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
An interesting week with new warnings from Washington and Beijing, as military commanders prepare for another round of talks tomorrow. First, US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien talked about the LAC situation, saying that the PLA had “attempted to seize control of the Line of Actual Control by force.” He also added that “the time has come to accept that dialogue and agreements will not persuade or compel the People’s Republic of China to change.” His colleague Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, said that “India was facing a 60,000 troop build-up in eastern Ladakh.” The India-US 2+2 dialogue is scheduled for October 26-27. The Indian Express reports that Pompeo and Mark Esper are likely to fly down to India for an “in-person” meeting with their Indian counterparts and meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
ANI reports that “top military and political leaders” met in Delhi on Friday ahead of tomorrow’s talks in the Chushul/Moldo region in eastern Ladakh. Don’t expect any talk about thinning of troops. The report adds that India has a clear stand that the gambit of talks must include disengagement and de-escalation from the entire eastern Ladakh region for addressing the situation. This will be the last set of talks to be attended by present corps commander of Fire and Fury Corps Lt Gen Harinder Singh as his successor Lt Gen PGK Menon has already reached Leh to take over the charge. The last set of talks between the two sides was at the WMCC level. ET reports that those conversations explored a bunch of military CBMs drawing up restrained protocol along the Line of Actual Control.
The report says: “The CBMs include taking steps to reduce the possibility of physical contact between troops from both sides, ET has reliably learned from highly placed sources. Specific proposals on the table were that whenever any such situation rises both sides will maintain restraint to avoid physical contact and jostling. Similarly, other proposals included strictly ‘rifle down’ protocol and considering doing away with the night patrolling as a Confidence Building Measure.”
Meanwhile, William Zheng reports for SCMP that the PLA is prioritising troops in Tibet, preparing for a long winter. The report quotes an unidentified PLA source as saying that “the new winter combat gear debuted on September 20 was tested in Tibet, and later modified and improved to suit the needs of troops operating in Tibet’s winter.” This runs counter to the usual practice of giving the eastern and northern army units the latest equipment first. “The logistics department is also sourcing other winter gear from other army units stationed in cold northern China to supply the Tibet front first.” The new PLA winter patrol gear includes thermal hoods, winter training clothes, overcoats, moisture-absorbing, and quick-drying underwear, waterproof thermal gloves and socks, anti-glare glasses, and multifunction thermal water bottles, the report adds. Also, the PLA has put out pictures of its new “insulated cabins” which Chinese media reports say, have been “deployed to the PLA frontier defense troops stationed in the plateau.”
While on the boundary issue, I’d like to highlight this piece by Yun Sun. The final section, parts of which I am excerpting below, should give Chinese strategists some food for thought.
“But even if China is able to change and maintain the claimed fait accompli, does that make China the winner? Some Chinese would argue yes: Tactically, China might have improved its position on the ground. Psychologically, many Chinese have found it gratifying to punish India for its ‘petty maneuver and encroachment on Chinese territory and scorn Indian reactions, including the anti-China sentiment and the boycott of Chinese products and apps. For the Chinese propaganda apparatus, the Ladakh clash has even been portrayed as a success of Xi Jinping’s great power diplomacy. But it should at least be debated whether China might have just won the battle and lost the war. The Ladakh clash directly confirms China’s image of being an aggressor and a bully in the international arena, exacerbating its worsening reputation as an aggressive, hostile authoritarian state…China’s sheer loss is strategic, and tactical advances in an uninhabitable mountain region cannot offset that fact. The fear of that strategic loss probably explains China’s persistent efforts to reassure India that China is ‘not India’s strategic threat’ and still pursues friendly relations.”
Moving on, Taiwan’s increasingly a hot issue between Indian civil society and the PRC. This week, the Chinese embassy hit out at Indian media coverage ahead of Taiwan’s national day on October 10. The embassy’s press section issued a letter to the Indian media. It basically said that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory” and that the “one-China policy is also the long-standing position of the Indian government.” It added: “We hope Indian media can stick to Indian government’s position on Taiwan question and do not violate the One-China principle.” And that “Taiwan shall not be referred to as a ‘country(nation)’ or ‘The Republic of China’ or the leader of China’s Taiwan region as ‘President’, so as not to send the wrong signals to the general public.”
My take: The embassy has not issued such notes earlier; and in that sense, it might be a new development. But honestly, this is not a new issue. It’s part of a pattern of behaviour by Chinese diplomats around the world, i.e., to actively push back and influence discourse in host countries on issues of interest. This has happened on the issue of Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and even in January-February on COVID-19 coverage. It also happened in India in April-May in connection with the media’s coverage of Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHA meeting. Many in the media even then were calling for a review of the one-China policy. The effectiveness of this approach is something for Beijing to consider. Is such an approach helping shape the narrative or hardening public opposition?
Anyway, India’s MEA pushed back against this, defending the media’s right to report what it deems fit. There were also some posters that came up on 10/10 in parts of Delhi’s diplomatic enclave, congratulating Taiwan on its national day. These were marked as sponsored by local BJP leader Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga. The New Delhi Municipal Council pulled them down shortly after pictures went viral on social media. Across India, a number of journalists and TV anchors were tweeting to congratulate Taiwan on its national day, which became a trending topic on social media. Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, in fact, thanked India for its support on Twitter. Anyway, Beijing wasn’t pleased. Zhao Gancheng, director of the Center for Asia-Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told Global Times that “India is playing with fire by challenging the one-China policy.” The same report quotes Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, as saying that “the nationalist BJP has been unscrupulously provoking the Taiwan question under the surface of India-China ties, and has crossed China’s bottom line as it plays the Taiwan card thinking it is a bargaining chip in dealing with China.” I don’t understand this bargaining chip business. What’s happened over the past few days has changed nothing materially. What bargaining chip are these people talking about?
Moving on Shishir Gupta reports for HT that Indian national security planners are mulling over a security architecture that weeds out inimical countries from participating in core sectors such as power, telecommunications, and roads by verifying origins of equipment imported into the country and testing its trustworthiness. The report adds that India will opt for collaborative partnerships in the development of critical technologies such as 5G and 5G plus at each stage through government-to-government or industry-to-industry partnership rather than go for off-the-shelf purchases in the future.
Finally, the Quad. The foreign ministers of India, Japan, Australia, and the US met in Tokyo. Important to note that Pompeo made this trip despite domestic turmoil amid Trump’s COVID positive diagnosis. So what emerged? Each side issued a separate statement after the meeting. The statements had a lot of complementarities, however. Brookings’ Tanvi Madan’s done a wonderful job of putting this all together in her assessment. She writes that “in their readouts as well as their opening statements, each Quad country also outlined its vision of the kind of Indo-Pacific it would like to see. All four also emphasised the importance of working with other like-minded partners… Japan mentioned European partners, in particular. As expected, no announcement was made about including Australia in the U.S.-India-Japan MALABAR maritime exercise… While most of the countries did not explicitly mention China, there were various implicit references to it. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the exception, mentioning the Chinese Communist Party in particular.” At the sidelines of the Quad meeting, India and Japan also held their Strategic Dialogue. This focussed on ways to engage the 10-member ASEAN and Australia to create a parallel network of supply chain linkages in terms of business and trade. In addition, they reiterated the need for collaborating and developing projects in other countries. ThePrint’s Nayanima Basu reports that one such project is the development of a container terminal in the crucial Colombo Port of Sri Lanka.