Book Review: Gurudas Das and C. Joshua Thomas (ed.), Voices from the Border: Responses to Chinese Claims over Arunachal Pradesh (New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 2015), 159 pp.

Reena Bhatiya, Research Assistant, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

The debates on Sino-India border dispute largely fall within the strategic affairs and geopolitical framework of international relations. This book approaches the subject of border dispute by looking at the debates on linear borders, local perspectives on the border conflict as an alternative to a state-centric view. The authors examine the historical evidence of China’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh while investigating the dynamics of territorial politics. The book is structured into three broad themes: the geopolitical aspects of the conflict, the local community’s spatial history before linear borders, their infrastructure development needs and perspectives on the dispute.

Discussing the boundary question, C.V. Ranganathan looks at the rivalry through the prism of changing geopolitical situations while suggesting India for a multilateral architecture in the South Asian region. Srikanth Kondapalli’s chapter yields a persuasive insight into India’s engagement with China on multiple fronts to prevent any change in the configuration of power in the region. This implies that India should not let China become an extra-regional power in South Asia. In the fifth chapter, Jabin Jacob advances the argument that a mixed strategy of combining the local aspirations of Arunachal Pradesh for peaceful and sustainable development with the national security considerations can best fulfill the demand for ‘first line of defense’ to deter China’s ‘new forward policy’. However, he has not dealt in sufficient depth the ways of deepening the democratic spirit and how communities could be engaged in the decision-making processes. These scholars primarily focus on different ways of India’s engagement with China. But the limitation lies in the fact that they reify the state-centric view of the dispute thus drifting away from the main aim of the book.

The strength of the book lies in unpacking local histories of borderland spaces in this region and local community perception of the conflict thereby giving a more nuanced understanding of the territoriality of these regions. For instance, Namrata Goswami looks at the border dispute through the local community’s point of view. She argues that the Lamas vindicated Tawang Monastery’s historical ties with the Lhasa monastery. And, the Adi, Nishi, Apataani communities do not approve of China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh. She emphasizes the need to meet the demands of the development of these communities to improve the democratic structure and infrastructure conditions in the region.
On the other hand, J.R. Mukherjee briefly surveys the Tibetan folklores to question China’s claims over Arunachal Pradesh to highlight that the tribal people of Arunachal Pradesh were never the subjects of Tibet and only had cultural and commercial links. He notes that the ancient pilgrimage route of Takpasiri Mountain in the Subansiri Valley holy to the Tibetans, Monpas, and Tagians of Arunachal Pradesh, is claimed by China.

Further expanding the discussion on local communities, Gomar Basar attempts to understand the Chinese claim in Arunachal Pradesh through a historical analysis of the local dynamics. He traces the historical trajectory of the hill tribes of Arunachal Pradesh from the colonial period and notes that the British ambition to exercise an indirect control over the tribal areas through drawing inner and outer lines led to Chinese intrusions within the outer line area. These intrusions were contested at the time by the Mishmi community inhabiting the outer line as they already considered themselves British subjects.

Adding to the discussion on linear borders, H. Srikant cautions against “nationalist myopia” on the border dispute and considers linear borders as a colonial baggage. Although he argues that the linear borders overlooked the traditional boundaries of the native communities and kingdoms, but he fails to provide a detailed account of the local traditional boundaries. In addition, he suggests that history, geographical realities, administrative, economic activities, customs, language, etc. that generates deep-rooted sentiments and emotions in the region should be taken into consideration while negotiating border issues.

Through his detailed discussion of the pre-modern kingdoms in eastern sector, Mathew Alkester argues that Moyul (present-day Bhutan) belonged to the Tibetan world not Loyul (present-day Arunachal Pradesh). He, thereby, debunks the Chinese claim that Arunachal Pradesh was under Tibet’s control. The main contention of the essay is that cultural and commercial links of these kingdoms with the Tibetan world do not confirm Tibetan political control over them.

Overall, the unbundling of the complex local histories of the frontier region in these chapters could have been coupled with a discussion on the present concerns of the local communities regarding infrastructure demands and preparedness to be able to participate in the gains from any large development projects in their region. An overview of the traditional knowledge systems and community institutions of the Mishmi could prescribe ways to democratically engage them in decision-making processes.

The last section of the book leaves the reader with C Joshua Thomas’s questions on China’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh. a). Did Tibet ever claim Arunachal Pradesh as her part? b). Tibet had ceded the Tawang tract to British India by signing the Shimla accord in 1914 d). Why would the world accept Chinese historiography and refute the Tibetan historiography? The author observes that systemic misunderstanding is a major issue in Sino-Indian relations therefore to prevent India’s hedging; China must come to terms with India.

Largely, this book provides a good overview of the historical and political aspects of the border dispute in the eastern sector and gives the much-needed perspective of the local communities on the dispute and the territorial dynamics of the region. All the chapters display a firm grip over understanding the specifics of the dispute with the larger logics of international politics, but a notable kind of perplexity surfaces over an analytical framework to the issue of border disputes. Although informative, its limitation lies in the lack of a theoretical base while looking into the concept of ‘territoriality’ in international politics. An absence of the theoretical discussion on the notion of territoriality puts this discussion in a vacuum. However, the book paves the way for researchers to develop upon the information provided here and engage with it theoretically, and thus becomes an important contribution to the studies on border issues with China.

Superpowers and spirit of International Cooperation in a Pandemic

Anu, Research Assistant, Institute of Chinese Studies

The grip of COVID-19 pandemic across the globe has showed albeit in a brutal way the extent of global connectivity. However, the responsive measures taken by major powers to deal with the contagion have exposed the hollowness of their commitments for global cooperation, especially at a time when it is most needed. In hindsight, this has been most visible in the actions of the USA and China. These have belied all the commitments made under phase one deal in January 2020, which had been agreed by both after more than two years of tariff or ‘trade-war’. Effects of the levying tariffs and counter tariffs had not only affected the economy of USA and China but also rendered the global economy and market in a doldrums. Hence this deal came into picture reflecting the need of a fair and mutually beneficial global trade practices. Their unilateral actions and their foreign policy decisions vis-à-vis each other during this pandemic – when international cooperation is most required – have questioned their willingness of a truly globalized world with peaceful cooperation.

Talking about China where the outbreak started, it has widely been accused of containing the information. Criticisms have come in despite the containment measures being seen as effective. At this time not only did the US President failed to recognize COVID-19 as a threat by ruling out any possibility of it becoming pandemic; but also resorted to stigmatise the disease despite warning from World Health Organisation (WHO) to not do so.

The US has labeled the disease as “Wuhan Virus”, “Chinese Virus”, etc. and blamed China for the repressive measures against its own population. In March, with China recovering from the first wave, the tables were turned as China blamed the US Army for bringing COVID-19 to its territory, as a ‘bio-weapon’. Therefore, betraying its own vaunted principles of peaceful cooperation and mutual benefit, China did not extend any help to the USA. These counter accusations were given weight – and paralleled – by China’s own diplomatic overtures of ensuring medical supplies and knowledge to other parts of the world. However, President Xi Jinping’s “idea of building a community with a shared future for mankind” also proved to be rhetorical as it “sells” medical equipment rather than donating them.

This blame-game has spiralled into further accusations and counter-accusations, extending to actions against media – the US tightened rules on Chinese state media organizations including Xinhua news agency inside its territory to tackle the aggressively growing Chinese State-controlled propaganda, and by the same count, China expelling journalists working for New York Times, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

While China claimed of successfully containing the virus, the USA was in the midst of rise in positive cases. In such a situation, instead of assisting US from its experiences of fighting the disease, the Chinese Party-state only sought to criticize the USA for its lack of preparedness. Despite overtures through telephone calls between Xi and Trump, where they decided to take joint actions that has not necessarily translated into meaningful action. Further, neither did USA approach China for any joint research on the virus or on measures to counter its spread, nor did China extend any helping hand to the hard hit public health system in the USA.

Both the USA and China have made significant advances in technological innovations in natural sciences; however, neither of them are acting responsibly in such a time of global crisis. Instead of practicing and emphasizing on cooperating in fighting the disease, both are engulfed into diplomatic and rhetorical battles. Rather, both are more focussed on the stability of internal ‘political regime’ and the blame game adds grist to the mill. Their actions and behaviour only cripples the global efforts to harness resources and strengthen the flailing health infrastructure in many countries. Even while multilateral organizations and regional groupings are making efforts to pool resources – example being the SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund – and coordinate,  the actions of the two major powers goes against the grain of a globalized world, that requires everyone to pull together.

Launch-on-Warning in China’s Nuclear Posture

Samanvya Hooda, Research Assistant, Institute of Chinese Studies

Much of the recent commentary surrounding China’s nuclear program has been in conjunction with New START, i.e. US insistence that China accede to an arms limitation agreement. This article seeks to explain a burgeoning aspect of China’s nuclear program: the possibility of adopting “Launch-on-Warning.”

Launch-on-Warning (LOW) refers to a posture in which nuclear weapons are launched at an adversary on detection of an incoming attack, before enemy missiles strike their targets. This implies that decision makers do not have confirmation about incoming missiles hosting conventional or nuclear warheads, and the decision to counter-launch has to be made in a span of approximately 15-30 minutes.  Today, only Russia and the USA adhere to such a posture, carrying forward from decades-old Cold War strategies. This is sustained by significant investment in relevant technology & infrastructure, and excellent command & control mechanisms. 

Currently, Chinese nuclear forces exist only as a deterrent, evinced from a low number of warheads and a policy of de-alerting their nuclear weapons (delivery vehicles and warheads are stored separately). This is in tune with their No-First-Use policy, which may or may not be rendered moot by LOW. To move to such a posture, a certain number of missiles in the country would have to be mated with warheads, ready to respond in a matter of minutes after indication of an enemy launch. In the short term, such “alerted” weapons are only expected to be found on its four ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), soon to be six.  

China’s threat environment covers a wide ambit, ranging from India on its western border to Japan in the east. That said, the only stimuli that may see a move towards LOW are US missile defence and precision strike capabilities. China’s nuclear deterrent is contingent on its relatively small arsenal of approximately 300 warheads being survivable, and “assured” to cause damage when used against an adversary. Precision targeting by the US threatens the “survivable” aspect of the deterrent, while missile defence endangers the “assured” descriptor. Though LOW would be a huge shift in China’s nuclear posture, the option of possessing alerted weapons ready to launch may be perceived as addressing survivability and assured retaliation concerns.

While official statements have not remarked on significant changes to China’s nuclear posture in the offing, there have been some confusing aberrations recently. A 2013 Academy of Military Sciences publication first broached the possibility of Chinese LOW, with a later defence white paper vaguely alluding to “rapid response”.  Even the US Department of Defense remarked LOW may be an “aspiration for China’s nuclear forces”.  Alternatively, a Chinese MFA spokesperson in late 2019 stated that China would not shift to LOW, and called on all nuclear weapon states to divest from the same. 

The foremost requirements for LOW are impeccable command and control, early warning capabilities to detect launches, and “alerted” warheads. Recent reports have predicted joint efforts with Russia for developing early-warning systems (likely space-based) to supplement China’s three phased array radars. A tangential topic of study here is Sino-Russian cooperation in developing, and maybe even operating “strategic” technologies.

In terms of alerted warheads and command and control, recent literature has focussed entirely on China’s SSBNs, undoubtedly important while studying its nuclear program. For LOW however, one shall have to focus primarily on China’s land-based missiles, and to a lesser degree its fledgling air arm of the nuclear triad. LOW in the Chinese context would likely stem from a “use it or lose it” mindset, and with 70% of China’s warheads on land-based systems, they would be the primary focus of a first strike. Consequently, losing these systems would warrant greatest worry in China, pressurising leaders to counter-launch quickly to avoid the risk of having them neutralised. 

LOW entails quick decision making for a counter-launch, as it necessitates action before incoming missiles strike their targets.  Given operating difficulties, the lack of certainty in communicating launch orders to an SSBN within the 15 minutes alluded to earlier makes submarines an undependable LOW platform.  As they boast greater survivability than land-based systems, these assets will likely be used as a reserve for any future nuclear strikes.

The perceived vulnerability of land-based systems has been addressed in recent years by the development of mobile missile units to avoid neutralisation in a conflict, and penetration aids for missiles. The strict negative controls (de-mating of warheads and missiles) employed by the political establishment bolsters command and control, but also weakens survivability of the nuclear arsenal by virtue of increased reaction time. Technical controls are employed through an automated system that allows the Central Military Commission (CMC), to communicate with missile brigades and battalions, or even directly with launch companies. LOW would hence herald a significant change in Chinese nuclear thinking, as it may necessitate delegating some launch authority to field commanders, or even the development of “canisterized” missiles.

A Chinese nuclear ‘alert’ status like the USA’s famous DEFCON remains ambiguous, with speculation of it being a three-tier system. The first-tier is peacetime readiness, with the second-tier believed to be the PLARF making preparations for launch orders, and the third-tier alert being missile forces ready to launch. Will alert levels for nuclear forces be raised in conventional conflict with a more powerful, nuclear-armed adversary? If so, with the PLARF at third-tier alert, would an escalating conflict with the USA see a LOW posture during wartime? It being unclear what stage of what crisis would prompt a higher alert level, there is a small possibility that China only disavows LOW in peacetime, and retains the option for use during war. If command and control during a third-tier alert is considered unimpeachable by the CMC today, this option may already be part of China’s nuclear strategy.    The two points raised above – shifts in the deployment and command & control of land-based systems, and the likelihood of an existing “launch-on-warning during wartime” posture warrant detailed study within the larger scrutiny of Chinese launch on warning. An overt declaration of LOW will undeniably be perceived as aggressive by countries like the US and India, leading to high-risk escalation during future crises. Regionally, though rivals like India do not threaten China’s nuclear forces like the USA, Chinese LOW may well prompt changes to India’s nuclear posture, with a cascading effect on the precarious Indo-Pakistan nuclear dynamic. Globally, the end of the INF already precipitates increased missile deployments in hotspots like East Asia, alongside the probable dissolution of New START looming. A Chinese shift to LOW in the wake of these developments will certainly sound a death knell for arms limitation globally.

COVID-19 Crisis: Is the Communist Party of China facing Crisis of Legitimacy?

Mahesh Kumar Kamtam, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

Today the world is witnessing an outbreak of a pandemic ‘COVID-19’, unseen in the recent past, illustrating the fragile nature of a globalized world. As the virus outbreak continues to create global reverberations, the case of ‘COVID-19’ becomes even more relevant to the Communist Party of China (CPC). The pandemic could put the regime in a precarious position, threatening the unwritten social contract between CPC and Chinese people, since the legitimacy of the Party is driven by its ability to deliver economic prosperity to its citizens.

China is more connected to the world today than in the past. According to the World Economic Situation and Prospects Report 2020, released by the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), China alone contributed 0.75 percent out of an average 3 percent of the global growth. These indicators not only reflect a major trend in globalization, but also the extent to which China is connected in a globalized world. Global economic integration has driven China’s domestic growth in the past. But with global growth set to slow down significantly due to COVID-19, early predictions show signs of recession. As the IMF rings alarm bells on a possible recession, CPC is set for more challenging times as the world enters an era of instability driven by COVID-19.

Increasing global integration and complex challenges due to globalization have domestic repercussions. The inability to maintain economic growth and rise in inequality fuelled by low growth in future are more immediate threats that could undermine the social contract between the people and the Party causing domestic instability. The rise in ‘uncertainty’ casts a shadow of doubt on the goals set forth by the Party, particularly when China is entering into a “New Era”—where Xi Jinping targets to achieve a “moderately well-off society” (Xiaokang society) by 2021— the hundredth anniversary of the formation of CPC.

What is more worrying for the CPC at the moment is the echoing of the anger from Chinese people themselves against Xi’s rule. Xi has been facing criticism of his handling of the COVID-19 crisis and social stability threatened by a slump in production are one of the biggest challenges that CPC is set to face in the next few years. Although CPC has shown the ability to manage ‘domestic uncertainties’ by delivering economic results, mastering propaganda and controlling the flow of information in the past, these strategies are becoming increasingly ineffective for ensuring legitimacy of the Party and its leadership.

There was mounting discontent among Chinese citizens in the early stages of the outburst of COVID-19 as local officials tried to hide the truth about the outburst. The death of Li Wenliang, the doctor who alerted Chinese local officials during the early stages of the virus outbreak, became a breaking point. Li was forced into silence by local officials who hid the truth about the outburst. This event led to widespread discontent among netizens. Popular social-network sites Sina Weibo and WeChat surfaced with the lyrics of a song, Do you hear the people sing” popularized during the Hong Kong protests in 2019, denoting public anger and failure of early response to COVID-19. CPC blocked the ‘anthem of protest’ in mainland China and subsequently, launched a massive propaganda operation to regain lost legitimacy. Eventually, it was forced to sack Hubei Party chief Jiang Changling and Wuhan mayor Ma Guoqiang in an attempt to calm down public anger and channelize resentment away from the Centre while trying to alleviate growing citizen distrust of the central leadership and Xi, in particular.

The newly appointed Provincial Secretary of Wuhan launched a “gratitude education campaign” during the outbreak, to create a favourable impression of party’s image in fighting COVID-19. However, it backfired as the Party was criticized for placing itself above the hardship endured by Wuhan residents. They were enraged because of poor conditions in hospitals, lack of adequate timely care and soaring food prices. In yet another instance, real estate tycoon and princeling, Ren Zhiqiang penned a powerful article that got circulated on Weibo. He was critical of Xi’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and called him a clown with no clothes on who was still determined to play emperor”.

These incidents provide early indications of Xi losing control over the CPC narrative and thereby, his legitimacy to lead. However, Jude Blanchette, Director of China Studies program at the Center for Strategic International and Security Studies argues that the “CPC has reoriented itself from time to time to meet the changing demands in the society and CPC is more focused on long-term threats’ than the short term disruptions like COVID-19 crisis”.

Indeed, it is true to some extent that COVID-19 may be a short-term disruption rather than a long-term threat to the stability of the Party and Xi’s leadership. The mounting discontent against the state is a sporadic outburst of anger rather than a sustained and coordinated movement challenging the ‘Party’s mandate to rule’. However, we can still expect that it could bring more democratic order in Party though not necessarily democracy, by furthering “intraparty regulations”, promoting information disclosure particularly by local party offices at the time of emergency crisis like COVID-19, thus pushing for more transparency in the Party.

This article was earlier published in The WION under the title ‘Communist Party of China and the crisis of social contract in a globalised world’ on 13 April 2020.

Latest Chapters in Sino-Italian Ties: BRI and the Outbreak of COVID-19

Preksha Shree Chhetri, Research Assistant, ICS, New Delhi


A Chinese team of experts pose for a photograph with head of the Italian Red Cross Francesco Rocca after arriving at Rome’s Fiumicino airport with a consignment of medical supplies.  

Image Source: Aljazeer

Italy was one of the first few countries in Western Europe to formally recognise People’s Republic of China – in 1970 – and it was the first G7 industrialised country to officially endorse China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Historical roots between Italy and China can be traced to the trade relations that took place between Imperial China and Ancient Rome. In fact, China’s BRI connectivity route to Italy is very similar to the route once used by Marco Polo to travel from Italy to China. The port of Trieste in the Adriatic Sea used to be a very important port for the ancient travellers in this route and is one of the most significant ports mentioned in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on BRI signed by Italy. In Italy, BRI is commonly referred to as ‘Via Della Seta’, which literally translates to the Silk Route. China and Italy have shared an amicable relationship in the past. However, in recent times the Sino-Italian ties have come to the attention of the global community twice. First in March 2019, when Italy and China signed the MoU on BRI and second in March 2020 when Italy saw the highest number of deaths in the World due to COVID-19. Italy and China are among the worst hit countries and they have shown appreciable support to one another. However, a deeper understanding of the situation in Italy shows a different picture leading to growing apprehensions about China.

Sino-Italian cooperation on BRI

The signing of the MoU between Italy and China on BRI in March 2019 marked a new chapter in Sino-Italian ties. Rome’s decision to join BRI had economic motivations. According to a research done by Enrico Fardella and Giorgio Prodi of the University of Bologna, not joining BRI would have had very negative impact on the Italian Economy. In their research article titled “The Belt and Road Initiative Impact on Europe: An Italian Perspective”, they argued that Italian ports on the Adriatic Sea would lose business to the Greece port of Piraeus which has already been acquired by China. Port of Piraeus in Greece provides an alternative mode of maritime transportation between China and Europe without including Italy. In fact, joining BRI would bring added economic benefits as Italian ports are already very well connected to Central and Eastern Europe by rail. Close cooperation with China would mean Italy could potentially be a major hub for trade coming in from Asia through the Suez Canal. For China, Italy could serve as a gateway into the EU with its many important ports such as Venice, Genoa, Trieste and Ravenna. The Greece port of Piraeus, the most important port in the Mediterranean is viewed as a prototype for Italian ports once they join hands with the Chinese. With regards the debt trap rationale, the Italians believe that unlike Sri Lanka, they are not looking for Chinese funding, and therefore, the question of a debt trap does not arise. The rationale for strengthening cooperation is for the advancement of Italy’s own economic goals. As far as the Sino-Italian MoU is concerned, it is basically a framework agreement for twenty-nine deals expanding over various sectors such as agriculture, oil and gas, urban development, sustainable energy, health care and environmental protection. These twenty-nine deals are valued at more than two and a half  billion USD; though it is a non-binding agreement, it clarifies the intent of both the sides about what is expected out of their partnership.

Sino Italian ties and COVID-19

In March 2020, when Italy’s death toll surpassed that of China, the national government approached the European Union (EU) seeking help through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism but to no avail. Most Italian citizens were disillusioned with their EU partner countries, especially with France and Germany as they imposed a ban on export of face masks. In fact, even when the EU intervened and tried to persuade both the countries to lift the ban on corona virus protective equipment, they did not relent. This highlights the inability of the EU to be cohesive while facing a global crisis. In contrast, China not only contributed medical supplies, but also sent three hundred intensive care doctors. After the signing of MoU on BRI, this has been seen as a significant fillip for China in Italy. Some Italian online news media have even characterized it as ‘China saving the day while the EU deserted Italy’, along with images of landings of aircraft laden with medical supplies. However, there is more to this than meets the eye. China’s move to come to Italy’s aid was not entirely philanthropic but rather reciprocal. A month earlier in February, when China was running short of supplies as the outbreak spread through its territory, Italy had sent supplies to Wuhan. In fact, many in Italy are disappointed by the actions of their Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio who went out of his way to share posts and pictures praising China and glorifying Chinese actions to help Italy. Italy as a nations is neither happy with China nor with their own Foreign Minister who believes that the prompt response from China is a result of his robust China policy. Many in Italy blame the Chinese authorities for silencing the doctors who wanted to warn about the outbreak much earlier. Domestically, the Italians have also grown wary of the non-stop Chinese propaganda either in the form of Chinese flags fluttering from hospital windows in the country or in the form of posts shared by their foreign minister praising China.

Overall, online Chinese propaganda in Italy could be deflecting attention away from its mishandling and cover up in Hubei in spite of warning signs. By the same count, questions have also arisen within Italy on China’s motives, with voicing of discomfort over China’s subtle presence in their day to day lives. There also exist extreme racist reactions targeting those of Chinese descent and nationality in the backdrop of the outbreak. Given these developments, what becomes of the so far cordial Sino-Italian ties is a question worth pondering.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has paused the momentum that was created in March 2019 with the signing of the bilateral MoU on BRI between the two countries. Though the bilateral MoU is considered a substantial proof of partnership, it is non-binding. Therefore, the future of China’s BRI projects in Italy may be precarious especially in terms of public receptivity. These two new chapters in Sino-Italian relations has led to some really pertinent questions about the future of Sino-Italian friendship – Can Sino-Italian ties withstand the challenges brought about by the outbreak of COVID-19? What is the future of BRI projects in Italy? Will a continued friendship with China hamper Italy’s relations with its western partners in a post pandemic world?