Booming trade, frozen investments: The curious case of India China trade relations
Welcome to The India China Newsletter.
In this issue, I'm looking at the current state of India-China trade and investment relations and what we can glean from the latest trade and investment data that came out last week. I'll also look briefly at where the talks on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) crisis stand, as well as the current COVID-19 situation in China, specifically the on-going lockdown of Shanghai, and the future of China’s “zero COVID” approach.
This issue is 5,000 words long and a 10 minute read. You may wish to click on the headline to read in your browser.
2021, a year where relations were in deep freeze over the LAC crisis, also happened to be a record year for India-China trade, which crossed $100 billion for the first time, and reached $125 billion. India’s imports accounted for a whopping $97.5 billion.
China's trade data for the first quarter of 2022, which came out last week, shows 2022 may be another record year. I reported for The Hindu:
A sharp increase in India’s imports of Chinese goods in the first quarter of 2022 lifted bilateral trade by 15% to a record $31.96 billion, trade data released by China on Wednesday show. Imports surged 28% from the year-earlier period to $27.69 billion. India’s exports, however, slumped 26% to $4.87 billion.
Compared with pre-pandemic levels of trade in 2019, imports in the first quarter jumped 54%, while exports were 9% higher.
As I also reported previously, India is not only importing a bigger basket of goods -- medical supplies are one example of an important new import category -- it is also importing much more of its traditional big imports, such as chemicals, auto components and electronics, suggesting the reliance on China for several key imports has grown during the two years of the pandemic:
India imported $16 billion more of its key top 100 imports from China in the last year, an increase of almost two-thirds from the previous year, an analysis of trade figures shows, underlining deepening dependencies on many crucial imports.
Of the 8,455 different types of items imported from China between January and November of last year, a staggeringly diverse list covering everything from a range of chemicals and electronics to auto components and textiles, 4,591 showed an increase, according to an analysis of India’s Ministry of Commerce data. The top 100 items by value accounted for $41 billion, up from $25 billion in 2020, according to a study of the numbers by Santosh Pai, an Honorary Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi.
“If the growth in imports of finished items such as toys, electronics, or furniture, which we could be manufacturing in India, is not a good dependency, the fact that we are acquiring new intermediate goods, for instance, is probably a good development in the broader picture as it means we are emerging as a manufacturing hub and need new inputs to match the global demand for a finished Indian product,” Mr. Pai observed.
“The other question is which of these are short-term changes because of disruption during the pandemic, and which are longer-term trends that we need to consider and deal with, and ask whether we can start manufacturing in India rather than still buying from China,” he added.
As his last comment suggests, the numbers are certainly a reality check for aspirations of reduced reliance on Chinese goods, and there seems to be no end in sight as far as the massive demand for Chinese goods is concerned.
This is, however, only one part of the story. One of the most significant developments in the relationship in the past 10 years was the rise of Chinese investments into India post-2014 -- something that I looked at for Brookings India in a 2020 study, which noted this had the potential to change the dynamic of the relationship. If trade was one of the few "positive" stories among all the political problems, it did not really have a transformative effect on the relationship or create the deep linkages that investments would bring, the kind of linkages we have seen for instance with China and South Korea or China and Japan, as this was mostly transactional trade. Former Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale explained this dynamic succinctly in a recent interview with me:
For many years now, it has become clearer and clearer that the primary areas of Chinese interest in the Indian economy were selling to the Indian market, which is China’s exports, and providing the wherewithal for building projects in India, or project exports. The latter is different from foreign direct investment, where a sum of Chinese money is invested in India and a greenfield or brownfield industry is raised. In the case of project exports, the financing is not Chinese; it could be Indian or from third sources. The Chinese are essentially providing the equipment, technology, and in some cases the labour force. These have been the two mainstays of Chinese economic activity with India.
Conversely, Indian companies have found it very difficult to break into the Chinese market, because although on paper things are transparent, in fact, the regulatory mechanisms are very complex, whether it is the phytosanitary requirements for export of agricultural produce, or the regulations in place for pharmaceutical exports, or the indirect non-tariff barriers that the Chinese have erected for export of Indian software to China because Chinese entities have been told to buy locally.
There has been a sort of double whammy. On the one hand, there is no inflow of Chinese capital into India. On the other hand, there is no access for Indian goods into China. Therefore, a political problem has been brewing for some years. For the Indian side, the huge trade deficit is not simply an economic issue or a commercial matter, it is a political problem.
The Chinese perhaps have been slow to realise this, and therefore, tardy in addressing it. Unless they now fundamentally address this issue, my sense is there will be limitations on the amount of business that we get done. By that, I do not mean to say that trade figures will precipitously drop, because the fact of the matter is that China supplies many of the intermediate and capital goods that India needs, because we have either stopped manufacturing them, such as active pharmaceutical ingredients, or we do not have the capacity to manufacture them in scale. Therefore, you might see Chinese exports to India holding steady or even growing until such time as the “Make in India” campaign really takes off.
But that will be the limit of economic activity. What you won’t see is significant amounts of Chinese investment, or for that matter, partnerships in terms of technology sharing or joint manufacturing, or a closer relationship between the renminbi and the rupee, or easier financial and banking channels, greater presence of Chinese and Indian banks in each other’s countries, all those indicators which suggest that the two economies are converging. I don’t expect to see this in the coming five to 10 years
I would agree with the last paragraph entirely now, but I would have perhaps been less sure a couple of years ago. The 2014-2018 rise investments -- including Chinese ownership of stakes in prominent Indian companies particularly in e-commerce -- could have changed that situation, but rather than a turning point, it now appears that trend was perhaps more a fleeting blip.
There were two reasons that brought investments to a stop. Firstly, in April 2020 -- note: before the LAC crisis -- India tightened scrutiny on investments "from countries that shared a land border with India". That was plainly aimed at China. It was a very significant decision -- one that later was mostly forgotten with the LAC crisis beginning in early May -- and one that has never been really explained, but one that had enormous repercussions in essentially freezing the inflow of Chinese funds. Secondly, China's own domestic crackdown on big tech -- by far the biggest investors in India -- and also on outbound investments, further stopped the process.
Figures presented to Parliament last month gave us some idea of how much has been invested since early 2020 from countries sharing a land border with India (we don’t know if China accounts for all of this):
Since 18th April, 2020, 347 FDI Proposals have been received by the Government from countries sharing land border with India or where the beneficial owner of an investment into India is situated in or is a citizen of any such country.
The value of investments proposed in the aforementioned proposals received by the Government is approximately INR 75,951 Crore. Of the aforementioned proposals, 66 proposals have so far been granted approval by the Government. 193 cases have been rejected or closed or withdrawn.
The value of the 66 approved proposals is Rs. 13,624 crore or $1.7 billion. The most are in pharmaceuticals, accounting for Rs 5,000 crore or $655 million.
In this list of all FDI investments from July to September 2021, I could only find two noteworthy Chinese investments: From Inventronics, an LED manufacturer from Hangzhou, in the state of Maharashtra, and one from Shandong Rainbow Agrosciences in the fertiliser sector, in Gujarat.
Where India's scrutiny of China Inc. has also stepped up is with regard to the operations of Chinese companies in India. In recent months, authorities have carried out raids on offices of Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo. Last week, the Indian Express reported, the former head of Xiaomi India -- and current global VP -- Manu Jain was summoned over investigations into whether Xiaomi had violated foreign exchange rules:
The Enforcement Directorate (ED) on Wednesday summoned Chinese mobile company Xiaomi’s global vice president, Manu Kumar Jain, for questioning in a case related to alleged violations of the foreign exchange law by the company. Sources said Jain was asked to appear before the investigating officer in Bengaluru, and was being questioned.
According to sources, the case is related to some foreign remittances made by the company to China through a third country in violation of RBI guidelines. “Around three years ago, the company made remittances to the tune of over Rs 3,000 crore ($393 million) in violation of the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA). Accordingly, a case has been registered and the company is being investigated,” said an ED official.
The Global Times reported on the reaction to the raids and investigations:
Chinese businesses in India are responding with active and contingency measures including risk management after Chinese mobile phone maker Xiaomi came under an Indian government probe over reported foreign exchange issues, which industry analysts said was a fresh move by India that merits more attention...
The latest investigation is a follow-up of the massive probes targeting Chinese companies last year, a clear indication that the government's investigation continues, Yang Shucheng, secretary-general with the India China Mobile Phone Enterprise Association, an industry body that represents the Chinese mobile industry in India, told the Global Times on Wednesday.
"Last year, some 80 percent of the Chinese companies in India were under investigation, and most of the companies ended it after paying the margin," Yang said.
Industry insiders said that the probe is not only targeting Xiaomi but many other Chinese firms with operations in India. In responding to the probe, contingency measures are being considered by Chinese businesses in India.
To better ensure smooth business operations in India, Yang urged Chinese-funded firms in India to get acquainted with Indian tax laws, especially in the aspects of imported materials, complete machine assembly, sales, scrapping and write-offs.
Harris Liu from the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in India told the Global Times on Wednesday that the chamber is promoting risk prevention, control and self-examination as well as self-correction for Chinese-funded enterprises in India.
The latest move involving Xiaomi does not benefit any side, given the fact that Xiaomi is a major representative of Chinese investment in India, which contributed to local employment, experts said.
"The Indian government has started an unfriendly policy targeting Chinese companies, especially mobile phone producers, last year with additional tariffs and other barriers, in an attempt to push the Chinese companies out of the Indian market," Liu Zongyi, secretary-general of the Research Center for China-South Asia Cooperation at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, told the Global Times on Wednesday.
Among the top five in terms of shipments in the Indian smartphone market, Chinese brands account for four -- Xiaomi, Redmi, OPPO and vivo. Xiaomi ranked first in the Indian market with a share of 24 percent in 2021 in smartphone shipments, and vivo ranked third with a market share of 15 percent, according to data released by Counterpoint Research.
Yang said that, in order to support the normal operation of Chinese-funded enterprises in India, visas for employees of Chinese-funded enterprises are still being issued normally.
"Although restrictions are not fully lifted, the success rate of visa applications for employees of Chinese enterprises to India has reached 60 percent since the beginning of 2022 compared with only 10-20 percent in the same period in 2021," Yang said. "We do hope that the Indian side will treat foreign investors equally, and create an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment for all enterprises in India," Yang said.
I don't know enough about the cases to comment on the motivations behind the investigations, but there has been a rather muted official response from the Chinese side so far, which is worth noting. Reading between the lines of the comments above does suggest that some regulations were not being followed (which, someone in the industry suggested to me, was hardly new, but what was new was the enforcement).
The changed investment policy may be of greater significance, as well as the shift from what was the Modi government's aggressive courting of Chinese investment post-2014 to now an aggressive freezing of it starting in April 2020. If, as was noted in the Brookings India paper, the flows from 2014-2018 were hardly scrutinized, even the acquisition of stakes in major e-commerce companies in sectors ranging from online payments to health, it seems policy has gone from one extreme to another. The paper argued for a credibly regulatory framework for all foreign investment that balanced security and openness, and argued against country-specific restrictions, but that is what we are seeing now. I am not quite sure I see the logic in making it difficult for all companies who want to come to India, including those that want to manufacture in India. If the 66 approved investments of $1.7 billion might seem a high figure, I would suggest many of these may not materialise -- these are just proposed investments -- and anecdotal accounts I hear suggest many Chinese companies are largely giving up on their India plans, including to manufacture in India, and looking at Southeast Asia. Most of the investments coming in, one suspects, are into existing facilities rather than new projects. Under the current post-April 2020 policy, they say, it's all just become too much trouble.
The April 2020 policy, as mentioned, pre-dated the LAC crisis. The LAC crisis, however, has understandably made it impossible for India to think of investment links with China in this current climate, when the message from Delhi has been two fold:
1) It cannot be business as usual
2) India will follow “a whole of government” approach in dealing with China
The LAC situation, even after Wang Yi's March visit, seems unchanged with no signs of resolution in the three remaining areas: PP15, Demchok and Depsang. For all of the suggestions of a reset post the Wang visit, the Chinese side seems in no great hurry to move on from the LAC situation — or at least in making the concessions that both would need to make, for the situation to indeed move on. The Indian Express reports they are playing hardball:
Around the time Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited India last month, Beijing sent Delhi a proposal on disengagement of troops from Patrolling Point 15 in the Hot Springs area of eastern Ladakh. The proposal was rejected by India.
Government sources said China proposed that Indian troops, who have been in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Chinese troops at PP 15 for almost two years now, move back to the Karam Singh Post between PP 16 and PP 17. China said it would withdraw its troops just behind the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as claimed by India in that region.
Sources said this was unacceptable to India since the Chinese claim line and India’s understanding of the LAC almost intersect at PP 15. If India were to accept the proposal, it would mean that while Chinese troops would move back very little, Indian troops would have to withdraw several kilometres behind.
“While they will move back to just behind PP 15, they are asking us to relinquish even PP 16 which has never been claimed by China earlier. It’s like saying I will move back 1 km and you move back 5-10 km. It’s a non-starter of a proposal for discussion,” a government official said. In fact, even PP 15 has come into contention only now and never in the past, sources said.
The situation in the Depsang Plains in the far north is not encouraging either. While the Chinese have denied Indian troops access to their traditional patrolling points 10, 11, 11A, 12 and 13, the information available with the government is that China has stationed a temporary hot-mix plant for roadbuilding behind these patrolling points on the Chinese side.
Also on the LAC: those into podcasts might want to check out Sushant Singh’s conversations with Hu Shisheng and retired PLA Senior Colonel Zhou Bo on the India-China border situation, which you can find here.
Shi Jiangtao, writing in the South China Morning Post, says the Wang Yi visit may not have yielded the outcomes China hoped for:
China is also trying to woo India in the wake of the Ukraine war, which has crystallised India’s divide with the US and exposed the fragility of Washington’s China-focused Indo-Pacific strategy that relies on New Delhi’s support and participation. But Beijing has clearly underestimated New Delhi’s grievances with their protracted border stand-off, with no direct talks between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping since May 2020.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi got the cold shoulder last month as he visited New Delhi for the first time since a deadly clash in a disputed Himalayan border region two years ago, which left 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese troops dead. Wang’s request to call on Modi was reportedly rejected by the prime minister himself. Both sides continued to talk past each other, with Wang highlighting their similar stance on Ukraine and Indian officials being adamant about a de-escalation of border tensions before bilateral ties could return to normalcy.
With the Biden administration poised to unveil its Indo-Pacific economic framework soon, Beijing will no doubt have to step up its efforts to woo New Delhi in the coming months. For Beijing, there is no cause for gloating over the US-India rift caused by the war and the possible faltering of the Quad, a US-led four-way grouping with India, Australia and Japan that Beijing sees as a national security threat.
It is clear that India’s self-proclaimed neutrality on the Ukraine war is as much about its security dependence on Russia, as it is about China. One of the biggest reasons for New Delhi to balk at denouncing Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is that it needs Moscow’s weapons supply to counter Beijing.
From New Delhi’s perspective, China remains a top obstacle to its global ascendance, given Beijing’s willingness to go to war over border disputes and its support for India’s arch rival Pakistan. And this is unlikely to change in the near future.
If China is serious about preventing the Quad becoming an Asian Nato and turning India into an adversary, Xi may have to talk to Modi directly to inject fresh momentum into the stalled border talks and seek an early end to the military stand-off.
An interesting read from Bloomberg that’s worth reading in full, on one area of dependence that India is actively working on — pharmaceuticals:
On the edge of Hyderabad in southern India, a vast patch of arid shrubland the size of about 14,000 football fields is becoming a testing ground for a model that could help wean the world off its dependence on Chinese drug ingredients.
This empty site of the Hyderabad Pharma City, marked out by scuffed signposts and a rubble-strewn access road, is expected to attract about $8.4bn and employ 560,000 people in hundreds of sprawling plants. Within two years, once land is allotted, officials say, it will be rolling out vital raw ingredients for medicines like penicillin, ibuprofen and anti-malarials that make their way around the world.
At the heart of the endeavour is India’s attempt to wrest control from China, which supplies almost 70 per cent of the active pharmaceutical ingredients – or the bread-and-butter chemicals – that go into the medicines produced by the Indian pharmaceutical industry. It's a vast project that shows how governments are growing increasingly concerned about China's stranglehold over drug supplies — as well as the challenges they face in loosening it.
On a related theme, Krzysztof Iwanek in The Diplomat on the hard choices India faces on the trade front with China:
If there were to be an India-China conflict, would we see them engage in economic warfare, as now seen between the West and Russia? As I am writing this, in the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we can see how easily trade can be used as a political weapon in case of war….
In the case of a hypothetical China-India conflict, can we expect a similar trade war? So far, what commentators have usually considered is the possibility of India reducing imports from China as a form of economic revenge for military tussles. What we should focus on, instead, is the reverse.
While China-India trade is too massive and complex to be fully described here, there are a few general conclusions available regarding New Delhi’s predicament.
First, it is China’s potential blocking of exports to India that would create the largest challenge for New Delhi, not the other way round….
Second: What matters is the strategic dependence on imports, not just any kind of dependence. From the perspective of the government, political and security challenges are deepened when the state is dependent on importing products and services from a unfriendly country, but sometimes these imports are critical. The economic conflict over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine is a clear instance of this. There is no point, for example, in stressing the fact that a large portion of Indian imports of toys come from China. What is really significant are details such as the fact that India imports most of the active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) it uses in its pharmaceutical industry from China. Let me consider this trade as a case in point.
A 2020 article by Biswajit Dhar and KS Chalapati Rao for India Forum maps some of the areas where imports from China have been most dominant. These include APIs: 25 items in the list are pharmaceutical products, of which 90 to 100 percent were sourced from China, as of 2018-2020. These include such common substances as Vitamin B12, penicillin, and many others. Many countries are highly dependent on imports of APIs from China, but for New Delhi, the significance of this dependence is extreme. India itself is a large-scale user of APIs. India is also an exporter of APIs – which in some cases makes Indian and Chinese APIs rivals – but the Chinese ones are cheaper than Indian ones, even on the Indian market. Lastly, APIs are used to produce medicine, of which India is a major exporter.
The depth of the problem was revealed once again during the COVID-19 pandemic, when in 2020, due to travel restrictions, exports of Chinese APIs to India were temporarily restricted. Due to this shortage, New Delhi had to, in turn, limit the export of some of its APIs to other countries for a certain period, to make sure its own reserves were sufficient….. We can only imagine what would happened if China decided to temporarily block all API exports to India as a form of political revenge.
Third: For India, it is a choice between cheaper products for its citizens and companies or more security for the nation as a whole…. One case is that of critical power plant equipment. Power plant equipment is a component of clearly strategic value, and at the same time, Chinese products of this type are cheaper than those provided by global competition, but also cheaper than their equivalents produced in India. In short, approximately 24 percent of coal energy generated in India may be coming from plants that are using critical equipment imported from China. This, therefore, may not necessarily be considered a strategic dependence, but is certainly a form of a security challenge.
The big story in China this past week is the harsh lockdown of Shanghai, which has caused enormous anger and distress to its residents who have faced acute food shortages amid a near-complete collapse of the logistics system in the city.
There has been some excellent reportage on Shanghai from Chinese media outlets. Here, Caixin reports on how with a breakdown of governance, residents have had to organise themselves to survive:
Two weeks ago, Jin Rong shared a message in her Shanghai residential community’s group chat that revealed most of their neighborhood residential committee had tested positive for Covid-19.
At that moment, Jin realized that she and the other residents that had recently volunteered to help out with the committee’s extra workload — things like organizing testing and arranging deliveries of food for locked-down residents — would now have to take over.
Jin’s team is just one of many groups that have embraced self-organization and mutual aid, as the official bodies responsible for their welfare have proved unable to cope.
China’s financial hub has been grappling with the mainland’s biggest outbreak of the coronavirus since early 2020, driven by the highly infectious omicron variant. The financial hub has so far reported more than 250,000 local infections in the latest outbreak, the vast majority of which were either asymptomatic or with mild symptoms. No deaths have been officially recorded.
The lengthy and strict lockdown has caused chaos, with disruption to the distribution of food and other basic necessities, delays in medical treatment and several associated deaths. Although the city has vowed to improve deliveries and ensure access to medical care, similar stories of pain and woe continue to appear.
Shanghai was also the Cover Story for Caixin (paywall) this week, and it had a damning verdict:
Shanghai is fighting a losing two-front war: the battle to contain its worst Covid-19 upsurge and the struggle to meet the basic needs of the city’s 25 million people.
This is a policy-made and entirely self-inflicted crisis, which is the reason for the anger. One example of how the Zero COVID measures have led to this collapse of governance is with how the transport and logistics system has come to a halt:
“The current situation is whoever can find a vehicle to take goods away can make money,” said Zhang, a middleman who buys vegetables from villagers and sells to merchants around the country. His area produces up to 500 tons of vegetables every day, which brings the daily demand for trucks up to 80 to 90. Currently, only six to seven vehicles are allowed access to the highway.
As unclaimed vegetables are left to shrivel up in the fields, food prices are on the rise nationwide. According to data from the National Bureau of Statistics, the price of fresh vegetables increased by 17.2% in March from a 0.1% drop in February, and the price of fresh fruits increased by 4.3%.
As with most outpourings of anger, there has also been wide censorship — which has gone to some unexpected lengths:
Also worth reflecting on - unlike most crises in China where the anger ends up being directed at the local authorities (there’s lots of that here too) and the central government heroically steps in to save the day (that’s what the propaganda inevitably highlights), here that hasn’t been the case and most are aware that its the central government’s zero COVID strategy, which people have largely supported for the last two years, that has caused the current state of affairs. As an example of the anger towards the central government, these images were going viral on WeChat over the weekend:
It is difficult to say of course how exactly public opinion towards Zero COVID may have changed now, but I think it’s fair to assume support for it, two years into the pandemic, is certainly declining. Some friends of mine are voting with their feet and trying to figure out ways to emigrate, though of course this is an insignificant minority and an option not available to the majority of the population — but this just goes to show the level of frustration. Shanghai gets most of the attention but there are multiple lockdowns now in many cities across China. A friend in Tangshan in the north told me he’s been confined to his apartment for two weeks now and as in Shanghai, getting fresh vegetables is becoming a struggle.
There has been pushback and lots of commentaries in the official media in the past few days defending zero COVID, such as this in Xinhua:
The principle of putting people and human life above anything else is the reason that China has adhered to the dynamic zero-COVID approach. For the Chinese government, not a single life is expendable in the fight against the virus.
A friend wryly remarked, after the death of a nurse in Shanghai from asthma, that “not a single life is expendable” only applies to COVID deaths and if you die from something else when locked in your apartment, well that’s your problem and “they don’t care”.
A final point on this: There are public health reasons to be sure - the large number of unvaccinated elderly residents who are vulnerable, as Hong Kong’s outbreak and 8,000 plus deaths showed. Incidentally, Hong Kong also showed Chinese vaccines work very well after three doses, although this mystifying argument persists in the Western media suggesting that Chinese vaccines are behind the current outbreak or the plainly false argument that only mRNA vaccines — which most of the world including India doesn’t use! — are the only silver bullet for opening.
But in my view, its mainly political — political because the Party has for two years made the argument that only China “respected life” unlike the irresponsible West that was “lying flat” and let the virus run amok. This is also, as the Party Congress approaches this year, Xi’s big achievement. So I’d expect them to continue throwing the kitchen sink at Omicron for the next year at the very least, with slim prospects of opening up.
That’s it for this issue. Thank you for reading!