Book Review: Brendan Taylor, Dangerous Decade: Taiwan’s Security and Crisis Management (London: Taylor and Francis, 2019) pp.264 ISBN 978-0-367-43748-0

Amogh Sharma, Research Intern, ICS

On A ‘conflict hotspot’ is what Brendan Taylor, author of the book ‘Dangerous Decade: Taiwan’s Security and Crisis Management’ calls the situation across the Taiwan Strait. A Professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University(ANU), Taylor is a specialist in Asia-Pacific and East Asian’ flashpoints’ and Asian security architecture. In the book, Taylor argues that the situation in Taiwan looks increasingly precarious, and flaring tensions could create a major strategic conflict. A crisis could brew slowly as a new Cold War grows to hold over the US and China or erupt suddenly with an accidental collision of military ships or aircraft operating in the Taiwan Strait. He proceeds to say that the possibility of conflicts over Taiwan is real and intensifying by the day and despite this, it is not being treated with the seriousness and urgency the situation deserves. Taylor espouses robust countering mechanisms to deal with the situation to avoid an affair with global ramifications.

The book is structured into four chapters, and the author has used this division to present the situation as of 2019. Building upon previous books by Richard C. Bush and Michael J. Cole that dealt with the previous two decades, Taylor focuses on changes and potential flashpoints in the Taiwan Strait towards the end of the 2010s. The first three chapters deal with the past, present, and potential conflict zones between three powers in the region. The first chapter takes a historical perspective on the conflict, and  Taylor describes China, Taiwan and the United States’ stakes in the conflict.

The gulf between the first two stakeholders, Taiwan and China, is growing rapidly today. The author cites a Lowy Institute survey that says those under the age of 29 living in Taiwan consider themselves ‘exclusively Taiwanese’. Post-Mao leaders have adopted a wait-and-see approach; reunification has always been an inevitable fact for the Chinese leadership. However, with each progressing year, younger generations in Taiwan identify lesser and lesser with being “Chinese”, and mainland China is wary of letting this sentiment grow. The author says Xi has been tougher toward Taiwan to retain the image of a single group of people.

The third stakeholder in this scenario is the United States. Washington has traditionally been a deterrent against Beijing’s use of force against Taiwan while at the same time dissuading Taiwan from splitting away completely. But the rapid rate at which Chinese military advancements overcame Taiwanese forces and continued to catch up with the US has resulted in a rise in stronger anti-China sentiments among the American leadership, which Taylor spends significant time dealing with through the actions of the Trump administration such as their reaffirmation of the Taiwan Relations Act in the 2019 National Defence Authorization Act. Growing strain between the US and China has detrimental effects on cross-strait peace, which was seen during Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan trip in 2022.

Taylor is at home in the second chapter. Using his expertise in South Asian military architecture, he compares the nation’s military capabilities and relates them to varying escalation points. This raises questions at first glance. Does the existence of a certain number of frigates imply that in a conflict, they could be pointed all at once towards Taiwan? It is to be thought about Chinese conflicts with Japan, India, the Philippines and other countries. Will these conflicts not play into the deployment of Chinese forces in the Strait?

Despite an expanding military toolbox, Beijing deemphasised the use of military coercion against the island, fearing an American response. But with American influence slowly declining after Tsai Ing Wen’s reelection, China seems to be getting restless. Taylor cites this as an example of international stakeholders not taking the situation seriously. As Chinese power grows, he notes, so does the number of new methods it can use to address its ‘Taiwan problem’. Due to  growing Chinese power and declining US influence, Chinese incentives to navigate this situation via force only increase. Even a slight miscalculation or misconception could be deadly, according to the author.

The author borrows the term tipping points from Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian journalist, to describe four possible situations in the Cross-Strait scenario which could cause the whole status quo to go awry, forming some of the book’s best reads in Chapter Three. According to the author, these tipping points might lead to the collapse of peace across the Strait and result in a full-blown worldwide conflict, which he begins by describing an ‘accidental’ crossing of Beijing’s ‘red lines’. The “red lines” are a  vague concept, almost akin to the US “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan. Even sending a senior official for the opening of new American Institute in Taiwan was seen as crossing a Chinese “red line”. Taylor cites historic flashpoints which could easily have caused a kerfuffle such as the accidental Taiwanese missile firing in 2016 and the infamous intentional crossing of the median line by two J-11 fighters in March 2019.  Taylor points out that due to the lack of a formal agreement between Taiwan and China like the  Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea for Asian nations, there are no systems of checks and balance between the two.

Taiwan’s salience for the US remains its commercial importance. The idea that Taiwan could become a proxy in this new cold war was brought up, and the author delves briefly on how the Taiwanese can use it to their advantage. Although Taiwan is not a formal US ally, the author believes that the level of US commitment towards Taiwan could influence their relations with other East Asian nations like Japan. He continues that the stakeholders are standing along a hair-triggered border. Even a slight infraction could result in calamitous results. 

In the fourth chapter, the author lists possible ways this circumstance could go, and they all get progressively dire, from peace agreements to catastrophic conflict. The policy options like the inclusion of Taiwan in the CPTPP, and potential bargains between the two countries do not even account for the world-changing COVID-19 pandemic or the Presidential race in the United States as it was published in 2019. The policy options suggested by the author emphasise a step-based-situational approach instead of a long-term thought. Overall, the text exhibits Brendan Taylor’s understanding of the dispute with the larger logistics of the three stakeholders involved. The only issue is that three years have passed since its publication, and the “status quo” has changed.  The ADIZ intrusions that caused large-scale unrest were absent when the book was published. However, it is an interesting entry for even a lay person to enlighten themselves about the ‘conflict hotspot’ in the east.

Book Review: Rewriting Gender: Reading Contemporary Chinese women

Taal Seth, Research Intern, ICS

Book Review: Rewriting Gender: Reading Contemporary Chinese women by Ravni Thakur, London, Cynthia Street, 1997, published by Zed Books Ltd, ISBN 1-85649-410-1 (Paperback)

Through Rewriting Gender, Ravni Thakur conducts research on the lives of women in post-Mao Chinese society. She imagines gender roles as discursive practices, reproduced through their representations in literature and other texts. To this end, she conducts discourse analysis of prevalent works of literature written by women writers as well as their literary criticism that were published between the end of the Cultural Revolution (1976) and the suppression of pro-democratic protests at Tiananmen Square (1989). The author chooses this timeline as it coincides with the rise in the number of women authors at this time. Moreover, it allows her to study reflections on ideals of gender set in place by Confucianism, socialist realism as well as by the changing face of Chinese society under Deng Xiaoping.

The central theoretical argument of the book is that the social institution of gender is a discursive practice that gets produced by and reproduced in literature. Thakur employs Michel Foucault’s concept of knowledge production as the basis of her theoretical framework. To apply this work in her particular research, she uses Pierre Bourdieu’s tenets of literary analysis and knowledge production within the ‘the literary field’ for discourse analysis of Chinese literature. She creates a distinction between orthodox and heterodox thoughts on gender roles and the position of women in society, which is reflected in the prevalent literature of the period. She observes that the theme of socialist realism was enforced in orthodox literature. Through socialist realism, Thakur refers to a literary theme wherein characters within a story are expected to stand as role models for the readership, and the stories are supposed to deliver a moral message in line with the tenets of Chinese socialism. This is done on the basis of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of ‘discourses of power’ (which she relates with orthodox discourses in Chinese literature) and ‘discourses of resilience’ (represented in the heterodox gender discourse in Chinese literature).

The introduction of the book highlights its two main questions: what is the orthodox discourse on gender roles and how does heterodox discourse challenge it? The book is divided into two parts to answer these questions. Thakur uses the first chapters of each part to lay down the theoretical background. In the first part of the book, ‘Orthodox Gender Discourse and the Literary Field,’ she reviews secondary literature on the discourse of ‘labour heroines’ championed during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, when the popular political attempt was to revive and accelerate economic growth within and through Chinese society. In contrast was the post-Cultural Revolution period, when women’s natural worth was founded in motherhood and familial loyalties.

Thakur argues that the most obvious signifier of orthodox thought in Chinese literary circles is the very attempt to club women writers together and to assert that their work has a distinct voice from men’s. She primarily reviews literary criticisms on the works of women authors such as Ru Zhijuan, Zong Pu, Zhang Jie, Shen Rong etc. and argues that this literature is stuck in a prison architectured by China’s party-state, which limited authors from exploring uncharted themes. Thakur also argues that literary criticism for women’s work falls short, since there was no framework in place to critique women’s work; this is because of the sudden rise of women authors in China along with the very small number of women critics to prepare a framework.

The second part of the book titled ‘Responses to Gender Discourse,’ engages with literary works that display heterodox thought. In this part, the author reviews works of writers whose criticism was analysed in the first part. Specifically, she studies characters and settings, the theoretical model for which is outlined in Chapter 4 (A Methodology for Character Analysis). Through this section, she breaks down the myth of the nuxing wenue or women’s writings, by bringing forth the divergent themes, stories, and styles of writing in different popular works authored by women (displayed in Thakur’s analysis of Zhang Jie’s The Ark and Zhang Xinxin’s On the Same Horizon). Thakur argues that whilst the orthodox discourse enjoys institutional power, heterodox discourse has the power of resistance, of bringing radical ideas into the minds of the public. This is reflected in her book title that expresses that the literary field is a breeding ground for change in gender roles that are being rewritten during this period  (‘rewriting gender’).

Thakur’s research testifies that there is a strand of literature in China which subjectifies women by exploring the voices of women characters instead of adopting the orthodox mainstream thought propagated by the Chinese state. In this part of the book, there is a self-conscious change in the question asked itself. Heterodox discourse challenges the orthodox discourse not by questioning particular tenets of socialist realism, but by asserting that there should be no singular thought that attempts to describe all women — that Chinese women are subjects who cannot be judged through one arbitrary framework.

While the book employs theories about literary and discourse analysis that originate in the West, they are adapted to the specific Chinese context thoughtfully, with attention given to the type of literary communities that exist in China, how works of literature are published and distributed, and the scope of the agency women are given to write their own stories. This is reflected in the attention paid to literary criticism given to the writers’ work, keeping in mind the institutionalisation of this criticism. In this way, Rewriting Gender provides a strong methodological framework for discourse analysis of the literary field to understand social relations in China.

***

The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.

Smog Stories: A Tale of Two Cities

-Amogh Sharma, Research Intern, ICS

Introduction

Every winter, newspapers in India are flooded with articles about the national capital, New Delhi, succumbing to haze-filled skies and poor air quality. Citizens are subject to distressing reminders of the increasing pollution, with schools being shut for as long astwo weeks to protect young students from respiratory issues like asthma and pneumonia. Decreased visibility leads to horrific accidents on highways. This seasonal return of poor quality is the smog problem. Another Asian capital, the city of Beijing, was often involved in the same conversation. However, there is a difference in the way the situations were handled in both cities. This blog aims to observe and investigate these differences.

International Guidelines

The word smog is a portmanteau of the words smoke and fog. This term was coined in 1905 by Dr Henry Antoine Des Voeux to describe a “smoky fog” in the skies of London. Around the 1950s, the term gained widespread usage to describe the air conditions around London and Los Angeles. In 1987, the WHO published its report[4] on global air quality guidelines for the first time. The guidelines were crafted as quantitative, evidence-based information whose goal is to assist policymakers in creating policies that mitigate the risks posed to public health by air pollution. These guidelines have been regularly updated, the most recent in 2006 and 2021. The quantitative measure used to formulate these guidelines[5] is often the PM2.5 concentration levels in micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m³). PM2.5 is a particulate matter made of particles 25 microns or smaller in diameter. It is considered one of the most dangerous due to its prevalence and harmful effects. PM2.5 particles are released from running vehicles, factory production, stubble burning in agriculture, construction processes, and residential coal burning. Natural events like forest fires and dust storms also release these particles. Although new research says no level of PM2.5 is healthy, the recommended levels are 5 µg/m³. In highly polluted countries, incremental steps of 10, 15, 25 and 35 µg/m³ were recommended by the WHO. Using these stats scientists have been able to correlate the amounts of particles in the air, and corresponding stresses to humans.

Empowering the World to Breathe Cleaner Air | IQAir

China’s Smog Problem: A Case Study of Beijing

By 2008, China was the second-largest energy consumer in the world, but fossil fuels met only 8 per cent of its demand. Increasing population, urbanization, and industrialization increased airborne pollutants immensely. Today, China is the largest producer and consumer of coal, and coal is one of the significant causes of PM 2.5 pollution.

In Beijing, the smog problem can be traced as far back as 600 years. The Chinese language has many terms for ‘smog’, but wumai and hui-mai are the most popular terms. ‘Wumai’ has been used to describe a mixture of smoke and fog for decades, but wumai as a concept of dangerous pollution took weight only recently as in 2013. Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences published a report on fighting climate change had pointed out that the haze and smog problem was at the worst it had been since 1961. This event was called the “Great Eastern China Smog”. At the time, Wang Anshun, Bejing’s mayor called the city “unlivable”.

In 2012, 78.6% of energy was provided by coal production. Seven of the top twenty-five cities located in industrialized areas (which were heavily dependent on coal) were in the vicinity of Beijing. The mountain regions to the west and the north blocked this heavy pollution in Beijing, up to 1000 µg/m³ at some points in 2013. Other factors adding to the grey skies over Beijing included vehicular exhaust, crop burning and fireworks.

Great Eastern China Smog, 7 December 2013
Smog Shrouds Eastern China (nasa.gov)
Same region, 3 January 2022
A Winter Haze Over China (nasa.gov)

Beijing’s Plan of Action

To address this severe air pollution crisis, the State Council of China created one of the toughest Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan towards the end of 2013. Three regions were targeted Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region (BTH), the Yangtze River Delta region (YRD), and the Pearl River Delta region (PRD). The strict regulations entailed rigid industrial emission standards, phasing out small and polluting factories, upgrading the industrial boilers, promoting clean fuels in the residential sector, and strengthening vehicle emission standards. 


Between 2013 and 2017, PM2.5 concentrations in Beijing decreased from 68 µg/m³ to 42 µg/m³. From 2017 to 2021, air quality improved further in the next five years to just under 35µg/m³. The regular monitoring and regulation of the action plan showed marked improvement in the air quality index. In the past ten years, China’s ranking dropped from the top to 22nd in the PM2.5 concentration rankings. There is a marked difference in satellite images of the region taken by NASA’s Terra satellite. However, as Anshun says, the companies that “irresponsibly relocate” to neighbouring areas of Hebei and Tianjin are not solving the problem at all.

India’s Smog Problem: A Case Study of New Delhi

New Delhi has faced international controversies regarding its air quality for ages. In 2010, concerns were raised about the city prior to its organization of the Commonwealth Games. There was quite an uproar in early 2014 when New Delhi surpassed Bejing as the world’s most polluted city in the Environmental Performance Index. The PM2.5 rating was around 100 in New Delhi, much higher than Beijing’s 68. In 2017, Delhi was once again in the news when the visiting Sri Lankan team refused to play in the adverse conditions. In 2021, this value was 85 for New Delhi, but almost a 50% drop for Beijing at 34.

Between November 1 and 7, 2016, New Delhi faced a Severe Air Pollution Episode (SAPE) called the “Great Indian Smog“. Industrial activities, construction released pollutants, vehicular exhaust gases, dust from roads and power plant emissions were often listed as the principal culprits in this scenario. However, an additional cause was the casual stubble burning by farmers in the neighbouring agricultural belt. Farmers traditionally burn the stubble in their fields yearly to prepare for the subsequent crops. These farmers are reluctant to use more environmentally friendly methods like hiring machines to uproot and roll the stubble back into the field because of the costs involved. NASA’s Terra satellite shows numerous fires burning across the region; the soot mixes with the seasonal fog, creating the harmful smog.

New Delhi’s Plan of Action

India has undeniably made efforts to combat this issue in recent years, including New Delhi’s large fleet of CNG buses. The government added parking fees for nights to discourage driving to work, and the number of metro trains was increased. United effort from government and non-government players has been essential to the changes visible in the capital. The most significant push was provided in 2017 by the GRAP (Graded Response Action Plan) in New Delhi, created by the Central Pollution Control Board.  If the air in Delhi were severely polluted for more than 48 hours, trucks would not be allowed to enter the city, and all construction work in the region would be halted. Several similar measures were clearly defined in the plan. Experts believe that the creation of expressways to bypass the city, a ban on PET Coke as industrial fuel, and the introduction of BS-VI fuel have also helped this drop.

Data from Delhi Pollution Control Committee, 2019

In October 2021, while announcing a new ten-point “Winter-Action-Plan” Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal was quoted as saying that despite the ambitious graded action plan, pollution in Delhi was a direct consequence of stubble burning in neighbouring states. A collaborative plan is of absolute necessity.

Berkeley Earth (18/04/2022) Map of Air Quality
Red is unhealthy, Orange is unhealthy for sensitive groups, Yellow is moderate, Green is good.
There is still a long way to go for both countries.

A recent satellite image from Berkeley-Earth’s website shows us the levels of pollution still present in these regions. The governments in both cities had set ambitious targets, but even these are too small to counter the devastating effects. Even as recent as April 2022, Delhi is a stark maroon and there is a similar story for Beijing. At some point, the nations have to decide between their extensive development and competitive strategies and take a far-sighted approach. It is increasingly important to shift from just bringing down a mere stat like PM2.5 or AQI, and listen to the people who suffer every day because of it.

Conclusions

However, there is a marked difference in how these crises were handled in Beijing and New Delhi. Beijing favoured a heavy top-down approach, and similar strategies cannot be applied in New Delhi. For example, the “Parade Blue” phenomenon in Beijing, where stringent policing by the Chinese government makes for clear skies around special events. Such measures are not possible in India, whereas in Bejing, it was censored from the internet. In an authoritative political regime, it is easier to enforce rulings without opposition. It, however, remains to be seen how New Delhi is able to adopt a participative approach to tackle this issue in the Indian context.

The Blog was written under the guidance and supervision of Dr. Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman,Independent Researcher and Consultant (International Relations, Transboundary Rivers and Borders) and Visiting Faculty (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati). The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.

Biden’s Dilemma to or not to Lift Tariffs on Chinese Imports

-Hemant Adlakha

Lift China Tariffs? – WSJ
Image: wsj.com

Increased tariffs didn’t cause high inflation, lifting them is not going to curb it either, experts say

Easy monetary policy, expansionary fiscal policy, rising oil prices, the war in Ukraine, and not the additional tariffs on Chinese imports are among the key factors for the record-high 8% US inflation currently. Facing the midterm elections this fall and with approval ratings as low as 39%, President Biden is under mounting pressure to reduce the additional tariffs from the Trump era. However, with over 82% of Americans holding a negative view of China at present, will or can Biden risk lifting China tariffs and appear looking weak before the US’s enemy number one?

In March 2018, when President Trump announced his administration’s decision to increase tariffs on imports from China, the move was welcomed by most Americans. Those endorsing a “trade war” with China ignored the view that the so-called punitive measures against China would adversely impact US consumers and the economy. This is a midterm election year but President Biden’s approval ratings are as low as a miserable 39%. Biden is now eighteen months into his presidency and still struggling to evolve the administration’s China policy. His dilemma at the present is, should he 1) risk selling “reduce China tariffs” as a panacea to solve a troubled economy to the US voters; 2) “reduce China tariffs” and risk appearing weak before China?

Contrast Nixon’s opening of America to China half a century ago with Biden shutting off China to America today. No one in the early 1970s accused or even considered the Nixon administration “going weak before the communists in Beijing.” Instead, his handshake with Mao was hailed as a geopolitical venture orchestrated by Kissinger. Moreover, no China but the Soviet Union was the US’s main enemy then. However, President Biden today is confronted with a China most Americans fear as the most important threat to US interests.

It is beyond dispute that the imposition of 25% tariffs on Chinese imports worth over $300bn into the US four years ago, also called the US-China “tariff war,” was the beginning of Washington’s long-term China policy of confrontation and containment. It is also beyond doubt that eighteen months into the Biden presidency, notwithstanding the raging Ukraine war in Europe, the United States has become more singularly focused on one country: China. Recall President Biden’s recent Asia visit which took him past China into Japan and South Korea but the US political elite and media alike applauded the five-day Indo-Pacific trip for its one-point agenda, i.e. an aggressive and belligerent China.

Biden chose to kick off his first Asia visit on May 20 by going to Seoul, with the aim of meeting newly elected South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in order to shore up the US-South Korea alliance which had been “weakened” under the previous Moon Jae-in era; he then traveled into Japan and launched the 13-country Indo-Pacific Economic Fram work on his first evening spent in Tokyo; on his second day in the Japanese capital his agenda was to reinvigorate Quad – the four-nation quadrilateral security mechanism anti-China clique which is increasingly being referred to as “Asian NATO” not just in Beijing but also in Washington, Tokyo, Canberra, and New Delhi.

Additionally, although it is claimed the IPEF is Biden’s attempt to fill up the so-called vacuum in the Asian economy created after President Trump had pulled out America from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Yet the truth is this was more of Biden’s assertion that “America is back” in Asia-Pacific geopolitics. On the other hand, the Quad leaders’ summit, the second in-person meeting of the leaders of the four countries in just eight months, was aimed at signaling to Beijing that despite Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, and the record-high inflation in the US, the Biden administration has not lost focus on the fact that China is its main enemy.

On May 24, as Biden wrapped up his maiden journey into Asia and returned to Washington, he created two records to be remembered by posterity. One, Biden became the first sitting US president in this century who did not visit China in the first year of his presidency. Second, Biden now also holds the record of the longest gap since the last visit to Beijing by a US president – Biden’s predecessor Trump last visited China in November 2017. The second of the two records is more significant and has major implications not only for US-China relations but also for world politics.

It is important to know why Biden skipped going to China during his maiden trip to the Asia-Pacific region. To be fair to President Biden and to his China team, it was announced way back in January this year that his itinerary would not include Beijing. But why? For the following reasons.

First, it is indeed true when Biden took office it was a fraught moment for the US-China relationship. Let us just suffice by flagging the two key issues facing the world’s most important bilateral relationships left behind by the previous administration, the Sino- American relations. One, Trump’s economic warfare against China over the past several years had, as was expected, not only bizarrely failed but also harmed the US farmers in particular and consumers in general. Two, the timing of the US withdrawal from the TPP and China’s forging ahead with the largest regional economic and trade grouping – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, not only saw China’s economic influence in Southeast Asia expand but at the same time the US political and economic presence in the region entered a phase of dangerously huge uncertainty.

Second, in such a scenario, President Biden was faced with two choices before formulating a new China strategy. One was to carry on with the tough stance on both China and Xi Jinping displayed throughout his presidential campaign, during which he even called the Chinese president a “thug.” The other was to explore an out-of-the-box way to seek conciliation with China. The second option deserved serious consideration for a few simple reasons, namely a) China was not at all a weak economy like the Soviet Union before it collapsed in the 1980s; b) China not only had a strong international standing but was well-integrated into the world economy; c) China had a stable leadership. However, the politician in Biden dominated the economist in him. Biden chose to “punish” Beijing by making sure that “China does not succeed in surpassing the US as the world leader.”

Third, as observed by some US political analysts, not including a visit to China as part of Biden’s recently concluded Asia tour itinerary, has as much to do with US domestic audiences as with US foreign policy or the China policy. This also explains why as Biden took office, he promised to reverse several of the Trump administration’s policies but not the China strategy. Obviously, the Biden administration was aware the dislike for China had been rising among Americans – 46% in 2018, 67 % in 2021, and an unprecedentedly high percentage of 82% today. These figures explain the unmistakably close link between popular negative views and the current administration’s approach toward China.

A more crucial factor in addition to the anti-China “wave” currently prevailing in the United States is what Susan B. Glasser, the veteran US political analyst observed in her column in The New Yorker: “There is no doubt that Biden’s had a brutal second spring in office. The sense of metastasizing crisis threatens to overwhelm any other story about his leadership.” Further, citing the Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik’s observation that in the past four midterm elections public had made up its mind about the leadership in

Washington, she added “June is more or less the last chance for a president and his party to somehow change course and avert a looming political debacle in the fall.” The politician in Joe Biden knew very well the American voter had welcomed Trump’s economic warfare against China. The poor economist as he is, President Biden, ignored when told increased tariffs on Chinese imports had no negative impact on the Chinese economy but acted as a boomerang on the US economy. Now, clueless as to what to do with four-decade high inflation, and also without a clue whatsoever about how to reverse his declining approval rate, Biden is under mounting pressure to lift the tariffs in order to woo voters in midterm elections this fall. But the big question is, Biden, whose favorite line before becoming the US President had been “Here is the deal,” and who, as President, has become infamous for saying “What can I do” and “I can’t make that happen,” can he go against the popular will and lift China tariffs and risk looking go weak before Beijing in a midterm election year?

The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.

ADIZ Antipathy in Cross-Strait Relations

Amogh Sharma, Research Intern, ICS

Introduction

On the 1st October 2021, the Ministry of National Defense of Taiwan reported the sighting of 38 PLAAF aircraft in Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. The combined fleet of jet fighters and nuclear-capable bombers flew in the vicinity of Taiwan-controlled Pratas islands in the southeast of Taiwan. These aircraft were met with radio warnings and scrambled Taiwanese jets. The Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang gave a statement immediately after the incident, criticising these military aircraft manoeuvres by China within the Taiwanese air defence zone, which he deemed an act of “bullying.”

The Chinese responded by sending over 150+ sorties into the ADIZ over the next five days, which outnumbered the total number of incursions previously in that year. These events have been followed by daily flybys of Chinese aircraft and have created uncertainty in the region. This uncertainty builds up between the two sparring states, and observers fear broader, more calamitous incursions.

ADIZ and Aerospace

These aircraft incursions occurred in Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). In the dawn of commercial flights, nations attempted to generate a uniform code for regulating the air via international treaties. In 1944, the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation established the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). In its first three articles, the convention defines airspace and each country’s exclusive sovereignty over its airspace. The airspace is a legal entity enshrined in the convention. A country’s airspace extends 22 km from its boundaries (12 nautical miles).

The United States was the first country to define its ADIZ in the 1950s, and Annex 15 of the ICAO defines it as a “Special designated airspace of defined dimensions within which aircraft are required to comply with special identification and/or reporting procedures additional to those related to the provision of air traffic services (ATS).” There is no legal provision for the ADIZ yet. Many countries have, however, maintained it for security purposes. It is customary for aircrafts entering the ADIZ to give identification and seek authorisation from the country controlling the zone. The ADIZ is merely a safety measure, but since it is not an international rule, it is often the site of disputes and conflicts. Especially in the cross-strait region of China and Taiwan.

China’s Ambition in the Region

President Xi Jinping has stressed that “China has never, and will never, invade or bully others or seek hegemony.” This statement is in direct contrast to Chinese actions surrounding Taiwan. Despite repeatedly pledging a ‘peaceful reunification, it is a fact that China still considers Taiwan a ‘renegade province’.  There is no doubt amongst Chinese policymakers that reunification of Taiwan is a target for the PRC; their views vary on when and how this should happen. In his book, ‘Return of The Dragon‘, analyst Denny Roy talks about two schools of thought: the ‘patient’ and the ‘impatient’.  The patient group adheres to Deng Xiaoping’s approach of building cross-strait ties and trust, using both to integrate Taiwan over time slowly. The impatient group does not believe there is time for this slow integration, but a quick resolution, even if  a military occupation is used,  is necessary. These ideas have surged in popularity under the current regime. As Xi asserted during the initial years of his presidency, it is time the two sides reach a ‘final solution‘. Xi Jinping, during a meeting with the Taiwanese delegation at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia. (October, 2013) said “The issue of the political divide that exists between the two sides must step by step reach a final resolution and it cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”

It is unclear how favourable this solution shall be to both parties, as legislations like Article 8 of the ‘Anti-Secession Law’ in China, which allow the use of force for reunification, continue to offset democratic Taiwan. Nevertheless, Xi has made reunification a centrepiece of his ‘China Dream’, a return to glory for the Middle Kingdom. In March 2018, while addressing the National People’s Congress, Xi thundered that Taiwanese separatism ‘will be condemned by the Chinese people and punished by history’.  And four days after the highest burst of aircraft activity in Taiwanese ADIZ in recent memory (one day before Taiwan National Day in 2021), Xi remarked that “The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled,”

ADIZ Incursions and Reactions

The 180 km-wide Taiwan Strait is divided by a ‘Median Line’, which till the late 90s was the boundary line between the two countries. When Chinese forces grew in strength over their island neighbours, so did their confidence in crossing this line. Now, the 80 km line is far from the 22 km sovereign airspace, but the flagrant violation of previous understandings after increased power gave a glimpse of Chinese views on this issue.

Map and research by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography

In April 2019, two PLAAF J-11s crossed the median line by 43 nautical miles and stayed there for an abnormally long 12 minutes. Usual violations are accidental due to poor weather or pilot error, but this was the most extended violation since the 1950s. Observers suggest that the motive was provocative rather than accidental. Since the Ministry of National Defence (MND) of Taiwan began recording violations of the ADIZ in 2020, these instances have kept increasing; peaking on specific occasions like National Days or the Huan Kuang exercise.

Beyond just political reasons, several legalities hinder Taiwan’s international appeal against China’s provocations. The United States, which has been a significant player in pushing for ADIZs, does not recognise Taiwan’s ADIZ. Moreover, Taiwan has been excluded from the ICAO since the 70s, when China was given its spot.  Effectively this makes them a single country for the ICAO. Hampered by these liabilities, supported by a weakened US in the region and a rising rival to the East, Taiwan can only try to keep up and maintain vigil over its security.

Conclusions

Taiwanese reunification with mainland China is a central aspect of Xi Jinping’s future vision of China. With a declining American influence, the fate of Taiwan looks increasingly precarious. Not just limited to economic and diplomatic pressure, China is using its military strength aggressively. 

China has ambitions in the South China Sea and regards Taiwan as a pivotal link to its growing power range. Taiwan is a symbol of American presence in China’s periphery, and the increasing rivalry between the global giants is a cause of concern for the small island nation. Taiwan is at a critical junction, a confluence point for two powers, and a hotspot for conflicts. It is an uneasy status quo, and renewed strategic recourses are the need of the hour. Temporary measures like observer status in the ICAO for Taiwan (similar to its presence in WHO until recently) and discussions regarding regulations of ADIZ could be some steps in a direction towards greater peace.

The Blog was written under the guidance and supervision of Dr. Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman,Independent Researcher and Consultant (International Relations, Transboundary Rivers and Borders) and Visiting Faculty (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati). The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.

RUSSIA-UKRAINE CRISIS: China Looking for ‘Opportunity’ amid Ukraine War

Hemant Adlakha,   Vice Chairperson, ICS and Associate Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Myths are an essential part of all forms of human narrative. Myth-making, likewise, is central to all academic disciplines. Diplomacy or foreign policy as a field of study is no exception. Even more significantly, both construction of myth as well as sometimes relying upon myth for making policy choices are treated as normal professional habits. Is it any wonder therefore diplomacy has been called “a kind of art of the impossible?” We don’t know if the Chinese are genuinely unique in myth-making in the practice of diplomacy. But what is certain is that more than any other society China is known to be a storehouse of mythologies, traditions, dragon-fantasies, and mysteries. Likewise, Chinese diplomacy too is shrouded in mystery and remains an enigma. More often than not, the Chinese do things that are completely at odds with the rest of the world. China’s Covid-19 combat strategy of “Zero virus” versus the global “living with coronavirus” policy is just one latest example.

Image: hindustantimes.com

In a recent post, the pre-eminent foreign policy expert and Harvard Professor Joseph S. Nye, Jr. has tried to elucidate why President Xi Jinping – as against the whole world’s expectations – won’t mediate an end to the Ukraine war. Nye offers three reasons why Xi has chosen to do so: domestic political vulnerabilities, lack of courage and imagination to do “Teddy Roosevelt Moment” and go on to win a Nobel Peace Prize, and third and most important is to prefer to stay on the side-lines and continue to hold on to the belief of “no limits” in his relationship with “dear friend” Putin.

Is China having a good war in Ukraine?

Contrast Nye’s prognosis with two other views. One by a Beijing-based veteran international relations observer, who recently stated in his column that Xi knows “there are limits and those limits have, in fact, been reached.” The other view is at variance with both Nye and the Beijing-based foreign expert. It claims China is in no doubt that the US-led NATO aims at regime change in Russia and that the US/NATO are fighting the war against Russia as part of the US National Security Strategy 2018 which openly declared “US military objectives were to wage ‘great power conflict’ with countries like Russia and China.” Hence, Xi is not at all interested in withdrawing support to Moscow. The three contrasting views above have lead us to ask: are the Chinese really good at myth making? Or as the Chinese say, why is it the West always gets it wrong about us?

China calls it ‘crisis’ in Ukraine
Image: orfonline.org

In the current world crisis situation caused due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, everyone in Washington and Berlin and Paris is wondering why is China risking its global trade and international image by refusing to give assurances that it will not “bail out” Russia as against the Western sanctions? Why is China willing to get entangled with countries with which it has a quarter of its total trade as compared to Russia with which it has only 2.4% of its total trade? How credible is the view that with Russia as an ally totally diminished, China is not having a good war?  

China’s myth-making

It is quite telling how Beijing, in reply to the above questions, has responded by creating the following myths: first, by abstaining on the UNSC vote on condemning Russia for invading Ukraine, China has convincingly conveyed to the world that China is likely to stay on the side-line; the second big myth Beijing has been successfully spreading is that the real target of the US push behind the Russia-Ukraine war is Beijing, not Moscow; the third myth China has effectively woven exclusively targeting the European Union is Beijing’s serious concern that the European countries are threatening a harder-line stance towards China.

China won’t mediate in Russia-Ukraine war
Image: ispion.it

Additionally, the biggest of all myths the Chinese have created is the manner in which Beijing has successfully projected its “marriage of convenience” equation with Moscow as better than having a “security alliance” between two aspiring partners or allies. It is indeed remarkable how the US has been led to believe that, in spite of China and Russia being poles apart in their respective analyses of international politics, the two “bosom buddies” have been lumped together as threats to US national security. Look at how Shi Ze, who once served as China’s diplomat in Moscow, recently summed up the different worldviews of China and Russia: “China and Russia have different attitudes. Russia wants to break the current international order….Russia thinks it is the victim of the current international system, in which its economy and its society do not develop. But China benefits from the current international system. We want to improve and modify it, not to break it.”

Perhaps totally unaware of the Chinese art of myth-making, veteran international affairs observer and Le Monde war correspondent Michael T. Klare has called the Chinese leadership’s support to Russia as “faulty assessment.” “Historically speaking, the Chinese Communist Party leadership has been careful indeed to gauge the ‘correlation of forces’ when facing foreign adversaries. They provided considerable military assistance to the North Vietnam without being viewed by Washington as requiring counterattack. Similarly, on Taiwan they [Beijing] have so far avoided any direct move to seize it by force and risk a full-scale encounter with potentially superior US forces,” Klare opined.

China spins Russia’s war in Ukraine
Image: ft.com

Sun Tzu-style strategic thinking

On the contrary, as the war in Ukraine enters 42nd day, and despite reports filtering in that Russia has decided to withdraw its assault on Kyiv, Beijing feels it is in a pretty comfortable position that the war has not yet ended. A Chinese economist has recently unravelled the Sun Tzu-style “secret” military thinking known to all those residing in Beijing’s Zhongnanhai or inside the “forbidden city.” In a signed article in ftchinese.com Professor Li Wei of Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in the Chinese capital has revealed that a school of thought in Beijing believes, the raging war in Europe is just like the opportunity that followed the “9.11” terror strike in New York – the US devoted itself to combating Islamic terrorism and eased its pressure on China.

Finally, citing Hu Xueyan (1883-65), the only member of the merchant class who was decorated by the late Qing rulers for his business acumen, Professor Li Wei wrote: “The only thing you need to be a successful merchant is the vision. As in business, so in (military) strategy.” So what can China effectively do as the war in Ukraine rages on? One of the most intriguing questions since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been whether China knew of the invasion plan when China and Russia issue their joint statement on February 4? If true, it would mean Beijing indeed had been planning to act on a strategy inspired by Sun Tzu’s advice, also known to be the basic mind-set of the Chinese philosophy’s Yin-Yang concept – “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” Or as Li Wei put it, to end years of the US-led “Trumpian” hostility towards China, the leadership in Beijing has now decided to act. Accordingly, instead of “waiting to hitchhike,” the mood in Beijing now is to take the initiative into its own hands. Much more on this in my next post.

The article was originally published by the IDR on April 27, 2022, under the title “China’s leaders Look for ‘Opportunity’ Amid Ukraine War”   http://www.indiandefencereview.com/news/russia-ukraine-crisis-chinas-leaders-look-for-opportunity-amid-ukraine-war/

Pitfalls of Chinese FDI in Sri Lanka – A case study of the Colombo Port City Project

Omkar Bhole, Research Intern, ICS

One significant cause of Sri Lanka’s current economic crisis is a shortfall in its forex reserves. This has been compounded by staggering increase in Sri Lanka’s overall external debt burden amounting to around $45 billion of which it owes $8 billion to China alone. Many experts also suggest that China’s debt-trap policy has actively engineered Sri Lanka’s economic collapse. Therefore, it is pertinent to examine Chinese investments in Sri Lanka to gauge its impact. Colombo Port City Project (CPCP) which was inaugurated by the President Xi Jinping during his state visit to Sri Lanka in 2014, is the largest FDI project in Sri Lanka and thus warrants a careful examination.

CPCP is an ambitious real-estate project with an initial investment of $1.4 billion and involves reclamation of 269 hectares of land near Colombo. This project is entirely financed and implemented by China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) with the Sri Lankan government being only responsible for providing all legal clearances and utility services. CHEC promises to establish a world-class city for entire South Asia by 2041 through creation of facilities for commercial space, retail space, hospitality, residential area and social infrastructure.

Impact on Sri Lankan Economy   

            CPCP is crucial for boosting Sri Lanka’s deteriorating economy. A report prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) estimates that this project will create more than 3 lakh jobs for both locals and foreigners. However, the 2021 Colombo port city economic commission act provides that salaries of those employed in port city will be paid in foreign currency. This may create an opportunity for China to promote the internationalization of RMB. Secondly, the amended 2021 act provides for 75% reservation of jobs for locals, but lack of skills among them can be a big concern. CPCP will bring about $8.7 billion FDI during its construction stage and approximately $1 billion FDI every year in its operational stage. The Sri Lankan government must maximize benefits for locals. Also, returns on 70% of FDI proceeds are estimated to be realized from the sale or leasing of property which may not generate much employment. Similarly, investments in the form of debt will further add to Sri Lanka’s already acute debt burden.

            CPCP will also impact Sri Lanka’s Balance of Payments (BoP). CPCP will have a negative impact on BoP during the construction stage due to imports of construction materials and loan repayments. This loss is expected to be offset in the operational stage through tourism, logistics, IT and financial services, etc. and generate $6 billion of positive BoP. Lastly, this project will also cause a rise in Sri Lanka’s GDP and government revenue. However, this may not materialize fully considering huge tax concessions and other benefits offered for CPCP.

Environmental concerns

            CPCP was blamed for a flawed Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) since its inception. This project would lead to several environmental issues like water and soil pollution, waste dumping, destruction of marine biodiversity, etc. This would also impact the fishing industry near Colombo, a principal income source for many locals. Supplementary EIA was also conducted in 2015 which estimated $10 million as an environmental cost of this project . However, the recurring environmental cost of this project is not considered in EIA which can be a huge factor while assessing the success of CPCP.

Sovereignty issues

            Chinese companies are currently working on more than 50 infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka worth $11 billion. This is despite the fact that Chinese financial institutions charge heavy interest rates compared to the Western ones. Laxity in regulatory compliances imposed by Chinese institutions in contrast to other organizations might be one reason for their popularity. Similarly, China’s political support to Sri Lanka during allegations of human rights violations and corruption has also made China an attractive lender. China’s readiness for debt-equity swap such as in the case of Hambantota port puts China ahead of other global institutions.             However, such lenient lending brings other disadvantages with it. The CPCP Concessionary agreement between CHEC and Sri Lankan government has promised 108 hectares of marketable land to China out of which 20 hectares will be given on free lease for indefinite period and 88 hectares will be given on lease for 99 years with a hold period of 35 years, effectively making it 134 years. This is similar to what Britain did with Hong Kong which China had opposed earlier. Also, Sri Lanka’s recent decision to temporarily default on its external debt may provide another opportunity for China to gain more stakes in CPCP. As the entire funding for this project is borne by a Chinese company, it will get priority in monetizing their projects over the Sri Lankan government. CPCP master plan has allocated the highest proportion of land to residential space which will be affordable mainly to high-net worth Sri Lankans and foreigners. This might deprive Sri Lankans from occupying these spaces and ultimately turn it into a foreign settlement. Moreover, if instability continues in Sri Lanka for long, there is a fear that this project might end up becoming a ‘ghost city’ due to lack of further investments.

Conclusion

            CPCP has a great potential to transform Sri Lanka’s economy in the next few years. However, Sri Lanka has to reassess the cost at which this development has been taking place. Environmental issues have become more serious globally and hence, must not be neglected. On the other hand, Sri Lanka cannot afford to allow any foreign country to increase its foothold through such investments. Although there have been some false narratives regarding Chinese presence in Sri Lanka like the fake passport case, concerns behind such narratives cannot be dismissed. Considering Sri Lanka’s strategic position in the Indian Ocean, China may resort to military use of this space in future which may affect India’s position in this region.

            Hence, Sri Lanka must be careful about the long-term impact of such Chinese investments and restrict them turning into strategic gains for China. Sri Lanka’s recent efforts to seek help from IMF is a welcome step in that direction. With regards to CPCP, Sri Lanka has the advantage of a long gestation period during which it can make adequate arrangements to ensure that this project becomes a commercial success without affecting its own interests as well as its economy optimally benefits out of it.  

The Blog was written under the guidance and supervision of Santosh Pai, Honorary Fellow, ICS. The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.

Book Review: KAI-FU LEE, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, And the New World Order (New York: ‎Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), pp. 272, e-book, ISBN 978-132-8546-39-5

Arushi Singh, Research Intern, ICS

From his perch at Zhongguancun, Beijing’s Silicon Valley, Kai-Fu Lee, the author of AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, delves into various nuances to explore the development of artificial intelligence (AI) prowess of Google’s AlphaGo that also showcases the versatility of the intuitive pattern recognition technology which smoothly segues into the incoming AI wave. The Chinese government is not far behind in taking the helm of all AI affairs. It has launched various ambitious programs also on “clear benchmarks for progress” for AI development. This response, in part, has been triggered by the swift acceleration of real-world AI applications in areas such as speech recognition, vaccine development, and applied natural language processing, which has rendered the book’s subject matter immensely consequential.

Lee’s wealth of information originates from his research conducted under the guidance of AI maverick Raj Reddy, to whom he has dedicated this book. In the 1980s, Lee programmed the first AI gaming software to defeat a member of a world championship team (Othello, a simplified version of Go) and Sphinx, the very first speaker-independent program. He illustrates how modern advanced AI systems are powered by deep learning that has “turbocharged the cognitive capabilities of machines”. The author further elucidates that AI winters commenced due to a lack of data that inadvertently resulted in reduced funding. However, technological advancements have solved the problem of paucity of data to a large extent.

AI Evolution at a Glance

The author delves deeper into the evolution of two AI approaches, i.e., the “rule-based” approach that focused on the encoding of logical steps and the “neural networks” approach that emphasised the construction of “layers of artificial neurons that can receive and transmit information in a structure akin” to humans’ neural networks. Lee also aims to dispel rumours regarding the prodigious development of AI in the recent decades; instead, the author highlights the innovative application of decades worth of research that focuses on the buttressing of learning and transfer learning that comprises and have been instrumental in constructing the current misguided AI perceptions.

Invoking Robert Mercer’s phrase that “there’s no data like more data”, the book emphasises the treatment of data that fuels AI. Mercer has formerly worked as an IBM language recognition specialist and later, the Co-CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a quantitative hedge fund firm. Notably, this emphasis on data in the book was exemplified by the author focusing on data’s role in pattern recognition and outcome optimisation through “narrow AI” powered by data.

The book has eight succinct chapters, organised into distinct themes that are the culmination of Lee leveraging his extensive AI background to secure the opportunity to establish Sinovation Ventures and invest in multiple companies in China. The first part is on the evolution of AI development in China. The second is the differences in AI development approaches in the US and China, from a private market and governmental perspective. The third section assesses the gradual development progression of AI or “AI waves”. The last portion of the book contends with integrating AI and humans to empower humanity. Lee shows prescience regarding AI development in China. For instance, Baidu has been making great strides in its AI ventures since the book was published, such as its LinearFold AI algorithm, Apollo Go Robotaxi service, ERNIE-GEN, Paddle Quantum, and Quantum Leaf.

AI Development Practices in US and China

The author’s personal experience shed light on the cultural affinities, the socio-economic atmosphere, academic norms, and government regulations propelling Chinese AI development, particularly in his aptly named “Copycats in the Coliseum” chapter. He differentiates between the American and Chinese practices that mean a world of difference in incubating future “AI giant”. These additional and ingeniously developments showcase the remarkable commitment and advancements in AI research that are ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with US AI research efforts.

Lee attempts to dispel the myth that China is still stuck in its “pixel-for-pixel” copying phrase and states that “pure copycats never made for great companies”. As stated by Lee, the reality is more complex, and Chinese companies have begun to move beyond mere copying. They have had to innovate in a highly competitive environment at a face pace, led by “gladiator entrepreneurs” who are intricately involved in innovation and reiteration.

Furthermore, one of the most important discussions is the technological culture difference between China and the US. Silicon Valley, to Lee being “downright sluggish” compared to its Chinese counterpart. Paradoxically, to stay in the AI race, constant innovation to achieve every product iteration necessitates a culture of continuous copying in China. Additionally, Lee also points out the strategies employed by giants in gaining their market share and how these strategies could outperform companies in the AI race. However, many such strategies and tactics are anathemas, especially in the US.

Overall, the book provides a comprehensive understanding and helpful overview of the existing realities of China’s AI research. The author has attempted to prescribe ways to deploy AI more effectively in the future deftly. The book’s last section gives the reader the factual assessment of the “AI race” brewing between the US and China. The book was woven together by anecdotes from Lee’s time as a venture capitalist and by his invaluable experiences as part of various companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Google and Silicon Graphics International during the course of his career. Therefore, Lee has been able to render a more vivid picture of the AI landscape in China and the US.

This book attempts to provide a balanced evaluation of the incremental gains made by companies in AI both in China and in the US, along with the global repercussions of their consequent “game-changing AI products”. Moreover, all the chapters display a firm grip over identifying the key drivers of AI development and investment. However, there is a greater focus on the personal trials and tribulations of the author that drives the focus away from the larger analytical framework focused on the topics of AI. While informative, the book’s limitation surfaces in its absence of inclusion of an in-depth analysis of the US government’s AI policy implementations. Likewise, the author does not care to discuss some of the significant AI hubs of China in provincial cities such as Chongqing, Chengdu, and Guiyang, some of the regional towns.

Nevertheless, the work is highly pertinent, and such niche themes have seldom been explored realistically. He suggests that AI-powered technologies could harness universal basic incomes by incentivizing “socially beneficially activities”. The book’s strength lies in its unique exploration of China’s “data-scape” in granular detail. It lays the foundations for further scholarship on the topic, which are pivotal as humanity is marching towards what Lee describes as “the quantification of the human thinking process, the explication of human behavior”, a subject that becomes more relevant by each passing day.

CHINA’S STRATEGY TOWARDS NORTH KOREA

Parul Trivedi, Research Intern, ICS

The relationship between People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) remains the most enduring brothers- in arms relationship which was forged during the Korean War in 1950 and solidified with the signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in 1961. During the heydays of the cold war both Chinese and North Korean leaders described their relationship as ‘lip and teeth’ on the account of shared mutual interests and common ideology.

With the end of the cold war era in 1990s, three differences emerged between the two allies. First, China wanted North Korea to open up its economy but North Korea was reluctant to adopt such measures fearing regime collapse. Second, sticky issue was Beijing’s growing relations with South Korea which made Pyongyang uneasy. The third issue was the Beijing’s concern about North Korean nuclear Programme. Despite numerous differences between the two, it had been observed that Beijing has endeavored to maintain its traditional ties with DPRK as North Korea serves as a buffer state for China as well as PRC is desirous of maintaining stability in the Korean peninsula.

BEIJING’S STRATEGY TOWARDS NORTH KOREA UNDER XI JINGPING

Beijing’s foreign policy towards its North East Asian neighbors includes five no’s: no instability, no collapse, no nukes, no refugees and no conflict escalation. Before Xi Jingping assumed power China had a clear stance over the North Korea’s nuclear issue that it preferred stability over denuclearization and thus Beijing has not been forthcoming in implementation of sanctions. However, under Xi, Beijing supported UNSC resolution against DPRK in 2013 and began implementing international sanctions on North Korea which in North Korea’s views, such Chinese actions was a betrayal to their traditional ties. Xi by choosing to travel to South Korea in July 2014 before visiting North Korea, broke the tradition reflecting a preference for Beijing’s relations with Seoul over Pyongyang.  The relationship between the two countries deteriorated further in 2016 with North Korea which began with its testing missile frequently. China had raised its voice on multiple occasions. For instance: According to U.S. media report: “China can no longer stand the continuous escalation of the North Korean nuclear issue at its doorstep” Another statement made by the official media of the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) cautioned North Korea to ‘avoid making mistakes  and warned’, if North Korea makes another provocative move, the Chinese society will be willing to see the UNSC to adopt severe restrictive measures that have never been seen before, such as restricting oil imports to North Korea. Notwithstanding the fear that excessive pressure on North Korea could lead to regime collapse, in 2017, following Pyongyang’s continued testing ballistic missiles, Beijing not only supported UN backed sanctions but also implemented them earnestly. It is to be noted that:

In response to Chinese actions, North Korea upped the ante both in rhetoric and in action. In a response to commentaries in Chinese state media calling for more sanctions, the Korean Central News Agency warned PRC by reinstating that: ‘China had to better ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by its reckless act of chopping down the pillar of the DPRK- PRC relations’. It was also added that the ‘DPRK will never beg for the maintenance of friendship with China’ In fact, North Korean act of testing its 6th nuclear weapon hours before the BRICS Summit hosted by China in September 2017 was an act clearly to embarrass Beijing diplomatically to convey Pyongyang’s displeasure of Chinese support for sanctions.

REPAIRING THE TROUBLED RELATIONSHIP (2018-2022) Beijing’s approach of supporting international sanctions meant to convey the message to Pyongyang that undermining China’s interest would not be tolerated and will have its consequences and push North Korea to choose the path of diplomacy. However, when North Korea shifted its approach from confrontation to diplomacy towards United States in 2018, Beijing was concerned that Pyongyang was drifting away from China as well as its influence on Pyongyang was on decline and it appeared that its interests were threatened.

In an effort to reassert its influence in the changing Korean peninsula dynamics that was fast evolving, Beijing doubled down on its efforts to patch up things with Pyongyang. China hurriedly organized the first Kim- Xi Summit on April 14, 2018, ahead of inter- Korean and the US-DPRK Summit. The two leaders met four times over the span of one year. The last meeting was held in June 2019, during President Xi’s first state visit to North Korea. The last Chinese leader to visit Pyongyang was Hu Jintao in 2005. President Xi’s visit to North Korea was significant as it came following the failure of the second Summit between Kim and Trump in February 2019.

Since, the first Xi-Kim meeting, Chinese narrative of the bilateral relations began emphasizing the value of their traditional alliance relationship and filled with deep appreciation for warm comradeship in championing the socialist cause. President Xi promised to promote a ‘ long term, sound and stable’ relationship with North Korea and Korean leader Kim Jong Un also sent a message to Xi stating that “invincible friendship will be immortal on the road of accomplishing the cause of socialism as two countries marked the 70 years of their diplomatic relations”.

Since, the diplomatic rapprochement in 2018, Beijing once again began assuming the big brother role and started investing further in restoring its alliance with Pyongyang. On the occasion of celebrating the 60th anniversary of the alliance in July 2021, the two countries renewed the Treaty for another 20 years as they had done before in 1981 and 2001. The growing diplomatic rapprochement between the two countries have also given impetus to restore the traditional party to party ties and furthermore, Beijing promised its support to the Korean Workers Party on its pursuit to a socialist economy. Since, 2018 China has been voicing its support for North Korea in the UN and argued for relaxing sanctions. For instance:  Recently, China stepped up to cover North Korea in the UN by blocking the US bid to impose sanctions for its testing of cruise and hypersonic missiles in January 2022.

In conclusion, it can be inferred that under Xi Jingping China is desirous of enlarging its area of influence in the whole of North East Asian region with an increase in the Sino-US strategic power rivalry. Although China is much wary about North Korea’s nuclearization, but within the given context of growing Sino-US strategic rivalry China might have another calculation towards North Korea’s nuclear program as it would require a nuclear North Korea to restraint the growing US military presence in the Korean peninsula. Therefore, under Xi Jingping’s leadership China has been making efforts to achieve stability in the Korean peninsula by increasing its area of influence over the peninsula as it is geostrategically an outpost for consolidating power in the whole of North East Asian region. However, In near future, it is yet to be observed that whether Beijing’s blossoming relationship with Pyongyang with utmost patience and grudging tolerance for its nuclear programs will still continue if DPRK’S expanding missile programs begins to affect China’s regional and strategic interests in the region.

The Blog was written under the guidance and supervision of Dr. Priyanka Pandit, Ashoka-HYI Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies Shiv Nadar University, India. The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.

‘Ascension’ is more about “Common Poverty” in Xi’s China…

Hemant Adlakha, Vice Chairperson, ICS and Associate Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Premiered at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival last June, where it won Best Documentary Feature, the American indie documentary Ascension (登楼叹 Dēnglóu tàn) was released in cinemas and on MTV this year on January 14. A surprise contender for the best Oscar documentary this year, the film explores the serious theme of class and labour in today’s China. Losing out to the likes of Questlove’s Summer of Soul for the best Academy Award documentary prize did not disappoint its Chinese-American director Jessica Kingdon, who was herself surprised to see the film in contention for the coveted award. “This isn’t the kind of film that would go to the Oscars or something,” she said in an interview recently.

Chinese-American filmmaker Jessica Kingdon
Image: deadline.com

But the film is already on an award winning spree. Besides Tribeca best documentary feature award, it has won a 98% “fresh rating” on the prestigious and the world’s leading aggregator of movie and TV show reviews from critics – Rotten Tomatoes. Moreover, Ascension has been getting rave reviews from film critics across the globe. In London, the Financial Times film critic wrote: “Ascension – eye-popping portrait of China’s production and consumption.” Patrick McDonald of HollywoodChicago.com observed: “A fresh view of modern China, stripping away the mystery of their culture in an effort to survive. Jessica Kingdon creates a work of art & cinema that defines Chinese dreams.” In India, the online newspaper firstpost.com applauded: “The meaning of the word ‘Orwellian’ may be overused and overstretched nowadays, but it’s really the most fitting descriptor for Jessica Kingdon’s absurdist portrait of contemporary China as the world’s factory.”

Some critics described the film as politically charged and ascribed its observant director as declaring socialist China’s “descent into capitalist excess” as bizarre. To some other critics, the debutant director’s docu feature powerfully shows the sharpening of the contradiction between class and labour in reform-era China. In her own words, Kingdon was quite candid in admitting that before arriving in China in 2019 to shoot her film, she wasn’t aware how much “the world’s factory” had transformed into a highly consumerist society. After the completion of the film which took Kingdon and her film crew to more than fifty locations across China, the New York born filmmaker couldn’t hide her surprise discovery about China and said: “China is definitely a kind of mirror for America.” 

Typically, as third or fourth generation Chinese born and brought up overseas, Kingdon had very little or no connection with her roots as she grew up. However, she chose the title of her movie from a poem written in the first year of Republican China in 1912 by her great-grandfather. Zheng Zi, her great-grandfather was a poet of established reputation in Hunan – the central Chinese province which was also the birthplace of Mao Zedong. Kingdon’s grandparents had migrated to America in 1949 following the defeat of the Kuomintang in China’s Civil War. On being asked why she chose China as the subject for her debut movie, Kingdon was a bit nostalgic in her reply: “Filming in China was partly a way to untangle my relationship with the country of my roots. At the same time, I had this fascination and curiosity about my cultural heritage…moreover, everyone [in the US] was talking about China as this new global superpower.”

MTV Documentary Films
Image: ne-np.facebook.com

The movie – according to the introductory brochure – is observational and essayistic and is an attempt to examine three things in “capitalist” China, i.e. the factory, the worker and the wealthy. In Kingdon’s own words, the aim of Ascension is to draw – and not influence – the viewers’ attention to the universal aspects of industrial creation and consumption, and pose questions about who benefits from these industrial enterprises. That is the reason why we decided to keep the movie free of dialogue, narrative or a   narrator, Kingdon emphasized. She further contended, “In any nation, be it America or elsewhere, the benefits are rarely apparent at the bottom of the chain.” This explains why a critic declared that the film “slyly observes China’s transition from the world’s factory to a massive consumer society.”   

Finally, Kingdon claims Ascension is less about focusing on labour disputes and is more about exploring the allure of the “Chinese dream” and the faith people are willing to place in it. Yet, perhaps unintentionally, thanks to the film’s spectacular images it does effectively come across to viewers as “a wake-up call” essentially conveying that not everyone is going to end up on top. “The film isn’t saying that resistance to power doesn’t exist, but in this film, I was just leaning into that quest for upward mobility,” the filmmaker told an interviewer. Also, the film inadvertently reflects upon the generations of Chinese struggling to figure out – trapped between contradictions of socialist ideals and capitalist greed – how they matter to themselves and to the society around them.

Asia Society at the Movies: A conversation on Ascension
Image: asiasociety.org

In its official description, Ascension is introduced as saying “The film ascends through the levels of the capitalist structure: the factory production, to aspirational consumers, and the elites revelling to a new level of hedonistic enjoyment.” True, the description may not be exclusive or specific to China. And additionally, though the film is not yet available on the Chinese internet or in theatres, the producers are hopeful Ascension will eventually reach Chinese audiences. As one private viewer in China reacted after watching the film: “Anyone intelligent would know after watching Ascension that ‘Chinese dream’ is the ‘dream’ the Chinese Communist Party ruled ‘socialism’ promises. In reality, there is no dream and there is no socialism.”Or as a film critic recently observed, “In traveling up the rungs of China’s social ladder, the filmmaker shows that the contemporary ‘Chinese Dream’ … ‘remains an elusive fantasy for most’.”