India gets a strike corps for the China border, and Kerala's Shaolin connect

Welcome to today's The India China Newsletter.

Ajai Shukla reports today on what is a significant change in the Indian Army's deployment of its mechanised strike corps along the borders, one which, as he says, has happened without much fanfare:

While the Ambala-based 2 Corps and Bhopal-based 21 Corps would retain their role as tank-heavy forces, equipped and trained to advance deep into Pakistan in wartime, the third strike corps – the Mathura-based 1 Corps – was to become a mountain strike corps that would strike into Chinese territory from Ladakh. The two infantry divisions in 1 Corps will soon begin changing their training patterns and operational plans to conform to their new role. Meanwhile 1 Corps’ third division – the Hisar-based 33 Armoured Division, which is not suited for mountain warfare – will become a reserve force, with which AHQ could exploit an advantage or restore an adverse situation.

At the tactical level, switching 1 Corps constitutes a belated recognition of the fact, long ignored by the Indian Army, that its defences in Ladakh are worryingly thin and need urgent reinforcement. In Ladakh, the almost 800-kilometre-long LAC is defended by a single infantry division, its resources stretched to breaking point. In Sikkim and Arunachal, each Indian division on the LAC defends a mere fraction of that frontage. Furthermore, each of the three eastern sector corps have a full division in reserve, ready to react to any breaches. In Ladakh, the thinly held LAC, the large gaps between Indian posts and the absence of any reserves at the corps level created a vulnerability that was waiting to be exploited.

This rebalance also goes some way towards giving credence to New Delhi’s oft-repeated assertion that China, not Pakistan, is its primary military threat. This claim has been hard to sustain, given that until last month more than two-thirds of the Indian Army was deployed against Pakistan. Of 14 army corps, just four-and-a-half faced China, while more than twice that number was ranged against Pakistan. Of the army’s 38 divisions, just 12 divisions faced China, while 25 divisions were deployed on the India-Pakistan border and one division was a reserve under AHQ. Even after the reassignment, 14 divisions will face China, 22 will face Pakistan and two will be AHQ reserves. Even so, shifting an Indian strike corps from the Pakistan border to the border with China constitutes a powerful strategic signal that will resonate in Beijing, as well as other capitals. It will equally resonate in Rawalpindi, given that Pakistani generals have always cited the Indian Army’s deployment bias against Pakistan as proof of New Delhi’s malintent. While the shift of 1 Corps to Ladakh should provide some strategic reassurance to the Pakistan Army, the dynamics of political control in that country can be expected to block any positive acknowledgement from the corps commanders in Rawalpindi.

The piece is worth reading in full.

More on the ‘stalemate’: The New Indian Express reports that the next (9th) round of India-China Corps Commanders meeting is unlikely to take place soon as both sides are sticking to their positions regarding deployments and disengagement of troops along the various standoff points in eastern Ladakh. This is turning out to be the longest gap we have had so far since the Corps Commander talks began to resolve this crisis.

I was pleasantly surprised by the new issue of The Week magazine in India, out today. This is a great cover:

The cover story, written by Anirudha Karindalam, is based on his visit to the Shaolin temple earlier in 2020, and delves into its history and the India connect — the monk Bodhidharma travelled there in the fifth or sixth century (more on him shortly). Karindalam also interviews Shi Yongxin, the abbot of the temple.

It’s a well put-together package. It also has a first-person piece by Harsh Verma, who is the first Indian to be part of the official Shaolin performing team. I particularly liked this piece by Medha Jaishankar, a reflective personal account of her time there and how it helped her overcome a “quarter life crisis”.

Readers of this newsletter may be surprised to know that there are quite a few people in India who believe that kung fu came to China from India, and that Bodhidharma brought it with him. The similarities between Kerala’s martial arts and kung fu are cited as one reason. Truth be told, the historical evidence is quite sketchy. Bodhidharma’s origins are somewhat murky too, and it isn’t entirely clear where he came from (some say central Asia, but that doesn't sit very well with attempts to revive his legacy as one of the older cultural connects between India and China. In fact, his links to Tamil Nadu even came up when Xi Jinping visited here in October 2019).

The Week looked at the origin myths and interviewed the popular Tamil actor Suriya, who played quite a role in convincing people, at least in my home town of Chennai, of kung fu’s Indian origins after his film on this subject. He reveals here, “We believed that at least 50 per cent of what we portrayed was true.”

That’s not a very high bar, Suriya! (Well, maybe for Bollywood….)

A meeting of experts at the Indian government’s policy think-tank, the NITI Aayog, said “China gained the most during the Covid-19 pandemic and its economy recovered the fastest, while India continues at a slow pace”, a harsh reality check a year after Indian government ministers had hoped the pandemic would be “a blessing in disguise”. (Union Minister Nitin Gadkari’s take from June 2020 in particular hasn’t aged very well, when he said, “Whole world is now not very much interested to deal with China, it's a blessing in disguise for Indian economy,” a statement I remember at the time didn’t go down well in China at all and got some play in the Chinese media for its seeming schadenfreude while China was at its lowest moment during the outbreak). The NITI Aayog meeting acknowledged India faces a steep challenge in trying to get companies to shift manufacturing away from China.

More on the trade front, China on Wednesday expressed its “deep concern” over India’s FDI amendments from April 2020 that required investors from there to obtain government approval. At the same trade policy review at the WTO, the US and EU also expressed concerns over India’s trade barriers.

Indrani Bagchi at the Times of India reports on a brewing battle in Brazil as it chooses between two vaccines, Covishield made by the Serum Institute in India and Coronavac by China’s Sinovac.

More on vaccine politics: This Philippines vaccine scandal story caught my eye. It turns out several members of President Duterte’s security team may have, last September, used a Chinese vaccine not yet approved by regulators, which may have been given as a gift.

Minnie Chan at the South China Morning Post reports that in a sign of growing confidence in China’s home-grown engines, China will cease using the Russian engine currently fitted on China’s new generation J-20 stealth fighter jet.

China blamed the United States for “playing with fire” by sending its UN envoy to Taiwan, with the January 13 to 15 by Kelly Craft to Taiwan “seen by the mainland as the latest move by the outgoing Trump administration to further damage China-US relations and create an awkward position for US president-elect Joe Biden to fix.”

And finally...

The Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee met Thursday “to hear a series of work reports” from “leading Party members groups of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the State Council, the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the Supreme People's Court, and the Supreme People's Procuratorate, as well as from the Secretariat of the CPC Central Committee.”

I don't know when this practice of hearing work reports began but it's happened at least for the past three years in the first week of January. I looked back at the previous two statements, which are quite interesting especially in their evolving references to Xi.

In January 2019, the meeting mentioned “complex and grave international situations” and Party members groups were “urged to closely follow the CPC Central Committee with Xi at the core in terms of thinking, political orientation and action.” It said: “They should always follow the guidance of the Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, grasp the judgement, decisions and plans made by the CPC Central Committee, and unite and inspire all parties to get works done.”

In January 2020, they again met for a review, which happened on January 7. This would later turn out to be an interesting meeting as the Party would say later, in February, that Xi began directing the COVID-19 response as early as January 7 (and presumably at this meeting, although the actual readout has no mention of the pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan, which Xi first publicly spoke about on January 20). This meeting called on Party members groups to “unwaveringly upheld the centralized, unified leadership of the CPC Central Committee, performed their duties and contributed to promoting sustained and sound economic and social development and social stability in the past year, said the statement.”

This week, the reference to upholding Xi’s leadership is even clearer. The readout says:

”The authority and centralized and unified leadership of the CPC Central Committee is the paramount principle of upholding the Party's leadership and the fundamental guarantee for China's institutional strengths, said a statement issued after the meeting, describing the annual hearing of work reports by the CPC leadership as a major institutional arrangement for upholding such authority and leadership.

The meeting acknowledged the achievements of the leading Party members groups of the top legislature, central government, top political advisory body, top court and top procuratorate, as well as the Secretariat of the CPC Central Committee, in various areas of work over the past year. The meeting called for both confidence and precautions against possible dangers as China stands at a historical juncture of wrapping up its efforts to achieve its first "centenary goal" and starting to work for the second.”

That’s it for this issue. Have a good weekend, and the newsletter will be back Monday.