Welcome to today’s The India China Newsletter. This latest issue comes to you after a week-long gap, for which I apologise — a gap because I’ve been travelling, which isn’t great for compiling newsletters. I’ve also been busy this past week reporting on the developments in Hong Kong after the March 30 amendments to its electoral system - including a profile of Carrie Lam in Sunday’s newspaper, in which, on an entirely unrelated matter, I also had a short explainer on China’s roll-out of its digital currency. If the latter topic is of interest to readers, you may also wish to check out a podcast I recorded last week on what the fuss is all about on digital currencies and what China’s motivations are.
On to today’s issue!
I’ll be looking at:
- India-Taiwan ties
- Where India stands on the WHO-backed inquiry into COVID-19’s origins
- China remembers its Galwan Valley “martyrs” on Tomb Sweeping day (Qingming), which was marked in China this weekend
- China's problem with some 'small circles', ie the Quad — though it seems to be quite happy to be a part of some other ‘small circles’…
India and Taiwan’s Foreign Ministries exchanged rare messages on Twitter expressing condolences after two very unfortunate events:
Arindam Bagchi @MEAIndiaWe are deeply saddened by the loss of so many lives in the railway accident in Taiwan. Our deepest condolences to the families. And our prayers for the early recovery of the injured.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also had a message for India over the attack in Chhattisgarh (both tweets, initialled JW, were from Foreign Minister Joseph Wu).
For those following India-Taiwan relations, the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with the border crisis with China has brought unprecedented momentum, regardless of the fact that both, of course, do not have diplomatic ties. Readers may find of interest my interview with Joseph Wu, where he made a case for closer collaboration on the health front and was critical of the WHO-China relationship, from last year.
The Times of India, India’s biggest English newspaper, had an editorial on Monday calling for closer India-Taiwan ties:
There are multiple areas where India and Taiwan can collaborate from smart cities and farm tech to semiconductors, renewable energy and even Mandarin learning – Taiwan Education Centres can easily substitute for China’s problematic Confucius Institutes.
With China becoming a country of global consequence, we need to understand the Sinic world better. And Taiwan knows China best, which is why cooperation with Taipei makes strategic sense for New Delhi. Plus, with the troop disengagement process in eastern Ladakh stalled, Beijing clearly doesn’t respect ‘One India’. There is no reason then for India to be overly sensitive about China’s territorial claims. Add to this the China-Pakistan axis that aims to strategically hem in India. If Beijing insists on treating Islamabad as its ‘iron brother’, it may be time for New Delhi and Taipei to elevate their relationship and forge their own fraternity as well.
The editorial — I am guessing the last sentence? — brought a very sharp reaction from China’s Embassy in New Delhi:
Recently, certain Indian media published an editorial, which seriously violated One-China principle and provoked China’s bottom line disregarding long-standing position of the Indian government. 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 elaborating on China's principle and position.
COMMENT: One, there is no doubt that there’s huge space for India and Taiwan to do more, on everything from semiconductors to education. Taiwanese firms are already deeply present in India. I am not sure if the Times of India editorial is advocating India establish formal ties with Taiwan (it rather ambiguously says “forge their fraternity”). I am also not sure if people advocating that, as I often see on Twitter, realise it is a complete non-starter as far as the Government of India is concerned at the moment, or if they have thought through the implications for relations with China. In any case, as I said, the space to do more, in my view, is not really contingent on that and there’s lots more that can be done especially on the tech side, and some of it is happening.
Two, this statement from the Chinese Embassy was the latest of increasingly frequent directives to the Indian media on reporting on Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. As I mentioned in the last issue on the statement that came out on Xinjiang in response to an op-ed, I am wondering if the statements end up bringing more attention to pieces that many people would have otherwise not read. I, and a few others in my profession, hadn’t noticed the Times of India editorial, or the Xinjiang op-ed, until the Chinese Embassy’s statements had us searching for them. I also don’t think the statements will either have an impact on Indian media coverage or favourably help Chinese messaging; if anything, perhaps the opposite?
Also on Taiwan — An interesting tidbit from David Ignatius in the Washington Post
Taiwan is where Chinese overconfidence seems most likely to produce a dangerous miscalculation. U.S. officials in Anchorage came away worried that Xi might be preparing to abandon the ambiguous but relatively stable status quo in Taiwan — described in the nearly 50-year-old formula of “one China” but two governments — in favor of a risky push for reunification. Taiwan poses an interesting test of whether Chinese leaders really believe their rhetoric about American decline. If Xi thinks the United States’ demise is permanent and irreversible, the wise course presumably would be to wait until America is even weaker. But if Xi instead fears a U.S. rebound, then he might be tempted to act more quickly.
COMMENT: I believe there are some in Washington who believe that ‘risky push’ could happen as soon as Xi’s third term (2022-2027), which may well be his final term wearing all three hats — he will be 74 in 2027, unless of course he has a fourth term in mind, who knows…
The COVID-19 inquiry, which has become a thorny issue between China and the West, elicited a measured statement from India in the wake of WHO DG Tedros surprising everyone by not flattering China with fulsome praise, and suggesting the lab leak scenario could not be ruled out:
Official Spokesperson from the Ministry of External Affairs Arindam Bagchi said that the report represents an important first step in establishing the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. "It has listed four pathways concerning the emergence of the disease but has stressed the need for next-phase studies across the region. The report also stresses the need for further data and studies to reach robust conclusions," he said.
"It is pertinent to note that the Director-General of the WHO has separately raised the issue of delays and difficulties in accessing raw data for the team conducting the study. We fully support the Director General's expectation that future collaborative studies will include more timely and comprehensive data sharing. In this connection, we also welcome his readiness to deploy additional missions.”
That brought another statement from China’s Embassy in New Delhi.
READING BETWEEN THE LINES: India's statement was interesting, placing it somewhere in between what the West and China have been saying on the inquiry. India, to be sure, is not backing China’s stand that its conduct has been unimpeachable. But India is also not explicitly criticising China and has made it a point to not politicise it and add it to the long list of already difficult bilateral issues. Also note India was the only one among the Quad to not sign on to the joint statement on the inquiry. India has also made sure, consistently, that Quad meetings have not explicitly mentioned China or the border dispute in public statements, even though they have, for instance, mentioned the East China Sea problems between Japan and China.
Speaking of the Quad, China’s Ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, had this to say in this very long exchange with columnist Sudheendra Kulkarni, which is perhaps the most he has said on the India-China relationship since the border crisis of 2020. This enormous transcript of their conversation runs into 7,000-plus words. My heartfelt sympathies to whoever’s head this fell on to transcribe, as someone who enjoys transcribing long interviews as much as a tooth extraction.
It is certainly a curious conversation — hard-hitting interview it certainly is not, so at least fair play to them for calling it “a virtual dialogue” and not “interview” — and it begins with Mr. Kulkarni saying, just to give you a flavour of the exchange:
Let me add here that, as an Indian, I am also a great admirer of Chinese President Xi Jinping. His thoughts are highly important for the entire world - especially, his call to "Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind". I have read all the three volumes of Xi Jinping's speeches and writings – GOVERNANCE OF CHINA. I am deeply impressed.
I send my heartiest congratulations to the fraternal people of China on the occasion of the FIRST CENTENNIAL this year -100 years of the founding of the Communist Party of China. It's a world-changing event, which we all deeply appreciate.
Unless of course readers may desire reading through more, which you can by all means at the link above, I have done the yeoman service by reading through it and flagging three brief points of note that caught my attention:
1. Mr. Sun repeated the line from Beijing that the border shouldn’t be front and centre:
China-India relations are multi-faceted. It should be viewed in a comprehensive way rather than limited to one part. The boundary question is not the whole story of China-India relations and should be put at a proper place in the overall bilateral relations. We should not allow differences to become disputes. The past experiences have repeatedly indicated that highlighting differences will not help solve problems but erode the foundation of mutual trust. A sound bilateral relationship is conducive to enhancing political mutual trust and creating favorable conditions and atmosphere for the settlement of the boundary question.
COMMENT: This is completely at odds with Delhi’s view that the boundary can’t be put aside in the current situation while all trade and investment resume as if everything is normal, as long as the PLA’s forward deployments continue. We are by no means near full de-escalation, let alone de-induction of troops. Delhi’s view is if Beijing really does believe the border isn’t the biggest problem, then it should tell the PLA to go back to peace-time positions, which they have not.
2. He flagged China’s concerns on India’s economic measures and the possibility of some amount of decoupling, which as I have said earlier, has received more attention in Beijing than the border crisis that prompted the measures. Beyond the debate of how much India can really hurt China’s wallet, it is pretty clear the measures have concerned China, even if somewhat symbolic. He said:
The economies of China and India are highly complementary. China has been India's largest trading partner for consecutive years and India is China's largest trading partner in South Asia. This is the result of the market functions and enterprises' choices. Whether it be "complete decoupling" or "selective decoupling", it will not be realistic and harm others without benefiting oneself.
3. On the Quad, Mr. Sun invoked what Xi Jinping said at Davos, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi subsequently repeated, about “small circles” damaging multilateralism and that any idea of a “rules-based order” didn’t sit with China, as the only order was the UN-led one:
The true multilateralism means upholding the UN-centered international system and the international order based on the international law. It means openness and inclusiveness instead of closeness and exclusion. It means equal-footed consultation instead of supremacy over others…. Building small circles in the name of multilateralism is in fact "group politics". "Multilateralism prioritizing one's own interests" is still unilateral thinking. "Selective multilateralism" is not the right choice.
China and India are major developing countries and emerging economies. We share important and extensive common interests in international and regional affairs. We should stick to our independent foreign policy, strengthen policy coordination within the United Nations, G20, BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China-India-Russia and other multilateral institutions… China and India should work together to build a more just, democratic and rational multi-polar international order. Let's come to work together.
COMMENT: I am not sure if Beijing gets the irony here of making the argument to India of flagging the UN-led system as the opposite of “small circles”, when the smallest of small circles is the P5 — and not only that, the only one of the P5 to not back India’s entry into that very hallowed small circle is, you guessed it…
This past weekend being Tomb Sweeping Day or Qingming, a time of remembrance, China’s media gave quite a bit of attention to the four PLA soldiers who Beijing honoured posthumously after the Galwan Valley clash. The Global Times reports:
"Come to my dream, child," relatives of martyr Wang Zhuoran, a People's Liberation Army soldier who sacrificed himself in China-India border clash in June 2020, cried at Wang's tomb located in the martyr's cemetery in Luohe, Central China's Henan Province, on Saturday, the day before China's traditional Tomb-sweeping Day.
It is the first Tomb-sweeping Day - during which Chinese people visit the graves of the deceased and conduct memorial activities - after Wang, a 24 year-old PLA soldier, and other three soldiers sacrificed during the border clash.
About 60,000 people have visited the cemetery to pay respect since the Chinese authorities officially revealed the death of Wang and his other three colleagues in February, working staff at the cemetery told the Global Times on Saturday…
In Pingnan, East China's Fujian Province, people flock to the tomb of Chen Xiangrong and brought oranges, which was his favorite fruit.
In Lanzhou, capital of Northwest China's Gansu Province, Chen Hongjun's wife took their son to visit Chen on Saturday. It is the first time that the child met his father.
The tomb of Xiao Siyuan in Xinxiang, Henan, is also filled with flowers and messages from visitors.
Wang Zhuoran's parents also sent a message to other three martyrs which reads, "good child, you are the best!"
There are more than 20 million martyrs in China in the modern times but only about 1.96 million of them can be identified with names, the Xinhua News Agency reported on Saturday.
An interesting ‘Chaguan’ column in the latest issue of The Economist that is worth reading in full:
In reality Chinese leaders, if their own words and writings are any guide, think that assertiveness is rational. First, they believe that China has numbers on its side as a world order emerges in which developing countries demand, and are accorded, more sway. At the UN, most member states reliably support China, as an irreplaceable source of loans, infrastructure and affordable technology, including surveillance kit for nervous autocracies. Second, China is increasingly sure that America is in long-term, irreversible decline, even if other Western countries are too arrogant and racist to accept that “the East is rising, and the West is in decline”, as Chinese leaders put it. China is now applying calculated doses of pain to shock Westerners into realising that the old, American-led order is ending…
Thank you, as always, for reading!