Stalemate on the LAC, and Chinese money in Indian sport

Welcome to today's issue of The India China Newsletter.

I hope this finds readers well and safe. It's been a difficult few days for many of us in India, and more difficult days lie ahead. It does feel a bit surreal to write and think about foreign affairs and China at this moment when there is so much going on at home, which also explains the recent drop in frequency of this newsletter. Here is hoping we pull through and come out of this sooner rather than later.

In this issue, I'll be looking at:
- The stalemate on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) following the latest round of talks
- Tibet and the emerging politics over the Dalai Lama’s succession
- Chinese money in Indian sport

The readouts from the April 9 talks, the 11th round between military commanders from India and China, weren't very encouraging. As I report for The Hindu (partial paywall), this was the first time since September there was no joint statement. The Chinese readout didn't even mention early disengagement, and as Chinese media reports pointed out, this was the first time that the statement on the talks didn't come from the Ministry of National Defense in Beijing but from the Western Theater Command in Chengdu.

What does all this mean? There was some optimism, after the agreement in February to disengage in the north and south banks of Pangong Lake, of an early push for disengagement in the remaining areas (Gogra, Hot Springs, discussed at the 11th round, and Demchok) which were seen as softer nuts to crack. That doesn't appear to be the case now, and with April and May usually the 'hot' months on the LAC, this doesn't bode well for the summer.

Snehesh Philip in The Print has an another excellent report on the situation, and on what has gone wrong since:

Differences seem to have emerged between India and China over the next steps their armies need to take to further ease tension along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh.

After the surprise breakthrough in February that saw both sides pulling troops and equipment back from the brink in Pangong Tso, Beijing wants the two armies to de-escalate or withdraw additional troops brought in as back-up to those in the front, ThePrint has learnt. This is a change in Beijing’s position from what the two sides had discussed in February, it is learnt.

New Delhi, however, is insisting on disengagement from the remaining friction areas along the disputed Himalayan frontier first.

These were part of proposals exchanged between the two sides at the 11th round of Corps Commander level talks held last week, sources in the security establishment said.

Shiv Aroor at India Today adds:

China's amenability in the region has hit a major wall in discussions on the Gogra and Hot Springs areas where troop build-up on both sides remains significant. India had proposed a similar phased reduction of frontline troops and vehicles at these two posts, but China refused to budge.

Qian Feng at Tsinghua had this to say in the Global Times:

Compared with previous rounds of meetings, the 11th round has two new changes, observers said. The previous issuer of Chinese statements was the Chinese Defense Ministry, while this time it was the PLA Western Theater Command spokesperson, and from the 6th round of meeting in September 2020, China and India had all released joint statements, but this time no joint statement was released.

This indicated that the latest meeting did not result in an agreement of a full disengagement in other areas as expected, and the statement showed China's dissatisfaction and concerns over the slow development of the current situation, Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times on Sunday. This indicated that it could be challenging to solve remaining issues, Qian said.

Chinese and Indian border defense troops have seen confrontations in border regions in spring and summer in recent years, and as the temperature picks up and troops are still not disengaged in other regions, the momentum of de-escalation could be impacted, Qian said, noting that some Indians have a delusion of colluding with the US, particularly with the US military, over the border dispute and playing "smart" despite reaching agreements, and this kind of move could damage the restoration of military trust between China and India.

Interesting tidbit in the South China Morning Post on PLA soldiers, unused to such long deployments on the plateau, suffering from altitude sickness:

China’s military has introduced guidelines to prevent troops serving on the Tibetan plateau from getting altitude sickness, a move seen as boosting combat readiness as the country remains locked in a border dispute with India. “Altitude sickness is a common problem that has been affecting troops stationed on the plateau for a long time,” an unnamed army officer was quoted as saying in a report on Monday by PLA Daily, the mouthpiece of the People’s Liberation Army. One of the problems was that the early symptoms of altitude sickness were not too serious so soldiers tended to ignore them, the person said. But if it progressed it could result in them being unable to do their jobs.

The Raisina Dialogue, the Observer Research Foundation and the Ministry of External Affairs' big annual conclave, held virtually this year, is taking place this week. Interesting comments from the External Affairs Minister responding to Chinese descriptions of the Quad as "an Asian NATO", via Nayanima Basu at The Print. No prizes for guessing who he has in mind…

“The idea that when we come together and there is some sort of a threat or messaging to others, I think people need to get over this… This kind of using words like ‘Asian NATO’ etc is a mind-game which people are playing,” Jaishankar said.

“I can’t have other people have a veto about what I am going to discuss, with whom I’m going to discuss, how much I’m going to contribute to the world. That’s my national choice. That kind of NATO mentality has never been India’s. If it has been there in Asia before I think it’s in other countries and regions, not in mine,” he added.

In The Hindu, I had a piece yesterday on the takeaways from an interesting India China Track II that I was part of earlier this week. The Quad did figure, as did the boundary and 'decoupling'. You can read the full piece at the link above (partial paywall - I am sorry!).

But the main takeaway: on all three issues, multilateral/boundary/trade, managing them is going to require some hard talk, drawing of the red lines, and above all, measured expectations if we are going to break out of this endless cycles of resets, border crises and false dawns...

Sudhi Ranjan Sen in Bloomberg has an interesting piece on the emerging politics over the Dalai Lama's succession:

Senior security officials in India, including in the prime minister’s office, have been involved in discussions about how New Delhi can influence the choice of the next Dalai Lama, two officials with direct knowledge of the matter said, asking not to be identified given the sensitive nature of the matter. India hosts the Tibetan government-in-exile in the city of Dharamsala and only recognized Tibet as part of China in 2003. The prime minister’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

On a related issue, Jayadeva Ranade, whose writings on Tibet are always worth following, has a piece on recent developments, including the succession question:

Within days of the plenums’ conclusion, Che Dalha, chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), spelt out the imminent changes in a lengthy article in the People’s Daily...

A central aspect of Che Dalha’s article was the issue of the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. Given the Tibetan people’s deep-seated belief in Tibetan Buddhism and their enduring support for the Dalai Lama, the Chinese Communist Party’s exhortations to monks and nuns to adapt their religion to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ and ‘educate’ their followers have made slow progress. These efforts are now poised to gather momentum. There will be an increased push to persuade the Tibetan people and the Buddhist clergy to accept Beijing’s authority over the selection and recognition of the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama, and other ‘living Buddhas’. At the same time, Tibetans will be more actively mobilised against ‘separatism’ — a codeword for the Dalai Lama’s supporters and influence.

And finally...

Readers of the newsletter may know that the ebbs and flows of Chinese investments in India is something that's always gotten my attention. India's biggest cricket tournament, the IPL, is underway and Chinese mobile phone giant Vivo is back as the main sponsor. From ESPNCricinfo:

Vivo has returned as IPL's title sponsor for the 2021 edition after its deal with the BCCI had been suspended for the 2020 edition - "Vivo is back with us," IPL chairman Brijesh Patel announced during his opening address ahead of the 2021 auction in Chennai on Thursday.

The Chinese mobile and technology company had been replaced by Indian online gaming platform Dream11 ahead of last year's tournament, following a public outcry over the tournament's association with the corporate in the aftermath of military clashes at the India-China border in June 2020.

It was only eight months ago that it was replaced amid a heated debate in India on 'decoupling'. Vivo being dropped was then heralded as marking the start of that process. That its back underlines the limitations. More details from Nikkei on why that is so — the crazy sums of money involved….

It isn't just Vivo. An interesting deep drive from the Hindustan Times last year on the Chinese brands deeply entrenched in Indian sport:

“For Li Ning, India is the second biggest market after China,” Mahender Kapoor, director of Sunlight Sports Pte, Li Ning’s distribution partner in 21 markets across Asia, Australia and New Zealand, told after Sindhu had signed in February last year.

Li-Ning of course isn’t the only Chinese brand to have entrenched itself in the Indian sports market.

As per numbers from the Ministry of Commerce & Industry’s Export Import Data Bank, commodities worth ~91,872.59 lakh were imported from China from April 2019 to February 2020 under the head of “Artcls and eqpmt fr gymnstcs, athltcs, other sports (incl table tennis)/outdoor games.”

The total import for the same head and period was ₹ 139,912.07 lakh. China accounted for over 65% of that market. A distant second was Japan (₹11,588.51 lakh).

The growth of Chinese imports in Indian sports market has been rapid. From ₹ 59,434.58 lakh in 2014-15 to ₹ 107,514.25 lakh in 2018-19, according to the ministry’s data. That’s an over 80 per cent rise in just five years.

“Even if there is a plan to ban Chinese imports, it will not happen from tomorrow. We first need to develop that same infrastructure to match the mass production capability and quality of Chinese products,” says Virender Nagpal, proprietor of Sportsline that exports cricket helmets, pads and guards.

“The facilities are being developed in India but it will take time. We must first work towards removing the complexities in getting various compliances in setting up an industry in India. Today China has the cost as well as quality advantage.

According to Nagpal, China has a stronghold in badminton, tennis, and fitness equipment. “Even basketballs and footballs have started coming from China,” he adds. “It’s not only raw material, but finished products too that are being imported.”

Take Taishan for example, a Chinese sports manufacturing unit that produces the cheapest International Gymnastics Federation (FIG)-approved equipment. Varun Grover runs a Pune-based company that distributes Taishan equipment in the country. He says: “If the overall cost of one set of gymnastics equipment is ~ 1 crore from Taishan, it will be double the amount from a German manufacturer or a French company.”

Why would the distributors or the athletes turn to anyone else?

That's it for this issue. Have a good weekend, and stay safe!