Alaska, India, and the Quad; China's turn against foreign brands; and burying the 'Chinese Virus' bunkum

Welcome to today's The India China Newsletter.

In this issue, I'll be looking at:
- A few more Alaska takeaways for India and the Quad
- A status report on the LAC disengagement
- The big story in China right now: China's turn against foreign brands over Xinjiang's cotton
- Rising Philippines-China tensions in the South China Sea
- What the 'Chinese Virus' nonsense tells us about decency in the age of social media

In today's The Hindu, I reported on how India figured in the US-China talks in Alaska - and how much things have changed since 2009 when the India difference in US-China talks came in a very different context.

You can read the full report here.

Recommend reading this from former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran in The Print on Alaska, the Quad and India:

From the Chinese perspective, the US effort to shore up its alliances and partnerships in confronting China is seen as lacking in credibility. The chief argument put by the Chinese side is that the US and its allies have deep economic and commercial interests in China that contradict the politics of confrontation. The US will have to find a persuasive argument to counter this. While decoupling in the high-tech sectors, such as semiconductors, is a reality, this does not extend to the very broad spectrum of trade between China and its key developed country partners.

The trajectory of US-China relations will be determined mainly by the success of the Biden administration in what is called the “building back better” economic strategy. US excellence in technology is still unmatched and no other power has the global reach that the US military has. Therefore, the key ingredients of renewal are certainly there. Biden has also understood the importance of countering the prevailing pessimism about democracy including among democracies themselves. The authoritarian model exemplified by China has proved to be more potent than may have been expected. Whether democracies can regain their faith in democracy’s tenets remains an open question. This also implies that India must retain multiple options to deal with its most pressing challenges including enhancing its developmental prospects, dealing with adversaries both on its northern and western borders and managing a fractious neighbourhood. The Quad can only serve as one option and its credibility as a countervailing coalition in the Indo-Pacific remains to be established.

Sanjaya Baru on why for India and the U.S., it's all about the economy:

How the US defines its economic policy towards India is far more important than how it defines its defence and security policy. I say this for two reasons. First, consider the legacy of its post-war global leadership. The US has been a factor for good in the economic revitalisation of Europe and East Asia during the Cold War. As a defence partner, its legacy has been less impressive.

Second, for India, China is as much a defence and security threat as it has been an economic challenge. In fact, after the recent border standoff, it can be asserted that while India may have the military capability to deal with a Chinese threat, it does not as yet have the economic and human capital capability to deal with China’s economic challenge. Hence, securing US support for India’s economic rise is as important for India as strengthening its defence capabilities. It is the unveiling of US policy beyond defence and the security of the Indo-Pacific region that one is keenly awaiting.

India and China are set to have the next round of military commanders talks. Shishir Gupta reports in Hindustan Times:

The 11th round of India-China military dialogue to be held this month is 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 WMCC meeting was positive…,” a top government official said, citing agreements between the two sides at the March 12 meeting to ensure stability in the Ladakh sector and convene the next meeting of senior military commanders. The meeting between Indian and Chinese diplomats was convened to ensure the resumption of the disengagement process that was stalled after the withdrawal of troops from Pangong Lake banks in February.

China’s Ministry of Defence had this to say yesterday in its monthly press briefing:

China and India have agreed to maintain communication through military and diplomatic channels to promote the settlement of other issues in the west section of China-India boundary, said Senior Colonel Ren Guoqiang, a spokesperson for China's Ministry of National Defense, at a regular press conference on March 25.

Snr. Col. Ren made such remarks in response to the report of the Hindustan Times, in which the spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs of India urged China to complete its military withdrawal at the remaining friction points along the so-called "Ladakh" line of actual control (LAC), and said the Indian side expected to cooperate with China to complete the disengagement of troops as soon as possible in the remaining regions.

Ren stressed that at present, China and India have disengaged front-line troops in Pangong Lake area. Both sides have positively commented on the current move and agreed to maintain communication through military and diplomatic channels so as to promote the settlement of other issues in the west section of China-India boundary.
Ren pointed out that thanks to the joint efforts made by China and India, the situation in the border area has been eased distinctly. China hopes the two sides can value the hard-won results, follow the important consensus reached by the leaders of both countries, maintain dialogue and communication, and stabilize the situation against relapse, gradually coming to solutions that can be accepted by the two countries to jointly maintain peace in the border area.

This new study on India-China relations is getting some attention in India, among its authors is former Ambassador to China Gautam Bambawale. Its conclusion:

India’s China stance has to irreversibly change, in light of recent developments, both bilateral and global. The earlier strategy is simply not tenable in the light of an increasingly confrontational, if not hostile neighbour. We sketch elements of a strategy that coheres and unifies, rather than compartmentalises economic, diplomatic and geopolitical aspects of the relationship. We recognize the need to build strong coalitions with partners who have aligned objectives. In the longer term, a domestic economy energised by strategic patience and high sustainable growth is we believe the appropriate new framework. Coalitions, calm confrontation, continuous growth is the recommended new China strategy.

You can read the full paper here.

The BIG story in China right now is what seems to be an orchestrated all-out backlash against foreign (mainly European) brands for their stand on cotton from Xinjiang. Pretty much every Chinese celebrity who is linked to these brands has ditched them publicly in a major show of support for the government. Via SCMP:

On the one side, public opinion in Europe is demanding that companies demonstrate clear and transparent corporate social responsibility principles,” the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China said. “On the other, they are potentially subjected to public backlash in China if, through showing that they are acting responsibly and that their supply chains are beyond reproach, they are perceived to be saying something that is ‘anti-China’.”

The chamber, which represents more than 1,700 companies, issued the statement as Swedish multinational clothing retailer H&M is facing a boycott after saying last year that it did not source cotton from Xinjiang.

The backlash against H&M has seen its products removed from major Chinese e-commerce platforms. Other foreign companies, including British luxury brand Burberry, American sportswear firms Nike and New Balance, and German athletics wear label Adidas, have also come under fire after being named by People’s Daily as companies that did not use Xinjiang cotton.

“There are many foreign companies that have released statements ‘cutting ties’ with Xinjiang cotton in the past two years,” the Communist Party mouthpiece said on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform. Topics about Chinese celebrities ending their endorsement deals with international brands have been trending on Weibo, along with hashtags like, “I support Xinjiang cotton”, “It is the [companies’] loss if they miss out on Xinjiang cotton”.

The WSJ on the remarkable disappearance of H&M - you can’t even take a car to its store as its location has been removed from maps!

For app users in the world’s most populous country, the world’s biggest seller of fast fashion has effectively ceased to exist. As of Thursday, Hennes & Mauritz AB’s H&M had been wiped off China’s leading e-commerce, ride-hailing, daily-deals and map applications, as Chinese consumers continued to rage over the Swedish clothing brand’s decision to stop sourcing from China’s Xinjiang region.

H&M’s swift erasure from Chinese platforms marked an escalation in the kind of retaliation Western companies can face when running up against Beijing on hot-button issues, such as human rights and China’s policies toward ethnic groups in Xinjiang—and how quickly and massively a backlash can hit a company in one of its most important markets.

Criticism of H&M—including calls for boycotts—by Chinese social-media users surged on Wednesday, apparently over the company’s statement last year that it was no longer sourcing from Xinjiang, a major cotton producer, because of forced-labor allegations there. The statement suddenly went viral on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, amplified by mentions in multiple state-media accounts.

On Thursday, ordering a car to an H&M store was impossible on Didi, the country’s largest ride-hailing app, which didn’t recognize the brand as a valid destination. Searching for H&M on multiple Chinese map apps, including Baidu Maps, run by China’s largest search engine, returned zero results, as if the clothing company didn’t exist despite its 400 stores in China.

Li Ning, the Chinese sportswear brands, is set to reap the dividends of all of this:

The number of fashion brands caught in the crossfires of a heavy political storm in China over Xinjiang cotton is ballooning quickly.

Shares of Chinese domestic sportswear groups surged, benefiting from the strong nationalistic rhetoric. On the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, Li Ning jumped 10.74 percent to 50 Hong Kong dollars, while Anta rose 8.4 percent to 121.30 Hong Kong dollars and Xtep International increased 2.72 percent to 4.53 Hong Kong dollars. Trending tags on Weibo have been praising the groups for specifically using Xinjiang cotton and particularly Li Ning for listing on its clothing tags that it does so.

Not everyone, as I tweeted, is happy about Li Ning’s surging popularity including for this peculiar reason:

The blanking out of foreign brands is going to somewhat absurd lengths:

Also on Xinjiang, the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi this week put out a statement criticising the Indian media’s coverage of it:

Recently, certain Indian media published an article by a member of the National Security Advisory Board of India, which spread the lies of the so-called "genocide", "forced labor" and "suppression of religious freedom" in Xinjiang, attempting to sow discord among ethnic groups in China and drive a wedge between China and Islamic countries, and openly interfering in China’s internal affairs. Spokesperson of Chinese Embassy in India issued a solemn statement expressing strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition to the erroneous remarks of the related media and author, and elaborating on China's principle and position.

I had no idea what article it was referring to, and neither did many people I asked. Someone pointed me to this piece in The Tribune that seemed to have triggered it — and which, I suspect, is perhaps getting more attention than it ordinarily would have following the statement.

This is a brewing potentially big story that is worth keeping an eye on in the next few days. From the AP:

The Philippine military has ordered more navy ships to be deployed for “sovereignty patrols” in the South China Sea, where a Chinese flotilla has swarmed around a disputed reef and ignored Manila’s demand to leave the area.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has asked about 200 Chinese vessels he described as militia boats to immediately leave Whitsun Reef, a shallow coral region about 175 nautical miles (324 kilometers) west of Bataraza town in the western Philippine province of Palawan. China ignored the call, insisting it owns the offshore territory and that the vessels were sheltering from rough seas.

Santosh Pai writes on Why China is Putting Its Internet Champions on the Backfoot.

And finally...

I woke up to this tweet today being shared on my timeline on Twitter:

I debated whether I should engage with this argument I have heard a lot of from commentators, many in India too, but after some thought, I thought I should, at the very least, share four questions I genuinely had — questions that have been troubling me for some time. My intention is not to single out this particular comment -- and sadly, as I said, I've heard this from lots of people, including journalists with large social media following, some whom I respect and as I argue below, really should know better. So here we go:

1. Is it really difficult to tell apart the different connotations of 'British Strain' and 'Chinese Virus'? How many people around the world have been attacked and assaulted, after being called 'British Strains!' and told 'to go back to Britain', or have been spat on and called 'British Strain' — as happened to a close Chinese friend's 19 year old daughter in the UK not too long ago? If one’s answer to my first question is 'No', all I can say is she or he’s analytical competence doesn't leave much to be desired. If the answer is 'Yes', and you think the argument is still valid, then I’m sad to say it doesn’t reflect very well on one’s sense of decency. Not sure which one it is.

2. Let's do a cold, logical cost-benefit analysis here: What is there to be gained from using the term Chinese Virus? The ostensible logic is to tell people the virus came from China. Newsflash: everyone knows it did.  

What are the costs? Many racist attacks where people have been assaulted while being called this very same phrase, including in India. A surge in reported hate crimes in the U.S. And as far as I’m concerned, one such attack should be one too many. If in your moral universe, the gains of supposedly countering Communist Party of China propaganda about the virus being imported from overseas (an entirely groundless claim which no one outside China takes seriously) outweighs the basic empathy you should have to those at the receiving end of this hate, all I can say is I'm glad to not be inhabiting that same moral universe.

If a moral argument doesn't appeal , then a realist-inspired point to consider. If your supposedly noble goal is to counter Communist Party propaganda -- that, frankly, is only believed within China -- how do you think this 'Chinese Virus' phrase is going to play among the people in China you are supposedly trying to help? So let’s drop the pretence that using the phrase is doing some great service when you are just doing the opposite.

We should absolutely call out and counter Chinese government misinformation on the origins of virus and the rewriting of what happened in Wuhan. But it's positively bizarre to suggest that can only be countered by using a phrase that's inciting hate. This isn't about being pro-China or anti-China, and about politics. It's about pro-decency. As for the logic that previous outbreaks were named after places of origins, was everything we did in the past a justification for what we do today? Are we to never learn?

3. Have folks considered this thought experiment: imagine, god forbid, that there was an outbreak in India, that politicians overseas were using 'Indian Virus' and some god-awful equivalent of 'Kung Flu', that there was a rise in racist attacks targeting Indians, and that in the aftermath of an attacker in Atlanta shooting people dead, what bothered commentators the most and had them whining was that people were not using the phrase 'Indian Virus' and were being swayed by 'political correctness'. How would we react?

4. A last question: has Twitter and social media melted our brains' capacity for basic empathy and decency? This question, I think, answers itself.

I don’t have much else to say, besides that its quite disheartening to see this kind of thinking normalised and justified, even after what happened in Atlanta. Responding to this kind of rhetoric feels a bit like…

Finally (really, finally) — I highly recommend this eloquent argument from Peter Goodman on WHY WORDS MATTER and contribute to the climate we live in.

Can we directly tie the killings of Asian-Americans -- in San Francisco, in New York, in Atlanta, anywhere -- to the fact that white parents are reading the same children's book to their kids that they fondly recall from their own childhoods? Obviously not. But this is like saying that your decision to drive a gas-guzzling car can't be blamed for the rising seas and cyclones assailing communities in low-lying Bangladesh, and using that fact to ignore climate change. Pollution seeps out and builds to critical mass with unpredictable consequences; hate feeds on billions of mundane decisions -- on seemingly no-big-deal jokes and stereotypes and conflicts avoided that eventually lead to my own children coming home and telling us that, now, in the 21st century, in what is perhaps the most multicultural city on earth, their classmates -- their own friends, whose parents are saying all the right things about racial inclusiveness -- are pulling slanted eyes at them, prompting them to wish they were white.

And a last word for the 'China Virus' brigade from the always excellent John Oliver.

Thank you, as always, for reading. Have a lovely weekend, and the newsletter will be back next week.