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’.”

Xi’s Spirited New-Year Address to a “Dynamic” and “Resilient” China

Upasana Ghosh, Research Intern, ICS

While the world has its gaze fixed on China, it stepped into a pivotal political year that is awaited by several economic challenges exacerbated due to the pandemic. On the last day of 2021, President Xi Jinping extended his best wishes to his fellow citizens and delivered the annual New Year address to the nation. During the televised speech, the Chinese President had sent a clear message to the international community that China is “ready” for the long and arduous journey ahead. The crux of the speech revolved around – glorification of the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) achievements in 2021, the elevation of the regime’s image as the best governing institution and Xi’s political objectives for the year, 2022. Another prime focus of Xi’s address was: urging citizens to maintain their “strategic focus” and mindfulness against “potential risks”, that could disrupt CCP’s mission to lead the way in China’s long march towards the great rejuvenation. Consequently, stressing the importance of resilience, courage and determination for the people of China as they look forward to the future.  

Nevertheless, the profound message behind the address reflects articulated camouflaging of the economic and political fallouts at home and abroad. Looking forward to 2022, Xi’s call for more rigorous efforts to foster an economically robust, politically transparent and socially peaceful environment came at the backdrop of the Party’s forthcoming 20th Congress scheduled in autumn this year. The preceding year 2021, was a tough one for China, as the world’s second-largest economy came under severe international pressure due to a range of factors, including obfuscating information on Covid-19 data, aggressive posturing on the South China Sea, and the human-right abuses against Uighurs in Xingjian province.

Further, the downturn in China’s real estate market and the intensifying slowdown in the export-driven national economy due to drastic drop in foreign demands of Chinese produce added to the financial distress at home. Investors from the foreign business community are becoming increasingly sceptical about Beijing’s grip over increasing risks in credit markets. Politically it got worse for Xi, as he faced widespread resentment from his own Party members due to the expelling of many party elites and that of unceasing popular discontent resulting from media censorships, regulations and surveillance on citizens in the name of adjustment of excessive incomes, redistribution of wealth and reduction of income inequality. In addition, a crackdown over Hong Kong and an expansionist approach towards Taiwan led to further dispersal of Beijing’s negative image across the globe. All these combined, contributed to Xi’s pledge in this year’s annual address to meet domestic and global expectations from a responsible world power. The implied undertone was reflected in a burnished manner in his message that  “the world is turning its eyes to China,” and it is ready.

President Xi began his speech with his retrospective appreciation of “continual progress” and contributions made by Chinese citizens and the Party in achieving their first centenary goal of building China into a “moderately prosperous” society during the historically axial year 2021. While looking ahead into the future, he highlighted that as China “confidently” strides toward “a new journey” of achieving its second centenary goal of building a great modern socialist country in all respects, 2022 will be another crucial year for the country. By drawing attention towards the centenary celebration of the founding of the CPC, Xi recalled the Party’s extraordinary achievements and contributions throughout the past century in diminishing Chinese people’s “unyielding struggle” against all challenges, be it the elimination of poverty or towards the accomplishment of their extraordinary mission of Chinese rejuvenation. In the televised address, Xi reminded his people to “always remain true to their original aspiration”, thereby emphasizing loyalty as integral to Party’s founding mission and interests. While conveying about the adoption of the Party’s third resolution on historical issues at the sixth plenary session of the 19th CPC Central Committee, Xi praised CPC’s 100-year achievements and experience as a source of motivation and inspiration. In this context, Xi also referred to the importance of Chairman Mao’s thoughts in attaining the historical initiative. Therefore, it becomes evident that the Chinese President’s New Year address is nothing but a commemoration before his people about CCP’s centrality in Chinese polity. Also, the President in his address attempted to bolster the regime’s image as the quintessential modus-operandi for China’s socio-economic advancement. The speech can further be interpreted as Xi’s attempt to elevate his image and stature in the Party’s history in order to fulfil his intention to ensure his position as party chief for a third term. Hence, in Consequence, establishing himself as the uncontested ‘core’ leader of the People’s Republic of China. It is to be noted that Xi has always relied on Party’s performance legitimacy as his preferred tool to strengthen and maintain his monopoly over national power, dismantle domestic dissent of any kind and to consolidate mass support.

While speaking on people’s struggles from living in poverty, Xi’s address entailed a personal touch. He accentuated experiences from his encounter with poverty and mindfulness from his nationwide field trips about Chinese people’s sustained efforts in scoring ‘complete victory’ in fighting poverty. This relatable and engaging acknowledgement of the common man’s problems conveyed a calculated measure to garner widespread support as an empathetic mass leader. Although Xi called for more strenuous efforts on behalf of the Chinese people to ensure stable and highest-quality of economic development and a truly prosperous social environment, this year’s speech appears to have tactfully evaded from setting any specific economic agenda and growth targets. Instead, in desperate measures to win over people’s confidence before the commencement of CCP’s National Congress in autumn 2022, Xi seemed to hint at looming economic pressure in the country, thereby vowing about his and the Party’s commitment to tackle any such challenges. He devoted a substantial section to his profound concern for the environment, with multiple geographic references, evincing his detailed attention to specific situations. Thus, taking a chance to demonstrate the world about China’s sincerity as a responsible leader, towards advancing sustainable development goals and its resolution and effort to promote collaborative development and prosperity for all in the future. By stressing upon the advancements in China’s space program, Xi tried to draw worldwide attention towards its broadened scientific outreach for humanity. In a very veiled fashion, by capitalizing on the Party’s much-hyped campaign on ‘collective effort on common development and prosperity for mankind’, Xi alluded to his vision for China and next-generation political leaders, that the commitment to China’s aerospace would only intensify in the coming period.

The Chinese President also didn’t miss the chance to be in the spotlight while expressing his plaudits for Chinese contribution in vaccine diplomacy and material assistance across the globe at the pandemic outbreak, contrary to the developed democracy’s struggle to meet their respective national demands. Aggrandizement of the Communist regime’s efficiency is handling the Pandemic crisis, reflected Xi’s motive to instil a sense of admiration for the Chinese way of global leadership among the developing countries. Also, the New Year address flagged Xi’s apprehension over a forthcoming complicated geopolitical environment in the commencing year, particularly concerning Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland and stability in the former British colony of Hong Kong and the former Portuguese-run enclave of Macau. Declaration on establishment and implementation of “One Country, Two Systems in the long run” through concerted efforts came amidst a severely deteriorating US-China relation alongside growing international backlashes and pressure from the US and European Union. To decode the subtle message, underlining a delicate tone of inspiring his people to defend, fight for and promote global peace and prosperity, upholds a firm and uncompromising diplomatic posture on behalf of the country’s President in his attempt to manage and resolve issues, perceived by Beijing as encroaching on its core national interests. The regime’s intent to enforce its political will embodying CCP’s contemporary expression of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ within its neighbourhood is clear from its expansionism in the region.

To sum up, Xi, in a very colloquial and relatable fashion, intended to demonstrate to China and the World that the Chinese model of socialism is not just delivering desired results but is also flourishing. On the surface, the enthusiastic address directed towards 1.4 billion national audiences resonated a personal one-to-one conversational appeal towards individual efforts for the overall upliftment of China’s global stature. However, underlying this optimism, is an instructive parameter of the communitarian regime for law-abiding Chinese citizens. The apparent portrayal of self as an archetype of a compassionate, charismatic mass-leader – through the application of simple yet catching phrases like “amicable, respectable” and “dream chasers” to address Chinese people, conveyed about the Chinese President’s attempt to uphold his image and political legitimacy at home and abroad. His description of 2022 as a pivotal year for the country by looking backward at Chinese achievements in the preceding year and looking forward as the Chinese together embarks on a new journey to transform their country into a significant global power sets the prime tone for Xi’s vision for Chinese polity in the coming time. Whereas, if Xi continues to stay in office beyond the anticipated decade, which is a high possibility, the international community, particularly its neighbouring contemporaries, must be prepared to face an even more outward-looking, proactive, and assertive China in the global platform. Beijing’s willingness to flex its muscle regarding what it considers defence and procurement of its core national interest in the contested Indo-Pacific and other territorial disputes is more likely than recognized. Xi’s telling phrase that everyone has seen and experienced a resilient and dynamic China further exemplifies contemporary China’s strategic posture in international affairs. Moreover, the two adjectives, “resilient” and “dynamic”, illustrates China’s preparedness for facing future challenges and the country’s zeal to bounce back against them. Henceforth, the upbeat address driven by political and economic exigencies at home and abroad is a clear indication of a further shift towards aggressive diversionary foreign policy approach to reinforce national sentiments and demonstrate competence against alternative administrations, only to retain political power of the party leaderships and thus, continuance of the Party’s legitimacy and authority across the motherland.

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.

Why is the Ukraine War becoming a debating battleground in China?

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

Very few Beijingers are aware that most Western embassies in the capital’s “Embassy Alley” have put up Ukrainian solidarity signs near their entrances. No, not because the area is “no entry zone” for everyday strollers, but because as they say, the area is “far from the madding crowd.” Yet the Ukraine war has attracted the country’s netizens and citizens’ so much attention that a Beijing-based foreign commentator says “a rupture has taken place.” Furthermore, a leading Chinese newspaper has even equated the unprecedented “rupture” with as if China is participating in the war.


To believe what most foreign affairs experts in China tell us, Chinese people usually do not pay attention to international news, or for that matter to world events unless of course China is directly involved. However, the degree and the passion with which a large number of Chinese have come out to express their views and opinion, even take sides, has surprised one and all. Part of the reason why the Russia-Ukraine war has opened up “a new battlefield” of public opinion in China is Beijing’s pro-Ukraine and pro-Russia friendly image in the Chinese media in recent years. Thanks largely to wide media coverage as recently as January this year when Xi-Zelensky pictures were flashed in various media in China as the two presidents exchanged congratulatory messages celebrating thirty years of diplomatic ties between Beijing and Kyiv.


A more significant factor why most Chinese do not see Ukraine as a country far away is, Ukraine is the hub of the Belt and Road Initiative, or “One Belt, One Road” strategy – interestingly, in the Chinese media the BRI is generally referred to as Yidai yilu, or OBOR. Many Chinese see OBOR, President Xi’s favourite and China’s important infrastructure and overseas investment project, as a major casualty of the Ukrainian war. According to Professor Wang Yiliang of Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University, “Europe is a crucial market for China’s ‘Belt and Road’ land projects. China’s “Belt and Road” land projects may either face “blockade” or “OBOR” connectivity in the region may become increasingly dependent on Russian “protection. Therefore, the war between Russia and Ukraine has made Beijing’s decisions to be cautious.”

A far more important or perhaps equally controversial reason which is creating near vertical split between China’s pro-Ukraine/pro-Russia public opinion is the absence of a clear “party line” on the situation from above. As Tom Clifford, a seasoned foreign affairs analyst who has been living and writing from Beijing for long, has observed recently: “China’s wait-and-see-inaction seems sclerotic. Chinese officials have sent out confusing and frankly incoherent statements. They stress, parrot like, the importance of territorial integrity but blame the US for the crisis.” As a result of the Chinese leaderships’ sclerosis, the country’s all powerful censorship agencies too seemed clueless and floundered on the issue.

At another level, a huge controversy was created when a blogger on China’s largest social media platform, Weibo – China’s equivalent to Twitter etc., labelled those pro-Ukraine as “rightists” with a similar view as the position taken by the Western media and most liberal democracies; while calling all those who support Russia in the ongoing war as “leftists” with no independent thinking of their own. Reacting angrily to the blogger’s “bogus” claim, Zhang Zhikun, a veteran and widely influential current affairs analyst wrote thus: “The debate caused by the ongoing war in Ukraine refuses to stop. Unlike at the beginning of the war, the debate is now no more about the war itself but has been extended into investigating the ideological roots of those taking part in it. This also explains why the debate is acquiring a high degree of polarization.”

A no less pertinent dimension of the growing sharp divide in China over the Russian invasion in Ukraine is the shocking degree of cynical hype as manifested among China’s hardened “left” (aka orthodox leftists). In a signed commentary, a Mao-faction ultra-left scholar, Wen Anjun, has named and accused several leading intellectuals from China’s topmost universities of parroting “western speak.” Anjun blames them for condemning Russia but not speaking a word of criticism against the US and Nato. To Wen Anjun and others of his ilk, what is most worrying about the people mentioned above is their worldview, their view of the US, and above all their perception of the CPC-led China. “Once China’s re-unification war [with Taiwan] is launched in the future, all these people may endanger China by siding with the US and Taiwan independence,” wrote Wen Anjun.

It is indeed true that the Ukraine war has shocked the world, aroused strong reactions in all corners of the world, and led to fierce debates. But it is also true that the degree of polarization in public opinion in China has not been witnessed in most countries. In addition to what is highlighted above, other bizarre public reactions to the ongoing war include a section of Chinese netizens unashamedly displaying misogynist attitudes by writing blogs with a flurry of tone-deaf jokes. What outraged many within China and abroad was surfacing of ham-handed humour such as calls for “willing to shelter 18- to 24-year-old Ukrainian beauties.” On the other hand, some Chinese observers sounded alarm bells, warning that China’s “filthy wealthy” rich – such as “comprador capitalists” Jack Ma, Pony Ma and others – along with all those who are backing Ukraine are all anti-China, anti-Chinese motherland, and anti-CPC.

Finally, no one in China denies, just like no one in the world is in doubt, as far as China is concerned the Russia-Ukraine war is not a good war. It is understandable the Chinese leadership must have been regretting now what it said during Xi-Putin summit on February 4 in Beijing: “China’s Russia friendship has no limits.” But given the country’s political system and the political culture, not at all surprising that no one in the leadership will openly admit “of being caught wrong-footed by a world that is rapidly changing.”

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

The China-India Cold War in Maldives

Rangoli Mitra, Research Assistant, Institute of Chinese Studies

Source: The Diplomat

The significance of Maldives, one of the most geographically dispersed countries in the world, is steadily increasing. The island nation, which comprises 26 atolls spread over 90,000 square kilometers, is located in a central position in the Indian Ocean, southwest of Sri Lanka, and straddles important sea lines of communication. Until recently, Maldives was mostly known for its pristine beaches and luxury resorts, and regarded as a vacation destination for the rich and famous. However, in recent years, the strategic salience of the small island nation has not been lost on anyone – particularly India and China.

While India has always regarded Maldives as an important player in the Indian Ocean and accorded it the necessary priority, Beijing has in recent years stepped up engagement with Maldives as well, signaling its intent and priorities in the Indian Ocean as a part of its 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative, the maritime half of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

A Look at the Historical India-Maldives Relationship

Maldives, which is barely 70 nautical miles away from Minicoy island in India’s Lakshadweep archipelago and 300 nautical miles away from India’s west coast, has traditionally been India’s friend. However, the nature of this relationship remains dynamic and complex due to factors such as competing domestic rivalries in Maldivian politics and the importance of foreign policy for the general public because of the nation’s geostrategic location.

India was not only one of the first countries to recognize Maldives after its independence in 1965 but also the first country to open a resident mission in Malé. For its part, Maldives opened a full-fledged High Commission in New Delhi in November 2004, at that time one of only four diplomatic missions worldwide. While the relationship began deepening with increasing economic and diplomatic engagements, the crucial turning point came in 1988, when India responded to a coup attempt against former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom by launching Operation Cactus. Although it has been widely noted that Gayoom contacted other countries for help at first, it was finally India who came to his government’s rescue. While Gayoom maintained friendly relations with India, he also veered toward China, a rising power in the Indian Ocean.

Democratic elections held in 2008 brought Mohamed Nasheed to power in Maldives. Nasheed had a clear pro-India stance. In 2009, Maldives and India signed a defense cooperation agreement, according to which India would install 26 radars on all the atolls for seamless coverage and link them with the Indian coastal command, and the Indian Navy and the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) would carry out joint surveillance and patrolling activities. New Delhi also agreed to provide Maldives with a Dhruv helicopter and help establish a 25-bed military hospital in the island chain, among other agreed-upon cooperative mechanisms. This brought Maldives into the Indian security grid. Events such as the 2004 tsunami and the drinking water crisis in Maldives in 2014, which led to swift and positive responses from India, further helped to cement New Delhi’s position as the net security provider and first responder in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Relations between India and Maldives soured during Mohammed Waheed Hassan and Abdulla Yameen’s time in power, as both leaders favored Beijing. But even then, the decline should not be overstated. Although Yameen had an anti-India stance while campaigning for elections, once in power, he softened his rhetoric on India and paid a visit to the country. During his visit, the Indo-Maldivian Action Plan for defense was signed and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi minced no words when he asserted that Maldives is among India’s closest partners.

Initiatives such as the Greater Malé Connectivity project, the training of Maldivian civil servants in India, cargo vessel services, the capacity building and training of the MNDF, and infrastructure projects such as the Gulhifalhu Port Project and the Hulhumalé cricket stadium, are among the plethora of projects being undertaken by India in Maldives.

The engagement between the two countries is based on India’s “Neighborhood First” and Maldives’ “India First” policy. Particularly, in the sphere of defense, the two nations have an extremely close relationship based on the understanding of the need to protect the IOR from both conventional and non-conventional threats. The two nations routinely hold joint exercises such as “Ekuverin” and “Dosti” (the latter of which was later joined by Sri Lanka).

In 2020, India supplied a Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft to the MNDF, which is expected to boost efforts to keep a closer eye on the movement of Chinese vessels in regional waters. One of the main functions of this aircraft is to undertake medical evacuations from isolated communities on some 200 inhabited islands. It will also assist in search and rescue and counterterrorism operations, as well as surveilling and responding to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. Interestingly, the need for the Dornier aircraft was initially raised by the Yameen government.

For India, the Indian Ocean is of utmost importance. Since 2014, after the Modi government came to power, India has taken a proactive approach in cementing its role as the leader in the Indian Ocean by according priority to maritime diplomacy and initiatives. This comes against the backdrop of rising Chinese assertiveness in the IOR and the growing interest of various powers in the Indian Ocean generally, and Maldives in particular.

Chinese Influence in Maldives

China established bilateral relations with the Maldives in 1972. Since then, the Chinese have gradually increased investments in Maldives and maintained a cordial relationship with the different Maldivian governments. From 1985, Chinese companies began entering the project-contracting business in the Maldives. By the end of 2001, the accumulated value of their contracted projects was $46.37 million, with turnover touching $40 million.

The turning point in Sino-Maldivian relationship came in 2013 after Abdulla Yameen came to power. Coincidentally, this was also the year in which Xi Jinping became the Chinese president and launched the ambitious BRI a few months later. The next year, Xi visited Maldives and exhorted the country to join the Maritime Silk Road. Maldives thus became the second South Asian nation, after Sri Lanka, to formally endorse the BRI. Subsequently, the two nations inked a free trade agreement.

Chinese authorities have constantly encouraged Chinese citizens and businesses alike to visit and invest in the Maldives. The Chinese have undertaken a range of projects such as the construction of roads and housing units, the expansion of the main international airport, the development of a power station, and the construction of a bridge to connect Malé with Hulhule, among other investments in tourism and agriculture. China is also the leading source of tourists to Maldives.

Under the Yameen government, Maldives has accumulated a debt of nearly $3.1 billion, according to former President Nasheed. However, other Maldivian officials have placed it at a lower figure, somewhere between $1.1 billion and $1.4 billion, which is nonetheless still a large amount for a country with a GDP of $4 billion.

In 2018, there were reports that the Chinese were planning to build a Joint Ocean Observation Station in Makunudhoo in northwestern Maldives. However, this plan was later shelved. At various points in time, there have been speculations about a possible Chinese naval base in Maldives. However, much to India’s relief, these have remained speculative. Until now, the Chinese navy has visited the Maldives only twice.

Since Ibrahim Mohamed Solih came to power in 2018 after defeating Yameen in that year’s presidential election, India has been prioritized over China, with the present administration going back on certain commitments to the Chinese.

India or China?

The tussle between India and China over Maldives is starkly clear. While India has consistently favored Maldives, the latter’s behavior has changed depending on which regime is in power. However, one thing is clear: Maldives cannot ignore India due its geographical proximity and multidimensional relationship, which is now set in stone.

The geostrategic location of Maldives in the Indian Ocean and its proximity to Diego Garcia has meant that the United States, one of the strongest powers in the Indian Ocean, has also come to recognize the strategic value of Maldives. In 2020, the U.S. and Maldives signed a defense agreement, the first that Malé has signed with any country besides India. Due to the closeness between India and the U.S., India welcomed this agreement. Maldives also shares a close relationship with Japan and has welcomed developments related to the Quad.

But just as India-Maldives relations were not all bad under Yameen, not all is well today. In recent months, the “India Out” campaign led by former President Yameen has gained steam. The debate is ostensibly over an Indian-funded dockyard for the Maldivian coast guard, but the larger concern is regarding the sovereignty of the island nation. It is essential to note that the Indo-Maldivian relationship is based on mutual respect and the primary function of the Indian personnel stationed in Maldives is to maintain and operate the aircraft.

Thus, the politics of Maldives decides its foreign policy, which ultimately reflects the direction toward which the nation will tilt. The presidential elections next year will again decide who will be in favor, but in the long run India and Maldives share a special bond, one that cannot be bought by China. Regardless of whatever happens, India should continue to take a proactive stance toward Maldives and help the nation deal with threats such as climate change and terrorism. This article was previously published in The Diplomat under the same title.

Eyeing on Contemporary China through Lu Xun’s Writings

Priyanka Keshry, Research Scholar, Jawaharlala Nehru University

Image: Lu Xun (1881-1936) Source: chinadaily.com

Lu Xun (1881–1936), one of China’s most influential twentieth-century writers, has long been a source of contention. Despite the fact that Lu Xun died over 90 years ago, there is still a dispute concerning the significance of his works in modern China. Some believe Lu Xun remains important today, while others believe he is too political to talk now. One of the key reasons for examining his work now is because he stated his opinions on nearly every facet of Chinese culture, and he differed on a range of cultural, social, and political topics that appear to be more significant than ever. As a consequence of multiple interpretations of his works and political use of them, his works and character have been twisted and transformed several times. Currently, each Chinese individual has their own vision of Lu Xun, which differs from one another. Here, I’ll try to expand on some of the “dissenting voices” in his writings, relate them to current China, and, to some extent, try to figure out what he would say if he were still living today.

Introduction

Lun Xun (1881-1936) was the nom de plume of one of the most celebrated modern Chinese author, poet, essayist and critic – 周树人 Zhōushùrén or Zhou Shuren. His use of the modern colloquial language for writing serious literature has often led many scholars to regard him as the father of modern Chinese literature. He was born in the year 1881, in Shaoxing, Zhejiang, which was a hotbed of anti-Qing resistance.

 Lu Xun was beginning his writing career at a very historic time in the history of the region. It was the time of the May 4th Movement. The youth and the intellectuals in the society led a socio-political movement aimed to modernise China through adapting to ideas, literature, theoretical frameworks, medicine and other such practises imported from the West.

Some Chinese intellectuals believed that traditional culture and values of China had made China stagnant and weak. Thereby, Lu Xun started writing in colloquial language to reach out to maximum people for advocating modernization and criticising Chinese tradition. The issues, menaces, inadequacies and cruelty of the Chinese society of his times were openly exposed through the narratives of his fictional works. 

 “Diary of a Madman” (1918), Lu Xun’s earliest and most successful short fiction, became a watershed of the modern Chinese literature and affected modern Chinese culture. Lu Xun’s works are still extensively read, debated, and praised both at home and abroad. He is more than a writer; he is an institution (M. Sean, 2010). Lu Xun was more than a single author; he was a tide, a direction, and a movement in his time. Lu Xun did not merely write about   China during his time; he also presented a clearer image of China’s national identity in the future. His writings are recognized as “timeless” literary works, meaning that they have remained relevant since their publication and will continue to do so in the future. During his lifetime, he influenced practically every Chinese writer, generating numerous conflicts, interests, and opinions.

Lu Xun was worried not just about the fate of the Chinese people, but also about the future of universal social values for humanity. Lu Xun’s critical position on government and society compels us to go deeper into his works and consider them in light of current events. Lu Xun acknowledged the political and cultural importance of literature and used his writings to try to awaken the Chinese people.

Numerous analyses of Lu Xu’s literature have been conducted both in China and overseas. The majority of the research concentrated on his works on socio-political topics, with little attention paid to Lu Xun’s dissenting voice.  Yan Jiayan, (2011) in his A Pioneer in Raising Issues against the Mainstream—Lu Xun’s: Difference between Literature and Politics pointed out that he had written the harshest criticism in the whole of Chinese literary and political history and remained extremely critical of the government of the day and of his literary opponents.

Lu Xun attempted to remind lawmakers of their responsibilities to monitor in order to support China’s continued development and progress. “Politicians despise everyone who disagrees with their viewpoints, anyone who tries to think or speak out,” he stated. However, the writer’s language is also the language of society. He’s just sensitive, quick to feel and communicate his feelings (too quickly, at times, so even society opposes and excludes him).  Politicians believe the writer is a source of societal unrest and want to assassinate him so that society may return to normalcy. They have no idea that even if the writer is assassinated, society would still undergo upheaval. The number of Russian authors slaughtered or banished is not insignificant, but haven’t the flames of revolution erupted everywhere? (From 1927’s The Divergence of Art and Politics)

More than half of China was already part of the Guomindang Party’s realm when Lu Xun made these statements. Wouldn’t Lu Xun have been in opposition to a different administration, like the Communist Party? Even though the CPC professed to be socialist and to work equally for people from all walks of life, he would have contradicted them. The essence of his above-mentioned views on the gap between literature and politics would have been perverted by the current authoritarian government.  Politicians still have low regard for people who disagree with them, for anyone who dares to think or speak out. The notion of Lu Xun that “the language of the writer is the language of society” would only have been taken seriously if the writer’s language was in line with the party, not with society. The party believes the writer is a catalyst for societal unrest. 

According to human-rights activists and analysts, the Chinese Communist Party fears that dissidents in the country’s intelligentsia will not only act as a lightning rod for a variety of social concerns by challenging the legitimacy of the state’s institutions, but will also provide an organization for people to rally around.

Pankaj correctly describes the Lu Xun scholarship as a “Lu Xunian paradigm” of writing that continues to influence and inspire modern authors in China. He went on to remark that Lu Xun didn’t write only for the pleasure of writing; he wrote to dismantle the conventional edifice’s foundations. The current regime is afraid that Chinese writers will use the Lu Xunnian model or “Lu Xun’s spirit” to express their discontent with the current regime’s ills, such as the Communist Party’s atrocities against its own citizens, suppression of the voice, and strict censorship of news media, writers, and academics.

General Discussion

Lu Xun had no intention of becoming a writer at first; his dissatisfaction with conventional Chinese society pushed him to do so. In his early writings, we can discern the dissenting voice as well. Lu Xun’s essay “Refutation of Malevolent Voices” (Po e’sheng lun, 1908) was a prod to individuals unsatisfied with imperial culture to build something new. It was written in Tokyo in the traditional Chinese language and first published in December of 1908. He claims that the nation’s hope rests on the sincerity and devotion of its intellectuals, and he encourages them to express their sincere thoughts in order to break through the barriers of darkness and silence.

Iron House,’ as Lu Xun put it, was Chinese society at the time. When an old friend of Lu Xun, Qian Xuantong, requested him to write for New Youth in 1917, Lu Xun informed Qian: “Imagine an iron home with no windows or doors, complete indestructibility, and a room full of sound sleepers on the verge of dying from suffocation. Allow them to die peacefully in their sleep, and they will have no remorse. Is it acceptable to scream, rousing the light sleepers among them and inflicting inexplicable anguish on them before they die?” “The iron house may one day be demolished,” Qian responded.

Because Chinese citizens still can’t or have very limited access to knowledge about what’s going on in the world, and can’t speak their hearts out owing to rigorous censorship, it appears that China has once again become the “iron house,” a room “without windows or doors.” Surveillance and severe regulation of mass media, art, and literature are hallmarks of the modern iron house, from which no one can escape. The ‘iron house’ is waiting for someone to demolish it, and China is waiting for writers like Lu Xun to emerge from their contemporary slavery-induced stupor.

Lu Xun’s debut short story, “Diary of a Madman,” was published in 1918 and quickly became a hit. Lu Xun has expressed his wrath and challenged thousands of years of feudal patriarchal system and ethical instruction via the insane. As a result, the lunatic represents an already awakened intellectual with an entirely new perspective on society. Lu Xun had shown a blatant anti-feudal democracy, demonstrating the depth of its anti-feudalism.

According to Agnes Smedley’s memoirs (1934), she was worried about him (Lu Xun) after he sent the essay “The Present Situation of Art in Darkest China” to the international publication New Masses. When Smedley advised him to be more careful about his personal safety, but Lu Xun simply replied, “Don’t worry! Someone needs to speak up, someone has to tell it like it is!” His stance of “speaking up” and “telling it like it is” would have gotten him in difficulty, and his destiny would have been worse than Liu Xioabo, a contemporary Chinese literary critic, scholar, and human rights activist who advocated for democratic changes and the end of one-party rule in China.

The event of 1926, in which more than 40 individuals were shot dead by Beijing police, is one of the most important instances that illustrates Lu Xun’s rebellious voice. On March 18, 1926, a student was shot as she and her colleagues attempted to peacefully present a petition to the military government of Duan Qirui. “In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen,” penned by Lu Xun, is a short story about the death of a student shot as she and her colleagues attempted to peacefully present a petition to the military government of Duan Qirui. He was severely shocked by this act of state-sanctioned brutality, as well as the death of someone he knew. “In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen” is an emotive essay that isn’t overly controversial, as it should be. It was generally recognized, however, as his protest against government-directed brutality. He attacked the opponent while maintaining a conflicted attitude regarding his own acts and words.

When the PRC government sent in troops and opened fire on student protests again in 1989, Lu Xun’s “In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen” was resurrected. Even before the violence established the striking comparisons for everyone to see, students from Beijing Normal University, a successor to Liu Hezhen’s institution, felt a unique connection to the events of March 18, 1926. (Eva Shan Cho, 1999). Liu Hezhen has become a symbol of student patriotism. Since 1989, Chinese administrations have repeatedly failed to speak about the Tiananmen Square Massacre. If we read his words without considering the historical context, we could think he’s talking about contemporary Chinese society. One can only speculate on how Lu Xun might have reacted to the Tian’anmen Square event in 1926, given the 47 dead and 200 wounded.

In his essay titled How “The True Story of A Q” was Written, Lu Xun writes: “I only wish that as people say, I had written about a period in the past, but I fear what I saw was not the past but the future – even as much as  from twenty to thirty years from now.” (Ilgo, Tina. 2010). It is apparent that Lu Xun was interested in far deeper and far-reaching concerns about Chinese national character and human nature in general, rather than just depicting the contemporary situation in China.

Lu Xun described the Chinese society at the time as Wushengde Zhongguo, or “voiceless China,” and advised Chinese youth to first transform China into a China with a voice by speaking boldly, moving forward courageously, forgetting all considerations of personal advantage, pushing aside the ancients, and expressing their true feelings. He wanted to persuade Chinese citizens, particularly the youth, to speak up and convey their actual feelings about the faults of Chinese society, because youth and those who had studied overseas had distinct thoughts and perspectives on the society. He does not want the future generation to face the same destiny as China, which has been plagued by Confucianism’s problems. “We have men but no voices, and how lonely that is!” he says in the same piece. Are folks capable of remaining silent? No, not unless they’re dead, or, to put it another way, unless they’re dumb.” He considered himself as the “voice of China” and a “spiritual fighter.”  Perhaps after 70 years of liberty and living under the guise of a “people’s republic,” Lu Xun would have found China as quiet as it was before the revolution or even as silent as it was under the Qing dynasty. The Party is primarily concerned about Chinese citizens who have the “voice” and “spirit of Lu Xun.”

Lu Xun’s writings are being deleted from high school language and literature curriculum (Liz Carter, 2013). “Who is terrified of Lu Xun?” generated a controversy. People are talking more about Lu Xun as a result of recent modifications to China’s teaching curriculum. Certain people have expressed their displeasure, saying that “Lu Xun’s articles have been withdrawn again; this demonstrates that some people have begun to fear that ordinary people are waking up and becoming conscious.” “Some individuals are terrified of the light even before the sun has risen.”

Chinese authorities recently restricted a bot user’s (@luxunbot25) twitter account, which used to broadcast some of the most noteworthy passages from Lu Xun’s works. Authorities, on the other hand, believe the messages are politically sensitive. (2019, Echo Huang) After “reaching the wall” in 1925, the twitter account released Lu Xun’s essay, urging young people to learn and adapt to the new period. “There are barriers everywhere in China, but they are invisible, like ‘ghost walls,’ so you will run into them nearly at any time. The only one who can conquer the wall without experiencing agony is the winner,” he said. The user may wish to convey a message to society about present internet restrictions, which is reminiscent of Lu Xun’s “iron house.”

Conclusion

The Guomindang government in the past and the Communists today, have and will always see Lu Xun’s writings as potentially subversive. Reading his words gives us the impression that China has never altered. If we read him without considering the historical context, it is difficult to tell that his writings are over a century old. The authorities believe Lu Xun poses a threat to them, which is why they are attempting to devalue his legacy. Realizing the genuine significance and worth of Lu Xun’s works is more vital than ever. “One might love or despise Lu Xun, but one cannot ignore him,” as the saying goes. Even if he had lived in today’s China, when everything appears to be transformed and a “developed society,” he would have written about the evils of society and expressed his discontent in the same style as he was used to, according to my understanding of Lu Xun.