcount and increasing the technological intensity behind each soldier. There is a need to fundamentally reorient Indian military spending away from the predominance of wages and pensions towards right sized armed forces who have more modern capabilities, where the share of wages and pensions in overall military expenditure comes down to below half.”
“Alongside these issues, the long-run foundations of Indian success lie in the maturation of the liberal democracy. This requires renewed vigour of protecting civil liberties, enshrining each individual and overcoming the fault lines of caste and creed.”
Finally, they talk about three specific areas in which there is a case for a retreat from engagement with China. These are “restrictions against companies controlled by the Chinese state from having a controlling stake in a hotlist of sensitive infrastructure assets;” “avoid locking into Chinese-controlled technological standards and instead work with global standards processes;” and “police against and block Chinese state surveillance of Indian persons, which appears to often be done through backdoors in network equipment.”