Eye on China is a weekly bulletin offering news and analysis related to the Middle Kingdom from an Indian interests perspective.
I. India-China Tensions
Another extremely busy week with both sides digging their heels in Eastern Ladakh. First, there was another, the third so far, meeting between Lt Gen Harinder Singh and Major Gen Liu Lin on Tuesday. By all accounts, this was a lengthy meeting, starting at around 11:00 am and going on till midnight. The meeting was held at Chushul in Ladakh on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The previous two meetings between the two took place at Moldo on the Chinese side of the LAC. There’s a lot of different reporting on what exactly is the plan to de escalate or disengage. But clearly there are detailed conversations underway.
Snehesh Alex Philip reports for The Print that the meeting “involved detailed discussions on friction points, especially the Pangong Lake.” The report cites an unidentified source as saying that “the first aim is to ensure there is no escalation of tensions. ‘The second important element is de-escalation, which involves drawing back troops from forward positions in a phased manner,’ a source said. ‘The third would involve disengagement that will pave the way for the status quo ante, which is early April status quo’.” StratNews Global reports that every friction point from North to South – Patrolling Point (PP) 14, PP 15, PP 17 A and the north bank of Pangong Tso – was discussed individually. The two sides decided to disengage. Others, such as Manu Pubby for Economic Times and Sushant Singh for Indian Express suggest that a de-escalation isn’t as clear cut. You can track all these reports, along with details about force-build-up on both sides, in my colleague Suyash Desai’s Takshashila PLA Insight Newsletter.
One report that I would like to highlight is this one in SCMP by Liu Zhen. She quotes a Global Times report to say that China and India have agreed to disengage their frontline border troops “in batches.” Liu’s report also has this interesting view by Sun Shihai, a researcher on China’s relations with South Asia at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Sun says that accidental and fatal clashes on the border could be avoided with the disengagement, but it was not a political settlement to end the stand-off. “Military backup on the border is still available, and the border stand-off will continue…Both sides are worried that the other side will take risky action, and then they will suffer … and both are aware that the frontline troops have to disengage.” This sort of is in line with what a majority of Indian news reports are also saying.
Meanwhile, in Beijing, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) said that in the talks, both sides “made progress in effective measures by frontline troops to disengage and deescalate the situation. China welcomes that. We hope the Indian side will work with the Chinese side towards the same goal, keep up close communication through military and diplomatic channels, and ease the situation and lower the temperature along the border.” This mood would change as the week wore on.
Moving away from the LAC, the Indian government continued to use economic measures as a response to Beijing. This week the Indian government announced its decision to ban 59 popular Chinese apps under Section 69A of the IT Act citing data security concerns and threat to national sovereignty.. Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad characterised the decision as a “digital strike.” He also said that the Chinese side had suffered double the number of casualties that India had suffered in Galwan. Sowmiya Ashok has an excellent piece in Technode explaining the ins and outs of the ban. She writes that “India’s Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology ordered the ban based on a recommendation made by the Ministry of Home Affairs, India’s ministry of the interior. The IT Ministry’s press release noted that the Home Ministry’s Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre sent an ‘exhaustive recommendation for blocking these malicious apps’…The apps have been banned by the government for engaging in activities ‘prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.’ The IT ministry’s release cited a number of different reasons for the ban including concerns about misuse of data and transmitting information to servers outside of India.” What we see already is the companies like Bytedance are seeking some sort of consultation with the Indian government.
The Chinese embassy responded by saying: “India’s measure, selectively and discriminatorily aims at certain Chinese apps on ambiguous and far-fetched grounds, runs against fair and transparent procedure requirements, abuses national security exceptions, and suspects of violating the WTO rules. It also goes against the general trend of international trade and E-commerce, and is not conducive to consumer interests and the market competition in India.” MoFA said: “The Indian government has the responsibility to protect the legitimate rights and interests of international investors in India, including Chinese businesses, in accordance with market principles. Practical cooperation between China and India is mutually beneficial. Deliberate interference in such cooperation will not serve the interests of the Indian side.”
Indian Prime Minister’s Weibo account was shut down soon after the Indian government’s announcement of the app ban. NDTV reports that as per sources, Modi decided to delete his account on Monday but the process for deleting VIP accounts on China’s largest microblogging site is complex. Here’s Caixin’s report on how Chinese netizens reacted to Modi’s farewell.
Soon after, on Wednesday, Union Minister for Road Transport, Highways and MSME Nitin Gadkari told PTI that India would not allow Chinese companies to participate in highway projects including those through joint ventures and also not allow Chinese investors in micro, small and medium enterprises. He added that a policy will be out soon banning Chinese firms, and relaxing norms for Indian companies to expand their eligibility criteria for participation in highway projects. Gadkari also denied reports that there was any arbitrary stoppage of Chinese goods at Indian ports. Indian Express also reports that the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) on Wednesday formally cancelled the March 23 tender for 4G network installation, planning, testing, and maintenance, floated by state-run BSNL and MTNL. The DoT has decided to bar Chinese telecom vendors in the new tender. This, of course, comes at the cost of delays and increased pricing.
By Friday, MoFA’s tone had begun to harden. Here’s what Zhao said on the economic measures taken and being announced by India: “In recent days some politicians in India have kept issuing irresponsible remarks that are detrimental to China-India relations…Artificially setting up barriers for such cooperation not only violates WTO rules, but also hurts India’s interests. China will take all necessary measures to safeguard the legitimate rights of Chinese businesses.” When probed further, he added: “acts of mutual respect and mutual support represent the right track and also conform to the long-term interests of both countries, whereas those of mutual distrust and friction belong to an evil path and go against the fundamental aspirations of the two peoples. China and India should follow the important consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries and uphold overall bilateral relations. India should avoid a strategic miscalculation with regard to China.” The bit about “strategic miscalculation” has led to lots of interpretations among analysts. My view is that this is Zhao basically telling New Delhi that it’s decisions imply that it is abandoning the strategic view or “basic judgment” that China and India are each other’s opportunities and pose no threat to each other. Abandoning that, of course, implies an adversarial relationship going forward.
Modi’s Ladakh Visit
On Friday then, the Indian Prime Minister made a surprise visit to Ladakh, where he engaged with Indian troops. He was accompanied by Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Bipin Rawat and Army Chief Gen. M.M. Naravane. He was briefed on military preparedness by top Army brass, including Northern Command chief Lt General YK Joshi in Nimu. During his visit, Modi delivered an interesting speech. There’s a message to Beijing in there, as much as there is clear attention towards domestic constituencies. Here’s a cheat sheet:
- I once again pay tributes to my brave soldiers who were martyred in Galwan Valley. Heroes from every corner of the country i.e. from the east, the west, the north, and the south, have shown their valour. This land is still hailing them for their valour.
- From Leh-Ladakh to Kargil and Siachen, from the snowy peaks of Rezang La to the cold water stream of Galwan valley, every peak, every mountain, every corner, every pebble is a testimony to the might of the Indian soldiers.
- The entire Ladakh, the crown of India, is a symbol of respect for 130 crore Indians.
- Everyone believes that peace and friendship are important for the progress of the nation, the world and humanity. But we also know that the weak can never bring peace. The weak cannot initiate peace. Bravery is the precondition for peace.
- The era of colonial expansion is over; this is the era of evolution. Evolution is only relevant in rapidly changing times. It is an opportunity for development and development is also the basis for the future.
Vijaita Singh reports for The Hindu that while in Ladakh Modi spent a considerable time with Lt. Gen. Harrinder Singh and was given a detailed briefing on the ongoing military level talks. The report cites another unidentified official as saying that beginning Sunday (July 5), the verification process of whether the Chinese have removed structures, as agreed, at Galwan Valley would start. The report also says that amid all that’s going on, the Indian government is preparing for the next round of meeting of the Special Representatives-level talks.
So how did Beijing respond to all this? On Friday, MoFA, when asked, said that “China and India are in communication with each other through military and diplomatic channels. Neither side should make any move that may complicate the border situation.” But expect more on Monday, perhaps. Other than that, in the media, Qian Feng, the director of the research department of the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing, told the Global Times on Friday that Modi attempted to show that he was a ‘strongman’ on national security issues to soften criticism against him and shift public attention from his government’s incompetence in the coronavirus response, and economic slowdown. Modi could learn about the preparations and deployment of the frontline and make preparations for the next step. Another piece by Yu Ning argues that the bilateral relationship is at its lowest since 1962.
Andamans & Pakistan Angle
Finally, a couple of other stories. Here’s TOI reporting that India is looking to fast-track plans for basing additional military forces in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Rajat Pandit reports that defence sources on Friday said the long-pending plans for “force accretion” and “military infrastructure development ”at the A&N Islands have “gained a sense of urgency.” Let’s hope this urgency leads to more creative measures being adopted to strengthen maritime power and presence. Meanwhile, another report in Economic Times says that Pakistan has moved two divisions of troops along the LoC in occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan and Chinese officials are holding talks with cadres of terrorist outfit Al Badr to incite violence in J&K. The report adds that as per sources “there have been a series of meetings between Chinese and Pakistani officials in recent weeks, followed by amassing of troops in Gilgit-Baltistan, the area that adjoins Ladakh on the north.” Pakistani military has denied any such movement of troops.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi held talks on Friday. Xinhua reports that Wang told Qureshi that “China and Pakistan should work together to tackle the risks and challenges and safeguard common interests of the two countries as well as regional peace and stability.” They spoke about a range of issues, from Hong Kong to Afghanistan and terrorism in the aftermath of the Karachi attack. On the last of these, Wang offered support but added: “China hopes that more strong measures will be taken by the Pakistani side to protect overseas Chinese and their institutions and projects, combat terrorist groups with all-out efforts, and create a safe and sound environment for bilateral cooperation and the development of the CPEC.” Keep in mind the Karachi terrorist attack issue came up at the UNSC this week.
Reports say that a UNSC statement condemning the attack in Karachi was twice stalled by the US and Germany, delaying its issuance to give a “message” to Pakistan over it blaming India for the incident and Prime Minister Imran Khan calling Osama bin Laden a “martyr.” China had drafted the statement, which was eventually adopted. Pakistani outlets have blamed India for delaying it. Also on Friday, India issued a demarche to Pakistan over growing incidents of ceasefire violations by Pakistan forces along the LoC and the International Boundary, report Suhasini Haidar and Ananth Krishnan for The Hindu.
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