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
The 9th round of Corps Commander-level talks were finally held last Sunday. These went on for 16 hours apparently and ended with a joint statement being issued. It said that “the two sides agreed that this round of meeting was positive, practical and constructive…The two sides agreed to push for an early disengagement of the frontline troops.” They also agreed to “hold the 10th round of the Corps Commander level meeting at an early date to jointly advance de-escalation.” Snehesh Alex Philip reports for ThePrint, citing an unnamed source from the defence and security establishment, that “substantial” progress has been achieved in the talks. Nevertheless, here’s how he describes the situation on the ground: “In some locations, like in the Kailash Range on the southern banks of Pangong Lake, troops are literally in an eyeball-to-eyeball situation, with a distance of just a few feet between them. The same also holds true for the tanks being deployed by both sides on heights that are over 16,000 ft.”
On Monday then, the Indian Army confirmed that the two sides had also had a clash at the Sikkim border. The army’s statement said that “it is clarified that there was a minor face-off at Nakula area of North Sikkim on 20 January 2021 and the same was resolved by local commanders as per established protocols.” The army also called on the media to “refrain from overplaying or exaggerating reports which are factually incorrect.” This came amid reports of injuries on both sides. The Chinese foreign ministry didn’t provide details but called on the Indian side to “refrain from actions that might escalate or complicate the situation along the border.” Global Times’ editor Hu Xijin said that reports of the clash and multiple injuries were “fake news.” Nevertheless, as this India Today report shows that PLA fortifications in that region have intensified since the tensions in Eastern Ladakh started last year.
While on the boundary issue, do read this piece by Jayadeva Ranade, wherein he argues that Chinese attitudes towards India are hardening. He assesses Chinese analysts’ views regarding the recent tensions. The piece largely looks at CICIR’s Hu Shisheng’s recent writings. Ranade says that in a recent piece, “Hu Shisheng asserted the conflict in Ladakh was ‘inevitable’ and a result of the ‘high-risk, high-yield’ policy followed by the Modi government. He identified the main reasons for rivalry as ‘India’s long-term pursuit of absolute security and dominance in the regional order’ and the Modi government’s ambition to ‘overtake China by taking advantage of India’s favourable external strategic environment’.”
Meanwhile, Fudan University’s Shen Yi has a longish piece interpreting the recent LAC talks. Of course, it’s a terribly jaundiced view of affairs, but it’s worth noting this line of discourse in China. With regard to the joint statement, he writes that “behind these seemingly uneventful elements, it is clear that China has continued to make steady progress and achievements on two battlefields, namely, the Western Line of Actual Control (WLC) area and the negotiation table at the military level.” He blames India for the current situation, of course. He says that “unauthorised actions by the Indian side” and “unilateral cross-border actions” that India took in May 2020 led to the standoff. Explaining why he thinks India would have provoked this situation? He blames “restless nationalism” along with ties with the US, the Indo-Pacific strategy, domestic issues related to the pandemic and so on.
He then adds that “the fact that the Sino-Indian military chief-level talks have continued to this day is a symbol of the Chinese side’s success: the use of reasoned, forceful and measured actions to deal with the front-line troops on the spot, which suppressed the Indian side’s tactical speculation; the subsequent demonstration and rapid deployment of multi-services forces in the border area and its supporting depths, which formed an effective deterrent to the Indian side’s attempts to increase troops and expand the scale of the conflict and other military adventures; and the fact that at the negotiation table, the Chinese side used firm will, resilience and a strong response to the Indian side’s tactical speculation.”
He then discusses China’s options. Should Beijing not act, it encourages more “speculation” and “risk-taking” from India. Should it act, it risks escalation, which will likely lead to gains for Washington. On the 9 rounds of talks so far, he blames the Indian side for releasing “emotionally inflammatory” content, while Beijing released “precise information in a responsible manner.” He says that this only inhibits Indian diplomacy going ahead. He says that the 6th round of talks onwards represents the second phase of dialogue between the two sides. That was the round when both sides agreed to stop sending more troops to the frontline, refrain from unilaterally changing the situation on the ground and avoid taking any actions that may further complicate matters. This he says was a victory for China. Anyway, going ahead, he views the talks process as positive but believes that there’s much more that’s happening. The biggest concern for him, however, is how Washington gains, if at all.
“The game will be played out in two arenas and three settings: offline and online, and in three settings, including the scene of the conflict, the negotiation table, and the court of public opinion centred on social networking platforms,” he writes.
I wonder how he would view Foreign Minister Jaishankar’s comments at the annual All India Conference of China Studies. Speaking at the event, Jaishankar said that events of the past year had “profoundly disturbed” the bilateral relationship, which was now “under exceptional stress.” The “relationship is today truly at a crossroads. Choices that are made will have profound repercussions, not just for the two nations but for the entire world.” He said that India had “yet to receive a credible explanation for the change in China’s stance.” Going ahead, what he called for was that both sides adhere to “three mutuals – mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests.” He also outlined 8 principles that could underpin the relationship. The points with regard to the boundary issue in this context are as follows:
“where the handling of the border areas are concerned, the LAC must be strictly observed and respected; any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo is completely unacceptable. Third, peace and tranquillity in the border areas is the basis for development of relations in other domains. If they are disturbed, so inevitably will the rest of the relationship. This is quite apart from the issue of progress in the boundary negotiations. Fourth, while both nations are committed to a multi-polar world, there should be a recognition that a multi-polar Asia is one of its essential constituents.”
When asked about these remarks, China’s foreign ministry’s Zhao Lijian said that they “approve” of “the importance the Indian side attaches to its ties with China.” He then added: “I need to stress that the border issue shall not be linked with bilateral relations. This is also an important lesson learned through the two countries’ efforts over the past decades to keep our ties moving forward.” Clearly, this a serious gulf between the two sides, which played out this week in terms of India’s continuing ban on Chinese apps.
Reports this week informed of the Indian government planning to retain its ban on Chinese apps that was announced last year. Reuters, citing an unidentified source, says that “a government panel looking into the app ban decided, after reviewing the responses, that there will be no change in the country’s position for now as the ban was in the interest of India’s national security and sovereignty…The government has sent notices to the companies informing them of its decision.” ToI reported that 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok, Baidu and WeChat would be “permanently banned.” There’s no confirmation but actions of Chinese companies is a sign of how things are playing out. Bytedance said this week that it would be cutting its workforce in India. ET reports that around 800 of the 2000 people employed by the company in India could be let go. Beijing, of course, didn’t react well to this. The spokesperson of China’s embassy in India, Ji Rong, called the move violated the “WTO non-discriminatory principles and fair competition principles of market economy.” China’s Commerce Ministry echoed this.
Writing in Global Times, Long Xingchun lashed out at New Delhi for “imitating” what he says were Trump’s policies. He argues that these will only hurt the Indian economy and will lead to greater caution from Chinese investors. The tabloid’s editorial (Chinese version) called for Chinese tech firms to sue the Indian government. I don’t tend to share all the pieces that I read in the newsletter in order to prioritise and be concise, and Global Times’ vitriol is not the best barometer for public opinion, but I must say, the condescension in pieces on India across the board in Chinese media is exhausting. Here’s another this week, talking about the pandemic’s impact on India, and the “self-slaps” of Indian policies. Among many things, it disses on the approval of Covaxin, questioning its efficacy along with India’s provision of vaccines to neighbouring countries. It talks about India “harbouring dreams of greatness since its founding” and adds that India’s vaccine diplomacy is predicated on containing China’s influence in the region. And then this: “China’s provision of safe and effective vaccines to the world is predicated on ensuring a controllable domestic epidemic. India can naturally approve vaccines in advance, enter the global vaccine supply competition, and use it as a bargaining chip to enhance its regional and even international influence, but the cost of gambling with the lives and health of millions of people is still too high.”