At the 6th JP Morgan “India Investor Summit” in mid-September, Foreign Minister Dr S. Jaishankar stated that India-China relations “can only be based on ‘three mutuals’- mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests”. The implication is that China is seriously working against or at least constraining India’s strategic interests. If so, New Delhi’s continued engagement with China through such forums as BRICS is a puzzling facet of Indian foreign policy, even acknowledging India’s need to be seen as exercising ‘strategic autonomy’. If the Indian government expects the rest of the world to take its arguments about Chinese bad behaviour seriously, then there is a case to be made for New Delhi cutting down on such mixed signals as its participation in the BRICS summits represent.
Rhetoric Masks Reality
Unlike say the G-20, BRICS is a small grouping that throws up in sharper relief both a particularly anti-West political orientation, which India itself does not quite have, as well as China’s outsized global role and influence, which is surely not what New Delhi intends. Indeed, BRICS could very well be done away with given that India already has a strong bilateral relationship with Russia and has engaged with Brazil and South Africa in a separate forum, IBSA, with an explicitly pro-democracy agenda.
With a new administration taking over in the US, how will China deal with the legacy of hard-line China policies left behind by Donald Trump?
For one, expect Beijing to try deflection. It will talk about being misunderstood and of overriding “common interests” as Foreign Minister Wang Yi did in December 2020, and his deputy Le Yucheng as well as Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan did at the end of January 2021 or to spout vague inanities as “cooperative competition” as former Chinese diplomat Fu Ying did earlier in November in The New York Times. The objective is to sound conciliatory even as China puts forward its interests clearly. For instance, the People’s Daily’s Zhong Sheng column, which during the Trump years did not mince words in attacking the US and its actions, welcomed the Biden administration with a toning down of language and offers of cooperation.
China has long adopted a foreign policy of undermining Indian influence in South Asia. Beijing’s assertive approach has included regular high-level official visits, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the sale of military weapons and platforms to India’s neighbours. The Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh in the summer of 2020 is only the latest form of such a policy.
Clearly, there is little let-up in China’s pace despite the fact that the Chinese economy is struggling on a number of fronts. One of these is the impact of COVID-19 but this might be said to be a common problem across the world. What is noteworthy is that China is currently also contending with the consequences of an ongoing and sharpening conflict with the United States in the form of a ‘trade war’ since January 2018, and what is being described as a new cold war on the political front. What is more, the chances of an outbreak of kinetic conflict because of a mistake or heightened tensions cannot be ruled out either. How is it then that China has opened up a new front of conflict on its borders with India at this juncture?
Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping’s objective is to make China great again. He is not unaware of the challenges but he is also counting on the leaders of nations competing with China being too cautious, making mistakes, being plain incompetent or all of these things combined. And in varying degrees his gamble has paid off from Germany to India to the United States.
While the going mantra in India – not without reason – is that Xi has through his actions only strengthened coalitions against China, there are at least two other ways to look at this.
Since May this year, India and China have been involved in a serious confrontation along their disputed boundary known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC). China has pushed its version of the LAC further westwards at multiple locations in the Western Sector of the dispute in eastern Ladakh/Aksai Chin. This, it has done, in clear violation of existing bilateral agreements and Chinese troops now occupy vast swathes of territory previously falling within Indian control.
On the night of 15 June 2020, 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers lost their lives in a fierce and brutal physical fight at high altitude in the Galwan Valley. The casualties are all the more notable because the clash involved not firearms but an almost medieval-era array of clubs and assorted weapons. These are the first casualties on the disputed boundary since 1975 and brings to a close an era of relative peace guided by a series of bilateral agreements on confidence-building measures and protocols on troop behaviour along the LAC.
Jabin T. Jacob, ‘“To Tell China’s Story Well”: China’s International Messaging during the COVID-19 Pandemic’, China Report, Vol. 56, No. 3 August 2020. 374-392.
The Covid-19 pandemic has dented China’s image as an efficient Party-state given how an effort to cover up the outbreak and the resulting delays in reporting led to the virus spreading beyond its origins in Wuhan in Hubei province to the rest of the country as well as rapidly across the world. This article examines China’s massive external propaganda effort launched as part of the effort to repair the damage to its global image and interests. It notes how China has not let the situation stop it from pursuing its traditional foreign policy and security interests, including, of competition with the United States. The article also argues that it is the ruling Communist Party of China’s concerns about its legitimacy at home that has determined the nature and scale of Chinese responses to the pandemic outside its borders.
Read the full article here.
It might seem strange at a time such as this to talk of Chinese anxiety.
China has handled the Covid-19 outbreak better than most countries. What is more, it is also quickly cranked up its industries and global public diplomacy to offer testing kits and protective gear to countries across the world, including to its arch-rival United States as well as to India, a country that it has trouble describing as a rival at all.
At the same time, Chinese territorial assertiveness continues without letup in the East and South China Seas and, of course, along the LAC with India. It is almost as if even a disruption like Covid-19 that has the rest of the world scrambling to manage public health, economic growth and political fallout, is insufficient to knock China off its stride.
And yet, the Chinese people are anxious. The Communist Party of China (CPC) that governs them even more so.
The year 2020 marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and China. While the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic provides a new backdrop to this milestone in bilateral ties, it does not substantially change the direction in which relations were heading, only the pace.
Bilateral ties have seldom been smooth, even if the default position of the leaderships on both sides has been to portray them as being normal and in reasonable fettle. After the low of the Doklam stand-off in mid-2017, ‘informal’ summits between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping were promoted as a way to put the relationship back on the rails. The Indian government has certainly expended much effort domestically to make it look like the informal summits were some sort of diplomatic breakthrough. Except that problems have cropped up so regularly in the relationship that it fools no one. Continue reading
Given China’s seemingly quick recovery from Covid-19 and given how the developed West has been shown up in its response to the pandemic, the possibility of a China-led post-Covid world order is not quite idle chatter. Nevertheless, such talk both exaggerates the weaknesses of the West and overstates China’s capabilities.
The world order might require changing but such change is not about to happen soon for political and economic reasons. Continue reading