The Case of Rising Divorces in China amid COVID-19 Lockdown

Bihu Chamadia, Research Intern, ICS

China announced a nationwide lockdown on January 23 to combat the Coronavirus outbreak. As soon as there was a visible decline in the number of reported cases of COVID-19 in China, the rules of lockdown were eased and many government offices started to function normally. While China tries to pull itself out of the pandemic, there has been another outbreak in the country: the rising cases of divorces.

After the government started lifting the lockdown in late February, marriage registration offices of various districts started receiving high number of divorce cases. The offices of many districts in Xi’an city of Shaanxi province received a record number of divorce cases. According to local Chinese sources, the incoming divorce cases in the marriage registration office in Yanta district in the city of Xi’an had surged to the point where the marriage registration office did not have vacancy till 18 March this year. The situation was similar in other parts of China including Beijing, Shanghai, Yunnan and Sichuan.

Even though an increase in divorce cases is a common trend in China after the Spring Break, according to a report in Global Times, compared to the same period last year, there has been a surge in the number of divorce cases this year. In Tongzhou district in Sichuan Province, the Civil Affairs office received 232 cases from late February till end March, while the number of divorce cases registered last year during the same period was 180.

Marriage as a social institution in China has been facing serious challenges since many years. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, there has been a significant hike in the rate of divorce since the reform and opening up era. But this trend witnessed a steep rise after the liberalisation of Marriage Law in 2003. Once considered a taboo, even the number of divorce cases doubled in the past one decade. In 2010, the total number of divorces in China stood at 1.96 million which has more than doubled recently. Recent figures mentioned by Ministry of Civil Affairs, shows that it stood at more than 4 million in 2019.

The  closing down of factories during the lockdown which had led to the laying off of workers and a dip in household income, was one of the primary factors that contributed to rising tensions between married couples during this period. Moreover, the gendered nature of household chores, where it was socially accepted that men who worked outside the household did not have time to lend a helping hand for household chores, was effectively busted during the lockdown when work happened from home; household work was still managed by the female partner during the lockdown. Women had to shoulder the entire burden of household duties including grocery-shopping and taking care of children with little to no help from her male counterpart. While these issues existed earlier, the lockdown period witnessed an overlapping of mental pressure along with problems such as inequality, gendering in roles and stereotyping of work which eventually accelerated divorce cases after the lockdown was lifted.

Infidelity was another major reason for divorce among married couples. The changes in the Marriage Law in 2003 allowed wives the right to divorce if the husband was abusive or had an extramarital affair. Many cases of infidelity were uncovered during the lockdown which otherwise would have remained under the veil during normal conditions. According to a 2016 report in Global Times, on an average 75% of the divorce cases filed are due to infidelity. In a speech made of 6 November 2019, Zhou Qiang, the Chief Justice of China’s Supreme People’s Court mentioned 74% of the total divorce filed between 2016-2017, were initiated by women.

While issues such as infidelity, financial issues and non-sharing of household burden have been the most common reasons for divorce in China, the lockdown aggravated these issues and exacerbated tensions between couples, and even led to a spike in cases of domestic violence. Divorce lawyers, in particular, have noted an increase in cases related to divorce and pointed that problems which would  have earlier been a cause of little strife in the household were now leading to divorces due to an increase in interaction between couples during this period.

A combination of better socio-economic status leading to new aspirations, increasing tolerance among the masses towards divorce have influenced this trend. But most importantly, the liberalization of the marriage laws in 2003 played a significant role in the rise in divorce cases in China. Changes in the marriage laws in 1981 and 2001  led to a gradual increase in the number of divorce over the years but it was after the amendments in the Marriage Law in 2003 such as lower cost of filing divorce, faster pace of granting divorce and non-requirement of employer’s approval for filing a divorce which made it easier for women to seek divorce leading to the number of divorce in China rise exponentially after 2003 (see graph below).

Parallel to these developments was the rising average income of the female population in China since the reform and opening up.  As average female income rose, the number of divorces also began rising. Earlier, job stability and owning a house were enough for a woman to ‘settle down’ but as women become increasingly educated and financially independent, their expectations also expanded. They no longer accepted to live in an abusive marriage or marriages where there was no compatibility. Moreover, while in the past, custody of the child was often given to the ex-husband after divorce and the wife was ostracized and faced difficulty finding a job – a major deterrence for women to seek divorce- this has changed today due to change in the level of income of women in China. Therefore, an already rising trend in the number of divorce cases witnessed an acceleration during the lockdown period when couples were forced to live together.

Although revoked, the demographic shifts caused by the One-Child policy is now causing a ripple effect both on China’s economy as well as the society. A rapidly ageing  population and a fall in the average age of workforce have become a major concern for the central government as it grapples with lower birth rates and shortage in cheap labour. In 2019, China’s birth rate fell to its lowest in seven decades causing massive concern of the CCP. China’s population dwindles and the rate of marriage also goes down, the Chinese government fears that the number of workforce, taxpayers and consumers will also witness a steep fall.

The growing concern of the government towards rising divorce cases is reflected in the measures taken to address to issue such as free counselling for couples and the introduction of a “cooling off” period to slow down the divorce rate. While earlier it was adopted only by a few local courts, recently, the 13th National People’s Congress that took place in May 2020, voted in favour of adopting ‘cooling off’ as a part of China’s first ever Civil Code. This has caused a massive outrage  among the Chinese population where the Party has been accused of abandoning progressive ideas of promoting gender equality. On the other hand, family planning policy which, in 2016, was amended to allow married couples to bear two children has been absent from the 2018 Civil Code draft. This has led to speculations of government further easing the restrictions on family planning or scrapping the bar altogether on the number of children a married couple could bear.

Despite government efforts to prevent any fissures in the institution, and its push to preserve “traditional values” for a stable and “harmonious society”, divorce cases in China continue to rise. The Covid pandemic has only acted as a catalyst that has unravelled the pre-existing fractures in the society and economy. Rising costs of social pension and shortage in supply of cheap labour have created a huge burden on the falling GDP of the country. As demographers warn that China’s population will begin to shrink in the next decade derailing China’s economy with far-reaching global impact, the need to preserve the institution of marriage has become even more important. The recent adoption of the Civil Code where marriage takes up considerable space in the text of the Code exhibit the gravity the case of rising divorces pose for Beijing.

Cross-Strait Relations amid COVID-19: Multilateralism with Chinese Characteristics

Hari Haran, Research Intern, ICS

COVID-19 has catastrophically emerged as one of the deadliest pandemics of the modern era, reshaping the dynamics of Cross-Strait relations, which has been characterized by limited contact, tensions, and instability. Although China managed to contain the virus, it was accused of a lack of transparency in communication. Meanwhile, Taiwan, with its proximity to China and an ideal destination for mainland tourists, was expected to have the second-highest number of imported cases during the initial stages of the outbreak. However, it was lauded globally for its swift execution of control, propagating the region’s perception in a positive light. Amid all the chaos globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) endured flak from critics for its approach towards the crisis and alleged remarks of being sympathetic towards the Chinese cause.

COVID-19, China, and the WHO.

Not ceding to a “Chernobyl moment”, after a prolonged period China successfully flattened the curve by effectively mobilizing its resources. It has since picked up the mantle to quickly restore its image through soft power measures such as formally dispatching medical equipment, ventilators and face masks to European nations such as Italy, Spain and other crisis-hit countries; now termed as “Mask Diplomacy”. Also, it maintained communication with the WHO,  providing updates of the virus and its transmission, contrary to the criticisms.

With early reactions being mainly positive from resource-strapped countries, including its African allies, a discriminatory racial incident within the Chinese mainland against African ethnicity hindered its progress. Additionally, claims of faulty equipment and its return questioned the candour of such measures.

Nevertheless, at the 2020 World Health Assembly (WHA), China pledged to contribute $2 billion to aid the WHO response towards the pandemic and the socio-economic development of the crisis-hit countries, especially Africa. Additionally, it called for global solidarity and collective mobilization of efforts against the virus by supporting WHO. But, mounting criticism resulted in the parallel emergence of the “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. 

“Wolf Warrior” diplomacy refers to the growing assertiveness of Chinese foreign policy towards the West. COVID-19 has only amplified direct engagement of China through a battle of narratives against its critics, chiefly the US, condemning it for politicizing the issue. This development marked the Chinese contribution to the gradual shift of discourse from global institutionalism to hypernationalism. This new direction aims to portray China’s story – a country, attempting to “rise to the challenges of global leadership” by striving in a climate of declining multilateralism.

The Taiwan Cause

Harnessing its experience from the SARS outbreak, the Taiwanese government reacted quickly by entering a strict lockdown mode and enforcing stringent policy measures, gaining universal acclaim. Its technological capabilities tracked down the source of the virus within its area; additionally, it developed a range of testing kits to hasten the process of the containment of the virus. Taiwan succeeded in flattening the curve, showcasing a rare, strong well-executed response, even by WHO standards.

Furthermore, Taiwan took a page out of China’s policy of engagement by initiating its version of ‘Mask Diplomacy’. It was achieved by supplying masks (Taiwan is the second-largest producer of masks after China) and providing technological action frameworks to the affected countries, especially Western powers, thereby, emulating its ability to compensate the lack of its economic power. It had significant implications on its bilateral relations through further cooperation such as ongoing Taiwan – Danish cooperation to develop vaccines and the US amending its position by supporting Taiwan’s membership to the WHA, significantly denting the “One China” policy.

However, its achievements were unacknowledged categorically due to the politics of the WHA, which recognizes the region as part of China, leading former’s exclusion from WHO meetings. It resulted in the emergence of pent up anger amongst the nationalist groups who sought to move away from the Chinese identity. However, the government response was limited to castigating WHO by questioning its non-political nature.

Balance of Tide 

It was due to the Taiwanese cause for representation after a prolonged struggle that it finally received the observer status invite to WHA in 2008 Taipei’s observer status at the WHA exemplified a historic shift in Cross-Strait relations. Nevertheless, the Assembly revoked its membership since 2016, owing to the UN Stance on “One China” Policy. Since then, China has actively blocked the prospect, thereby resulting in the reversal of whatsoever gains for positive relations over the years.

In addition to actively blocking Taiwan’s membership bid since 2016, it was also a timeline of heated economic quarrels between the US and China. Also, the Hong Kong protests had a profound impact on Taiwan by significantly affecting the results of the Taiwan presidential and legislative elections in early 2020 favouring the incumbent party and raising its image as a democratic nation. The evolved imagery and the simultaneous allegations on China over lack of transparency immensely accelerated the US legislation of  TAIPEI Act – 2019 to make it US policy to advocate Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. However, it was strongly rebutted by China who described it as an “act of hegemony”.

Nevertheless, the battle of narratives between the US and China resulted in the former halting the financing WHO. Complementing it was the announcement of US terminating its relationship with WHO as an attempt to pacify its populace for its lack of preparedness. Moreover, Australia demanded an independent assessment of the performance of the WHO and China in handling the crisis. Both responses drew sharp criticism and rebuttal from China. Nevertheless, moderates such as Germany and France urged transparency for the global good, resulting in China ceding to the demand for investigations, albeit post-crisis, making WHO a battleground of politics.

Conclusion

In tracing the dynamics of Cross-Strait relations, the ongoing situation not only demonstrates the vulnerability of international institutions’ functionality amidst political crises but also marks a growing shift away from reliance on global institutionalism. However, for Taiwan, this development brought a temporary rejuvenated hope for the government to maintain its independent co-existential nature. In contrast, with China sticking to the “One China” policy, it expects other countries to reciprocate its policy of non-interference[*]. However, the pandemic has catalyzed its assertiveness as evident in the central leadership’s decision to enforce the “New National Security Law” in Hong Kong, creating similar potential implications for Taiwan’s cause foregrounding resistance from the US. To conclude, Beijing has exploited the shift by stressing cooperation over isolation under the umbrella of the WHO by providing a differing perspective of multilateralism with Chinese characteristics that calls for solidarity without interference – a perspective steered by the rising nationalistic Wolf Warrior diplomacy.


[*]This policy of non-interference is in direct contrast to the U.S. foreign policy of selective international engagement that interferes with domestic issues.


China’s Health Diplomacy in Africa during COVID-19: Discerning Prospects and Problems

Dr. Veda VaidyanathanVisiting Research Associate, ICS

LI Nan, a South Africa’s Chinese Embassy representative, left, elbow bumps with Zweli Mkhize, South African Minister of Health, during the handing over for the emergency medical equipment for COVID-19 from China, at OR Tambo Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

Source: AP Photo

At the margins of the third session of the 13th National People’s Congress, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi fielded questions from the press, China’s role helping other countries fight COVID-19 was brought up and China’s assistance to Africa, in particular, found considerable mention. As is usually the case, high doses of morality and altruism accompanied stories of China’s health cooperation in the region. In Wang Yi’s words

China is always willing and ready to help others. When our friends are in distress, we never sit by and do nothing. A case in point is our assistance to Africa during the Ebola epidemic. While some countries evacuated their personnel from the affected areas, China rushed to Africa’s aid despite risks of infection, sending in medical teams and badly needed supplies and fighting alongside our African brothers and sisters until victory was declared.”

However, this does not take away from China’s multifaceted contribution to the African region in its fight against COVID-19. Actors including the state, provincial governments, companies and entrepreneurs have been contributing to different countries in varied forms. The Chinese government sent medical expert teams to Africa’s 5 sub regions while the resident medical teams based in 45 African countries have also been very active and have held over 400 training sessions for medical workers. On the 18th of March, the first teleconference of experts was held between China and countries in Africa. Over 300 people including representatives from over 23 African countries, the African CDC, officials from the WHO posted in the region attended the meeting with experts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Chinese CDC, the first hospital of Peking University. Since then over 30 video conferences have been held. China has also been upgrading health infrastructure, like a $500,000 donation to the Wilkins Infectious Diseases Hospital, the main Covid-19 centre in Harare, Zimbabwe. Provincial actors like Chongqing municipal government sent supplies along with a delegation to Algeria and a team of 12 medical experts from Hunan province brought medical supplies to Zimbabwe.

Chinese media houses have also been critical to its ‘Corona diplomacy’ in the continent. A website hosted by China Daily called “Fighting COVID-19 the Chinese Way” is used to share facts, updates and stories about managing the virus. Another platform called “COVID-19 Frontline” by CGTN is an online live show for medical workers and officials to share information. One of the shows hosted was titled “Fight as one: Exchange of COVID-19 treatment experiences between China and Zambia” where Doctors from the First Affiliated Hospital of Xi’an Jiaotong University, who served on the frontlines in Wuhan shared their experiences with their Zambian counterparts. Similarly CGTN invited experts from Jiangsu Province who worked in Wuhan to share their experiences with colleagues in Tanzania. Links to such platforms have been advertised in the websites of Chinese missions in various African countries. In addition to the Chinese State, Alibaba’s Jack Ma and the Alibaba foundation have also contributed to the African fight against the pandemic by providing thousands of detection kits, PPEs, face shields, infrared thermometers, extraction kits, surgical masks, swabs and gloves among others. Other Chinese firms active in the region have also been donating to local charities.

However, Chinese assistance during the pandemic has not always been received positively in the region. There is an increase in xenophobia and this has resulted in several unpleasant exchanges. One of first reports that came out in this regard saw several Africans in Guangzhou being discriminated against, evicted from their homes and forced into quarantine. This attracted an unprecedented and strong response from a group of African ambassadors in Beijing who “immediately demanded the cessation of forceful testing, quarantine and other inhuman treatments meted out to Africans”. A few weeks later news broke that three Chinese nationals were murdered in Lusaka. According to the Zambian police, the suspects killed the victims who were working in a Chinese clothing company and set their warehouse on fire. While many commentators have discussed how deep-rooted racism is a longstanding issue in China-Africa relations, officials like Zambia’s ambassador to China doesn’t seem to be too perturbed; stressing thatSometimes, our people or your people make mistakes out of anxiety. It is not good to amplify these small negative points. We should pursue cooperation under a bigger picture”.

Nonetheless, one of the major expectations from China, beyond knowledge sharing and supply of medical equipment, is to forgive loans and ease debt repayments. As several countries in the continent are struggling with weak health systems, rising domestic dissatisfaction due to unemployment and cessation of economic activity, they are not in a position to make repayments on debt. Considering that China has been the largest trading partner of the region ($208 billion in 2019), one of the largest investors ($110 billion stock) and holds a fifth of Africa’s sovereign debt, this takes centre stage. A case in point is Kenya: by March 2020, Kenya’s total national debt reached an all-time high of Sh6 trillion ($57 billion), very close to its 70 per cent national debt ceiling of Sh9 trillion ($90 billion), of this its debt to China stood at Sh660 billion ($6.6 million). While China has supported the call of the World Bank and IMF and will join the G20 nations to forgo repayments, officials have stated that they will also conduct bilateral meetings to discuss further debt relief. It is very likely that China will forgive significant African debt, not only because there is a precedent, but also due to the fact that in the post pandemic world, where investigations looking into the origins of the virus are underway, African support will be critical to China.

Similarly, Africa could also gain tremendously from China’s close engagement. As global supply chains are hard hit, intra Africa trade could increase, kick starting the African Continental Free Trade Area, and major economies in the region including Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa could start supplying to other countries and Chinese cooperation in this regard would be vital. There have already been several instances of states turning to domestic production to meet demand. The Ugandan President for instance, launched two production lines at a Chinese firm in Uganda, Lida packaging Products Ltd, that employs over 300 people and has the capacity to produce 560,000 masks a day. Similarly, the tech, digital and e-commerce spaces that have been growing rapidly – including coming up with home grown solutions to problems posed by the pandemic – stands to benefit from close cooperation with Chinese actors. Like many other geopolitical equations, China-Africa relations in the ‘new normal’ will also undergo a reset. A narrative is already building around Africa’s unwavering loyalty to China, especially during the pandemic. For instance, the Chinese ambassador to Zambia, Li Jie, stated that when the pandemic broke out in China, Zambia was one of the first countries to call and extend support and therefore Beijing will provide substantial support to Lusaka in this trying time. It would be prudent therefore, that other actors engaged in the region, like India, pay close attention to the myriad forms Chinese assistance to the continent is taking and how they are received, because it will not only influence Africa’s fight against the pandemic but will also help shape a narrative that projects China as a ‘voice of reason and judgement’ in a landscape that is seemingly devoid of global health leadership.

COVID-19: Chinese Dominance over Global Supply Chains under Threat?

Akshit Goel, Research Intern, ICS

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, nations around the world have scurried to contain the spread of the pathogen which has left the global economy in shambles. The physical measures put in place to ‘flatten the curve’ such as travel bans, lockdowns and social distancing norms have revealed the fragility of global economy. The lockdowns have severely affected the economies at home due to loss in production as major industries and factories are shut down. Further, there is also a dent in consumer spending as households are burning through their savings with their incomes impacted. The combination of these factors spell disaster for the world economy as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts the recession due to the pandemic may be worse than the 2009 global recession.

Prospects such as availability of cheap skilled labor and advancements in technology has increasingly moved the production and assembly chains of major corporations from their countries of origin to nations abroad. This trend of overseas production has left the global economy far more integrated and dependent on each other. This model of production outsourcing has been one of the driving forces that has transformed the Chinese economy into one of the manufacturing hubs of the world. China is part of some of the most important supply chains in the global economy. Availability of cheap skilled labor as well as a well-developed supply chain network alongside an integrated infrastructure which cannot be easily replicated elsewhere has helped China solidify its position as a lucrative source of cheap and steady manufacturing for many large firms around the globe. As income of individuals grew due to privatization and rapid economic growth, private household consumption also rose. This led to the creation of large domestic consumer markets in China which further incentivized manufacturers to move production here. Moreover, these supply chains fuel a major portion of the industries in South-east Asian nations such as pharmaceuticals, automobile, garments, and many more by supplying them with machinery and components which are imperative for their sustenance. The electronics industry is one of the most important industries which is dependent on the South-east Asian supply chains. Therefore, with the outbreak of COVID-19, not only is the Chinese economy affected but due to the shutdown of industries, supply chains across the globe have been disrupted.

The epicenter of the corona pandemic, Wuhan is a major manufacturing hub located in Hubei province. According to a report by Dun & Bradstreet, a business think-tank based in US, 51,000 companies have one or more direct suppliers in Wuhan, while 5 million companies have one or more tier-two suppliers in the region. This supply shock is not only going to affect the South-East Asian nations but rather a major chunk of the globe as supply disruption appears more widespread. Moreover, as per a report by Institute for Supply Management, nearly 75 per cent of companies have reported some form of impact on their business due to disruption of global value chains. Further, around 44 per cent lack any contingency plan to combat this sudden drop in supply as lockdowns chokes production. Wuhan is a major supplier of electrical components and assembly of smartphones for some of the biggest firms in the world such as Apple, which were some of the worst impacted by the disruption. Although the company has invested to diversify its assembly chain into Vietnam and India, it is still highly dependent on China in maintaining its inventory.

Moreover, China is highly integrated in the supply chain of auto parts around the world and with the onset of lockdown, the automobile industry around the globe has suffered. Fiat had to temporarily suspend production in its plant located in Serbia. This was due to a shortage in supply of auto parts from China. This was not a unique occurrence as automobile firms around the globe are facing the same issue. In a similar bid, Hyundai, world’s fifth largest automobile company had to halt production in South Korea. Wuhan supplied the world with auto components worth over USD 2 billion in FY 2018-19. India, although self-sufficient in its supply, still imported auto components worth USD 4.5 billion in FY 2018-19 from Wuhan.

This economic disaster revealed how overdependence on China, simply put, having all the eggs in one basket, could pose a problem. There is now a resounding demand in the global economy for the diversification of supply chains to nations other than China. Some of the main contenders, who could fill this supply vacuum left by China are Vietnam, Cambodia and India. The trend to move out of China gained traction just before the outbreak, in the wake of the trade war between US and China. With the imposition of tariffs, many Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) which had relied on China for manufacturing, had already started to look for alternatives to China. Apple had been, for a while, trying to move its assembly to Vietnam and India. But this is easier said than done as most of these nations themselves depend on China to fuel their industries. Vietnamese manufacturing is dependent on China for the supply of heavy machinery, components and electronic equipment that are required in manufacturing industries. Moreover, these nations still lack the skilled manpower which is required to take on any surge in demand from the US which makes them a lesser reliable supplier. Since the beginning of the lockdown in early February, China has got its grip on the spread of the virus. Factories and industries in Wuhan, and rest of China, are back online with production. But as the supply of manufactured goods begins in China, the rest of the world still grapples with the pandemic with the lockdowns in place which in turn led to shortage in demand for the Chinese industries. Although economists around the world were hoping for ‘V- shaped’ recovery, the reality seems far from it as the pandemic continues to unfold and the scope of the economic damage done by it slowly comes to light.

Can Taiwan’s COVID-19 Diplomacy Help It Make Permanent Friends?

Sanjana Krishnan, Research Intern, ICS

The world today is full of uncertainty due to the outbreak of COVID-19. While the rest of the world is still in the grip of COVID-19, one small island, namely Taiwan has been successful in flattening the curve. This was made possible by the proactive measures it took immediately after the first news of  the outbreak emerged from China. In a way, Taiwan was already in a state of readiness after the outbreak of SARS in 2003.  It was able to respond quickly by integrating the working of various ministries and employing advanced technologies to achieve good results. It implemented measures such as on-board quarantine, 14-day home quarantine, health declarations, fever screening and so on. The travel details of people are stored in their National Health Insurance cards to alert the concerned authority about any spread of the virus by using the GPS technology. This has helped in curbing individual and community spread.

Taiwan, a self-ruled island that has been denied entry into the World Health Organisation (WHO), is not only setting an example to the world by the way it has handled its internal situation but also through its help to other states by exporting medical equipment, especially medical grade masks. The territory is now the second largest producer of masks after China. According to its Economic Affairs Minister, Sheng Jong-chin (沈榮津), Taiwan produces 15 million masks every day. In March, it had relaxed the ban on export of face masks  and in April, shipped PPE and masks to its diplomatic allies and the worst hit countries in Europe. Taiwan  also announced that it would donate 10  million masks to the most needy countries and 100,000 masks per week to the United States. It has also promised to share its electronic quarantine system that employs big data analytics.

These measures helped raise considerably the profile of this self-governed island but, in turn, has attracted Beijing’s anger. Even as Taiwan received praise from various parts of the world for its effective measures and the help extended, China termed these a political game played by Taiwan to gain admission into the W.H.O and the acceptance of the world community. This accusation was made while also pointing out that Taiwan had banned its mask export when China was in its most vulnerable state with respect to the Corona virus outbreak.

China considers Taiwan a part of its sovereign territory, awaiting reunification even by force, if necessary. Today, there are only a handful of nations in Central America and the Oceanic region, that recognise Taiwan. Taiwan has even been kept out of most of the international organisations such as the United Nations, W.H.O and so on. The island is in a geo-political absurdity owing to the fact that even its most important ally, the US does not recognise its status as an independent state, its territory is under constant threat as it is claimed by a powerful state such as China and its sovereign status slowly erodes with both states and MNCs withdrawing their engagement with it due to the threat of upsetting China. In this context, the latest engagement of Taiwan holds significance.

The world is now forced to recognise the advanced healthcare and technological capability of Taiwan. The helping hand extended by the island definitely aids the improvement of its image globally. It has made Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo call for greater inclusion of Taiwan in the work of the W.H.O. This move however, is sure to be blocked by China even though it marks a departure in spirit from the 2009 arrangement that China had agreed to for Taiwan’s participation at the annual World Health Assembly from 2009 to 2016 as an Observer. There has been a change since then. Taiwan has rejected China’s main condition for the former to be a part of the W.H.O, i.e, to accept that it is a part of Mainland China in May this year.

Taiwan today faces an opportunity to strengthen ties with other states and improve its international standing. Beijing has sought to strengthen its relations with Europe by sending them medical equipment. However, this has not meant necessarily that member countries of the E.U. have succumbed to Chinese pressure on Taiwan. Many of these states have accepted help from the island and openly acknowledged this help through Twitter.

Both China and Taiwan have been able to curb the first wave of the virus. But what brings praise to Taiwan is the fact that they did it without any support from W.H.O. Taiwan also shared COVID-19 related data with W.H.O. Although China is trying to bring in a narrative of it being helpful to the world, reports of suppression of news of its early outbreak from the media as well as export of faulty equipment has adversely affected these efforts. This has in turn been a supplementary factor in improving Taiwan’s image. While both China and Taiwan engaged in mask diplomacy, Taiwan has had more apparent and immediate success. Thus, exporting medical equipment, especially masks, has also become a tool of political expression.

Taiwan’s mask diplomacy has chances of increasing the support it gets from other states. The important question here is, how long this support will last and how far it will extend. Supporting Taiwan means directly going against Chinese interests. While such support may appear today as a necessity, this cannot last for long. States often behave differently under normal conditions and under emergencies. The common determinant here is national interest. While it might be in the national interest to accept Taiwan’s help and show acceptance towards it, it might not appear so in the future when such a policy will mean locking horns with a formidable power such as China. As the world gathers more knowledge and experience in handling the pandemic, its dependence on Taiwan will decrease. In international relations, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies. There are only permanent national interests. Some alliances last only as long as some issues do. Therefore, the effect of ‘mask diplomacy’ by Taiwan may last only as long as the pandemic lasts.

China’s waning export-led growth: COVID-19 to accelerate the trend?

Karthik Satheesh, Research Intern, ICS

Since the late 1970s, China had started to shift from a centrally-planned system towards a market-oriented economy. One of the most notable features of the post-1980s China’s economic development was its increasing participation in international trade. Chinese exports rose on average 5.7% in the 1980s, 12.4% in the 1990s, and 20.3% between 2000 and 2003. By 2003, China’s export growth rate was seven times higher than the export growth rate recorded by the world as a whole. By 2006, the year when China recorded the highest trade (exports and imports), trade constituted 64% of China’s GDP.

Many countries have followed the export-led path to growth in the past and have achieved rapid growth in GDP. However, the threat of facing a global demand crunch always looms large for these economies. During 2008-09 (global financial crisis) period, China faced the same situation- its export as a percentage to GDP (see graph below) fell to 24% in 2009 (as opposed to 36 % in 2006) and its GDP growth rate fell from 14% in 2007 to 9% in 2008. This is indicative of the fact that exports were imperative to China’s growth, and when faced with a global demand slump it fumbled. Even though China managed to have a relatively high growth rate in that period, such a situation is a nightmare to an export-led economy.

Since then there has been a steady decline in exports’ percentage in GDP for China. In 2018, this figure stood close to 19%- similar to that of countries like Egypt and Uganda. Meanwhile, GDP growth more than halved during this period from 14% to around 6% growth rate (in 2019).

Source: World Bank

The steady decline in exports and imports points to the fact that China is gradually reducing its dependence on exports. This can be further coloured by the fact that both exports’ and imports’ share in GDP have fallen massively, in this decade. This means that the consumers in China have been absorbing what otherwise would have been exported and as private demands are increasingly being met domestically the imports have also slumped (from 28% in 2006 to 18% in 2018).

China now seems to be focussing on boosting domestic consumption after decades of export-led growth strategy. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, private consumption will soon constitute nearly half of China’s GDP. But is such a shift possible and if so, how? These are a few factors that have significantly boosted domestic consumption:

  • China’s per-capita income has more than doubled in the last decade thanks to its rapid growth. This means that an average Chinese have more than double the means to consume than he had a decade ago.
  • Another factor is the high adaptability and competitiveness of the Chinese retail market which ensures that home-grown retailers are always on the front line to extend goods and services to the booming consumer demand. Chinese retail market has shown extreme resilience and creativity and for the same reason, it is soon expected to emerge as the largest retail market in the world, surpassing the US.
  • Additionally, the fast-moving consumer goods market has shown excellent growth with around 4.3% growth rate in 2017 and it is expected to account for more than half of the whole economy by 2030 according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
  • Consumer behaviour in China has been changing from conservative high savers to potential spenders. This fact is highlighted by tourism spending in the year 2018: Chinese tourists spent around $277 Billion which accounts to nearly 18% of global tourism spending which is higher than any other country.
  • Moreover, as of 2018, nearly 60% of China’s population lived in cities which indicated a high rate of urbanisation (urban population growth is around 2.4% annually). This bridges the gap between the middle-class buyers and the booming retail market in the country, which in turn helps in boosting private consumption.

All these aspects, combinedly, have bolstered the shift of Chinese economy’s dependence towards domestic consumption.

A similar trend could be seen in the shift from an industry-based economy to a service-based economy; in 2006 industry contributed 13% more to China’s GDP than services while in 2016 it was the other way round. A service-based economy is a salient feature of most of the developed countries.

If we observe these trends, China seemed to have been making a steady transition from an export-led industry-oriented economy to a domestic-consumption-led service-oriented economy. However, the novel Coronavirus pandemic has left its economy hanging in uncertainty. According to World Economic Outlook, China’s growth rate is expected to shrink by more than 5% this year; the GDP growth rate is expected to be 1.2% in the year 2020 while this figure was 6.1% in 2019. The great lockdown has affected the Chinese economy very much- retail market, tourism, export declining due to global demand crunch- all of which will have a negative influence on the economy. Although nations around the world are foreseeing a recovery as soon as possible, experts do not expect this to be a v-shaped recovery. The recovery period might give China, which has already lifted lockdown restrictions, an incentive to focus more on its domestic consumption and strengthening its retail market. Even though exports in China has bounced back significantly higher than expected in the month of April (though it has and will remain quite low because of the existence of lockdown in many of China’s partner countries), domestic demand appears to be resilient and increasing– a trend we have been witnessing even prior to the lockdown.

Global merchandise trade is expected to decline 13-32% due to COVID-19 and the WTO has commented that the decline in world trade due to this pandemic will likely exceed the one accompanied by the global financial crisis of 2008-09. The post-pandemic period most likely will witness an accelerating trend of declining dependence on export-led growth for China for various reasons:

  • Deglobalisation: Even before the pandemic struck, deglobalisation was increasingly spreading around the globe, fuelled by the Sino-US trade war and the financial crisis. The pandemic has further instilled a feeling of self-reliance and accelerated this phenomenon- politicising travel and migration, cross accusations and exposure of anarchy in global governance in the recent crisis has contributed to the promotion of deglobalisation.
  • Global Value Chain (GVC) under pressure: By becoming a hub for cheap and efficient manufacturing, China was an integral part of the supply and value chain of many goods. However, after the COVID crisis, major economic players are planning to shift their manufacturing and production facilities back to their own countries, away from China, foregoing the manufacturing efficiency and cost minimisation that globalisation has offered them in the past. This increasing pressure on GVCs means that China’s exports and manufacture sector will be affected in the coming years.
  • Lockdown in partner countries: During the height of the coronavirus outbreak in China (January-February period) exports plummeted 17.2% and in April there was a surprising 3.5% jump in exports. However, even though China came out of lockdown successfully its trade partners are still in lockdown and fighting the virus. Hence, global demand is expected to remain low for the months that follow.
  • Trade war: Even before the pandemic, the US-China trade war shook China’s trade with its largest trade partner, US. A small relief in the trade war came in January, in the “phase-one” deal, when both sides agreed to give concessions on heavy tariffs imposed before. Recently, the cross accusations and mutual blame have further threatened the progress that lies ahead of “phase-one” negotiations and could even aggravate the problem further. A trade-war at this point will be heavy on China’s side and will affect its trade drastically.  
  • Direct interventions: The Chinese government has adopted policies to boost domestic consumption in the country to mitigate the heavy losses in exports that accompanies the slump in global demand. These policies are aimed at brand promotion of Chinese owned brands and on the same hand reducing the market for imported goods. Additionally, there are efforts to establish domestic duty-free shops, encourage domestic tourism and also to attract foreign tourists which could boost domestic demand and result in increased domestic consumption.

The COVID crisis could accelerate the Chinese economy’s dependence on domestic-consumption, owing to the various factors discussed above, that are currently at play. Therefore, the trend that we can expect is a “reducing dependence” on exports in the coming years and an increasing dependence on domestic consumption, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rise of Anti-China Public Sentiments in Central Asia

Mohd. Adnan, Research Intern, ICS

Protesters during anti-China demonstrtion in Almaty, Kazakhstan September 4, 2019 Source: Reuters

Anti-China public sentiments are on the rise not just in Central Asia but almost in majority of China’s neighbouring countries. Over the years, intermittent anti-China public protests have occurred in Central Asian region, particularly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. However, in last one and half year, the intensity of these protests has increased significantly. In September 2019, a series of anti-China public protests erupted across the various Kazakh cities. These protests were largely premised on grievances such as moving Chinese factory in Kazakhstan, presence of illegal Chinese immigrants, China’s policy of leasing land, and detention of Kazakhs in Xinjiang, etc. Similarly, in late December 2018 and January 2019, Kyrgyzstan also witnessed a round of anti-China public protests in its capital Bishkek. These protests were also premised on more or less the same issues on which Kazakhstan has witnessed the protests. That is, China’s presence in the region is seen with suspicions from the broader populace in Central Asia. Even the economic relations between these two regions has been seen from suspicions and in some cases, opposition and nationalist groups exploit these fears to halt further integration of the region with China.

On February 17, 2020, a fresh protest erupted in Kyrgyzstan’s Naryn region over the construction of joint venture logistics project supposed to be constructed by a local company with the partnership of a Chinese company. Amid the backdrop of protests, this project was cancelled. In the wake of growing anti-China public protests and simmering sentiments, this article seeks to highlight the root causes responsible for emergence of anti-China public sentiments in Central Asia. Further, it also tries to evaluate the role of China’s re-educational policies in Xinjiang in aggravating the anti-China public sentiments and how Central Asian governments are responding to this phenomenon.

The root causes responsible for emergence of anti-China sentiments

Despite being the biggest trading partner and having strong relations with the governments of Central Asian countries, China’s presence in the region has generally been viewed with suspicion by the broader populace. This deep rooted suspicion towards China had its historical underpinnings. Back in 19th century, a warlord, Yaqub Beg, from Kokand Khanate led an expedition to capture the present day approximate area of Xinjiang. He captured this area and his reign lasted for almost twenty years, when imperial China reconquered it in 1876. Along with this, October revolution in 1917 and subsequent communist Soviet Union’s formulation in Tsarist Russia prompted Soviet regime to place direct control over Central Asian region. In 1960s Sino-Soviet relations were destabilized owing to the differences in ideology. Since then, Soviet Union spread propaganda about China’s ulterior motive in Central Asian region and it also supported the Uyghur cause in Xinjiang. The historical confrontation between Sino-Turkish civilization over the present day territory of Xinjiang and Soviet propaganda back in 1960s, have created a deep suspicions among the majority of Central Asian people towards China.

Further, after the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991, Central Asian countries, along with their independent, also inherited the unresolved border disputes with China. Subsequently, the border resolutions between China and Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in late l990s and early 2000s, where these states ceded territories to China, have profoundly impacted the consciousness of Central Asian populace. Moreover, Growing investments and economic integration of the region with China is sometimes seen through suspicion. For instance, proposals to rent land to China for agricultural uses have sparked protests in the past. Back in 2016, when the government of Kazakhstan proposed to rent land to China for agricultural activities, it drew public protests and later, this proposal was relinquished. Although, Chinese investments in Central Asia and growing trade between them have been beneficial for common people of the region, they still fear Chinese intention and suspect its presence in the region.

How re-educational centres in Xinjiang is aggravating anti-China sentiments

In a bid to eliminate extremist and separatist elements from its restive Xinjiang province, China opted for a harsh policy in the form of mass detention and re-educational centers, what it calls ‘Vocational Education and Training’ to de-radicalize its minority groups. In these so called vocational education and training centers, it has detained a large number of Uyghurs along with other ethnic minority groups such as Kazakh, Kyrgyz, etc. According to an estimate by United Nations Elimination of Racial Discrimination Committee, approximately a million people have been detained in these centres. These minority groups share close civilizational and cultural linkages with Central Asian people. Moreover, detained ethnic minorities such as Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tajik even constitute majority nationality in the neighbouring Central Asian countries.

Due to the close proximity and cultural linkages between the Central Asian people and minority groups in Xinjiang, Central Asia gets firsthand information of what happens in Xinjiang. Further, many of China’s ethnic Kazakh and Kyrgyz, who were previously detained in the re-educational centres, have escaped to neighbouring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. They shared their stories with local media and civil societies. Such was the case of Sayragul Sauytbay, a Chinese citizen of Kazakh origin who escaped to Kazakhstan in April 2018. Her illegal border crossing into Kazakhstan led to her arrest few months later and it was followed by a prolonged public trial. During her public trial, she claimed that she was forced to work in one of the re-educational centres as an instructor and told about the functions of these centres. However, her confession was dismissed by the Chinese authorities. Eventually, amid the growing public support, Kazakh court opted for mild sentence instead of deporting her to China.

In support of people like Sayragul Sauytbay and many others, who have escaped re-educational centres in Xinjiang, civil societies like Atajurt Eriktileri have also emerged. Atajurt Eriktileri, a Kazakh human rights group primarily concerned with the re-educational centres, has been working on to help people fleeing Xinjiang and highlighting harsh treatment meted out by Chinese authorities on its minority groups in Xinjiang. However it has been constrained by Kazakh authorities since early 2019, when its vocal leader, Serikzhan Bilash, was arrested in March 2019 and later that year, he was  released on condition to not to participate in any activities regarding Xinjiang issue for seven years.

Public testimony of Sayragul Sayutbay and many others have provided a rare insight of the functioning of re-educaional centres in Xinjiang. It has, certainly, aggravated the already prevailed anti-China public sentiments in Central Asia. It appears China’s attempt to stabilize its restive Xinjiang province through formulation of re-educational centres have irked the Central Asian people. The recent anti-China protests in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan show the growing discontent among the majority of Central Asian people.

Central Asian governments’ response to the emergence of anti-China sentiments

Recent public protests and simmering anti-China sentiments have been largely ignored and in some cases, suppressed by the authority due to the fact that Inter-governmental relations and bilateral trade between China and Central Asian countries are quite strong. As Alisher Ilkhamove-program manager in Open Society Eurasia Program-claimed, ‘China’s considerable investments and trade ties have chained the Central Asian states to Beijing’. At present, China holds a significant economic influence over almost all five Central Asian countries. China-Central Asia trade almost doubled to around US $ 40 billion between 2007 and 2018 and China has eclipsed EU as the largest trading partner of Central Asia. In addition to this, as of 2018, China has also provided US $ 14.7 billion in form of foreign direct investments and undocumented unconditional loans to the underdeveloped Central Asian countries. Since China does not provide official data of its international lending, it is difficult to find exact amount of loans provided by China to central Asian countries. However, Sebastian Horn and his colleagues conducted a study to find out China’s overseas lending. This study was issued by the Kiel Working Paper No. 2132 titled as ‘China’s Overseas Lending’ in June 2019. In their findings, they estimated Kyrgyzstan owed around 30 percent of its GDP while Tajikistan and Turkmenistan both owed around 15 percent of their GDP to China as of 2017. Such is the economic dependence of the region with China that the governments of Central Asian countries generally ignore these protests and related issues.

While Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are heavily indebted to China and Turkmenistan almost dependent on China for its export revenue, countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are well off compare to these states. However, China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) – land based infrastructure projects of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) connecting China with Africa, Europe and West Asia passing through Central Asia – has presented an opportunity for underdeveloped Central Asian countries to get much needed investments. In addition, given the military and economic might of China, Central Asian countries generally avoid to antagonise Beijing and primarily rely on back channels of diplomacy rather than making public comments to convey their concerns to China on its re-educational policy in Xinjiang.

China’s reliance on building strong relationships with the governments of Central Asian countries and emphasizing on mutual economic interactions with the region are not sufficient to mitigate the belligerent public sentiments. In order to improve its image among Central Asian populace, China has to consider other factors as well. Given the strong civilizational and cultural linkages between Central Asian people and China’s minority groups in Xinjiang, it will be naïve to overlook this bond between the people of these two regions. Building trust among the Central Asian populace will enhance China’s influence and secure its interests in the region. This way, China could cement its long-term partnerships with the region and ward off any possible emergence of anti-China forces in Central Asia. Amid its emergence at the global stage and the simmering Sino-US rivalry, it is imperative for China to secure its interests in neighbouring countries including Central Asia.

Strangers in the City: Migrant Workers in Indian and Chinese Cities

While political systems, level of State capacity and trajectory of development may vary, cities in China and India have retained many common threads of socio-spatial exclusion of migrant workers

P.K. Anand, Research Associate, ICS

The ‘visibility’ of the migrant workers is the biggest urban predicament that is being witnessed during the nation-wide lockdown, which has now crossed 50 days. The images of their ‘reverse migration’ — whether entirely by foot, or through modes of transportation that are heart-wrenching — lay bare the desperations and anxieties emerging from the loss of livelihood and security.

Not that many of these journeys have happy endings — deaths due to exhaustion, or accidents leave behind more than just a trail of dead bodies. It is equally significant that since the lockdown started on March 25, there also exists a long list of casualties that cannot be pinned on the virus per se — including those related to mental health, often left at the periphery.

The brutal social experiment that is the pandemic has only reinforced and exacerbated the systemic exclusion and dispossession of circular/seasonal migrant workers/footloose workers, who inhabit Indian cities. A report titled Unlocking the Urban, released by Aajeevika Bureau —a non-profit organisation working among seasonal migrants in western India — released on May 1, highlighted the longstanding vulnerabilities of rural-urban migrants in cities. They often receive less than minimum wages, are engaged in manual work which last for long hours, which, are often even dangerous.

They remain unaccounted for by national statistics and are invisible to city-level administrations; precarity undergirds their working and living spaces, rendering them ineligible for social schemes and welfare programmes. These further lead to them being denied access to urban residence and governance; their survival in the cities is dependent on daily negotiations with informal actors, ranging from petty contractors to security guards, and even landlords.

The socio-spatial exclusion of migrants from Indian cities, and their statelessness in some ways, mirrors the nongmin gong (peasant workers) in China’s urban spaces, pejoratively called ‘floating population’; though the Chinese state has changed the terminology to xin shimin (new city residents) in order to fully ‘integrate’ them into urban centres, the desired results have not followed.

China’s Rural-Urban Dichotomy

The demarcation of citizenship in China into rural and urban is a legacy of socialist planning. In 1958, the hukou(registered residence permits), was introduced to regulate the flow of resources, especially labour, and sustain an agrarian countryside, while the State subsidised urban living. The economic reforms of the 1980s led to easing of rural-to-urban mobility, which, in turn, kick-started the long journey of labourers from the rural areas to the industries and companies in coastal provinces. The migrant workers have been crucial in the growth of many megacities in China today.

However, this infrastructural and economic growth of Chinese cities happened even as the migrant workers remained peripheral in China’s urbanity. The urban hukou — the foundation for a well-entrenched city life with access to public services, healthcare and education — is highly stratified and segregated, with eligibility based on the level of education, skills and status. The hukoucreates a division between privileged and entitled urban residents and the migrant workers. Though the migrant workers are tagged as ‘essential’, in reality they are ‘placeless’ and unable to make claims for a ‘right to the city’. The constant fear of eviction from their informal neighbourhoods and being at the receiving end of law enforcement’s brutal high-handedness, mirror the story of their Indian counterparts. Furthermore, the marginalisation of migrants in city spaces has also impacted the lives of their children in claiming access to healthcare and education.

Urban Citizenship

While the high level of decentralisation in China’s political-administrative system give the local governments significant decision-making powers, city governments — especially those in the megacities — remain intransigent in reforming the hukousystem. Beijing has repeatedly mentioned the need to reform the system but it more or less remains on paper. While small and medium sized cities have experimented with various models and pilot programmes, there remains reluctance from the big cities. It highlights the skewed nature of China’s tax and revenue systems favouring the central government, while the local governments bear the fiscal responsibilities. Thus, the big cities are resistant to reforms that add to their burden.

By the same count, with laws and regulations largely divided between the Union government and the state governments in India, local bodies (such as municipalities) are rendered powerless, without significant responsibilities. Such disempowerment of cities create constraints in developing specific and contextual regulations (for instance, in many cities migrant workers are not even enumerated).

Clearly, while political systems, level of State capacity and trajectory of development may vary, cities in China and India have retained many common threads of socio-spatial exclusion of migrant workers.

Originally Published as Urban Spaces | Migrant workers remains invisible in India and Chinain Moneycontrol.com, 21 May 2020

The Malacca Dilemma: No panacea but multiple possibilities

Sanjana Krishnan, Research Intern, ICS

The death of Mao Zedong in 1976 gave rise to a series of dramatic political changes that led the emergence of Deng Xiaoping as the next leader of the country. Deng led China through a path that has now made the country the industrial giant it is now. This was made possible through Deng’s policy of ‘Reform and Opening Up’ and the “Four Modernisations”. What fuelled this industrial expansion was a heavy dependence on energy giving birth to a new vulnerability to China, namely energy security. While China is still heavily dependent on mostly its own coal reserves and imports of coal for its energy requirements, the reliance on imported crude oil is also increasing.

In 2017, China became the largest importer of crude oil in the world, surpassing the United States and 70% of this was met through oil imports mainly from the West Asian region. In the coming twenty years, these oil imports of China are expected to grow by 10%. Therefore, energy security and oil supply in particular have profound importance for China considering that the huge and powerful economy of China might derail and dwindle if that oil supply diminishes leading to not just an industrial break down but also impact on the China’s overall credibility as a great power in the world which rests, to a great extent, on its economic prowess. The dependence of the Chinese economy on its oil imports is thus an established and critical fact.

The transport of oil through the maritime route from West Asia to China passes through many strategic choke points. One of the most important among these is the Malacca Strait through which 80% of the energy import to China takes place. More than 50,000 merchant ships ply this narrow strait which amounts to 40% of the world trade. China’s economic security is closely tied to maritime trade security as 60% of its trade value travels by sea. Much of the trade between Europe and China enters the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca. Similar is the case with the trade between China and Africa. Therefore, even for trade, the Malacca Strait holds significance for China.

Lying between the island of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, this narrow stretch of water known as the Malacca Strait is the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean and is one of the most important shipping channels in the world. However, this strait is not depended upon only by China but other major powers too which has been a concern for the Chinese leadership in the past, fearing that these powers might be trying to control the Strait. A control of the Strait of Malacca by anyone will also mean that they control the oil routes to China and thus the economy too indirectly. This created what is known as ‘The Malacca Dilemma’, a term coined in 2003 by Hu Jintao, the then president of China. When it comes to the Strait of Malacca the fear of other states controlling this strategic transit is greater than the ambition to control the Strait itself.

In 2003-04, here was a threat of piracy in the region which the littoral states, namely Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore were able to curb to a large extent. This however gave an opportunity to states like US and Japan to try to get more involved in the region in the name of security, which China heavily criticised. The littoral states invited capacity building  and rejected permanent stationing of any outside power. Singapore, which is in the southernmost tip of the Malacca Strait has excellent relations with the U.S. The relations between U.S. and Indonesia are cordial.

ASEAN being the collective voice of the region has a strong say in the functioning of the Strait. Following the threats by piracy and great power involvement, today the countries of the ASEAN have sought to create a Peace and Security Community (APSC) based on three key characteristics: a “rule based community of shared values and norms”; cohesive, peaceful, stable and resilient region with “shared responsibility for comprehensive security”; and a dynamic and outward looking region in an integrated and interdependent world. But the relations between China and many of the ASEAN states have been soured due to differences in territorial claims in the South China Sea. This has added urgency to China’s need to find an alternative to the Malacca Strait. Moreover, in the recent past, India has increased her naval presence in the Andaman Sea from its base in the Great Nicobar Islands largely due to its own perceived threat perceptions emerging from China’s ‘String of Pearls’ that have emerged as a result of the Chinese activities of the past. Given its projection capabilities in the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy is able to keep a close watch on the PLA Navy in the region.

However, China has a few options in hand which are costly but worth trying. The Kra Isthmus Canal seen to the Asian Panama Canal as well as the Strategic Energy and Land Bridge have both seen a lack of much enthusiasm due the massive cost as well as the lack of trust between China and Thailand. Thailand is considerably powerful and will be hard to press. The Lombok and Makassar Strait are longer routes and would have additional shipping costs which can reach more than $200 billion per year making it a less viable option.

While nothing currently has the capacity to completely replace the Malacca Strait, two options available for China that can completely avoid passing through the Malacca Strait and many of the other strategic choke points is the Gwadar-Xinjiang pipeline and the Myanmar-Yunnan pipeline, although the latter can be affected by Indian presence. These options serve the additional purpose of opening up lesser developed regions of China like Xinjiang and Yunnan. The Gwadar-Xinjiang line will allow the Chinese energy imports to completely circumvent the Malacca Strait. However, the pipeline in Pakistan is faced with major logistic difficulties due to some of the harshest and the most rugged terrains in the world being present there, which can prove technically difficult as well as very expensive to navigate. The region is also ridden with terrorist activities which can potentially disrupt the supply or if the worst materialises, control these and be at an advantageous bargaining point. All these factors stand as difficulties that require investment in the form of infrastructure and security.

The Kyaukpyu Port which is being developed by the Chinese government in Myanmar is another alternative for China. The oil from the west can be docked here and transported to China via the Myanmar-Yunnan pipeline. However, now the pipeline only transports 420,000 barrels per day compared to the 6.5 million barrels per day that pass through the Strait, bound to China. The speeding up of the China sponsored infrastructural development, as a result of the increasing ties between the two countries, which was cemented during the January 2020 visit of Xi Jinping to Myanmar, has the potential to solve this problem to some extent. However, it cannot increase the capacity of this alternative as much as the Malacca Strait. Therefore, comparing the capacities of the various alternatives available to the Malacca Strait, it is evident that there is no single replacement for the latter.  China can rather rely on multiple routes for the transfer of energy sources and trade to sustain the humungous economic machine. It is to be noted that the multiple alternatives, with efficiencies which cannot rank up to the Malacca Strait pose a dilemma in solving the Malacca Dilemma. Thus, the best option that China has in hand is to lower the contestation in the Malacca Strait and to find a peaceful way to work with.

China-Solomon Islands: An overview of a brand new friendship

Tanishka, Research Intern, ICS

The Asian superpower China, second-largest aid provider to the Pacific Island countries established diplomatic relations with the Solomon Islands in 2019. A country of just over half a million people, a low-income economy with more than three-fourth of its population living in small villages, is among the lesser developed countries of the South Pacific region. The Chinese offers of infrastructure projects, concessional loans along with aid-in-kind and Solomon Island’s rich timber, fish, and potential seabed resources facilitated the connection between the two countries. China’s other motive for establishing diplomatic relationships in the Pacific is limiting Taiwan’s international space. Solomon Islands switched allegiance from Taipei to Beijing, terminating its 36-year-old official relationship with Taiwan. Out of the fourteen Pacific Island states, China now has ten partners.

For the Solomon Islands, the decision to switch allegiance, came from the recommendations of a task-force deployed by Prime Minister Sogavare, which indicated the past action to establish ties with Taiwan, which was economically more active than China back then was bought by money power. The report pointed out that presently Taiwan has a limited economic capacity while China’s investments cover the entire globe; the switch thus, brings a large potential donor to Solomons. The report can be characterized as Idealistic towards the People’s Republic of China, it also asked an open-ended question —when was the last time the world saw China invade another country?

China assured funding for 2023 Pacific Games hosted by Solomon Islands in the form of grants and the main stadium would be a gift from Beijing. But, the infrastructure project will not provide local employment, as Chinese companies bring their own construction workers. In the future, maintenance of such infrastructure facilities will be a great challenge for the government of Solomon Islands, as it became for Vanuatu, which had no budget to maintain the Chinese-funded national convention centre.

There is an ongoing assessment by Solomons’  Finance Ministry regarding $US100 million loan offered through a Chinese broker[1]. Matters such as restrictions on the usage of loan money, determination of loan’s interest rate and the duration of loan which could be twenty years or more are not yet settled. Denton Rarawa, the previous governor of the Solomon Islands Central Bank showed displeasure over government proposals, warning this could land Solomon Islands in China’s debt trap. We may also note that the traditional donor, Australia imposes strict supervisions on aid programs and pays attention to economic and political reforms in the Pacific region, Chinese assistance, on the other hand insinuate a “no strings attached” strategy as a bait. Clearly, China seeks supremacy over other donor countries to advance its geostrategic interests.

The Solomon Islands has not yet accepted every Chinese offer on the table. During Prime Minister’s first official visit to China, he met with the leaders of Sam group, a state-connected enterprise, and invited them to the Solomon Islands.  But the Solomons rejected a deal that asked for the lease of Tulagi Island for 75 years. The Island is of strategic importance – it was the Solomons’ capital under British rule for forty-six years, then a Japanese base and an American base in World War II. In 1952, the capital shifted to Honiara. The government called the deal with Sam group illegal due to a lack of vital details and ordered its termination. 

This issue raised concerns over China’s intentions. Perhaps, it wanted to challenge the Western world by installing a military base there. Defence experts raised similar concerns a year ago, with Chinese-funded Vanuatu dockyard, which is too big for commercial use but a perfect location for visiting foreign navy ships –  such as a rapid Chinese move to become two-ocean navy. Located not too far from the Australian coastline, if these military bases come up, it can lead to military tensions in an ocean about which Australia did not have to worry since 1942. TheSolomon Islands showcases a desire to be on the right side of history and normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China. It is not the only Pacific Island country to establish diplomatic relations with China in 2019. Kiribati followed its trail. China’s intensified economic efforts could soon take away the four remaining Taiwan’s Pacific allies: Tuvalu, Nauru, Palau and the Marshall Islands. Taiwan has indicated that China has a desire to make the Pacific Ocean another South China Sea. These actions have been disapproved by the United States who itself switched recognition to China four decades ago. It also recently declined the Prime Minister Sogavare’s request for a meeting with the United States Vice President, and it has begun to reassess the aid it provides the Islands. Although China’s plan to install a military base remains a matter of speculation, its search for new markets and the untapped under-seabed resources remains the prime reason for its pursuits in the Solomon Islands and South Pacific region.


[1] The deal was reported by ABC News. The article mentioned a loan deal of $US100 billion instead of $US100 million. It is important to understand that the Solomon Islands is a small economy with a GDP of $US1.3 billion (ABC News. 2020. ‘Solomon Islands discussed $US100 billion loan from Chinese businessman, according to leaked letters’. February 21).