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
As has been the case since May 2020, let’s begin with the situation in Ladakh, or rather discussions about the situation. India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar interacted with MPs from various parties at a meeting of a Consultative Committee on External Affairs on Saturday. The meeting lasted around three and a half hours, with Jaishankar and Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla reportedly sharing a presentation. Swati Mathur & Indrani Bagchi’s report in ToI on the meeting says that the government’s strategy in Ladakh at present was “to hold the line militarily on the border areas and support the armed forces.” The report says that “Jaishankar stressed that the real problem with China was the rapid growth of India’s border infrastructure.” The report also suggests that government policy in the context of US-China tensions was among the topics discussed. Meanwhile, addressing the Army Day parade in Delhi on Friday, Indian Army chief MM Naravane said that the forces had given a “befitting reply” to the “conspiracy” to unilaterally change the status quo on India-China borders. He, however, reiterated that India was committed to peaceful resolution of the situation.
A few more stories about the border issue. First, ANI reports citing “government sources” that the PLA has moved back around 10,000 troops from its traditional training areas opposite Eastern Ladakh sector, although frontline deployment remains unchanged. The report speculates that this is possibly due to harsh weather conditions. Second, there’s an interesting IANS report, which is compiled from a couple of different sources. It says that China is looking to build a road that will link the Karakoram highway with Astore in Gilgit Baltistan. The report cites unidentified “analysts” as saying that “the construction of a new road will add to China and Pakistan’s capacity to launch a two-front war against India in Kashmir.” It also adds that in partnership with Japan and the US, India has linked the Andaman and Nicobar islands with the “fish-hook” undersea sensors chain, something that will allow monitoring of Chinese ships and submarines. Third, HT reports, based on satellite imagery analysis by @detresfa, that the PLA is working on a major military logistics hub at Xigatse in Tibet. The report says that “among the under-construction structures captured by the imagery are a surface-to-air missile site, a suspected military support building, a new railway terminal and new railway line, and a possible fuel dump. The imagery also shows what appears to be a newly developed underground facility.” Finally, Indian forces on Monday returned the Chinese soldier whom they had apprehended last week. This incident makes for interesting reading. For instance, Indian Army sources told ThePrint that this wasn’t a case of espionage and that the soldier was “disoriented” and given medical aid, including oxygen. He was then questioned in detail and was handed over after talks at the local level. On the other hand, Global Times quoted Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University on this, saying: “The return of the lost Chinese frontier soldier is in accordance with the border regulation mechanism agreed by both countries. And India showed goodwill in de-escalating the border tension by returning the Chinese soldier within four days.”
Moving away to diplomacy and trade, let’s first look at developments at the UN. Reports inform that China’s opposition seems to have prevented India from heading the UNSC 1267 (ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida) Sanctions committee. ToI’s report on this quotes and unidentified P5 official as saying, “There was a tussle because of China’s opposition leading even to a delay in the announcement of the committees but India will chair the counter-terrorism committee next year.” On trade, meanwhile, Ananth Krishnan reports for The Hindu that two-way trade between India and China in 2020 reached $87.6 billion, down by 5.6%, according to new figures from China’s General Administration of Customs. India’s imports were at $66.7 billion, declining by 10.8% year-on-year. India’s exports to China rose to $20.86 billion – a massive jump. The trade deficit, consequently, declined to a five year-low of $45.8 billion.
Finally, a couple of India-related pieces in Chinese media that caught my attention. First, Long Xingchun in Global Times English lashed out Brahma Chellaney for a recent piece on India’s Tibet policy. This is basically a hit job with unsubstantiated accusations against Chellaney, but here’s the interesting bit in the piece: “If India provokes another situation over Tibet, which threatens China’s core interests, it would be tantamount to officially tearing up ties with China…If the Indian government follows Chellaney’s advice and changes its position on the Tibet question, such as refusing to recognise that Tibet is part of China, then China may as well not recognise Sikkim as part of India. China could even change its neutral attitude on the Kashmir issue. China can absolutely take advantage of India’s own problems, such as the armed separatist factions in Northeast India.”
Then there’s this interview with Liu Zongyi, where he talks about the Sino-Indian relationship in 2020. Interesting that this picks up on the reports that were based on the EU DisinfoLab’s work on an apparent Indian disinformation campaign. Liu says that Beijing had long been aware of Indian efforts at “guiding public opinion and creating negative news,” and then with a certain mix of grudging admiration it seems, he talks about China’s weak discourse power. He then talks about India benefitting from Trump’s policies on China, adding that New Delhi’s room for maneuver will be reduced during the Biden administration’s tenure. But in the same breath, he also says this: “During the Trump administration, India’s status was elevated. I think Biden will not weaken it in this respect, but will only strengthen it. In the future, they will strengthen collaboration in many aspects.” On the border issue, he says that “the continuation of the border confrontation between China and India is certain. After Biden comes to power, India may still make new moves on the border issue, or even in the (Indian) Ocean.” He believes this will be an effort to demonstrate India’s strategic value to Washington. On India-Vietnam ties, he says that Beijing needs to watch but not be overly concerned; likewise, he’s not terribly optimistic about India’s influence rising in East Asia.