India's and China's Foreign Ministers meet, trade booms, and Chinese workers killed in Pakistan

Welcome to today's newsletter. It's been a busy week on the India China front - which explains partly why there was no issue earlier this week and Friday's issue comes to you a day late! -  from new trade figures to a meeting between the foreign ministers...

In this issue, I'll be looking at:
- Takeaways from the Foreign Ministers' meet, and what two very different readouts from Delhi and Beijing tell us about where relations are headed
- Making sense of new trade data out for H1 of 2021, and an unlikely trade boom amid the crisis in relations
- The case of stranded Indian medical students who this week made another plea to return to their universities in China
- Chinese workers killed in Pakistan, and how this is being seen especially in light of what's unfolding in Afghanistan
- All attention has been on Xinjiang, but what is happening now in Tibet, coverage of which has been largely muted in light of developments in its neighbouring "autonomous region"?
- The child trafficking scourge in China, and how one story had an unlikely happy conclusion

India's External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi met on Wednesday in Dushanbe, where both are attending a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting. It's their first meeting since September in Moscow (though they have spoken on the phone since). My colleague Suhasini Haidar and I reported on what both sides had to say on the meeting. You can read the full piece in The Hindu here (partial paywall):

While External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar conveyed to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on Wednesday the continuing impasse along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) was “visibly impacting the relationship in a negative manner”, the Chinese Minister offered a starkly different message, calling on both sides to “place the border issue in an appropriate position”.

Mr. Jaishankar reiterated India’s view in their talks on the sidelines of the SCO meeting — their first meeting since September last year in Moscow — that the LAC crisis would have a bearing on broader ties. “Assessing the overall relationship, the External Affairs Minister emphasised that maintenance of peace and tranquillity in the border areas has been the foundation for the development of ties since 1988,” the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) quoted him as saying, adding that attempts to change status quo last year “disregarded commitments under the 1993 and 1996 agreements” and “have inevitably affected ties”.

Mr. Wang, in contrast, said in China’s view the boundary should be kept “in an appropriate position” and it should be addressed while both sides looked to “expand the positive momentum of bilateral cooperation and create favourable conditions for resolving differences through negotiation”.

COMMENT: Wang Yi also did not refer to remaining issues, India’s Minister did. He said after both sides "disengaged in the Galwan Valley and the Pangong Lake areas" the "overall situation in the border area was de-escalated”. That's a striking thing to say, considering the situation has not yet been restored to status quo in Depsang, Demchok, Gogra, Hot Springs. China has been very slow in negotiating these areas after the February disengagement in Pangong Lake.

Shishir Gupta reports in the Hindustan Times:

The PLA wants the senior commanders to discuss on disengagement from Gogra-Hot Springs area near Kongka La and leave the Depsang Bulge to the local commanders as it claims that it is a 2013 legacy issue. However, the Modi government is very clear that the Depsang Bulge issue should also be discussed as the PLA is blocking the ingress route to the area and not allowing the Indian Army to patrol points 10 to 13 in the region. “As the Depsang and Gogra-Hot Springs situation has been created due to PLA transgressions, it is important that the military commanders find a resolution to the aggravated situation as armies on both sides are packed up on either side of Line of Actual Control in East Ladakh,” said a senior official.

Worth noting that not just China, but some in the Indian media and government sources were also saying until recently Depsang was a legacy issue. On that matter, readers of this newsletter will recall what Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma (retd) wrote in April, which I am sharing again here:

It must categorically be stated that the patrolling had continued, as planned, since April/May 2013 stand-off, except when halted due to face-offs with PLA patrols or terrain conditions. Even post face-offs, commanders on ground would attempt to re-do the task at the earliest, sometimes within a day or two! This would imply that minimum of eight to ten patrols per year from 2013-2019, would have roughed in the most difficult of terrain and weather conditions for five to six days of patrolling of PPs 10-13. Patrols face detailed debriefings, and copious patrols reports are duly vetted up the ITBP/Army Chains. These patrol reports would exist even presently. It implies that cumulatively over 2500 all ranks from ITBP and Army must have touched base at the PPs at Depsang, from 2013 to 2019. In addition ASO/ WASO, some with senior commanders, undertake regular missions, along the Limit of Patrolling (LOP).  To now state that we were not able to reach our LOP since 2013 as PLA was blocking our movement, is pure heresy, and challenging integrity and honour of devoted ITBP/ Army soldiers, units formations and commanders up-the-chain…

Also on the boundary, Ajai Shukla reported last week that Indian and Chinese troops clashed in the Galwan Valley in May.

COMMENT: I do not know what to make of the story and I have not been able to verify it so far. Both Indian and Chinese officials have denied this happened. Indian military officials, I understand, have said the no patrolling zones in Galwan and Pangong Lake have held without major clashes so far, although they don't rule out the likelihood of such events in the future considering what we have seen in past summers.

I report for The Hindu that the India-China trade figures in the first half of 2021 were the highest on record for any year. Story here for The Hindu with a breakdown of the trade figures.(partial paywall)

COMMENT: India, of course, has put in place a number of measures to signal to China that it can't be business as usual. The call on keeping Chinese companies out of 5G is significant, just are the curbs on Chinese investment. But dress it up however you want, the fact that India imported in the first half of 2021 more than it ever has from China - largely driven by medical imports - should temper what ever you are reading about decoupling and its limits. Also, on the investment curbs, I am hearing word of mouth, more than a few cases suggesting the curbs are actually being diluted in practice and compared to last year, more projects are quietly going ahead, not in tech but in infrastructure contracts.…

Jonathan Cheng at The Wall Street Journal has a good piece on China's overall trade performance (partial paywall):

China’s imports and exports posted stronger-than-expected growth in June as global demand for Chinese goods remained solid and sporadic Covid-19 outbreaks in the country’s biggest export hub didn’t hit outbound shipments as much as expected.

China’s exports increased 32.2% from a year earlier in dollar terms, accelerating from a 27.9% gain in May, data from the General Administration of Customs showed Tuesday. The reading was far stronger than the 23.2% growth forecast by economists polled by The Wall Street Journal, defying concerns that China’s post-Covid export boom was coming to an end.

China’s exports, a key engine of the country’s economic rebound after the coronavirus outbreak, had shown softness in recent months in the face of rising raw material costs, weakened overseas demand for Chinese-made goods and global shipping delays.

Lockdown measures introduced in late May to tame a flare-up in Covid-19 cases in the southern province of Guangdong, an economic and export stronghold, had economists worried about a prolonged impact on trade in Shenzhen’s Yantian port, one of the world’s busiest.

Tuesday’s data, however, have allayed some economists’ concerns.

My colleague Priscilla Jebaraj and I reported on the plight of thousands of Indian medical students, enrolled in Chinese universities, who have been unable to go back since Jan 2020. You can read the piece in The Hindu here (partial paywall)

COMMENT: It's a real mess of a situation and you feel for them. Medical degrees especially can't be taught entirely online. The students have already committed a lot financially so can't really cut and run and go elsewhere. The Chinese universities which are hence getting paid are in no great urgency (not that they can really convince the Chinese government to reconsider its travel curbs). Indian regulators have understandable concerns in recognising degrees without practical work. So a real mess, as I said, which can only be resolved if China lets them back in. We don’t know how many are outside at the moment, but I believe the majority of the 23,000 are. I can’t imagine China opening the doors to all of them soon. I certainly don't see that happening in 2021, particularly because they aren’t even allowing their own nationals back from many countries including India, let alone foreign students...

Lots of concern in China on Wednesday’s bus blast in Pakistan that claimed the lives of 9 Chinese workers, who were there to work on the Dasu hydropower project, and 4 Paksitanis. Pakistan initially said it was an accident, while China right off the bat said it was a terror attack. Pakistani officials who seemed to want to play it down then said traces of explosives were found. This is getting lots of attention in the Chinese media, as did Li Keqiang's call with Imran Khan (the Chinese media did, however, point out that Imran Khan made the call). The Global Times reports:

Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times that Balochistan terrorists and the Pakistani Taliban were possible sponsors of the bomb attack. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is the most restless region in Pakistan, as it borders Afghanistan and is home to the Pakistani Taliban. Although it is not certain whether it was the Pakistani Taliban who committed the attack, it fitted their modus operandi.

Qian said the Pakistani Taliban gained notoriety by attacking the Pakistani government, civilians and army. In recent years, the terrorist group has targeted Chinese projects in the country, and launched attacks on Chinese tourists, as well as businesspeople, as they know that Pakistan attaches great importance to China-Pakistan ties, and they aim to use such attacks to sabotage bilateral relations, said Qian.

The Pakistani Taliban's activities had been subdued during the Pakistani government's continuous efforts against terrorism, yet they have been on the rise recently in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Qian pointed out.

The incident happened in Kohistan region in northern Pakistan, near Kashmir. Due the high mountains and precipitous paths, terrorist organizations scattered in the region are hard to crack down. The Pakistani government also has weak control in the province with the Pakistani Taliban based here and using their own legal systems to control the region. The Dasu Hydropower Project is located in the Kohistan region and with the security department's protection, the situation is under control. But to get into the place, people need to pass mountainous areas, with safety not ensured.

Its editor-in-chief tweeted:

COMMENT: I wouldn't hold my breath for that to happen. But what I will say is "all weather friends” or not, if more such cases happen expect a very strong Chinese reaction (and a very strong Chinese public reaction as well given past cases of how deaths of Chinese overseas have played in China).

Interesting comments from Wang Yi during his meeting with the Afghan Foreign Minister in Dushanbe, via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

Wang Yi said, the hasty drawdown of the United States and the NATO escalated tensions and wars in Afghanistan, bringing the Afghan issue to crossroads. China, holding an "Afghan-led and Afghan-owned" principle, supports the building of an inclusive political structure in Afghanistan through dialogues and negotiations, supports Afghanistan to stand as an independent and neutral nation observing moderate Muslim policies, and supports Afghanistan to battle all forms of terrorism and co-exist with all its neighbors. The pressing task at present is to prevent civil wars and to resume negotiations within the Afghans, in order to work out solutions for political reconciliation and, in particular, prevent any terrorist forces from inflating and Afghanistan from becoming the home of terrorists.

Wang Yi quoted a Chinese saying that "We remain brothers after all the vicissitudes; smile when we meet again and forgo the old grudges". All Afghans, regardless of their ethnic groups or factions, are members of the Afghan family and should shoulder the responsibility of building peace. He hopes the Afghan government be more confident of the peace talks and create necessary conditions for the reconciliation. He added that the Taliban should stand clear of any and all terrorist forces.

Wang Yi stressed that China never attempts to interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs, nor does it act out of any geopolitical concerns. China will continue to respect Afghanistan's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and believes the Afghan people have the capability to take care of their country. China will provide convenience in need, such as hosting in China the negotiations within the Afghans, to help solve the Afghan issue through political solutions.

With all the attention on Xinjiang, the Wall Street Journal reminds us of another state-led assimilation campaign under way, in Tibet:

Mr. Xi has made it a national priority to forge a single Chinese identity in the name of unity—one centered around the Han Chinese majority and loyalty to the Communist Party. The government’s campaign is known in the West primarily through its efforts to assimilate Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minority groups in the northwest region of Xinjiang. Under the radar, China’s population of 6.3 million Tibetans has become a primary target.

Beijing has placed new restrictions on Tibetan religion, education and language, while increasing its ability to keep constant watch over individuals. Although less heavy-handed, the tactics build on an effort that has played out in Xinjiang, where ethnic minorities have been subject to mass digital surveillance and as many as 1 million have been sent through a sprawling network of internment camps. Government authorities have described the sites as vocational schools.

And finally...

A heart-warming story I'm sure we can all use. Child abductions and trafficking are a huge scourge in China. Here is one story that ended happily:

A Chinese man was reunited with his kidnapped son after a 24-year search that saw him travel half a million kilometres across China on a motorcycle, chasing tip-offs on the boy’s possible whereabouts.

Guo Gangtang’s son was just two years and five months old when he was abducted from in front of the family home in eastern Shandong province, where he was playing unattended.

Traffickers snatched the boy and sold him to a family in central China, the ministry of public security said on Tuesday.

Kidnapping and child trafficking became widespread in China in the 1980s, when the draconian one-child rule was enforced, and a cultural obsession with sons fuelled demand for abducted boys.

After years of searching, police told Guo on Sunday that a DNA test confirmed a 26-year-old teacher living in central Henan province was his long-lost son.

That’s it for this issue. Thank you for reading and enjoy your weekend. See you next week!