Reading China's Foreign Minister's Press Conference, dams on the Brahmaputra, and bureaucracy in India and China

Welcome to today’s The India China Newsletter.

The National People’s Congress is still in session in Beijing, and it concludes tomorrow (Thursday) when Premier Li Keqiang will meet the press. In this issue, I’ll look at some of the takeaways from the past few days of the NPC, focusing on Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s annual press meet that happened on Sunday, the draft 14th Five Year Plan, and the takeaways for India particularly from a major push for hydropower projects in Tibet.

I report for The Hindu on Wang Yi’s comments on India that both sides need to create “enabling conditions” for settling the boundary dispute. You can read the report here.

In a piece for Business Standard (paywall), former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran had this to say about Wang’s comments:

As one can see, the Chinese preference is to return to business as usual with India acquiescing to Chinese inroads at the border. He made no positive reference to the disengagement at Pangong nor gave any indication of further steps. This in itself is telling.

COMMENT: India was by no means the main event at the press conference (it was the 20th question of 27 fielded by Wang Yi), but it was interesting Wang Yi chose to take a question on India (he didn’t at his last press conference in May 2020 in the midst of the border crisis).

While Wang did repeat China’s official position that the crisis was India’s responsibility, his comments overall read to me as somewhat of a toning down of the rhetoric we have seen in China post-February 19 (when the military honoured five soldiers and the media unleashed a wave of nationalist sentiment, which the newsletter has discussed previously) even if the emphasis on a return to normalcy might not be entirely reciprocated by India just now.

As an aside, what I usually find even more fascinating than the answers are the questions. For the uninitiated, this isn’t a free-for-all press conference but one that’s carefully choreographed — the questions and topics are selected in advance, and I think they provide a very useful lens to look at what China sees as its priorities, what it wants to signal to the world, and, from the omissions, what it doesn’t want to talk about.

Here’s a list of the questions and topics in order, along with the names of the media that posed them:

CCTV on China’s diplomacy in 2021
TASS (Russia) on China Russia relations
People’s Daily on the Communist Party’s role in diplomacy
Middle East News Agency (state news agency in Egypt) on Africa’s COVID-19 challenge and China-Africa cooperation
China Review news agency on changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system
NBC on China US ties
CGTN on the anniversary of PRC seat at the UN
AFP on the EU-China investment deal and ratifying convention on forced labour
China Radio International on China offering vaccines to the world
China Arab TV on China-Arab states coop
Xinhua on China’s views on multilateralism
Lianhe Zaobao (Singapore) on differences in political systems in the world
Shenzhen TV on China’s WTO accession anniversary
Kyodo News on China Japan relations
Global Times on US claims of Xinjiang genocide
Antara news (Indonesia) on China-ASEAN ties
Phoenix (China) on US & Taiwan
Khabar news (Kazakhstan) on the BRI
Beijing Daily on China’s new development model
Press Trust of India on China-India relations
China News Service on assistance being offered to overseas Chinese
ANSA (Italy) on climate change
China National Radio on the Iran deal
Straits Times on China responding to Biden’s Asia policy / South China Sea
The Paper (China) on China- Myanmar
Prensa Latina (state news agency in Cuba) on China LatAm relations

And to wrap it all off, this final question from China Daily is for the ages:

On behalf of netizens around the world: We've noticed that some foreign media, especially some in the West, tend to take a selective approach when covering China. It reminds people of the Yan'an days when US journalist Edgar Snow, with his book Red Star over China, first introduced the Communist Party of China to the world. Do you think it's possible to have another Edgar Snow in the foreign media today?

You can read the official transcript of Wang Yi’s briefing here.

The two big announcements expected Thursday, when the NPC wraps up, are the passing of the five year plan and new changes announced for Hong Kong’s electoral system. MacroPolo has an interesting piece looking at past five year plans and analyzing the shifts in emphasis:

While priorities such as “economy/industrialization” and “science /innovation /technology” continue to dominate, the 14th FYP is likely to see a notable rise of “Party building.” Despite it being in the bottom tier of priorities, “international relations” is expected to see its weight rise in the 14th FYP, as it did in the 13th FYP.

Seemingly at odds with the apparent rise of state capitalism, “SOE development” is expected to decline in its weight relative to the 13th FYP, dwelling at the bottom of priorities.

While “system/strategies” has been a top-three priority historically, its weight is expected to rise significantly in the 14th FYP. This seems to align with Beijing’s latest emphasis on more comprehensive planning for contingencies.

The concept of “green development” gained currency during the 11th FYP under Hu and should hold steady as an important priority in the 14th FYP.

One element in the Five Year Plan of particular interest to India is the mention of the construction of a hydropower base in the so far untapped lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo river. I explained the significance of this in this report for The Hindu.

The South China Morning Post reports the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) government is proceeding with some urgency on the project:

A proposal to construct dams on the lower reaches of the 2,900km (1,800 mile) Yarlung Tsangpo River was first presented in November and is included in China’s latest five-year plan, which was released on Friday at the ongoing legislative meeting in Beijing.
The river rises in Tibet before flowing through the Himalayas and into India, where it is known as the Brahmaputra.

Che Dalha, deputy Communist Party chief of western China’s Tibet autonomous region, said authorities there should “strive to begin construction [of the dams] this year”. “Comprehensive planning and environmental impact assessments for the project should be approved as soon as possible,” he said on Saturday, according to a press release published on Monday on an official regional government website. Che said also that the exploration of natural gas in northern Tibet should be one of the focuses of the country’s energy development goals over the next five years.

The FT, ahead of the first (virtual) meeting of Quad leaders set for Friday, looks at the shift in views in India and why Delhi is no longer going slow on the Quad. The FT also reported last week the Quad countries have been discussing coordinating their regional vaccine diplomacy.

Wang Yi, in his press conference, hit out at countries “building small circles in the name of multilateralism” which, he said, “is in fact ‘group politics’”. I wrote previously while surveying Chinese perceptions of the border crisis that India-China tensions are increasingly being located by Beijing’s experts within the prism of China-US relations (doing so, of course, ignores the bilateral dynamics between India and China that are also driving these tensions). The Quad leaders’ meet will, no doubt, give more fuel to this and only deepen those perceptions, whether they be right or wrong.

On a related note, PLA General Xu Qiliang - the highest ranking General and second in command only to Xi - made interesting comments in a meeting with delegates to the NPC, comments one may hear from experts in Beijing’s think-tanks but rarely from serving generals or Politburo members (he is both). Note his reference to border problems too, which is also rare for leaders at that level:

General Xu Qiliang said the spending was necessary to prepare the country for the “Thucydides trap”, the idea that conflict is inevitable when one power rises to displace a great one. “In the face of the Thucydides trap and border problems, the military must speed up increasing its capacity,” said Xu, who is also one of the 25 members of the Politburo, the Communist Party’s inner circle. “[We] must make breakthroughs in combat methods and ability, and lay a sound foundation for military modernisation.” He said China was already rising in economic power, saying the country’s GDP was equivalent to more than 70 per cent of the US’ economy. “This means we are already standing on the key position of a new chapter towards strength,” he said.

And finally, a fabulous piece from Chun Han Wong in the Wall Street Journal that captures Chinese officialdom in a way that few pieces I’ve read have been able to do. The theme will be very familiar for Indian readers — the permanence of BUREAUCRACY and its uncanny ability to persist and survive, immune to the pressures of whatever the political leadership of the day is trying to do, to bend it to obey its will (usually unsuccessfully)

Mr. Xi and other senior officials publicly lamented how front-line bureaucrats were consumed with paperwork instead of fighting the contagion. Officials dedicated hours each day to filling out multiple documents for agencies making overlapping requests for information, including residents’ body temperatures and symptoms. Reports of fraudulent and wasteful projects have marred Mr. Xi’s campaign to eliminate rural poverty, a centerpiece of his “China Dream”—particularly after 2015, when he ordered that officials sign pledges to meet poverty-relief targets and be held accountable if things went wrong.

This was the best part:

Some of Beijing’s proposed remedies only seem to encourage more bureaucracy. As the pandemic’s economic fallout heaped pressure on officials struggling to meet poverty-relief targets, party authorities ordered in April a fresh push to curb red tape.

Among its demands: compiling an anthology of Mr. Xi’s remarks on “formalism and bureaucratism” and making it required reading for all cadres. Within weeks, a party publisher had released a 136-page volume featuring 182 passages, and government agencies and state businesses started arranging seminars for officials to study the text.

RECOMMEND: For a light-hearted, absurd and immensely enjoyable read on China’s bureaucracy, read Wang Xiaofang’s “The Civil Servant’s Notebook”. I’ve met Wang in Beijing, and as absurd as some of his tales may seem, he assured me most were inspired by his own career in local government.

This Carnegie India event tomorrow on a new paper by former Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale on the road ahead from Galwan for India-China relations, may be of interest to readers.

I highly recommend reading the paper which was out today in full, which is full of insight. I thought I would share two interesting points:

This paper posits that the reason for the deepening mistrust between the two countries lies in their perceptions and expectations of each other in the larger context of global relations. Both countries view themselves as civilizational powers and expect others to acknowledge this fact. Misperceptions often lead to one country ascribing intentions to the actions or behavior of the other country that might not have been the latter’s intention, thus creating mistrust. Hence, going forward, both sides may need to rework their basic perceptions of the other side and reach a new perspective before tackling individual issues of concern. Writings by Indian and Chinese scholars have principally been used in this analysis. Western sources have consciously been excluded (excepting a few where the piece is co-authored by an Indian writer). The objective is to get a sense of how India-China relations are viewed through the eyes of the two players themselves….

This challenge may be summed up thus: China should ask itself whether the strategic and global dimension of India-China relations in Chinese foreign policy has disappeared or weakened so greatly to the point that bilateral disputes are gaining salience and what the implications of this are for China’s rise. India could ask itself whether there is a changing dynamic in the world, and if there is the possibility of adjusting its policy toward China without compromising on its core interests. They can go down one of four paths: a downward spiral toward armed confrontation; armed coexistence; coexistence with cooperation and rivalry; and partnership. Partnership looks unlikely at present. Armed confrontation would be an unwise move because both would be diminished to a lesser or greater degree. China, it is hoped, does not harbor visions of total victory. What separates armed coexistence from coexistence with cooperation and rivalry is trust. None exists at present. The trust will have to be built brick by brick, beginning with the LAC in eastern Ladakh. China should be prepared to put aside any idea that trust can be restored by decoupling the boundary question from the larger bilateral relationship.

The Rajiv Gandhi–Deng Xiaoping consensus is over. The boundary is fundamental to the relationship. China’s gesture to restore the status quo ante will be helpful. Thereafter, a broader disengagement and de-escalation in the border’s Western Sector could be worked upon with adequate written guarantees. The use of existing mechanisms to resolve the standoff is a positive factor. The key is to find a mutually acceptable resolution.

That’s it for the issue. The newsletter will be back later this week with a wrap of the NPC session, which ends on Thursday. Li Keqiang will meet the press tomorrow, and we can also expect the final announcement on the very significant electoral changes for Hong Kong.

Thank you for reading!