How Nepal Turned to China to Fill its COVID-19 Vaccine Shortfall

Shreha Gupta, Research Intern ICS

Image: Vaccine diplomacy and Nepal
Source: Griffith Asia Institute

Nepal’s vaccination drive against COVID-19 began on 27January, 2021 with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII) under the brand name Covishield. The campaign was launched with the one million doses of Covishield that India had provided under grant assistance in sync with its ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy and ‘Vaccine Maitri’ Initiative.

On 17 February, 2021, Nepal signed a contract with SII and made the advance payment to procure two million doses of Covishield, out of which only a million doses were delivered.  According to a report by Reuters, India had put a temporary hold on all major exports of the AstraZeneca Coronavirus shot made by SII to meet rising demands at home amid the raging second wave of Coronavirus. The second phase of the vaccination drive that began on 7March, 2021 was left in limbo, despite the country becoming one of the first in the world to launch the campaign.

However, India denies that restrictions were imposed on vaccine exports and maintained that it was trying to prioritise the demand at home. “India has not enforced any restrictions on exports of Covid-19 vaccines,” said Arindam Bagchi, spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs of India during the weekly press briefing on 2April, 2021. “We will export vaccines taking into account the domestic demand”, he added.

Following the inability expressed by SII to provide vaccine until the end of this year, the COVAX facility which is a vaccine pillar of the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator in partnership between Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), UNICEF and WHO, suggested that Nepal should explore appropriate alternatives apart from the Covishield vaccine.

Nepal began looking towards China to fill its vaccine shortfalls amid uncertainty over COVID-19 vaccine supplies from India. China had donated 1.8 million Covid vaccines developed by Sinopharm in two different grants of 800,000 doses and 1 million doses. On 29March 2021, Nepal received China-gifted 800,000 doses of vaccine as per the commitment of providing 500,000 doses made on 5February 2021 during a telephonic conversation between the foreign ministers of China and Nepal. Later, China decided to provide an additional 300,000 doses which increased the grant assistance of the COVID-19 vaccine for Nepal to 800,000 doses.

On 1June 2021, Nepal received another consignment of 800,000 doses of Vero Cell vaccine developed by the Chinese state-affiliated pharmaceutical giant Sinopharm, out of the 1 million doses of vaccine which were earlier announced to be provided on a grant basis as per the commitment made during a telephonic conversation between presidents of the two nations on 26May, 2021. The remaining 200,000 doses of the Vero Cell vaccine has been provided to Nepal by the Government of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in a release.

Nepal has also bought four million doses of the Vero Cell vaccine from China under an agreement with a non-disclosure clause, of which 800,000 doses have been received on 9 July 2021. On 16July, Hou Yanqi, Chinese Ambassador to Nepal informed the newly-appointed Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba that China will provide additional 1.6 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to Nepal in grant assistance. With this announcement, China has become by far the largest vaccine donating and exporting country to Nepal.

Ashok Pandey, Associate Research Fellow in Policy Research Institute mentioned in his Research Report that vaccine donations made by India helped to strengthened Nepal-India relations but the delay in the procurement thereafter and news of corruption in vaccine procurement began to reverse the gains. He also mentioned that the gesture of one million vaccine donations from China was widely appreciated in Nepal at a time when the country was in dire need of the vaccine.

Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy will benefit its competition for influence in South Asia where India has traditionally been the dominant power. According to an article published in Voice of America (VOA), analysts have pointed out, “China moves in to fill the gap left by India, Beijing’s “vaccine diplomacy” could give it leverage in the strategic Indian Ocean region, where it has been pushing its Belt and Road initiative that aims at building infrastructure projects across many countries”.  

Michael Kugelman, the Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center pointed out that China views its vaccine diplomacy as an image-building tactic and India’s suspension of vaccine exports is a strategic opportunity for China.

In his article published in The Himalayan Times, retired Nepali Army lieutenant colonel Ashok Kumar Khand mentioned that the economic giants like India, China and the United States are “trying to regain a foothold in the countries of their interest or influence in the name of humanity through vaccine donations”. According to him, “the vaccine donation gives China a key to deter India’s monopolistic political influence over Nepal, counter the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States and the QUAD policy, and push the ambitious BRI project forward”. He added, “Winning the Nepali sentiment for India, aligning the Nepali view with that of India against China’s expanding influence in South Asia, including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and control of Nepali politics from behind the curtain could be the hidden agenda behind India’s vaccine diplomacy”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Deuba on 19 July 2021 and assured early supply of covid vaccine to Nepal but India’s image as a vaccine-giving nation and its soft power gains has been dented and could be further damaged if there is a long delay in exporting vaccines. As the world’s largest producer of vaccines, India is expected to ramp up enough capacity to resume vaccine deliveries to other countries in addition to meeting the requirements at home. Michael Kugelman pointed out that New Delhi has the opportunity to reassert itself further down the road and India has an inherent comparative advantage over China because it is the world’s top manufacturer of vaccines. Another advantage India’s locally produced vaccine has over Chinese vaccines is its affordability. Although the price of the Chinese vaccine has not been disclosed owing to the non-disclosure clause, it is said to be around $10 per dose whereas, Nepal bought the jabs from the SII at $4 per dose.

India had an early movers advantage because it moved in with the commitment of initial large supplies but it lost ground due to the inability to provide vaccines either on a grant basis or fulfil commercial commitments made by SII. Nepal gave priority to vaccines produced in India because of reasons like, logistics, pricing, existing storage and transportation facilities in Nepal and India’s assurance to facilitate procurement but India’s inability to provide vaccines have created a vacuum that was filled in by China. According to Harsh Pant, Director Studies and Head Strategic Studies program at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, “Given that this crisis will be with us for the foreseeable future, certainly there is going to be a sense of China becoming a very important player for many of these countries if India is not able to pick up some slack after a few months once things stabilize”.

Nepal is still far from achieving the required inoculation for its population. According to the latest data (14th September 2021) of the Ministry of Health, 5243236 people or 17.4% of Nepal’s 30 million population have been fully vaccinated. The lost ground could still be retrieved if India can ramp up its vaccine producing capacities and resumes providing vaccines to Nepal. It will be in India’s interest to prioritize inoculating the Nepali population because the two countries share an open border and uninoculated people crossing the India-Nepal border on a daily basis could surge the coronavirus cases in both countries. In addition, India should also take lessons from the 2015 border blockade which pushed Nepal into China’s lap and be cautious about China’s attempt to fill the gap in vaccine shortage.

************************************************************************The author is thankful to her mentor, Ambassador Ashok K. Kantha, Director, Institute of Chinese Studies and former Ambassador of India to China, for his invaluable guidance and support in writing this article. The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.

Seven Months post-Coup, Decoding China’s Myanmar Policy

Jelvin Jose, Research Intern, ICS

Image: President Xi Jinping meets with Myanmar Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services Min Aung Hlaing in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar.
Source: China Daily

Seven months have passed since the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) under General Min Aung Hlaing captured power in a military coup on 1 February 2021. China is one of the few major countries that did not condemn the coup. The Chinese response has continued to be carefully crafted to evade damaging its core strategic, security, and economic interests. Beijing’s official stance from the beginning has been that the coup is Myanmar’s internal affair, and the international community should refrain from “inappropriate intervention” while respecting Myanmar’s sovereignty.

Chinese Response to the Coup

Despite the widespread international opinion against the coup, Beijing and the Kremlin intervened to block the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) attempted move to condemn the coup in the immediate aftermath of its occurrence. In April, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi communicated with several ASEAN leaders such as of Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore. Among the “Three Avoids” Wang emphasized to resolve the crisis were “inappropriate intervention by the United Nations Security Council,” undermining Myanmar’s sovereignty and external support to the popular unrest for “private gains” further stoking the crisis.

As per reports, the harsh language in a UNSC draft statement on Myanmar of March prepared by the U.K., including the direct reference to the coup and the threat of international action, was removed on the demands of China, Russia, India, and Vietnam. Similarly, on 18 June, China was among the 36 nations (including India and Russia) that abstained from voting on the UN General Assembly resolution against the overturn of Myanmar’s democratic government. The resolution was adopted by an overwhelming majority of 118 against one.  In August 2021, the Chinese State Counselor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi participated in an ASEAN video conference pledging humanitarian assistance to Myanmar. While expressing concern over Myanmar’s overall situation and supporting ASEAN’s efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the crises, Wang, who carefully refrained from mentioning the coup, steadfastly maintained the position that this was ultimately Myanmar’s internal affair.

Decoding Chinese Response: Beijing’s Policy Imperatives in Myanmar

Over the years, Beijing has been the most prominent economic, political and military support pillar of Myanmar’s military junta when that regime has attracted international outrage and isolation. Nay Pyi Taw’s decades-long international isolation and sanctions, and the junta’s consequent reliance on China have largely helped Beijing carve out a dominant space in that country (along with other factors too, no doubt). Nevertheless, Beijing’s interests in backing the military had somewhat reduced since 2011, mainly after it found an alliance of greater convenience with Suu Kyi. After all, the military has traditionally harboured deep suspicion about Beijing’s intentions concerning Chinese support to various Armed Ethnic Organizations (EAO’s).

Nay Pyi Taw’s international isolation resulting from the military takeover is likely to help China reduce the strategic and economic competition it faces and diminish strategic, border security, and economic challenges it has recently encountered from Myanmar’s increasing international engagements, particularly with the Western countries and U.S. allies whom Beijing see as foes. However, while considering the overall scenario, Beijing does not view the present military takeover as unequivocally conducive to securing its interests in Myanmar and thus it is unhappy about the coup.

Two major reasons lead us to such a conclusion. First of all, “stability” is at the core of Chinese interests in Myanmar. Although the fall of democracy does not matter for Beijing, the unrest, chaos, and subsequent instability resulting from the coup gravely threaten Chinese economic interests. A peaceful, economically vibrant, and stable Myanmar is necessary to reap the benefits of the already huge Chinese investments in Myanmar, such as in the Kyaukpyu port project and Kyaukpyu special economic zone. More robust international investments and resultant economic gains would, predictably benefit the Chinese infrastructural and connectivity projects, even though, Beijing may not politically welcome investments from rivals such as Japan and India. In addition, the coup has also brought in the additional risk of alienating Myanmar’s civilian population as some popular sentiment has turned against Beijing for backing the military takeover.

Secondly, the coup does not provide any significant strategic or security advantages to Beijing but erodes them to some extent. Myanmar’s generals remain well aware of how crucial Beijing’s tacit support for them to remain in power. Thus, they may well try to please the Chinese leadership, by showing them the coup has not damaged Chinese interests in the country and that the military rulers remain highly accommodative of its interests. However, the present military leaders do not seem to be granting Beijing the degree of strategic and economic leeway in Myanmar that it had been receiving from previous military rulers. This is particularly true in the light of the fact that countries such as Japan, South Korea, and India have also remained unwilling to sever ties with Myanmar’s military regime.

Meanwhile, the continuing political instability and chaos in the country puts China’s border security – one of Beijing’s crucial objectives in Myanmar – at risk. China is wary of the prolonged political unrest in Myanmar as it fears that it would provide an excuse and opportunity for its rivals such as the U.S. and its allies to continuously interfere in Myanmar in a way that Beijing believes may risk China’s national security. This is of particular concern for the Chinese leadership considering China’s porous border with Myanmar in the Yunnan province.

Beijing knows very well that the Tatmadaw is a fiercely nationalistic organization, suspicious of China’s engagements and backing to the EAO’s, which the military sees as a peril to the country’s unity and integrity. Although the coup has increased Tatmadaw’s reliance on Beijing for tacit political and military support, which no other country except Russia is able to provide at the moment, Beijing is aware that the Tatmadaw will not hesitate to play Beijing against its other rivals like New Delhi or Tokyo if necessary. On the other hand, the partnership with the civilian government under Suu Kyi had, over time, become more convenient for Beijing than it had expected. Dealing with the civilian government also was helpful for Beijing to evade international criticism and image loss from backing the military.

Beijing equally looks forward to the return of a post-coup democratic mechanism if possible since the Chinese leadership also sees such an arrangement as more facilitating to the achievement of its interests. However, China’s tacit backing to the Tatmadaw leadership is aimed at damage limitation. Beijing does not want to sponsor democracy in the South East Asian country at its cost. Instead, China actively encourages ASEAN’s efforts to restore peace and democracy in Myanmar. Through this, Beijing intends to send a message that it is in support of Myanmar’s democratic transition. Moreover, Beijing, which views the U.S. and Western engagement with Myanmar as a threat, does not have such levels of threat perception regarding ASEAN. Altogether, China’s Myanmar policy today is guided by the sole mantra of best securing its own medium-term national interests.  

The author is thankful to his mentor, Ambassador Vijay K. Nambiar, former Ambassador of India to China and UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor on Myanmar, for his invaluable guidance and support in writing this article. The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.

China’s Rendezvous with the Taliban: An Uneasy Alliance

Rangoli Mitra, Research Assistant, ICS

Image: Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political chief of Afghanistan’s Taliban, in Tianjin, China July 28, 2021.
Source: Reuters

As America’s war in Afghanistan comes to a tragic end and the country experiences widespread chaos following the abrupt and complete collapse of the Afghan army and government in the face of the onrush of Taliban forces, China, an increasingly assertive power in the neighbourhood, appears to have chosen to deal with the emergent crisis in an unusually pro-active though precarious manner. Shortly after the fall of the entire country to the Taliban, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told the media that the Chinese have noted that the Afghan war has come to an end and the Taliban have said that they will “negotiate the establishment of an open and inclusive Islamic government”. Working in tandem with its “all-weather” friend – Pakistan, China’s endorsement of the totalitarian Taliban government has sounded an alarm around the world, particularly, in the West; however, this is not entirely shocking as China seeks urgent political stability in Afghanistan.

China perceives the Taliban as more than just a religious extremist group and a real political force. Over the years, China was never convinced that the Taliban could be destroyed by military means, and in line with this strategic calculation, China had cautiously engaged with the group keeping future objectives in mind. Even though China has termed Afghanistan as the ‘graveyard of empires’ and never sought to entangle itself in the quagmire of the ‘great game’, it has been worried about the presence of the United States (US) on its Western border. As a ‘new great game’ begins, China has made its intentions clear- it will pursue a relationship with the Taliban for achieving its own ends. Thus, the central purpose of the present analysis is to explore China’s relation with the Taliban along with an attempt to understand the particular type of role China wants to play in Afghanistan.

A Historical Overview of China-Taliban Relations

Historically, Afghanistan was on the periphery of China’s diplomacy and China did not have a strong influence there. In 1993, one year after the Afghan communist regime collapsed, China evacuated its embassy  amidst the violent struggle then taking place. China did not establish an official relationship with the Taliban who had seized power in 1996. However, it is interesting to note that efforts to establish a relationship with the Taliban dates back to 1999. In December 2000, China’s ambassador to Pakistan, Lu Shulin, even met the Taliban’s leader Mullah Omar in Kandahar. It is speculated that Mullah Omar assured the Chinese that the Taliban would not host anti-Chinese militants in Afghanistan. For the Chinese, threats emanating from Uighur militancy and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) have remained a primary security concern.

After it become clear that the US military surge in Afghanistan in 2010 would not defeat the Taliban, the Chinese gradually started developing ties with the group and seeking a greater role in the peace negotiations that were to follow. In 2015, China hosted secret talks between representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government in Urumqi. The next year, a Taliban delegation headed by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai (then the group’s representative in Qatar) visited Beijing and sought the support of the Chinese for their position in Afghan domestic politics. As Chinese efforts intensified, the next high-level meeting was held in June 2019, when the group’s deputy leader Abdul Ghani Baradar visited China to discuss issues related to the Afghan peace process and counter-terrorism. In seeking a deeper relationship with the Taliban, China has inherently relied on Pakistan and Pakistani supporters of the Taliban, such as the late Maulana Sami ul Haq, known as the “Father of the Taliban”. In September 2019, when talks between the US and the Taliban faltered, China invited Baradar again to participate in an intra-Afghan conference in Beijing. However, this conference never took place. Apart from these unilateral initiatives, China was also a part of several multilateral initiatives such as the Quadrilateral Coordination Group and the Heart of Asia-Istanbul process.

The heightened significance of the Afghan war in China’s foreign policy is reflected in the fact that for the very first time China assigned a country-specific special envoy– since the creation of the post, there have been four Special Envoys for Afghan Affairs with the present being Yue Xiaoyong whose appointment on 21st July, 2021 comes at an extremely vital time.

Chinese Development Ambitions in Afghanistan

The highly publicized meeting of Taliban leaders (including Mullah Baradar) with the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in late July led to several crucial promises being made and Baradar even invited China to “play a bigger role in future reconstruction and economic development” of the nation.


Source: Stratfor

The unique geographical location of Afghanistan – as an important crossroad into Central Asia, Middle East and South Asia – makes it a primal factor in the success of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The importance of Afghanistan was noted by the former Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan Yao Jing who stated in 2016, “Without Afghan connectivity, there is no way to connect China with the rest of the world”. Up until the 16th century, Afghanistan played a pivotal role as a regional trade and transit hub sitting at the meeting point of ancient trade routes, known as the Silk Road. In 2011, a new initiative known as the New Silk Road was envisioned by the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. However, this was later replaced by China’s BRI because the American initiative lacked the “Pacific-to-Atlantic scope”.

Afghanistan formally joined the BRI in 2016. Several projects such as the Five Nations Railway, Sino-Afghan Special Railway Transportation Project, Corridor 3 of the Afghan National Railway Plan and the Digital Silk Road, specifically the fiber optic link with China through Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor, have been undertaken by China and the Afghan government. Afghanistan also became a member of the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) in October 2017 in order to facilitate cooperation on infrastructure development under the BRI and Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA). In September 2019, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan decided to officially extend the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China’s flagship project under the BRI, into Afghanistan. In China’s calculation, the planned extension of the$61 billion CPEC into Afghanistan could be an essential solution to create a stable and terrorist-free Afghanistan. However, until now Chinese investments in Afghanistan have remained significantly low if compared with other nations such as Pakistan.

Huge investments by China under the BRI in Pakistan and the Central Asian nations neighbouring Afghanistan will in time create a diplomatic pressure from all the stakeholders on the new Taliban government in Afghanistan to ensure the stability of the country and to not allow it to be a safe haven for terrorism.

Conclusion

The Chinese have three complementary national interests and concerns in Afghanistan- first, they cannot see the country turn into a safe haven for terrorism (particularly in the form of ETIM); second, Afghanistan is geostrategically located within the vortex of the BRI; and third, China would like to benefit from the rich mineral deposits in Afghanistan. Moreover since distance matters a great deal in trade and transit, China would be willing to invest in projects to make condensed access a reality, provided the Taliban can guarantee safety of Chinese personnel and assets.

It is vital to note that Afghanistan has required external assistance in meeting not only its developmental programmes but even its basic national budgetary funding requirements. As aid payments from the West have been severely curtailed, the Taliban is looking towards China. Recently, China has announced a $31 million aid package for Afghanistan, in what appears to be one of the first new foreign aid pledges for the Taliban-ruled country. However, as Afghanistan is on the cusp of a humanitarian catastrophe and will need billions in aid to avert the possibility of universal poverty, it will be interesting to see if China is willing to enmesh itself in the murky development aid politics of the country.

China has made two vital gains by recognizing the legitimacy of the Taliban: first, China can hold the Taliban accountable for any attack on its citizens or assets emanating from Afghanistan and since the Taliban will be dependent on Chinese investments to a considerable extent, they will have to mend their ways; and second, China’s BRI will inevitably profit from stability in Afghanistan. Thus, China has done a good job of walking the tightrope in Afghanistan. A lot now depends on the Taliban’s policies which will decide China’s future engagement in the war-torn nation. For the present, it would seem like the Chinese strategy of courting the Taliban is paying off; but, whether it actually does, only the future will tell.

The author is thankful to her mentor, Ambassador Vijay K. Nambiar, former Ambassador of India to China and UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor on Myanmar, for his invaluable guidance and support in writing this article. The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.

Chinese Mining in the DRC: From Sicomines to Global Cobalt Monopoly

Halim Nazar, Research Intern, ICS

Image: The Tenke-Fungurume Mine in the DRC
Source: Reuters

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) embodies the paradox of plenty. Despite having an untapped resource wealth worth an estimated $24 trillion, the country remains one of the poorest in the region and needs urgent reform. Sino-Congolese relations can be traced back to the mid-1960s when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) supported the Congolese struggle against “American imperialism” and capitalism, but it was only after 2008 infrastructure-for-minerals deal that Chinese influence became more perceptible in the DRC. Chinese mining companies have been focusing on the DRC not only because it has high-grade mineral deposits but also because competition from other transnational companies is minimal as they are wary about operating in the DRC given its tinted track record, especially when it comes to the protection of human and labour rights, and its frequent episodes of social unrest.

Almost 70 percent of the Congolese mining portfolio is under Chinese control, and so the industry is affected whenever China is affected. Chinese investors like Minerals and Metals Group (MMG) and China Molybdenum’s Tenke Fugurume are prominent in the cobalt and copper-rich Lualaba and Haut Katanga areas along with global traders like Trafigura and Glencore, and Canada’s Ivanhoe Mines and Barrick Gold Corporation, but artisanal mining still accounts for 20%-40% of the cobalt production. Nevertheless, the success of their recent forays, as well as the predicted increase in demand for precious metals, particularly cobalt, have motivated Chinese companies to bolster mining operations and increase investments and lobby their government to renew negotiations for greater mining rights.

China strengthened its presence in the DRC with the infrastructure-for-minerals deal that provided substantial mining rights in exchange for developing the DRC’s war-torn infrastructure. In late 2007, China announced a $5 billion loan to the DRC for infrastructure development with substantial investments to follow and a joint venture was set up to execute the terms of the agreement. The joint venture was named Sino Congolaise des Mines (Sicomines) and was established with a Chinese majority shareholding of 68%. The initial Chinese investments were to be evenly divided between mining projects and the development of roads, railways, schools, hospitals and dams. China has described the deal as a mutually beneficial relationship, which is absent of any political conditionality wherein China would gain access to critical minerals essential for its energy products, and the DRC would gain from the development of its shattered infrastructure and the growth of its productive capacity. Over 10 years since its inception, the so-called “deal of the century” has improved the DRC’s macroeconomic performance while also bolstering infrastructure developments. Yet, the deal still has a lot to live up to and will depend on the DRC’s ability to consolidate the benefits and ensuring that promises are kept. Moreover, since the Sicomines deal are exempt from taxes until infrastructure and mining loans are fully repaid, the DRC won’t receive any substantial income from the agreement for the foreseeable future.

Despite a rocky start and reduction in scale after two sets of renegotiations as funding from China Eximbank became uncertain, mining operations finally began in 2014. Under the agreement, China would receive 10 million mt of copper and 600,000 mt of cobalt worth approximately $50 billion over 25 years. In 2016, Congolese sources estimated that $1.2 billion had been spent on infrastructure and mining credits combined. Mining activities smoothly progressed, and Congolese cobalt production crossed 100,000 mt/year in 2018 and copper production went above a million mt/year until the global COVID pandemic when cobalt mining rates slightly went below 100,000 mt/year in 2020. Resource-for-Infrastructure (RFI) deals like this all over Africa have helped China foster strong relations with several countries and consolidate its position as a great power. China draws support and exerts its influence on these nations in matters of dire importance at the UN and while staking the claim of “One China”, which is the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and calls for the isolation of Taiwan (Republic of China). The Sicomines agreement has been widely criticized as it is perceived to unfairly benefit the Chinese. The IMF publicly criticized the DRC for taking on too much debt.

Cobalt has become an intensively sought-after mineral as the blue element is crucial for lithium-ion batteries. Given the surge in demand for electric vehicles, Cobalt demand is predicted to grow fourfold by 2030. With reserves in the ballpark of 3.5 million mt, the DRC hosts over 51% of the global cobalt reserves, and it is estimated that in 2020, the DRC produced about 90,000-95,000 mt of cobalt representing nearly 70 percent of the total cobalt feedstock production globally. Several Chinese companies like Chengtun Mining, Wanbao and CNMC have bolstered their mining operations and have expressed their desire to acquire more cobalt mines. But the new Congolese president Felix Tshisekedi has been a vocal critic of the current deal and has called for renegotiations in the spirit of drafting win-win agreements. The Sicomines deal has been mired with secrecy and controversy from the very beginning, with even the Congolese Mines Minister being denied crucial information regarding the agreement. Corruption runs rampant in the DRC as a fifth of the country’s mining revenues – $750 million – was lost to corruption between 2013 and 2015, according to The Global Witness.

China has shown signs that it is ready to strengthen this strategic partnership and recently cancelled the DRC’s interest-free loans worth an estimated $28 million and promised to fund infrastructure projects and also give $17 million in other financial support as the Central African nation joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and to also help the country overcome the impact of Covid-19. China’s decision to write off debts and welcome the country as a new partner for the BRI would further drive cooperation between the two countries and incentivize more Chinese miners to invest further into the Congolese copper and cobalt industry, increasing their stake in local mines. Essentially improving access to proven cobalt and copper reserves worth billions by waiving off a paltry $28 million loan.

Cobalt is crucial for battery technologies and to facilitate the global transition to a fossil-free future. In the current global scramble to secure forward supplies and escape the eccentricities of the spot market, China holds all the cards. Control over crucial raw materials like cobalt, along with state-of-the-art processing and manufacturing capacity, will determine the balance of industrial power, particularly in automotive and energy storage. Presently, China is the frontrunner, and it seems likely to retain this control for at least the medium-term.

Zapad/Interaction-2021: A New Milestone in China-Russia Joint Military Exercises

R. M. V Pavan Raghavendra, Research Intern, ICS

Source: Ministry of National Defence of the People’s Republic of China

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Russian Federation recently conducted the ‘West/Interaction-2021’ joint military Exercise (hereinafter called Exercise) from 9 to 13 August 2021.

Titled 西部·联合-2021 (xibu/lianhe-2021) in Chinese, and “Запад/Взаимодействие-2021” (Zapad/Vzaimodeystviye-2021) in Russian, the Exercise was unprecedented in terms of scope, level of participation by both sides and its conduct.

The theme of the Exercise was ‘safeguarding regional security and stability’ and it intended to ‘verify and improve joint reconnaissance, early warning, and electronic information attack and joint attack and elimination’. While Chinese media claimed that more than 10,000 troops from the PLA’s Western Theatre Command (WTC) and Russia’s Eastern Military District (EMD) participated in the Exercise, Janes Defence News reported 13,000 troops.

Russian troops operated PLA weapons and equipment during the Exercise, of which more than 80 per cent were modern, including a newly unveiled Type 95 ‘4-25’ integrated gun-missile air-defence system. The PLA’s J-20 fighters and Y-20 transport aircraft, and Russian Su-30 also participated in the Exercise.

It is interesting to consider the selection of troops participating in the Exercise from both sides and the location before looking at the conduct.

The WTC comprises 76 and 77 Group Armies and is responsible for China’s borders with India, South and Central Asia, and ‘counterterrorism’ in Xinjiang and Tibet. Tibet and Xinjiang Military districts (MD) located within WTC have sizeable troops and are directly under the CMC/PLA Ground Forces HQ.

As observed from CCTV 7 coverage, PLA troops* participating in the Exercise were drawn from the 181 Combined Arms Brigade, Artillery Brigade, and Special Operations Brigade of the WTC’s 77 Group Army (GA), 84 Army Aviation Brigade of Xinjiang MD, and the Airborne Corps. The choice of 77 GA over 76 GA is curious as it is based in Sichuan and is oriented to South West along the India-China Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Tibet. The 76 GA is based in Qinghai, Ningxia and Gansu, and is oriented towards the North West, i.e., the Western sector of the LAC in Xinjiang and South and Central Asia.

EMD‘s Area of Responsibility covers Eastern Siberia up to the Pacific Ocean and includes Russia’s land borders with China and Mongolia. Russian troops participating included a motorised rifle unit located in the Trans-Baikal region, operational-tactical aviation units, and a combined army aviation detachment.

One of the two main Combined Arms Tactical Training Bases (CATTBs) in WTC, the Qingtongxia (青铜峡) CATTB, is located at the base of Helan mountain ranges at an altitude of 2000m. The terrain is semi-desert with an arid climate. The base contains an urban warfare training village, electromagnetic environment simulation, monitoring and control systems, and a 1:500 scale model of the Aksai Chin.

Conduct

Before the actual Exercise, both sides conducted extensive preparations, which included familiarisation and handling of PLA weapons and equipment followed by live firing. The joint tactical training which followed included long-range precision fire by artillery and airdropping of troops and Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICV).

The PLA established a three-tiered joint bilingual (Russian-Chinese) joint command centre to ensure smooth coordination between PLA personnel and their Russian counterparts at all levels. China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) set up a directing department under General Li Zuocheng, member of the CMC and Chief of the Joint Staff Department, while Lieutenant Generals Liu Xiaowu and Mikhail Nosulev, Deputy Theatre Commanders of WTC and EMD respectively, headed the Joint Command and were involved in joint planning.

An extensive communication network involving ten communication methods and multiple networking modes with information terminals was established to ensure real-time information sharing and passing of instructions between the Joint Command and troops.

The main Exercise was conducted in four stages involving joint confrontation, destruction of enemy defences, three-dimensional attack and pursuit and annihilation, involving extensive ground-air coordination.

Under cover of the J-20 and other fighter aircraft, H-6 bombers and JH-7As fighter bombers carried out the destruction of enemy defences in depth while artillery systems including multiple rocket systems and 155mm gun howitzers engaged enemy targets firing hundreds of tons of ammunition within forty minutes.

Y-20 and Y-9 aircraft were used to paradrop Airborne troops along with ZBL-03 to carry out long-range deep assaults to seize enemy defences and gaining battlefield initiative, while special forces along with Lynx were inserted using Mi-17 helicopters and escorted by Z-20 Attack Helicopters. The extensive use of drones for reconnaissance and surveillance, swarm attacks on ‘enemy’ positions, sniping of enemy targets and post-strike damage assessment was another unique feature of the exercise, while ground-based multi-layered air defences intercepted and destroyed enemy drones.

The Exercise’s Closing Ceremony was attended by the Defence Ministers of both countries who agreed to ‘enhance strategic communication, deepening cooperation in areas such as counterterrorism and working together to safeguard regional stability’.

The China-Russia Military Partnership: The Past and the Future

The PRC and erstwhile-USSR had a history of military cooperation from the pre-Liberation era till the deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations in the late-1950s. During the PRC’s initial years, much of PLA doctrine, organisation and equipment were borrowed from the Soviet model.

The current round of military cooperation commenced after the Sino-Russian boundary dispute was settled in 2005. Since then, the exercises have varied in scale and level of participation. These include the Peace Mission 2005 exercise and the Vostok-2018, Tsentr-2019, and Kavkaz-2020 drills.

At the military level, the Exercise is unprecedented in four aspects; first, is the level of jointness exhibited by the PLA in combining airborne and heliborne operations with ground operations in what the PLA claimed as a ‘three-dimensional’ operation. PLA sources also claimed that the vertical separation between lowest flying aircraft and the vertex of artillery shell was less than 200 metres, reflecting a high degree of coordination between the air and ground elements; second, there was near equal participation by both sides; third, unlike in the past, where both sides operated as distinct entities under an overall command, Russian troops were integrated into mixed formations; and lastly, PLA participated with its latest equipment including J-20 fighters and Electronic Warfare equipment.

The deployment of J-20 fighters, H-6K bombers, airborne and heliborne exercises and the level of degradation sought to be achieved also suggest that the Exercise was aimed at ‘regional stability’ rather than ‘counterterrorism’. The heightened interoperability between Russian armed forces and the PLA will definitely boost their capability to respond to regional threats.

The Exercise thus provides valuable experience to both sides and a foundational tool to institutionalise the bilateral defence relationship without formally entering into a military alliance.

On the diplomatic level, both Beijing and Moscow have claimed that the joint exercises are not targeted against third parties. The geopolitical signalling and intent behind the joint exercises, however, seems to involve multiple dimensions.

Firstly, the drills are being conducted in the context of increasing Western presence in China’s neighbourhood with the Quad deepening cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea. Relations between Russia and the West have also sunk to a new low after the former’s annexation of Crimea. The deepening of China-Russia military ties indicates a strategic posturing on the part of both sides to contest the West.

Second, the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan has resulted in the Taliban taking control over the country, which threatens regional and domestic stability in neighbouring countries. Thus ‘counterterrorism’ is amongst the main agendas of the Exercise. Russia has decided to provide weapons, equipment, and training to Tajikistan’s armed forces.

Finally, the drills serve to signal India about the level of PLA’s operational preparedness as it comes against the backdrop of the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ladakh. On the Russian side, the Exercise signals Russia’s concern about India’s relations with the US despite India’s reassurance that its relations with the US were not at the expense of its relations with Russia. An interesting aspect was that the Joint India-Russia Exercise INDRA-2021, aimed at planning and conducting counterterrorism drills under UN mandate, was held at Volgograd around the same time. The deepening of the military partnership between Russia and China is thus of concern to India. * Special thanks to KK Venkatraman, Research Fellow at Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi, for drawing attention to this.

China’s CBDC: Cross-border Prospects and Challenges

Raj Gupta, Research Intern, ICS

Image: Speculation is growing that the digital yuan will be launched soon.
Source: Shutterstock

The Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) race has begun to pick up pace and almost all the countries are getting into it. Around 86% of the world’s central banks are actively researching the potential of CBDC, which makes it evident that countries all over the world view it as an important development in the monetary domain which they need to be up to speed with. As of now, the Bahamas is the first as well as the only country to have launched a CBDC for nationwide use. Whereas among the major economies, China is at the forefront. China’s CBDC journey started early in 2016 when the Digital Currency Research Institute, the first official institution in the world engaging in research and development of digital currency was established.Early identification of potential, active research of the prospects of CBDC as well as successive pilot trials in major cities brought China to the forefront.

The official name of China’s CBDC is Digital Currency Electronic payment (DCEP), which is commonly known as e-yuan or digital yuan. During the pilot trials, it has so far received a positive response from the public, mostly because of the red packets containing DCEP which was distributed to the public on a lottery basis. It helped create the much-needed hype among the masses and kickstart China’s mission-CBDC. Platforms such as JD.com, Meituan and Didi Chuxing were roped in to participate in such trials as well in order to test the integration of CBDC into different apps. Since its first pilot trial to the integration into apps, the journey has been gradual and smooth. With the amount of control that the Chinese government yields over its institutions, integrating DCEP won’t be a challenge domestically. Getting people to use it instead of their WeChat or Alipay wallets can be a challenge but incentives similar to the red packets at early stages can help build that user base. Recent clampdown on internet giants in China might also soften the resistance from Tencent and Alibaba and make space for the digital yuan.

China also has its eyes fixed on the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022 to showcase its first major use case on a large scale and this may also serve as a gateway to wider use of CBDC in the country. Although the PBOC officials claim that they are looking more into the domestic use of e-yuan, many initiatives reflect otherwise.

The first is the Multiple CBDC (m-CBDC) Bridge which the PBOC joined recently. It aims to develop a prototype for cross-border payments with the Central Bank of the United Arab Emirates, BIS Innovation Hub, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, and the Bank of Thailand.The main objective is to study the feasibility of cross-border payments using CBDCs and distributed ledger technology. Being the first-of-its-kind initiative, this has huge potential to solve issues related to cross-border fund transfers. Given the scale and timing, the results of the Proof-of-concept work can perhaps contribute to setting international standards around CBDCs.

The second is, Finance Gateway Information Services Co, a joint venture established by China National Clearing Centre of the PBOC and the SWIFT, which aims to establish and operate local network of financial messaging services to process cross-border Yuan payments through China’s own settlement system. Both, m-CBDC bridge and Finance Gateway Information Services Co. aim to challenge and change the current USD-dominated payments system in the coming future.

There is no doubt that both these initiatives aim to provide solutions and develop the current cross border payment infrastructure but these will also make the currently followed arrangement of Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) less relevant. Currently, international payments are facilitated by the SWIFT. The dominant role played by the USD in SWIFT’s payment system is arguably one of the major reasons for the USD’s status as a global reserve currency. China is aiming to change that by trying to build a parallel system. And when that parallel system gets up and running, internationalization of the RMB could get easier by incorporating DCEP into various forms of economic activity in which it participates through multilateral and bilateral arrangements.

There are many avenues through which China would want its CBDC to flow and gain a grip over cross-border payments. From providing financial aid to BRI countries to waiving off transaction fees on repayment of loans, there are a plethora of options China has because of its trade links that make it the largest trading nation in the world. China’s growing integration with the developing world can help China rally countries behind it to follow Chinese standards of CBDC.

DCEP’s success internationally can tend to affect the dominance enjoyed by USD in global payments. The brunt inflicted by U.S sanctions is largely because of the USD’s dominance in international payments architecture. Hence, a parallel network system based on m-CBDC holds the potential to soften that brunt of U.S sanction policies which have increasingly been used against Chinese entities and individuals. Even Hong Kong’s chief executive Carie Lam was left with a pile of cash because banks did not want to deposit her money and expose themselves to the risk of U.S sanctions. This is an example of how strong and effective the U.S sanctions are against companies and individuals. If China can circumvent the sanctions through its system, it is likely to reduce the U.S hard power and will allow China to act with much more flexibility without having to worry about the aftermath of U.S sanctions. It can have far-reaching effects on how China deals with the nations facing sanctions by the U.S.

But all of this won’t be easy for China to accomplish. Cross-border usage of DCEP will likely face headwinds because the U.S and its allies may see the increasing acceptability of China’s DCEP as against their interests. On June 5, a communique issued by the G7 iterated the benefits and potential of a CBDC and underlined its commitments towards transparency and rule of law. It further stated that the G7 will work together towards common principles and will publish conclusions later this year. This communique reflects that the U.S and its western allies have perhaps woken up to the potential threat of e-yuan and are now pooling efforts to study its implications and ensure appropriate frameworks are in place.

There are issues such as interoperability among CBDCs of different countries which can prove to impede the goal of easier cross-border transactions. Another major issue is the lack of digital infrastructure in other countries to transact in digital currencies even if interoperability is achieved. But the single biggest impediment could be the privacy issues related to the DCEP. DCEP follows what has been termed as ‘Controllable Anonymity’ which allows the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) to have complete oversight of the data collected from its CBDC. The idea of data collection by a foreign government won’t go down well with democratic nations that have strict privacy laws. Besides, it will likely lead to an increase in scepticism and reluctance in foreign entities. There are rapid developments taking place in the CBDC domain with different countries moving up the ladder. DCEP, clubbed with China’s trade links, growing influence and strategic long-term thinking has the potential to counter Dollar weaponization but that will be a very long and difficult road ahead. China is hoping that someday e-yuan can play a key role in supplanting the U.S Dollar. But for that, there must be a system in place that can be used to gradually increase the tempo when needed. With the consistent pace at which China is developing and testing its CBDC, that system will likely be in place in the near future.

Cross-border e-commerce in China: Past, Present & Future

Raj Trikkha, Research Intern, ICS

Image: CBE in China started to grow remarkably from 2013 due to the vast acceptance and usage of smartphones
Source: MarketingFuture

The rise in globalization and internationalization of trade has paved the way for e-commerce to expand from within nations to across the globe. This type of e-commerce is called cross-border e-commerce (CBE), wherein, products or services are sold to buyers overseas through e-commerce websites. The extent of globalization is such that the annual growth rate of CBE, which is 17%, has surpassed the growth rate of overall B2C e-commerce, which stands at 12%

Cross-border e-commerce in China began in 1998 with a few foreign trading companies tapping into the latest internet technology to carry out their sale activities. The year 1999 marked the birth of the company which changed the face of Chinese e-commerce. Alibaba.com, established by Jack Ma started out as a B2B portal that facilitated between local factories and overseas companies. In the mid-2000s, as more Chinese people went to foreign nations for work or studies, a new profession emerged, called DaiGou (代购). DaiGou refers to transactions where Chinese nationals who reside abroad sell foreign products to people in China with a little markup. They used various platforms like Taobao.com and WeChat. DaiGous for a long time filled the demand gap and still continue to conduct purchases online.

Since these types of transactions started to gain popularity and demand, companies like YMatou.com entered this market in 2009. CBE in China started to grow remarkably from 2013. This happened due to the vast acceptance and usage of smartphones. This made it easier for companies to reach consumers and for the consumers to avail their services. Between 2014 and 2015, over 5000 CBE startups were established in China involving Kaola.com and Vip.com. Today, the biggest e-commerce market in the world, China, has $34 billion worth of purchases in the CBE market (as of 2020). Though, in comparison with the U.S. (34 percent) and U.K. (45 percent), it consists of a mere 1.53 percent of its total e-commerce sales. This implies that there is still a lot of potential for the CBE market to grow in China. 

Image: Today, the biggest e-commerce market in the world, China, has $34 billion worth of purchases in the CBE market
Source: Practical E-Commerce

Although the market was growing and becoming an essential part of the technology-driven economy, the sustainable development of the industry required the supervision of laws and support of policies. Thus, starting from 2007, various government agencies released policies and recommendations to promote CBE in China. Subsequently, in 2014, China through the General Administration of Customs issued a new set of regulations pertaining to CBE. This was the first time that China officially accepted the CBE model. This opened up many opportunities for foreign firms wanting to sell their goods in China. As a result of increasing online sales by retailers, recent modifications in the CBE regulations were introduced on 1 January, 2019, to make them more robust. 

These schemes eased the process to a huge extent. Among many things, they lowered down the labour and logistics costs, streamlined the product return process, and announced the establishment of 46 additional cross-border e-commerce comprehensive pilot zones. Streamlining the return process enabled companies to ship goods in bulk to Chinese warehouses even before selling them to the customers, while more pilot zones meant that companies will have more areas where favourable tax rates are levied. 

Image: The General Administration of Customs announced the establishment of 46 additional cross-border e-commerce comprehensive pilot zones
Source: China-Briefing

The new policies have had a positive impact on the industry. The first three quarters of 2020, show an increase in CBE retail imports by more than 17 percent year-on-year, according to customs data. Cross-border e-commerce in China is growing at a fast pace. Even during the pandemic era, the CBE sector in China brought 31.1 percent of its foreign trade. CBE has become an essential aspect of China’s foreign trade. In 2020, over 10,000 traditional foreign firms went online for the first time. Many experts believe that CBE will continue to thrust the foreign trade in China as the market is still less-tapped and the policy incentives are yet to be yielded.

Ecological Civilisation/ Shengtai Wenming: Towards a New Wave of Resilience Thinking?

Annesha Bhattacharjee, Research Intern, ICS

China’s resilience has been typically observed from a civilizational and culturist perspective, so far. Resilience as an organized indigenous systemic concept has yet to be defined by China from an ecological slant. Being an ancient civilisation, the idea of nature was restricted to romantic and spiritual ideation – in literature, philosophy and art, as found in the recorded history of cultural resilience. Often invested in learning the ways of nature, Tao(天) is the dreaded god that cradles human life.  China jumped from being an agricultural civilisation into the Anthropocene, spearheaded by industrial revolution. After learning the ways to ‘exploit nature’, it went on to narrowly focus on accumulating ‘economic resilience’. China, by then had realized that it had reaped economic well-being at the cost of nature’s ‘collateral’ devastation leading to continuous events of natural calamities which became evident with the passage of time. As a result of this, modern China initiates a vision of constructing a civilization that promotes ‘harmony’ between ‘man’ and ‘nature’.

“弹性”(Tánxìng) or elasticity, “韧性”(Rènxìng) or toughness, or “恢复力”(Huīfù lì) or the power to recover. These are the direct translations for the word ’resilience’ in Chinese which however lacks any conceptual rendition or indigenous scientific framing, unlike the West. The president of China, Xi Jinping, earlier this year in the 2021 Earth Summit, reiterated the vision of Shengtai Wenming or Ecological civilisation. China’s ‘economic resilience’ during the pandemic has led to several scholarly appraisals. In 2017, the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement increased China’s willingness to lead global environmental governance. Being one of the biggest polluters in a climate hostile world and an economic power has put China in a tight space for international scrutiny. Thus, achieving ‘ecological resilience’ might be the next big thing for China to prevent any major risk of regime shift that will hurt the developmental state of the nation.

The conceptualisation of resilience in IR discourse began in the West during the cold war period, emerging in various social and natural science fields. As a consequence of rising environmentalism after industrial revolution. Ecological resilience, got popularly defined at the time by ecologists such as C.S. Holling as, “the time required for an ecosystem to return to an equilibrium or steady-state following a perturbation.” Around 1980s, environmentalists in Soviet Union were the first to propose the term ‘ecological civilization’ which was later incorporated by China’s CPC party. Scholars in the West were conceptualising resilience around the same time. The 1972, the Stockholm conference resulted in political effectiveness against environmental issues in China. China’s evolution of political ecology has been marked since then. Repercussions of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and economic liberalism was already showing signs of enviornmental issues. Leading Hu Jintao’s regime, to push forth the idea of ‘Beautiful China’, specifically stressing on the ecological degradation factor irrespective of significant industrial growth in the sustainable sector. This unfolded the imbalanced socio-ecological systems that was systematically observed after President Zemin’s leadership who maneuvered China into becoming a major global producer and user of clean and renewable energy technology. China, a developing nation has largely been a reform and transformation-based society than just being induced by any strong ideological standards. Especially after the cultural revolution in the post-Mao phase where the focus was to ‘grow’ in the neocolonialist world, curating a strong labor force with little to no tolerance for traditionalism. Hence, the ‘laws of nature’ that were once preserved in traditional Chinese literature were significantly discouraged until then. As a rectification, Xi Jinping initiated the party’s intention to build a ‘community life’ together that allows man and nature to co-exist based on the political foundation of modern socialism with a brush of Chinese characteristics. This had been surfacing reluctantly in the party’s political agenda for the past two decades.

Remembering as David Easton once quoted that ‘scientism’ is good, but the ‘mad craze’ for the same is bad that should be avoided. In the past four decades, China had similar bout of lessons  from impelling an intensive industry built on the foundations of capitalism and growth-based sustainability. Thus, choking the boundaries of the biosphere and opening alternatives for energy-based industries. The Western  resilience system has been ‘empirically’ based on typical rational consciousness and minimal ‘value’ inclusiveness. China recognized it’s failure to balance the ecological sphere along with its economic growth despite taking the best developmental lessons from the West. Coercing them to think about creating a balance between being less ‘yang’ and more ‘yin’ until a state of equilibrium is reached, referring to an anti-waste-based society caused by intense globalisation. The Chinese scholars thus, argues that the situation can be altered by imbibing a socialist modern culture coupled with Chinese characteristics while acknowledging the fall of communism in Soviet Russia. China has been striving to defend its integration of a constantly transforming domestic socio-ecological system against the West-inspired, ‘universalism’. Their value system is predominantly based on Confusion philosophy. It promotes the idea of ‘relational self’ in a way where one does not limit oneself to evolve just as an individual entity but transcend that very evolving-self to the extended  virtues of the community. “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others?”, quoted Confucius. Only then one can achieve a harmonious community life together. Thus, trying to align with the traits of socialism by building communal responsibility along with the self.  This ideation of China’s ‘harmony’ towards establishing a political nation based on eco-socialism certainly signals a new wave of resilience thinking that diverges from the existing trends of liberal environmentalism governmentality.

Internationally many critics are however, skeptical of how China is likely to achieve the ambitious dream of stable economic growth as well as an Eco-civilization, simultaneously. As they argue that continuous growth is detrimental to the ecological crisis.  To which, Xi remains hopeful especially after observing its ‘triumphant’ pandemic situation in comparison to the rest of the world, further encouraging growth over 6%, in the post-pandemic phase. Green development (one of Xi’s 6 developmental policies), is likely to induce a possible alternative including green economic reform that shall be introduced along with several other structural changes to suit the 2050 vision of ‘ecological civilization’. Chinese scholars, meanwhile are speculating about the possible challenges the government will have to tackle with the emergence of the upcoming reforms.  Uncertain outcomes might spark social contestations and disruptions – to which, however, the government prefers authority and not democracy.  Successive transformation in the past couple of decades has been slowed down and stalled due to various challenges of such kind. The risks looming around in the post pandemic world will thwart China’s growth in the long term if it does not adapt to the situation and take control while it can. Especially as the industries experience a paradigm shift. Irrespective of Xi’s ability to achieve the ambitious political agenda, it will be refreshing to see how China brings about a new holistic system of green transformation that might stimulate a lot of other developing countries in the future while adhering to the international and domestic standards and stresses.

Did Lavrov-Blinken tête-à-tête in Reykjavik Stir the Pot between Beijing and Moscow?

Hemant Adlakha, Associate Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

Image: Lavrov-Blinken summit: A test of US-Russia ties ahead
Source: gulftoday.ae

For more than seven decades Russia, China and Iran have successfully denied being reduced to becoming the US vassalage. During the US-Soviet Union Cold War years, the geostrategic coming together of Washington and Beijing, isolated and weakened Moscow. However, under the prevailing new Cold War conditions the US must induct the “barbarians” into neoliberal global financialization orbit. Or else, the recent Blinken-Lavrov smiling images from Reykjavik may just end up as only good optics and to Beijing’s great relief. 

On 20 May, the Moscow Times (MT) website carried one photograph and one news headline, both must have caused huge anxiety if not concern among Beijing’s foreign ministry mandarins responsible for China-Russia relations. While the headline read as “US, Russia seek to ease tensions in first meeting under Biden”, the accompanying picture of the two countries’ foreign minister was perhaps the best ‘smiling’ image since the Obama days, to say the least. The MT further quoted the Russian foreign minister saying, perhaps causing more discomfort in Beijing, that he was ready to “plough through the rubble left behind by previous US administration.” The next day, Russia Today television news website rt.com in an op-ed commented: “Despite recent rock-bottom relations and growing tensions, Russia is willing to end hostilities and strive for better relations with the West, its top diplomat Lavrov announced after meeting with his US counterpart.”

Strangely, or perhaps expectedly, China’s usually “bellicose” foreign ministry spokespersons maintained an uncharacteristic low tone on the issue. Likewise, Beijing’s generally proactive strategic and security affairs commentariat too was found wanting and hiding. However, it is quite obvious to anyone who closely follows Beijing’s statements and actions, what is concealed behind the “indifferent” pretense is “disbelief” and “worries” caused by the sudden Biden administration “expediency” to “bear hug” Russia and Putin. Did China’s IR experts and specialists on US-Russia relations err by failing to gauge Biden’s initiative to reset US-Russia ties? Perhaps yes. Or is it that Beijing took for granted that Biden’s “America is back” diplomacy is only aimed at winning back the US allies? Maybe true.

Biden alone cannot stop China

Last Friday, China’s widely read and influential online platform specializing in international politics and diplomacy, huayuzhiku.com carried an exclusive commentary entitled “US hand-shake with Russia aimed at Beijing.” The commentary observed: “Under Trump presidency, American diplomacy was regarded by the world as ‘unreliable’ and ‘unpredictable.’ Since the change of guard in the White House this January, Biden administration has been vigorously amending Trumpian foreign policy by trying to win over traditional allies and declared ‘America is back’. In its treatment of Russia, it seems Biden is continuing to endure the previous administration’s legacy. It is not difficult for anyone to see the Trumpian ghost guiding the White House.” (Emphasis added)

It is indeed puzzling as a quick Google search on the internet did not show up in the top ten pages a single news story on the two foreign ministers’ meeting from the English language media outlets in the PRC. Every other Asian news channel or media website reported the important event but not the Xinhua or CGTN or China Daily or not even the Global Times. Though not surprisingly, a week prior to the Reykjavik tête-à-tête, China’s English and Mandarin language media extensively reported the scheduled meeting along with editorial comments. On May 13, China’s official Xinhua news agency carried a report headlined “Lavrov, Blinken discuss upcoming Russia-US summit over phone.” The next day, global.chinadaily.com.cn published a similar report filed by its Moscow correspondent highlighting that the proposed foreign minister’s meeting was being held “amid the biggest crisis in ties between Russia and the United States in years.” 

Chinese Media underreports Reykjavik Meet

On the other hand, the semi-official media in China, especially in Chinese and English languages, has published op-ed articles and commentaries following the Reykjavik meeting between Lavrov and Blinken. The English language Shanghai Daily was the first to report the Lavrov-Blinken meeting held at the famous Harpa Concert Hall in the Iceland capital. The newspaper showed conspicuous urgency and without waiting for China’s official media went ahead and relied on foreign news agencies’ reports. But in contrast with the positive sounding Russian and global media headlines, Shanghai Daily was quite circumspect in its title: “Lavrov, Blinken spar politely in their first face-to-face meeting.”   

Within twenty-four hours of the meeting, an opinion piece on the haiwainet.cn website, which essentially caters to the Mandarin speakers in North America and is an important arm of the party’s official newspaper Renmin Ribao or People’s Daily, described the meeting as the result of “temptation to meet” on both sides.  Lavrov-Blinken met in order to “confirm to each other to carry on with their mutual friction short of a full-scale fighting in the face of hosts of hostilities and contradictions,” the website stated. The website further cited Li Yonghui, a senior researcher with the Centre for Russian, Eastern Europe and Eurasian Studies of Beijing-based China Academy of Social Sciences as saying “Given many deep-rooted contradictions and complexities between the two countries, there is not much room for a turnaround in the Russia-US relations.”

Interestingly, while most Chinese commentaries focused on highlighting the outstanding issues between the two countries, there have been few and far between writings so far which look at the implications for China should the Reykjavik meeting become a thaw in the frozen ties between Washington and Moscow. A key element absent in the Chinese op-ed columns so far has been “no reaction” on the timing and on the venue for the Reykjavik diplomatic rendezvous between the two foreign ministers. As according to Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “the Arctic is one of the few remaining issues where Washington and Moscow do tend collaborate and share interest in beating back any efforts by states like China to insist that a category of ‘near-Arctic’ states should also have a say in the regional infrastructure of governance.” 

Biden Eager to Meet Putin: Deal within Deal

Now, as already mentioned, since the state-controlled mainstream media in China has been “censored” from commenting on the Reykjavik meet, a few select party-backed “leftist” and the state-sponsored foreign policy online platforms have more than revealed the mood in Beijing on the possible implications of the two foreign ministers’ in-person elbow bumping each other. Based on the commentaries, the early reactions in Beijing may be broadly summed up as follows: first, temporary breathing space. Some commentators see the sudden US move to “kiss and make up” with Moscow as a temporary step in order to 铺垫 Pūdiàn (literally meaning to “make bed”) for Biden-Putin meeting scheduled to be held in Geneva next month.

The second reason is the quick short-term diplomatic gain. Following the confirmation last Monday both in Washington and in Moscow that the maiden in-person Biden-Putin summit will be held during Biden’s first foreign trip to Europe as president, several opinion write ups referred back to the Biden-Putin first post-inauguration telephone call held in mid-April, in which Biden reportedly expressed his desire for an early meeting with the Russian counterpart. It is pertinent to recall that the Chinese commentators did not miss to notice that Biden had proposed to meet with Putin amid heavy Russian military building up at the Ukrainian border. At least one Chinese scholar also pointed out Biden was in tearing hurry to meet Putin and “hinted that resolution of the continuing differences between the two military superpowers is not a prerequisite for the summit.”

Third, last but not least, deal within deal. An unsigned commentary on the Xinhua news agency blog last Wednesday, entitled “Shocking how for petty gains Biden can’t wait meeting Putin” claimed to have deconstructed the raison d’être for why Biden is eager to meet Putin. Referring to the secretary of state Antony Blinken’s 19 May announcement of lifting of sanctions on the companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, the commentary termed it as the first of the two deals towards realizing the goal of a summit meeting with Putin. Five days later, the meeting in Geneva between the NSA Jake Sullivan and his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev was described by the Xinhua blog post as specifically called to strike a deal for the early Biden-Putin summit.

Biden will do anything to not let China ‘ride the tiger’

To conclude, it is beyond doubt that Beijing is convinced China is the reason why Washington is more than desperate to “humor” Putin. Since taking office Biden and his foreign policy team has been relentlessly subjecting China under mounting pressure to “give in” but in vain as China continues骑虎难 Qíhǔnánxià or in English “to ride the tiger”. Explaining further, a Chinese scholar said: “Maybe, the Biden administration is softening its policy towards Russia. This is because in recent years the focus of US foreign policy has been shifting from Europe and the Middle East towards Indo-Pacific. There the main target is not Russia but China. In order to defeat China, Biden coerced and lured Western allies to join together. However, due to the difficult situation of fighting China and Russia on the two fronts, it is showing unsustainable fatigue. Besides, the EU too is unwilling to get involved against both Russia and China at the same time.”

Just like Beijing miserably failed in concealing its worries with regards to the recent US success in forging together Quad alliance, the Chinese experts must be in a quandary and under great pressure in telling the party leadership to relax even as reports from Moscow suggest Putin is equally eager, if not more, in shaking hands with Biden instead of a mere elbow bump!                                                                                          

This article was earlier published in under the same title in Modern Diplomacy on 1 June 2021.

Of Western Prejudice and Chinese Victimhood

Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS

Image: The forgotten history of the campaign to purge the Chinese from America
Source: newyorker.com

Much before Trump-Pompeo combined “assault” on China and its ruling communist party, an article penned by a Singapore-based US researcher in Asia Times five years ago accused the communist party leadership of China of taking “victimhood” card to dizzying heights. Richard A. Bitzinger, the author, further claimed “every nation in the Asia-Pacific can claim, with some justification, to be a victim. Even Japan can declare its victimhood, as it was the first (and so far, only) target of nuclear weapons.” A well-known and globally respected scholar in South Korea wrote a decade ago: “the global community must speak with one voice and send China a clear message that it no longer views China as a victim of modern history.”

To most Chinese, including of course the ruling communist party, the above Western narrative demonstrates “the ignorance and prejudice its creators” have long held towards China. However, what Bitzinger and the South Korean professor Jongsoo Lee have been emphatically pointing out over the past decade or so is something new: it’s time China must shed a “victim” mentality. The Western “irritation”, as well as “impatience” with China playing victimhood or “century of humiliation” card, had started following China’s unprecedented economic rise a couple of decades ago. More recently, the worldwide anti-Chinese victim mentality buzz, which was re-launched half a decade ago with China’s “aggression” and “assertiveness” in the South China Sea, reached a crescendo with the global spread of the Covid19 pandemic.

Image: “They thought Jesus and Confucius were
Source: Cambridge.org

This explains why according to the Western narrative, in recent years China’s acute sense of “victimhood” has been more pronounced in the international political arena. In June 2016, as the legal verdict was being awaited on China’s sweeping claims to SCS, the WSJ published a story entitled “The Danger of China’s Victim Mentality” and warned the international community of “Beijing lashing out if a ruling on SCS claims goes against it.” Suddenly, the global media was filled with similar “China against the world” op-ed commentaries. While some genuinely advised China to stop its obsession of playing the victim if the country seriously wished to advance as a society. Others were less charitable and warned China must shed a “victim” mentality. 

At another level, as according to Mark Tischler, a researcher at the Department of East Asian Studies, Tel Aviv University, the fundamental flaw in the Western narrative is, it often overlooks the fact that “China is the first power to challenge the United States” that truly rose from its post-colonial past. (Emphasis added) Perhaps oblivious of how much of China’s modern-day policy is driven by the collective trauma of “victimhood,” a former Indian foreign secretary opined recently “to avenge the ‘Century of Humiliation’ that China endured in the hands of western imperial powers from roughly 1839-1840 to 1949,” the Chinese are pursuing unilateralism instead of compromise in SCS. Moreover, their new brand of “wolf warrior” arrogance is replacing diplomacy of humility of the Zhou Enlai-Deng Xiaoping style, observed the veteran Indian diplomat who also served as ambassador in Beijing. In contrast, Tischler argues the major difference between Beijing’s and Western narrative on “century of humiliation” is the following. For China, it (century of humiliation) means “not just a grim lesson of the past, but also a warning about a possible future.” Hence, the (Chinese) narrative has created “a never again mentality.”

Image: “China and Japan” Source:  factsanddetails.com

Much has been written and published in both Chinese and in English, on China’s victim mentality. Yet the issue has not only not whittled away over the decades since the foundation of New China, instead under Xi Jinping “century of humiliation” has acquired the new meaning of “Chinese rejuvenation” or “Chinese dream,” as it were. Interestingly, in an attempt to twist the “one hundred years of humiliation” narrative into post-Mao or post-Tiananmen Chinese nationalism, some scholars in the West are calling it anti-Western or anti-US Chinese nationalism. Applauding Zheng Wang’s highly acclaimed (Columbia University Press, 2014) Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations, Edward Friedman described the work as “a vivid and well-informed study of post-Mao nationalism and Chinese foreign policy…” 

Furthermore, it is not incorrect to say scholarly claims of “victimhood” being described as the new Chinese fig leaf for anti-West nationalism and to create post-Mao/pre-Mao “victimhood” dichotomy – as the current Western narrative wants us to believe, are fundamentally flawed. A recent article, for example, accuses the Communist Party of China (CPC) of manipulating the so-called victimhood as nothing less than a cynical ploy to exploit Chinese history and the feelings of Chinese people. It is pertinent to mention, though intangible, such a narrative has been receiving a lot of traction in the international media recently. Consider for example some of the following popular writings: “China doesn’t have to keep playing the victim” in Foreign Policy (2018), “China playing victim after attacking Indian soldiers in Galwan” in theprint.in (2020), “The Danger of China’s Victim Mentality” in TWSJ (2016), “China’s dangerous sense of entitled victimhood” in Asia Times (2016), “China’s New Diplomacy: Victim No More” in Foreign Affairs (2003) and so on.

Image: The Victim politics
Source: openthemagazine.com

Though perhaps understudied in the West, like most intellectuals in the late Qing and Republican eras, Mao Zedong too was not only deeply disturbed by the Chinese “century of humiliation,” several of his foreign policy decisions in the early to mid-1950s were heavily influenced by the “victim” mentality. In a seminal paper jointly authored by China’s widely respected historian, professor Yang Kuisong, and his young protégé and a Ph.D. candidate in Chinese history at the Pennsylvania University, Sheng Mao, have highlighted how Mao’s victim mentality impacted his decision which led to two Taiwan Strait crises in 1954-1955 and 1958 respectively. From both crises, according to Yang and Sheng, Mao’s gains were remarkably rewarding and psychologically productive. The first Taiwan Strait crisis – the shelling of Jinmen in 1954 – resulted in Mao succeeding in “forcing the United States to begin ambassador-level talks with China.” The outcome of the second Taiwan crisis in 1958 enabled Mao to declare: “The United States has put itself into our noose.” “The other thing Mao claimed to have achieved from the crises was confirmation of America’s nature as ‘paper tiger’,” Yang and Sheng pointed out

Finally, as we talk of prejudice and victimhood, and as the scholars in the West have firmed up their resolve to force Beijing to “give up” playing “victim” card, one thing is crystal clear in the minds of the current party leadership, i.e., riding on the past success of Mao’s playing “victim” mentality, the current Chinese leadership is too aware of how well the victimhood narrative has been serving China in its diplomatic strategies to put it aside anytime soon. Analyzing how China’s victimhood strategy was on full display at the Anchorage summit in Alaska two months ago, Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, views the Chinese “victim” mentality narrative aimed more at the domestic audience than at the world populace at large. 

Image: China must shed ‘victim’ mentality
Source: South China Morning Post

Well, speaking of prejudices and biases, Michael Barr, author of Who’s Afraid of China (2011) argued a decade ago that “fears of China often say as much about those who hold them as they do about the rising power itself.” The book has been described as holding a mirror to Sino-Western relations in order to better understand ideas about modernity, history, and international relations. It is indeed true the Western bias against China predates the “century of humiliation.” What is also historically undeniable is “on no other major civilization do self-regard, self-congratulation and denigration of the ‘Other’ run as deep, as they have in Western Europe and its overseas extensions,” observed a professor of economic history in a recent article “A Eurocentric Problem.” Not at all a surprise, historian Jeffery Wasserstrom wrote in his review of the book above: “This short book provides a clear-eyed critique of the latest versions of Sinomania and Sinophobia.”

In conclusion, as mentioned above, not only China is not going to stop playing victim and behave like a “normal country” as was recently on display during the first top level bilateral summit between the world’s two largest, hostile economies since President Biden took office. On the contrary, as many in the West fear, and as Beijing perceives the US power as well as dominance continuously declining, China is likely to pursue expansionist policies unchecked. Unlike what many in the West see as the nature of Chinese diplomacy is changing, China knows it is pursuing the same Maoist strategy to trap the US in the Chinese noose. As regards the “wolf warriors,” a seasoned Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming, flaunting “victimhood,” recently offered a tongue-in-cheek explanation: where there is a “wolf”, there is a “warrior”.

*This is a slightly edited version of the article published under the title Of Prejudice and Victimhood. https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2021/05/18/of-prejudice-and-victimhood/