The road ahead from Alaska

Welcome to today’s The India China Newsletter.

In this issue, I’ll be looking at:

- The road ahead from Alaska: the takeaways and some implications for India

- Russia’s Foreign Minister in China

- Chinese reactions to the US Secretary of Defense in Delhi

- Tesla’s China troubles

As you may have probably read, the much-awaited U.S.-China meet in Alaska got off to a rancorous start, all playing out in front of the cameras. China’s top official there, Yang Jiechi, said he was “compelled” to launch a 16-minute speech, instead of the usual 2-minute opening remarks in front of the press, “because of the tone of the U.S.” side.

This comment from him in particular went viral in China, and ensured that despite Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi making the ‘concession’ of travelling to Alaska, they came away, at least in the eyes of the State media, with burnished reputations. You can read the full State Department transcript here:

The Chinese side felt compelled to make this speech because of the tone of the U.S. side. Well, isn’t this the intention of United States, judging from what – or the way that you have made your opening remarks, that it wants to speak to China in a condescending way from a position of strength? So was this carefully all planned and was it carefully orchestrated with all the preparations in place?  Is that the way that you had hoped to conduct this dialogue? Well, I think we thought too well of the United States.  We thought that the U.S. side will follow the necessary diplomatic protocols.  So for China it was necessary that we made our position clear. So let me say here that, in front of the Chinese side, the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.  The U.S. side was not even qualified to say such things even 20 years or 30 years back, because this is not the way to deal with the Chinese people.  If the United States wants to deal properly with the Chinese side, then let’s follow the necessary protocols and do things the right way.

China’s Ambassador in Washington, Cui Tiankai, gave an interesting interview on the eve of the talks that pretty much hinted they would go as they did, and underlined how China wanted to send a message that if the Alaska talks were about drawing red lines and speaking from ‘a position of strength’ post-Quad summit and post the visits to Japan and South Korea, as the Biden administration had been saying in the lead-up, they had red lines to draw too:

Xinhua: Just before the dialogue, the U.S. State Department senior official chose Japan and the Republic of Korea as the destinations of his first foreign visit. The U.S., Japan, India and Australia held a video summit. There is an opinion that the U.S. is enlisting its allies to confront China from a "position of strength" in the strategic dialogue. What is your comment?

Ambassador Cui: Countries always have issues to talk about. For such communication, you need to talk to the country directly involved and focus on your issues. Of course, if the U.S. wants to develop its relations with some other countries, it is up to themselves. We only hope that any such bilateral activities do not target or harm the interests of a third country. Some people may think that by talking to other countries before meeting with China, they can give out their voice and show their strength. This is unnecessary, and may not work. It is just like when people walk alone at night, they may sing to dispel their fears, which may not be useful. If you have issues to talk about with China, do it, face to face.

I also believe that there are some big question marks in the minds of the global community, including some U.S. allies, some of them Asian countries: First, Will the U.S. be a responsible stakeholder in global affairs? Second, will the U.S. come back with sustained commitment and contributions to multilateral cooperation? Third, will the U.S. be ready and willing to respect other countries' interests and listen to their voice? Many countries, including U.S. allies, have such questions. Some just don't say it in public. It is hoped that the U.S. will understand other countries' concerns…

For any dialogue between countries, a basic prerequisite is that both sides should have the spirit of equality and mutual respect. All the matters you mentioned concern China's sovereignty, territorial integrity and national reunification. When its core interests are involved, China has no room to back down. This position will also be clearly articulated in the dialogue. If people assume that applying pressure unilaterally or closing ranks with allies will make China bow, if they assume that China will say yes to any unilateral demands from any side just for some "outcomes" from the dialogue, I advise them to give up such illusions. These assumptions will only lead to a dead end.

In one sense, the opening statements were theater designed for domestic audiences in both countries. There were, actually, some takeaways, that some might suggest underline the new administration has a broader agenda to engage with China than its predecessor, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out. From the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement:

The two sides agreed to follow the spirit of the Xi-Biden telephone conversation on February 11, 2021 to maintain dialogue and communication, conduct mutually beneficial cooperation, avoid misunderstanding and misjudgment, forestall conflict and confrontation, and promote sound and steady development of China-U.S. relations.

Both sides expressed the hope to continue such type of high-level strategic communication.

Both sides are committed to enhancing dialogue and cooperation in the field of climate change, and they agreed to establish a joint working group on climate change.

The United States reiterated its adherence to the one-China policy on the Taiwan question.

The two sides discussed making reciprocal arrangements for the COVID-19 vaccination of each side's diplomats and consular officials.

They agreed to hold talks on facilitating activities of each other's diplomatic and consular missions and personnel, as well as on issues related to media reporters, in the spirit of reciprocity and mutual benefit.

The two sides also discussed adjusting relevant travel and visa policies according to the pandemic situation, and gradually normalizing personnel exchanges between China and the United States.

They also exchanged views on a series of other topics, including economy and trade, military, law enforcement, culture, health, cyber security, climate change, the Iranian nuclear issue, Afghanistan, the Korean Peninsula and Myanmar, and agreed to maintain and enhance communication and coordination.

The two sides will step up coordination and consultation on activities within such multilateral frameworks as the Group of 20 and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

An op-ed from former Vice Commerce Minister Wei Jianguo that caught my eye:

The purpose of this is very clear, which is to ensure that the US would not misjudge from the start. This lesson offered by the Chinese side was so impassioned and satisfactory due to three characteristics.

First, it was very timely and vivid. The Chinese side seized on the opportunity when the media was still there to talk about a wide range of issues from China-US engagement to anti-epidemic efforts, from economic development to democracy and human rights, and from unilateral buying to the UN Charter. It was crystal clear which side was right and which side was in the wrong.

The most confident sentence was that the Communist Party of China has the wholehearted support of 1.4 billion Chinese people. The underlying message here is that: can the US side achieve that?

Second, the lesson was delivered with great competence and skill. The most outstanding aspect this time was the complete change from some past negotiations where anger was not expressed openly and slander was not responded. Everyone kept smiles in public and consultations over issues were kept behind doors. The problem with such a case is that it causes the other side to misjudge that the Chinese side was weak and can be easily bullied. But those days of being beaten down without striking back are over.

Some of the Alaska coverage from my colleagues and me in The Hindu that may be of interest to readers:

My colleague Suhasini Haidar and I reported on the implications for India from this new phase of US-China engagement. I also recommend Suhasini’s great piece that outlines India’s challenge in navigating these changing waters.

I also profiled Yang “Tiger” Jiechi, who’s been enjoying a weekend of wall-to-wall coverage in China for his fiery remarks, including this video that surfaced of him crooning (an old video but perhaps a not-too-inaccurate reflection of his post-Alaska state of mind):

The US Secretary of Defense’s Delhi visit has been getting quite a lot of attention in the Chinese press. Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin weighed in, broadly reflecting the tenor of most pieces:

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin paid a visit to India. A joint statement between US and Indian defense chiefs did not mention China. Not long ago, China and India disengaged from the Pangong Tso, and India still holds its deep strategic guard against China. On the one hand, India strengthens relations with the US, and on the other, it keeps a certain distance with the US strategic intention to suppress China. The statement released after the US-South Korea 2+2 talks did not mention China either, apparently because South Korea did not want to.

So far, on the Asia tour by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Austin, only Japan completely coordinated with the US and released a joint statement which maliciously attacked China. This is the quality of the US' efforts to construct an anti-China alliance in Asia. It would be day-dreaming for the US to mobilize Asia to contain China. None of the ASEAN countries would sign a statement like the one signed between the US and Japan.

A long piece on India-China relations by Yuan Jirong, former GT correspondent in India, in GT Chinese. Rough translation follows (as mentioned previously, helped by Google Translate and cleaned up a little by me, it conveys the original meaning but use for reference and not as a literal translation):

Recently, India's diplomacy has become one of the focuses of international public opinion. After finishing his visit to Japan and South Korea, US Secretary of Defense Austin arrived in India on March 19. As the first cabinet member of the Biden administration to visit India, this visit also generated a certain degree of public opinion.

As the United States, Japan, India, and Australia had just held the first leaders’ meeting, many media in the United States and India stated that Austin’s visit to India shows that the Biden administration attaches great importance to closer relations with New Delhi, and Washington intends to further bring the United States and India closer. The defense relationship promotes India and the United States to join hands to "counter China's influence." In addition, the United States, Japan, India and Australia are drawing up a plan to expand the production capacity of COVID-19 vaccines in India…

Since the Modi government came to power in 2014, China-India relations have experienced two roller coasters in six years. The two troughs were the Doklam standoff in 2017, the Galwan Valley conflict and the border standoff in 2020. Based on the development and changes in Sino-Indian relations over the past six years, India’s ambivalence in its diplomacy with China has become more and more obvious: on the one hand, it hopes to achieve strategic cooperation, on the other hand, it continues to deliberately provoke strategic competition and suspicion; on the one hand, it wants to use the United States to restrain China’s influence; on the other hand, it wants to use China to balance the United States in its dream of maintaining strategic independence for a great power. It is this ambivalence that has brought huge uncertainty to the relations between China and India, which has continuously affected the cooperation between the two countries.

The main factors contributing to the above-mentioned contradictory mentality in India are the rapid rise of Hindu nationalism and the change in India's strategic perception of China's rapid rise. At present, Hindu nationalism has become the dominant force in Indian politics and will occupy a dominant position for a long time in the foreseeable future. And its long-term "suppress and contain China" stance is destined to impact the Indian National Congress Party's strategic orientation of "the common rise of China and India" in the past.

At present, Hindu nationalists continue their anti-China stance, constructing a unilateral "hostile identity" in their strategy toward China, highlighting the competitiveness and hostility of their China policy…

At the same time, Indian political elites also know very well that if they are tied to the chariot of the United States, India loses its strategic autonomy, it may also cause India to further lose its status as a major power and its dominance in the Indian Ocean. Therefore, India's strategic autonomy and great power consciousness determine that India will maintain limited cooperation with China and will not deviate too far from the track of strategic cooperation between the two countries.

COMMENT: Three things that struck me from this piece: Its among several recent articles emphasising a new talking point in Beijing - mentioned first in Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s telephone call last month with External Affairs Minister Jaishankar - on a ‘back-pedalling’ in India’s China policy that has been causing some amount of concern there; secondly, also increasing in frequency is the attribution of the recent slide in relations to “Hindu nationalism” in India; I’m not sure what this bodes for the future but it is striking in how far the narrative has changed from the 2014-2018 optimism about ‘doing business’ with Modi and dealing with the BJP which, as more than one scholar said, was seen favourably because it did not have the ‘historical baggage’ of the Congress vis-a-vis China; thirdly, and most expectedly, there is still no real attempt to explain China’s border actions that triggered the crisis in relations in the first place. The two most common explanations that emerge in writings so far are to respond to India’s supposed territorial “nibbling” and growing India-US closeness, but neither answers the question of why they did what they did when they did it, that too after all that investment in fixing relations in 2018 and 2019.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave an interview to Chinese State media outlets as he began his visit on Monday. An interesting comment:

Current Russia-China relations are assessed both by our national leaders and citizens as the best in their entire history. This is a well-deserved and fair assessment…

Lavrov noted that the international situation is undergoing profound changes, with new centers of economic, financial and political influence growing stronger.

"However, these objective developments, which are leading to the formation of a truly multipolar and democratic world, are unfortunately being hindered by Western countries, particularly the United States," he said, adding that they seek to continue to dominate at any cost on global economy and politics and impose their will and requirements on others.

Yang Xiyu, former Chinese diplomat and senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, on the significance of the visit:

After Biden came to power, the US has had frequent interactions with its allies. The US has also held the Quad summit, as well as the US-Japan and US-South Korea "2+2" meetings. The US is not only making plans to deal with China, but also with Russia. But Russia's diplomacy is very mature. During this period of time, Russia not only strengthened its deterrence against the US' European allies, but also continued its diplomatic layout.

This being the case, Lavrov's visits have two meanings. First, the visit is a traditional act between two strategic partners. Second, it is a gesture in response to the current new situation. The US, as a superpower, aims to gather its allies as much as possible and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has named China and Russia as problems to be addressed. In this context, Lavrov's visit to China is obviously intended to counteract the US' moves. It is a diplomatic game.

Li Yonghui at CASS on how Russia can ‘counterbalance’ the Quad:

Russia is an influential major power in the region. When the US put forward its Indo-Pacific Strategy, Washington targeted not only Beijing, but also Moscow. As early as December 1998, then Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov expressed hope that Russia, China and India could establish a "strategic triangle" that would be in the interests of peace and security. 

Currently, though China and India have undergone twists and turns in their relations due to border tensions, Russia still hopes that Beijing and New Delhi won't engage in bigger problems. Russia has actually played an active role between China and India. In other words, Russia has maintained relatively close ties with India, which has thereupon become a counterbalance to the so-called Quad group of the US, Japan, India and Australia. 

Russia and India have a "Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership." Though the US is sparing no efforts to rope in India, Washington cannot avoid or ignore the factors of Russia-India relations. During US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's three-day visit to India from Friday, he did not specifically talk about China, but he did not hesitate to mention Russia. However, India will not destroy its relations with Russia just because it wants to seek courtship with the US to deal with China. 

From this perspective, if Russia-India relations continue in a stable way, they will to some extent restrain India-US ties from further deepening. India needs the help of the US to deal with China, but India also needs Russia's support in regional organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS.

The Wall Street Journal on Tesla’s China problems:

China’s government is restricting the use of Tesla Inc.’s vehicles by military staff and employees of key state-owned companies, citing concerns that data the cars gather could be a source of national-security leaks, according to people familiar with the effort.

The move follows a government security review of the electric-vehicle maker’s products, which Chinese officials said raised concerns because Tesla vehicles’ cameras can record images constantly, the people said, and obtain data including when, how and where the vehicles are being used as well as the contact lists of mobile phones synced to them. Beijing is concerned that some data could be sent back to the U.S., the people said.

COMMENT: This may not be the last of their troubles in China. If no one in Delhi is working the phones with Mr. Musk with even greater intent after this latest news, they should get on it…

A thought-provoking cover story in The Economist latest issue on the dilemma of how to engage with China. The whole package is worth reading in full. From the leader:

You might think the death of liberalism in Asia’s financial centre, which hosts $10trn of cross-border investments, would trigger panic, capital flight and a business exodus. Instead Hong Kong is enjoying a financial boom. Share offerings have soared as China’s leading companies list there. Western firms are in the thick of it: the top underwriters are Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. Last year, the value of us dollar payments cleared in Hong Kong, a hub for the world’s reserve currency, hit a record $11trn.

The same pattern of political oppression and commercial effervescence is to be found on the mainland. In 2020 China abused human rights in Xinjiang, waged cyber-warfare, threatened its neighbours and intensified the cult of personality surrounding President Xi Jinping. Another purge is under way. Yet when they talk to shareholders about China, global firms gloss over this brutal reality: “Very happy,” says Siemens; “Phenomenal,” reckons Apple; and “Remarkable,” says Starbucks. Mainland China attracted $163bn of fresh multinational investment last year, more than any other country. It is opening the mainland capital markets to foreigners, who have invested $900bn, in a landmark shift for global finance.

Isolation tends to strengthen the grip of autocratic governments. Cut off from commercial, intellectual and cultural contact with the West, ordinary Chinese will be even more deprived of outside ideas and information. The day-to-day contact of 1m foreign-invested businesses in China with their customers and staff, and 40,000 Chinese firms abroad with the world, is a conduit that even China’s censors struggle to contain. Students and tourists engage in millions of ordinary encounters that are not intermediated by Big Brother.

Engagement with China is the only sensible course, but how does it avoid becoming appeasement? That is the challenge facing the Biden administration, which held a summit with China as we went to press. It is at the heart of strategic reviews like the one Britain has just unveiled.

It starts with building up the West’s defences. Institutions and supply chains must be buttressed against Chinese state interference, including universities, the cloud and energy systems. The creaking American-led infrastructure behind globalisation—treaties, payments networks, technology standards—must be modernised to give countries an alternative to the competing system China is assembling. To keep the peace, the cost to China of military aggression must be raised, by strengthening coalitions such as the “Quad” with India, Japan and Australia, and bolstering Taiwan’s military strength.

Greater resilience allows openness and a tough stance on human rights. By articulating an alternative vision to totalitarianism, liberal governments can help sustain the vigour of open societies everywhere in a confrontation that, if it is not to end in a tragic war, will last decades. It is vital to show that talk of universal values and human rights is more than a cynical tactic to preserve Western hegemony and keep China down. That means firms acting against enormities by, say, excluding forced labour from their supply chains. Whereas Western amorality would only make Chinese nationalism more threatening, principled advocacy of human rights sustained over many years may encourage China’s people to demand the same freedoms for themselves.

China’s rulers believe they have found a way to marry autocracy with technocracy, opacity with openness, and brutality with commercial predictability. After the suppression of Hong Kong, free societies should be more aware than ever of the challenge that presents. They now need to muster a response—and to prepare their defences for the long struggle ahead.

And finally…

From Sixth Tone, the sad story of ‘Little Jack Ma’ - a 7 year old who became an Internet celebrity for his uncanny resemblance to the Alibaba founder - and what it tells us about how ruthless the showbiz industry can be:

Six years ago, 7-year-old Fan Xiaoqin shot to fame online simply because of his uncanny resemblance to Jack Ma — the founder of Alibaba, China’s tech giant. From his poverty-stricken village deep in the eastern Jiangxi province, Xiaoqin, dubbed “Little Jack Ma,” was whisked away to the big city by China’s hungry online entertainment industry, and offered fame, wealth, and success.

For a while, it lasted. At the peak of his popularity, Xiaoqin made regular television appearances, lived in a plush apartment, and had a nanny who took care of his every need. His family even renovated their home using his earnings. But all that came to an abrupt end when local media reported last month that the company that once promised him the moon canceled his contract.

Little Jack Ma found himself back in his village.

But can Little Jack Ma now go back to being Fan Xiaoqin? The answer can only be found by taking a closer look at his life shortly before that fame faded — when local media reported that he’d lost almost all communication with his family, that he’d been absent from school, and that he was lagging behind his classmates. There were also allegations that Xiaoqin was injected with growth-inhibiting hormones.

The article, published last December by Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper, offers a troubling glimpse into how cutthroat entertainment firms play with children’s lives, with little regard for their development or well-being.

That’s it for this issue. The newsletter will be back later this week.

Thank you for reading!