Decoupling 'contradictions', lab-leak investigations, and the art of apology

Welcome to today's newsletter. In this issue, I'm looking at:
- Remarks from China's Consul General in Mumbai on the 'decoupling debate'
- The newly elected Sikyong of the Tibetan govt-in-exile speaks on India, Tibet and China, and takeaways on the succession issue from the new Tibet white paper
- Calls for investigating lab origins gain momentum (and take on a life of their own in the Indian media)
- John Cena and the art of apology

China's Consul General in Mumbai spoke at an event on Tuesday, his speech was published on the website of the Chinese consulate (and also on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing). The part about decoupling and supply chains caught my eye:

As a matter of fact, China is providing the vast majority of oxygen concentrators and other medical supplies India needs. China is the first country to get out of the pandemic and resume development, offering India and the region huge opportunities. We are glad to find the second wave of COVID-19 here is melting down. As two of the world's largest vaccine producers, China and India have every reason to join hand and work for the final victory against the pandemic in our region and the world.

The Western "Hawkish strategy" and "Wolf pack tactics" will eventually shoot themselves in the foot. It is self-contradictory for some Indian media and think-tanks to ask China keeping the supply chain open on the one hand, and threaten decoupling with China on the other. Such opportunistic and protective ideas will only add up to the problem. The essence of India-China relationship is that how the two of the largest developing countries in the world live in harmony, develop and rejuvenate together. The consensus of the leaders of our two countries, which is 'not to pose threat to each other, provide development opportunities for each other', shall be implemented earnestly together.

He also hit out at the Quad - the latest of an increasing number of Chinese diplomats to do so explicitly, a shift, it seems, from the more vague and ambiguous criticism that we saw in the past. He said:

The Regional Comprehensive Partnership Agreement" (RCEP) is a free trade zone with the largest population, the largest GDP and the greatest development potential worldwide. RCEP,a sound grouping for development, has always opened its door to India, as a community of Asian destiny.

On the other hand, "the group of four" (Quad) advocates so-called democratic alliance, and targets certain specific country in an attempt for containment. Frankly speaking, although the haze of the epidemic has not dissipated, the "Cold War" mentality has been outdated long back. As a matter of fact, Asia stands in the east of the world, thus within Asia the so-called East-West divisions or controversies are ridiculous, purely western mentality. History has proven that following Western colonialism and militarism brought profound disasters and painful lessons to China, India and Asia. Looking back, India and China were glorious ancient civilizations and paradise for western colonizers to explore. Major developing countries like China and India can only achieve development and prosperity when they stand on their own feet. Only through common development by India and China, the rise of Asia and the return of civilization will truly be achieved.

On a related note, interesting numbers, via the Economic Times :

In the financial year 2020-21 (FY21), engineering exports from India to China rose by 128% to $4.8 billion as compared to the previous year. The development occurred in a year when relations between the two countries hit a trough after a skirmish in Galwan between the soldiers of the two countries resulted in casualties on both sides.

The momentum continued in April this year. India’s engineering exports to 23 out of 25 key markets, including US, China, Germany and Italy showed positive year-on-year growth in the first month of FY21 amid overall growth in merchandise trade owing to low base of the previous year, according to a Times of India report.

The US continued to be the biggest market for India’s engineering exports followed by China. Exports to the US jumped more than 400% in the first month of fiscal 2021, shipments to India’s second-largest export destination grew by 143.3%, according to Engineering Exports Promotion Council (EEPC). Among the top 25 markets for India’s outbound shipments, exports to Malaysia and Singapore slipped in April.

Supply chain diversification could take a hit with a resurgence in Covid-19 cases in Vietnam and India, via CNBC:

The Covid-19 resurgence in some parts of Asia could lead to a change in fortunes for China, according to an economist. Previously, the U.S.-China trade war caused companies to move their supply chains out of China, shifting their production and distribution networks for products and services. As a result, countries like Vietnam and India benefited as companies moved to set up shop in their countries.

But the situation appears to be changing, and supply chains could pivot back to China as cases spike in India and Vietnam, according to Zhang Zhiwei, chief economist at Pinpoint Asset Management.

“Before the pandemic, we saw factories moving out of China — Samsung, Foxconn these big name companies — setting up factories in Vietnam, India,” he told CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia” on Monday. The spike in cases in those two countries has forced factories owned by Taiwanese contract manufacturer Foxconn, a major Apple supplier, to shut down facilities in India and Vietnam, he said.

“This could put the relocation of supply chains on hold for quite some time. The key issue here is that international travel is suspended, so multinational companies can’t send their staff to India and Vietnam to set up new factories,” Zhang added. In Vietnam, the northern province of Bac Giang on Tuesday ordered four industrial parks — including three that house production facilities of Taiwan’s Foxconn — to temporarily shut down due to an outbreak of Covid-19.

The situation could benefit China, Zhang suggested. However, he pointed out that the extent of how much China could stand to gain will depend on how long the situation in India and Vietnam continues for. Right now, export growth in China is between 20% to 40% a month, he said. If the factories in India and Vietnam return to production very soon, China’s exports would be expected to slow down in the second half of the year as companies move their manufacturing to those two countries. “But if supply chain (in India and Vietnam) is disrupted for a long time, we could see this kind of 20%, 30% export growth (in China) to continue into next year,” Zhang said.

On India, China and the Quad, worth reading, as always, from Lt Gen Prakash Menon in The Print:

India pursued a dual policy of attempting to simultaneously expand its cooperation with the US and with China. Our efforts at cooperation with China held up several decisions regarding cooperation with the US. The challenge was to be part of the US-driven effort yet maintaining a public posture of an independent player in the larger game. The pretence died at Galwan in June 2020 with trust between China and India becoming the major casualty. Yet, even after that, at the politico-military table, India sacrificed an important tactical military advantage and trusted China in Ladakh to follow up on its promises that were only part of a discussion but not an agreement. It would seem to have been a high-risk gamble by the political leadership that appears to have failed...

In the strategic space, the signing of three foundational agreements of LEMOA (2016), COMCASA (2018) and BECA (2020) with the US signifies the downstream operationalisation of earlier political agreements and joint statements. The Ladakh issue would certainly have had some impact on India’s decision on BECA and Quad. Similar agreements have also been signed with Japan, Australia, France and the UK. What is obvious is that deterioration in India-China relations is integral to the signing of these agreements. The Joe Biden administration lost no time to resurrect the Quad and broaden the scope of cooperation. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan should taper the Pakistan factor in India-US relations.

What requires firming up is the political calculations in the context of India-China relations. One of the narratives that should influence our moves with China is the political self-confidence gained through the Ladakh military confrontation. India cannot let its guard down on the northern border, though the economic impact of Covid-19 on military preparedness would be felt in the mid to long term.

Penpa Tsering, the newly elected Sikyong of the Tibetan-govt-in-exile in Dharamsala who succeeds Lobsang Sangay, spoke to Nayanima Basu of The Print:

“The Indian government and Indian people have been very, very generous in terms of extending humanitarian support for the Tibetans, but not so much in the political sense. Now, I sense this renewed urgency within the Indian leadership and also in the intelligentsia or the academicians that the policy they have adopted towards Tibet or towards China has not been adequate; there needs to be a proper review… Also because of what happened in Doklam, in Galwan,” Tsering said.

“Of course (border) incursions have been going on for many years, but what has been going on now is more like a war-like situation that is being imposed by the Chinese government on the Indian military. So that, I think, kind of puts a reset button on how India should approach the Tibetan issue,” the 53-year-old leader said...

Tsering, who was born in the Bylakuppe Refugee Camp in Karnataka, said nobody in Tibet or in the world will accept or “respect” China’s succession plan for the next Dalai Lama. Last week, Beijing issued an official white paper in which it said any successor to the present Dalai Lama will have to be first approved by China and that Tibet is an inseparable part of the country.

“They’ve always believed that they have a plan (on succession of the Dalai Lama), even with the Panchen Lama… They know that whatever they do will not be respected… Everyone knows that China is a Communist country, it is an atheist country, it doesn’t believe in religion. But the irony of the whole thing is that they want to be responsible for the reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama. While they don’t respect the existing 14th Dalai Lama, they want to come up with the 15th Dalai Lama,” Tsering said.

He added that the main reason why China wants to play a role in the Dalai Lama’s succession is for “political reasons”. “Everybody knows that, but this is not going to happen. It would be in the best interest of China to resolve the Tibet issue when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is alive, because he will be the only person who can convince Tibetans inside Tibet that the middle-way approach is the best approach,” he said.

Sutirtho Patranobis of the Hindustan Times reports on the new  Tibet policy paper mentioned above:

China on Friday indicated that it would choose the successor to the India-based Dalai Lama through “drawing lots from the golden urn” with the candidate subject to the approval of the Communist Party China (CPC)-ruled central government. A new policy paper released on Tibet on Friday all but ruled out the 14th Dalai Lama himself choosing his successor.

Citing historical precedence, the white paper said the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and other grand Living Buddhas has been subjected to approval by the central government since an ordinance passed during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). “The ordinance stipulated that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and other grand Living Buddhas had to follow the procedure of ‘drawing lots from the golden urn’, and the selected candidate would be subject to approval by the central government of China,” the white paper, titled “Tibet Since 1951: Liberation, Development and Prosperity”, said.

Highly recommend this detailed piece by Jeremy Page, Betsy McKay and Drew Hinshaw in the Wall Street Journal on the 'lab leak' question and the investigation into Covid-19's origins. Really stellar reporting - and props especially to Jeremy who had to ride on a mountain bike ride to get to the mines that are home to the bat population at the centre of the debate (the roads have long been blocked unofficially to prevent reporters from getting there). Lots of details and worth reading in full (behind a paywall):

In April 2012, six miners here fell sick with a mysterious illness after entering the mine to clear bat guano. Three of them died. Chinese scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were called in to investigate and, after taking samples from bats in the mine, identified several new coronaviruses.

Now, unanswered questions about the miners’ illness, the viruses found at the site and the research done with them have elevated into the mainstream an idea once dismissed as a conspiracy theory: that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, might have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, the city where the first cases were found in December 2019.

The lab researchers thus far haven’t provided full and prompt answers, and there have been discrepancies in some information they have released. That has led to demands by leading scientists for a deeper investigation into the Wuhan institute and whether the pandemic virus could have been in its labs and escaped.

Even some senior public-health officials who consider that possibility improbable now back the idea of a fuller probe. Most of those calling for a fuller examination of the lab hypothesis say they aren’t backing it over the main alternative—that the virus spread from animals to humans outside a lab, in the kind of natural spillover that has become more frequent in recent decades. There isn’t yet enough evidence for either idea, they say, nor are the two incompatible. The virus could have been one of natural origin that was brought back to a laboratory in Wuhan—intentionally or accidentally—and escaped.

President Biden put out a statement today on Covid-19 origins:

As of today, the U.S. Intelligence Community has “coalesced around two likely scenarios” but has not reached a definitive conclusion on this question. Here is their current position: “while two elements in the IC leans toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter – each with low or moderate confidence – the majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.”

COMMENT: Biden's statement struck me as fairly even-handed and sober - a big departure from the Trump era, where officials prematurely, and routinely, jumped to the conclusion of a link to the Wuhan lab, and ended up openly politicising the origins question right off the bat (no pun intended).

In my view, that ended up being quite counterproductive — another matter that even if they didn’t do so, China may have been as defensive on the issue as it is being right now though it may have perhaps dialled down on the counter-conspiracy-theorising for instance about the U.S. military bringing the virus to Wuhan as one foreign ministry spokesperson tweeted…

The Biden statement also reflects the current view of most scientists who, like the intelligence experts Biden cites, do not believe there is sufficient information to conclusively prove either scenario. This may be not a satisfying answer — and try explaining that to anyone on Twitter who has long made up their minds (either way), or, for that matter, to much of the Indian media, some of whose recent reporting, especially on television, has been devoid of any sobriety, let alone logic. The consensus on TV seems to be this is all "biowarfare" unleashed by China - some are not even saying it was an accident but intentional. For a slice of what's being said right now, here are comments from no less than a general secretary of the BJP, India's ruling party speaking this week:

We feel that this is China's viral war to cause trouble in India. Because it is only in India that the second wave has started, it has not spread in Bangladesh, Bhutan or Afghanistan... If anyone has challenged China in the world, it is Modi.

COMMENT: That's that, then. Let’s be honest -- who has ever cared about what scientists have to say, anyway?

And finally…

Yew Lun Tian of Reuters reports:

U.S. wrestling superstar and actor John Cena apologised to Chinese fans on Tuesday after calling Taiwan a country during an interview to promote his latest movie "Fast & Furious 9".

Speaking to Taiwanese television TVBS earlier this month, 44-year-old Cena said Taiwan would be the first "country" to see the latest Fast and Furious. China regards Taiwan as its province, an assertion that most on the self-ruled, democratic island rejects.

"I made one mistake. I am very, very sorry for this mistake," Cena said in Mandarin in a video posted on his account on Weibo, a Twitter-like microblog popular in China. "I love and respect China and the Chinese people," he added.

Cena joins a long list of international celebrities who have incurred the wrath of an increasingly nationalistic Chinese public over their comments about Taiwan, Hong Kong or Xinjiang. Companies have also come under fire, with several airlines and hotels apologising to China in recent years for listing Taiwan as a country on their booking websites.

Cena's apology was not enough for many mainland Chinese netizens. "Please use Mandarin to say Taiwan is part of China. Otherwise we won't accept the apology," read a comment left on Cena's apology video that received the most "likes".

Here is a video of Cena’s full apology, subtitled, in its full, excruciatingly embarrassing-to-watch glory (it gets worse every time I see it)

On a related note, I thought this was a very perceptive thread on Twitter on propaganda and self-censorship that was bang on:

That’s it for this issue. Take care, and thanks, as always, for reading.