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China's foreign policy in 2021, the state of play on the LAC, and on Chinese "democracy"
Welcome back to The India China Newsletter! Wishing all readers a very happy new year. Let’s hope 2022 brings us all some much needed cheer!
In this issue, I'll be looking at:
- Reflections on China’s diplomacy in 2021
- The state of play along the India-China border heading into the new year
- Recent changes in Hong Kong and their broader significance, coming just as China is pushing with greater fervour its version of “democracy”
But before we get started, first, a short update! Since the last issue of this newsletter which came to you more than a month ago, while I was still in quarantine in Hong Kong, I've been getting settled into life in Hong Kong. I got out of 21 day quarantine around a month and a half ago, and spent the first few days breathing in as much air and spending as much time outdoors in Hong Kong’s parks and trails as I could. The worst thing about the quarantine was the sealed hotel room windows. The rest of it, to be honest, wasn't as bad as I'd imagined, partly thanks to both Hong Kong's unfailingly polite health personnel, and the staff at the hotel where I was staying, who went out of the way to make the experience as painless as possible — or I should say, as less painful as possible.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have been reporting on, among other things, Hong Kong's continuing zero-Covid strategy and isolation from the world, which you can read about in this essay for The Hindu (partial paywall) on Hong Kong's "Zero COVID dilemma", and more recently, the "patriots only" election in December (more on that later). Since I wrote that essay, Hong Kong's travel measures have gotten even stricter (I didn't think that was possible!) thanks to Omicron. This weekend, Hong Kong reported its first local Omicron cases, which spread from Cathay aircrew to other diners at a restaurant (where the aircrew were out dining, rather than following protocols, which has sparked an outcry).
I wouldn't expect any major easing from Hong Kong or the mainland until at least the end of spring (and that’s an overly optimistic assessment) with the Winter Olympics in Beijing starting in the first week of February and the annual parliament session, the National People’s Congress, in March. There’s the 20th Party Congress coming up in October, too, when Xi Jinping will begin his third term. A stringent mainland will, of course, mean a stringent Hong Kong, because HK is doing everything it can to get a bubble with Guangdong going, which was supposed to have opened mid-December but hasn’t. Keeping the bubble open will mean continuing with the current approach, and choosing the mainland over the world, so we can expect Hong Kong's isolation to continue well into 2022…
A year-end review of China's diplomacy in 2021, by Foreign Minister Wang Yi on December 20, caught my eye. You can read the full text in English here, but below are what I thought were some of the key points that may be of interest.
The entire speech, actually, is a valuable snapshot of how China sees this current moment and its place in the world. The theme of China-U.S. competition unsurprisingly dominates throughout, but serves a reminder, not that we needed one, that U.S. is indeed the all-consuming obsession for Beijing.
As Wang put it at the very start:
During the past year, the world has witnessed a persistent and unchecked pandemic, accelerating changes unseen in a century and a period of turbulence and transformation globally. Confronted by unprecedented challenges, countries around the world are looking for answers and humanity are required to make the right choice.
Standing at this crossroads, we have observed two opposite trends at play. One is to revert to a Cold War mentality to deepen division and antagonism, and stoke confrontation between blocs. The other is to act by the common well-being of humanity to increase solidarity and cooperation, advocate openness and win-win results, and promote equality and respect. The tug of war between these two trends will shape the future of humanity and our planet in a profound way.
He goes on to list some of the achievements of China’s diplomacy, and comes back to this theme of two trends:
This year, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the lawful seat of the People’s Republic of China in the United Nations (UN). China’s return to the UN was a major event that changed the world and marked a revitalization of multilateralism. For the past 50 years, China has worked relentlessly for the vision of the UN and become a staunch force for promoting world peace and development.
At the same time, people have seen the behavior of a certain country bent on building exclusive blocs under the pretext of multilateralism, imposed its own rules on the international community while calling for a “rules-based order”, and drawn ideological lines despite claims of not seeking “a new Cold War”. In response, President Xi Jinping has pointed out unequivocally that in today’s world, there is but one international system, i.e. the international system with the UN at its core; there is but one international order, i.e. the international order underpinned by international law; and there is but one set of rules, i.e. the basic norms of international relations underpinned by the UN Charter. On international, regional and bilateral occasions, we have spoken up to shatter the pretenses of false multilateralism and givenvoice to the common aspiration of people around the world. We have promoted efforts to reform and improve global governance in line with the principle of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, and made new progress in making international relations more democratic.
Regarding a certain country’s interference in the internal affairs of other countries in the name of democracy and human rights, and the fabrication of false narratives of democracy versus authoritarianism, we have upheld the common values of humanity, setting forth China’s success in practicing whole-process people’s democracy, and highlighting public satisfaction as the ultimate criterion for measuring democracy. We have refuted the false narratives through multilateral forums and bilateral dialogues, safeguarding the true spirit of democracy and a genuinely right understanding of what democracy is about, while revealing the hidden purpose of a self-important, “so-called” superior model of democracy. Throughout this major debate about true and false democracy, it has become the call of more and more countries to oppose monopolizing the definition of democracy or dividing the world along ideological lines.
COMMENT: Note the reference to “true and false democracy” — more on that later.
There weren’t major surprises in the speech, but here are some things worth noting:
1. The order in which China’s relations with countries is mentioned is revealing. The only three given their own detailed mentions were Russia, the U.S. and the EU (presumably China doesn’t think of any other country as being on a par with this group).
2. In happier China-U.S. times, the U.S. would have received top billing and first mention. Wang began with Russia. Wang said ties had “scaled new heights in their comprehensive strategic coordination for a new era”. Putin, incidentally, is set to become the first major foreign leader to visit China since the start of the pandemic when he travels to Beijing for the Winter Olympics in February.
3. The United States came next, and here the emphasis was on mutual respect and equality or, reading between the lines, telling the domestic audience that they are equals and hence China is demanding to be treated as such. Wang repeated the official line that “the fundamental reason for the serious difficulties and multiple challenges in the relationship lies in the strategic misjudgment by the United States regarding China and China-US relations”.
4. The EU was the only other power that received a special mention. The message from Wang was that China “hopes the EU will continue to maintain strategic autonomy”.
5. After the “big three” (at least according to China’s calculus) came the neighbourhood and regional cooperation. The Quad received a mention but not in name — at least that was my reading — when Wang said that “a certain non-regional power has unveiled an Indo-Pacific strategy to stoke confrontation and create rival blocs in the region, thus causing the greatest impediment to regional peace and stability.”
6. In the neighbourhood and region section, ASEAN came first, followed by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The only two countries that received a specific mention here were Japan and India. On Japan, Wang noted that Xi had a phone call with the new PM Fumio Kishida while he said “China and India have maintained dialogue through diplomatic and military channels, and effectively managed and controlled frictions in certain border areas, under a shared commitment to improving and developing the bilateral relations”, which struck me as a surprisingly upbeat mention after all the acrimony.
There was also a paragraph on the situation in Afghanistan, and multiple references to Xi Jinping, which is, of course, hardly surprising given how much everything now has his personal imprint and stamp, including diplomacy.
The reference to India, as I’d mentioned, was somewhat surprising. Also surprising was Wang’s farewell video meeting with the outgoing Indian Ambassador in Beijing Vikram Misri, who has returned to New Delhi as Deputy NSA. In today’s The Hindu (partial paywall), my colleague Suhasini Haidar and I tried to make sense of what is happening in the relationship, and whether 2022 will offer some stability while the situation along the LAC still remains fraught with risk.
The new year, however, began on a somewhat unexpected note along the LAC:
The list of where the exchanges happened is interesting, including most of the hotspots along the LAC including not only Demchok but Depsang (Bottleneck) where there are ongoing disputes.
As of Monday morning, the exchange hadn’t received that much attention on Chinese media but what did was this video from Galwan Valley showing PLA troops pledging to protect “every inch”:
China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs also decided to do this two days before the new year. Incidentally, China’s new land border law, which I wrote about in some detail in the previous issue, came into effect on January 1, 2022:
The bottom line as I see it is both India and China agree that the current situation suits neither but that might not mean very much as the problem is, for all the noise coming out from Beijing and especially articulated by Wang Yi about the need to stabilise ties, there is absolutely no sign of the PLA appearing to take steps that would mean greater stability.
On the contrary, we are seeing a continued build up, and while Eastern Ladakh has been the focus, there is reason to believe that tensions are growing in the Arunachal side as well, which the Indian Army has gone on record to say:
China has increased the intensity of carrying out military drills and deployment in its depth areas opposite the Arunachal Pradesh sector and India has correspondingly readied contingency plans to deal with any security challenges in the region, Eastern Army Commander Lt Gen Manoj Pande said on Tuesday.
Giving an account of India's overall military modernization, Lt Gen Pande also said that an in-principle approval has been given to new combat formations called the Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) which can mobilise fast with a more effective approach…
"The annual training exercise that the PLA carries out there has seen some increase in the level of activities in the depth areas. Some of the reserve formations which the PLA mobilised continue to remain in their training areas that are in the operational depth areas," he said.
"Both sides are attempting to develop infrastructure closer to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that create certain issues at times," he said, adding there has been an increase in deployment of troops following the development of new infrastructure.
The commander said India has taken a number of steps and the foremost among them is enhancing surveillance both close to the LAC and the depth areas by synergising all surveillance resources right from the strategic level to the tactical level.
"We have adequate forces that are available in each sector to deal with any contingency that may arise. We are practising and rehearsing various contingencies that may arise," he said.
For an excellent explainer on how the broader picture along the LAC has changed so much in the past year, I recommend this interview of satellite imagery expert Chris Biggers by Sushant Singh:
To date, the disengagement has had mixed results, particularly when looking at Pangong Tso and the surrounding areas. In February, commercial imagery confirmed PLA Ground Force and Indian Army forces relocating to the Rutog and Loma areas, respectively, without event. There’s now approximately 100 km between the bulk of the forces for the time being, which is a positive development. But that doesn’t discount the PLA Ground Force elements that remain forward on the Sirjap, Khurnak Fort and Nyagzu areas, among others, that India must now consider. The regional infrastructure in place also means the PLA Ground Force could quickly return to areas that it previously occupied….
China continues to improve infrastructure in the region by expanding lines of communication, adding new depots and air defense sites, constructing heliports and upgrading airbases. Such improvements enable greater mobility and force sustainment in the border areas while also helping China become a more potent force. China has also added three additional hardened artillery positions (making a total of four) near the Chumbi valley and Doklam plateau to cover the Indian border area and nearby major mountain passes, should India choose to repeat the 2017 intervention. Additionally, a possible multiple launch rocket system battery has been identified and remains deployed east of Sikkim. Given the proximity of these developments to the Siliguri corridor, all of the above are likely being weighed by New Delhi.
We also see Chinese forces remaining in areas that India likely considers to be at operational depths. We know the Indian Army is concerned by this, as indicated by public statements made by Eastern Army Commander Lt Gen Manoj Pande in October 2021. Our monitoring shows a PLAGF armour presence at Gyantse and armour elements remaining deployed near Gamba. HawkEye 360 began detecting radio frequency activity at Gamba in August 2020 when we first discovered a new deployment east of the area’s field garrison. This shift in the disposition of forces is likely one of many reasons why the Indian Army has been rethinking a possible light tank acquisition and raising an additional armour brigade for the sector.
Also do check out this very well-researched briefing paper from Suyash Desai that meticulously details all the recent civilian and military infrastructure developments in Tibet.
I would also highly recommend this excellent piece by Shivshankar Menon in Foreign Affairs in December on where India-China relations go from here:
It remains a matter of speculation as to why China decided to enter and occupy areas across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), breaking protocols worked out since the 1980s and violating the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement of 1993. What is clear is that Beijing’s decisions must have been made at the highest levels for political and strategic, not just tactical, reasons. China’s military moved on a large scale and at multiple points simultaneously. The country has framed its actions as a sovereignty issue in official statements and in its new land border law, passed in autumn 2021. This makes the dispute harder to settle. China previously described the boundary disagreement as a product of history, leaving room for give, take, and negotiation. Sovereignty, by contrast, is sacred and inviolable…..
COMMENT: That really hits the nail on the head on the shift in how China looks at the boundary which has made the task of managing it all that more difficult, and why the situation remains fraught with risk even though it’s clear both sides do want a more stable border in 2022.
The border standoff has greatly complicated relations between the states. The Indian government has made it clear that peace and tranquility on the border are essential conditions for the relationship to move forward, and it has sought to restore the pre-2020 status quo. China, on the other hand, has argued that India should move on, proposing buffer zones and other forms of disengagement that would leave China with the gains it made last year, the sort of “two steps forward, one step back” approach that Beijing has used to its advantage in the South China Sea. India has stood its ground, and it would be risky for the country to now give in. Widely available satellite imagery makes significant changes in control and military deployments on the border clear to the public. Conceding territory in the manner China demands could embolden Beijing—resulting in future land grabs.
But that does not mean the present situation is stable or acceptable. Now that the border is live all along its length, India and China face a military dilemma that could incentivize escalation. To defend the entire LAC, New Delhi and Beijing must each guarantee that their armed forces are stronger than the opponent’s at every point. This is virtually impossible. But the side looking to change the status quo has to be stronger only where it seeks change, meaning that even defense could require counterattacks. This can prompt either state to engage in aggressive posturing, which could trigger miscalculations and further clashes….
India and China, for their part, could begin stabilizing ties by establishing crisis management mechanisms to deal with unforeseen incidents on the border. New Delhi and Beijing need to improve communication, including by engaging in a high-level bilateral strategic dialogue to identify each other’s core interests, determine which are complementary and which are in conflict, and then decide how to manage their relationship. Such a process would not immediately restore trust between India and China, now a scarce commodity. But it could solidify the uneasy calm and prevent a slide into conflict.
COMMENT: This makes eminent sense too. The question is, does Beijing want a high-level dialogue? The talks that have happened for the past 12 months at various diplomatic and military levels have been painfully slow-moving and the general consensus from the Indian side is that the Chinese aren’t really willing to make meaningful compromises that would allow to a return to status quo, and are happy to very slowly jaw-jaw while they continue to (not very slowly) beef up their infrastructure all along the border….
The last time I was living in Hong Kong was in the second half of 2019, which coincided with the height of the protests. It is quite surreal to be here in the second half of 2021, and to witness the remarkable speed with which Hong Kong is changing right before my eyes.
These are just some of the developments in the last two weeks:
- One of the most well-known Tiananmen memorials (right around the corner from where I had my office on the Hong Kong University campus) was taken down;
- Another independent media outlet had its offices raided and had six current and former senior staff and board members, including the widely popular singer Denise Ho arrested; the Stand News announced a few hours after the raid that it would shut down;
- Today (January 3), another website said it would close down because of the deteriorating media environment in the wake of the changes after the national security legislation;
- Two weeks ago, Hong Kong held its first elections after the drastic overhaul of the electoral system that has reduced the share of directly elected representatives in the legislative council (down from 35/70 earlier to 20/90 now); there was low enthusiasm and a record low turnout in the polls that many here dismissed as being “fake” (the other new change is there’s a candidate eligibility committee that deems whether you are a “patriot” or not).
The day after the polls, Beijing came out with a long white paper on Hong Kong’s political system (full text in English here). Two weeks before the Hong Kong white paper, Beijing also came out with a detailed white paper on “democracy in China” titled “China: Democracy That Works” that is available in English here.
Both white papers, and particularly the one on democracy, are in some sense a response to the U.S.’s Summit on Democracy. As Wang Yi’s comments, mentioned at the top of this issue, indicate, China is placing a lot more emphasis on pushing back. Pushing back involves two parts: extolling the Chinese model while rubbishing systems elsewhere. The U.S. political system gets the most flak in the official media, but India is not far behind and usually comes up in any debate about democracy as an argument for the Chinese media on why the Chinese system in their view is superior for developing countries.
For instance, CGTN’s Liu Xin had this to say:
CGTN also had this piece from a foreign scholar at Renmin University, headlined: “Women's status in China and India: Who has human rights and democracy?”:
According to the U.S. concept of "democracy" and "human rights," the ridiculous claim is made that the rights of an Indian woman are superior to those of a Chinese woman because an Indian woman lives in a "Parliamentary Republic." Therefore, India is invited to the "Summit for Democracy," and China is not, despite all the facts and data mentioned above.
If the U.S. concept of "democracy" and "human rights" are correct, then the only conclusion one could arrive at from these facts is that from the point of view of women, democracy is thoroughly undesirable.
But in fact, the U.S. has a totally false concept of "democracy." It defines democracy not in terms of the "people rule" and the well-being of real people, but in terms of a few formal processes such as "Parliamentary Democracy" or "Division of Powers." Unless one believes that women in India wish to have short lives, be illiterate and die in childbirth, the only conclusion one can draw is that "rule by the people," in this case by women, is being carried out far more by China's system of government policies and mass organizations than the "Parliamentary Republic" of India.
COMMENT: With China now less and less defensive about its system, expect to hear a lot more on the “democracy wars” front — and that also means a lot more putting down of India in the Chinese media. Well, a lot more to what’s already quite substantial….
Speaking of the Chinese media, Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, the Chinese and English language tabloid that’s possibly the most well known Chinese publication in India and around the world, announced that he is stepping down. The Guardian ran an interesting profile of Hu, that is worth checking out just for the very apt headline calling him the “Troll King”.
The always excellent China Media Project assessed his legacy and Hu’s successors, which is worth reading.
That’s it for this issue! Thanks again to all readers for bearing with me and the irregularity of these past few weeks, tied up as I was with finishing a book (more on that soon!) and then the process of moving and getting settled into life in Hong Kong.
Thanks also to those who have written in and asked when the newsletter would resume again — there is no greater motivation!
Wishing you and yours a happy, safe, and enjoyable year ahead!