Diluting the One-China Policy: An Intelligence Alliance?

Samanvya Hooda, Research Assistant, ICS

The Galwan clash can be a watershed moment for engagement with China. It is time for our polity to decide whether simply reacting to provocations will continue to be the state of affairs, or if a proactive approach can be adopted.

A simplistic analysis can attribute clashes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to an outstanding border dispute, which if fixed can bring about peace. This is inaccurate; the deaths of twenty Indian soldiers and an unknown number of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops are not the result of historical animosity, but the geopolitical currents guiding both countries. As some scholars have remarked, China’s desire to dominate the region means it wants the option to escalate at the LAC, and always will. A country with hegemonic dreams will seize every opportunity to exercise dominance. This is exacerbated by rivals building the capabilities to fight back – India’s border infrastructure was bound to evoke Chinese escalation. If India deescalates unilaterally, we should reconcile with being deferential to China’s expansionist policies for the foreseeable future. While developing collaborative strategies to deter China will prompt further backlash, it will also bolster India’s efforts to ensure its sovereignty. Policymakers worry about ‘strategic autonomy’, but ignore that consistently mollifying China’s concerns because of its hostility makes us even less ‘autonomous’.

Broad areas of collaboration

While groupings like the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) and a closer US alliance are viable options to contain China, inherent issues in both might take them longer to operationalise. Many have suggested a relook at the One-China policy and improving our Taiwan ties. Attractive as it may be, India alone recognising the legitimacy of Taiwan would not worry China much, and offer very little by way of material gains. However, there are several options below this threshold that merit serious consideration.

India has conducted joint military exercises with the US, Japan and South Korea, but never with Taiwan. This matters as China reportedly has more than 1,500 missiles aimed at Taiwan. India and China both field Russian-origin equipment like Sukhoi jets and soon, the S-400 air defence system. Although the US provides Taiwan with most of its weaponry, India can offer the opportunity to study platforms that may be used against Taiwanese forces. There is room to work together at sea — on coast guard security and with Taiwan’s fledging submarine programme.

There is also an opportunity in the new frontiers of war. Taiwan government networks are reportedly subject to 15 million attacks a month from China, and India has only recently made fledgling steps in developing cyber capabilities. Taiwan’s limited space programme can be boosted by collaboration with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and India can be a huge market for Taiwanese technology investments. These developments engender material gains and posturing benefits, both crucial for standing up to China. However, structural problems will cause them years to materialise fully. While India cannot credibly support Taiwan through a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’, there are other feasible measures available in the short-term. An intelligence alliance with Taiwan would be relatively easy to achieve, vastly improve intelligence gathering/sharing, constitute unprecedented signalling of resolve, and be a significant step towards mitigating Chinese aggression.

Intelligence alliance

The leading intelligence alliance in the world today is Five Eyes, whose constituent countries – the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand — share primarily signals intelligence. Its enduring success lies in the ability to divide limited resources on common areas of concern, while still ensuring complete intelligence coverage. A similar arrangement between India, Taiwan, and perhaps Japan would amplify each country’s intelligence capabilities exponentially.

Some reports indicate Taiwan and India have exchanged intelligence in the past. The covert nature of this cooperation necessitates negligible signalling, with material gains also affected by the lack of official communication channels. Taiwan’s security establishment is almost entirely focussed on the Chinese threat, and can relieve pressure on India’s intelligence network, overextended as it is over two hostile threats on its borders. India’s superior satellite reconnaissance abilities can significantly improve Taiwan’s intelligence network over China, with both countries combining resources in signals intelligence. By combining their intelligence assets and creating channels for a continuous exchange of communications, electronic, geospatial, and human intelligence, the two countries together can achieve better coverage of China than they can individually. By developing the infrastructure to share all China-related intelligence in real-time, a formalised alliance also avoids the bureaucracy and red-tape otherwise accompanying ‘informal’ intelligence sharing.

Japan will certainly be a welcome addition to this alliance, bolstering a united front against China. It would contribute an estimated 19 signals intelligence stations (possibly the third largest in the world) and an extensive underwater surveillance system, among others. India is inducting a variety of electronics intelligence, imaging, and communications satellites for better surveillance. Taiwan is understood to have some of the best human intelligence assets operating against China. While some areas will undoubtedly overlap, constant intelligence sharing between the three countries can result in near-absolute situational awareness of China.

All three countries are on the front line of China’s aggression, and face the brunt of its expansionist policies. Arguably having the most to lose from Chinese hostility, they should be the first to consolidate a containment policy. Why should there be any unwillingness to do so? They have no divergent national interests, or prevailing historical antagonisms. They all face a unifying, substantive threat to their national interests, and all three have a great deal to gain from an intelligence alliance. Other regional countries such as Singapore, Vietnam, and Australia should also be extended invitations in the future. In time, this alliance may even grow to be a third-party grouping to Five Eyes.

A formal and publicised alliance indicates a clear shift away from tip-toeing around policies to deter China. An alliance is more permanent than vague MoUs, and unlike initiatives like joint military exercises cannot wax on and off depending on the polity’s slightest whims (or under threats from China). Presenting a credible, united front also emboldens countries

otherwise struggling to hold China at bay. This trilateral can also be used to posture as a precursor to a possible military alliance, and hence be used to extract concessions from China. By stepping up the escalation ladder and threatening to step further, it would be among the few instances where India, Taiwan, and Japan will own the initiative, rather than only reacting to Chinese actions.

Arresting China’s hostility

Realising that China’s trajectory is inimical to India’s interests allows one to prepare for challenges in the future. Ignoring it and changing nothing may appear a more comfortable option now, but will encourage China to continue its grey zone tactics against India. Efforts such as diluting the One China Policy will undoubtedly draw China’s ire in different ways.India will likely see an escalation in border incidents, Indian Ocean troubles, and Pakistan also joining the fray. But by expanding the scope of possible actions against China, India has more options by which to escalate/de-escalate. This will vastly improve our negotiating position, which is abysmal at the moment. Instituting proactive measures like the intelligence alliance will provide us the tools with which to defend against China, and its constant and inevitable hostility.

Avoiding war while attaining one’s goals is the most desired form of strategy, whether according to Kautilya, Sun Tzu, or Machiavelli. Former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon has hinted China might be “flaunting ambition” too early. Time will tell – but we can’t afford to wait and find out.

Originally published as ‘To check China’s hostility, India, Taiwan and Japan need an intelligence-sharing alliance’ in The Print, 26 June 2020

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

Bihu Chamadia, Research Intern, ICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hariharan Chandrashekaran, Research Intern, ICS

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

COVID-19, China, and the WHO.

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

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

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

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

The Taiwan Cause

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

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

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

Balance of Tide 

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

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

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

Conclusion

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


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


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

Dr. Veda VaidyanathanVisiting Research Associate, ICS

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

Source: AP Photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Akshit Goel, Research Intern, ICS

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

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

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

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

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

The Malacca Dilemma: No panacea but multiple possibilities

Sanjana Krishnan, Research Intern, ICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tanishka, Research Intern, ICS

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Amid the Covid-19 Pandemic: Assessing US-China Relations

Mohd. Adnan, Research Intern, ICS

Before the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic in the United States, Sino-US relations were seemed to be heading towards achieving a bit of normalcy through agreeing the ‘phase one’ trade deal in mid-January 2020. The trade deal was achieved after a round of heated negotiations lasting over a year, when the US formally announced the imposition of tariffs on Chinese imports, in March 2018. This partial trade deal was considered to be a beginning of the US-China collaboration and normalisation of their strained bilateral relations. However, the outbreak of COVID-19 in the US has prompted many in the US administration, specifically US President, to question the Chinese intentions and its handling of Covid-19 pandemic. In response, China questioned United States’ handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. A war of words has taken place from the both sides over the origin and handling of Covid-19 outbreak since early March. Amid the accusations and blame game from both sides, the relations between these two countries significantly deteriorated in the last two months. Amid the unfolding of COVID-19, this blog post explores whether the United States’ belligerent approach towards China in last two months is mere a tactic to gain domestic support regarding the upcoming election or Sino-US relations are, indeed, moving towards a new height of confrontations.

In late January-early February 2020, amid the backdrop of crucial signing of ‘phase-one’ trade deal, it seemed US-China bilateral relations were heading towards normalcy. While China was struggling to contain the Covid-19 outbreak, US President, Donald Trump, on multiple occasions, had praised China’s professionalism and transparency in handling the Covid-19 outbreak. However, in early March, all these changed, when the cases of Covid-19 started to increase in the US. The Trump administration started to question China’s handling of pandemic. There is little doubt that the pandemic had its origins in China and initially, there was cover up by Party-state at the level of Wuhan. But the criticisms on China’s non-transparency, which did cost the world, shouldn’t be seen as a free pass to the US. Even though the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ on 30 January, many countries including the US did not give the virus outbreak serious attention, delaying formulation of effective measures to contain it.

COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted significant human and economic costs to the US -at the time of writing this, around a million people have been infected and above seventy thousand have succumbed to death. Further, US economy has taken a serious hit and the real extent of this damage will only surface once the situations started to normalise, with many equating it with the Great Depression before the World War II. Unemployment rate in US has hit record high more than 22 million people have applied for financial aid as of mid-April. According to the ‘advance’ estimate data provided by Bureau of Economic Analysis, United States’ real  gross domestic product has contracted 4.8 per cent in the first-quarter of 2020 and it is expected the things will get worse before improving in the second half of the year. The US President’s repeated statements to open economic production at the earliest, indicates the desperation of the administration in an election year.

The approval rating of President Donald Trump has declined since the outbreak of Covid-19. In an article published by CNBC on 25 April, it was noted, ‘in January, (US president) Trump planned to run for re-election on the strength of a booming economy and a pledge to keep fighting the “deep state” government bureaucracy. But that all ended as soon as the coronavirus pandemic gained a foothold in the United States’. To augment this argument, on April 17, in a leaked report obtained by Politico, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent a 57-page written Memo to its electoral candidates advising how to counter the candidates of the Democratic Party. In the short version of this Memo, Republican candidates have been advised to follow China-centric issues; like how China caused this pandemic by ‘lying’ and ‘covering it up’ and ‘hoarding of medical equipment’. Further, it also advised to present, China as an ‘adversary’ and the Democratic candidates, as ‘soft on China’, while Republicans were ‘tough’, being capable of confronting China. Moreover, on 29 April, in an interview with Reuters news agency, Trump directly accused China of seeking his loss in his re-election bid. It seems that the delicate predicament that emerged due to the COVID-19 has prompted the Trump administration to shift the blame towards China in the run up to the Presidential election in November 2020.

Moving on, the recent blame game and deteriorating relations between the US and China is not only limited to domestic compulsions but they are, indeed, moving towards a new height of confrontations. Along with the United States’ belligerent postures, China, too, has adopted an aggressive and assertive approach, which has not been seen in recent years. In the process of blaming each other, a war of information has taken place between the US and China. While Beijing was busy to burnish its image and enhance legitimacy – tarnished by its initial mishandling of the outbreak – by sending medical teams and equipment around the world to assist the fight against COVID-19, Washington DC used every opportunity to ratchet up tensions, starting with multiple accusations on China’s non-transparency and suppression of crucial information. In mid-April, President Trump even questioned the authenticity of Chinese data on the infected cases and reported deaths.

In retaliation, China accused that the US was unable to handle the pandemic therefore it is trying to shift the blame. Theories such as ‘Corona virus was brought by the US military in Wuhan’ and ‘Chinese model of governance is better than the democracy’ were also propagated. On 28 April, amid the accusations of ‘covering up’ and not being ‘transparent’, China’s Executive Vice Foreign Minister, Le Yucheng, in an interview with NBC questioned United States’ handling of the  outbreak and denied the accusations that China has ‘covered up’ and ‘under-reported’ the Covid-19 cases and deaths. He further added, ‘unfortunately, some political figures are politicizing this Covid-19. They are using this virus to stigmatize China. This is not something we are willing to see’. In this war of information to enhance one’s legitimacy and degrade the other, questions have also been raised over the role and authenticity of WHO; the US administration has even halted their funding to the WHO, accusing them of complicity in Beijing’s initial cover-up.

The US is targeting China’s State Owned Enterprises (SOE) – earlier in April, several US executive agencies urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to revoke the license of operation of China Telecom in US territory, citing risks for national security. In this regard, the FCC sent a ‘show cause’ notice to three state-controlled Chinese telecommunications operators including China Telecom. The US is also planning to impose severe restrictions on its own companies from exporting certain technological products, especially the semiconductor production equipment, to companies related with Chinese military.

Amid the devastating effect of COVID-19, world’s reliance on China for essential supply has come into spotlight. The call to bring back home or relocate major US companies’ production units away from China in the height of trade confrontation has intensified. Earlier in April, Larry Kudlow, US National Economic Council Director, advocated the same by ‘paying moving costs’. Further, several US Senators have also been voicing the same in order to reduce dependency for essential supplies.

Issues such as South China Sea dispute, Hong Kong protests, Taiwan, and human rights have been flaring-up between these two states. The pandemic has not constrained China in being assertive in South China Sea – it placed the administrative jurisdictions of Spratly and Parcel Islands under the Sansha administrative unit – a city in the island of Hainan. Apart from that, China has also collided with other claimant countries in the disputed South China Sea. In early April, a Vietnamese fishing boat was drowned by a Chinese maritime vessel. Various other incidents have occurred where Chinese coastguard vessels have been seen posturing aggressively in the whole region including South China Sea. In response to this, the US has increased its maritime patrolling in the disputed area; US warships have sailed through the disputed areas on two separate occasions evoking harsh criticism from China.

The Taiwan issue has remained contentious in US-China relations. While, over the years, Beijing, has been trying to curb Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic relations. The US, on 26 March, enacted a law called as ‘The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative, which  requires the US, to assist Taiwan in acquiring memberships in international organisations where statehood is not a precondition and also proposes to take unspecified action against countries which ‘undermine the prosperity and security of Taiwan’. This move by the US, expectedly, drew severe criticism from China accusing the US of ‘interfering’ in its internal matters by ‘violating’ the principle of ‘One China’ Policy.

While it appears, to a large extent, that the recent anti-China rhetoric by the US administration is politically motivated by domestic electoral compulsions, there are factors that go beyond that. These recent developments only indicate the further deterioration of relations between both the countries. It may be surmised that the trade deal will not necessarily reduce the tensions. Until the US continues to perceive China as a challenger to its hegemony, it is unlikely that relations between them will be of mutual collaboration and cooperation.

Western Balkans: China’s Gateway to Europe

Priyanka Madia, Research Intern, ICS

China’s Gateway to Europe

Western Balkans is one of the significant regions in southeastern Europe, which has been waiting to be a part of the European Union (EU) for a long time. Comprising six countries, namely, Albania, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia, together they constitute the south-western arc of Europe. They are among the lesser developed of the European countries but are aspirants for membership of the EU. For China, the region is significant as a gateway to Europe because of their geographical positions and the lower developmental levels, which makes them particularly susceptible to Chinese offers of investment, credits, and trade. This makes the Western Balkans an essential component of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The focus of BRI has been towards developing connectivity corridors across Eurasia. The land corridor or the Belt, in the shape of highways, railroads,  pipelines, and digital networks, intend connecting China’s manufacturing and logistics bases like Chongqing(Sichuan) to Duisburg (Germany). Also, Hungary has emerged as a key logistics base for Chinese companies. At the European end of the Belt, China has invested heavily in acquiring significant ports such as Piraeus in Greece, which are also a terminus for the Road or the maritime routes from China.

The Greek economic crisis gave a golden opportunity to China to establish itself at the port of Piraeus. COSCO, the Chinese state-owned company, has been operating the Greek container port since 2008. In 2017, it acquired 67% of its shares. In view of the strained financial conditions of the Western Balkan countries, which are being exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19, China is in a position to establish its dominance in these countries quite easily, with little support forthcoming from the EU or the U.S. While these countries are not yet members of the EU, they are less constrained in accepting Chinese FDI or credits. This is the reason why the EU is especially apprehensive of the China-CEE or 17+1 Forum, which Greece has joined recently. Several EU members participate in the Forum along with non-member countries, including those from the Western Balkans. The Forum has become a significant instrument to advance Chinese influence in Europe to the detriment of the EU.

Chinese penetration in Western Balkans is being achieved through an array of instruments such as FDI, government-to-government credits, outright grants, favorable trade deals, etc. Despite remaining outside of the EU, the region attracted 147 greenfield FDI projects in 2018, the highest number of investments for six years. Serbia accounted for the lion’s share (70%) of Western Balkan’s greenfield projects in 2018, Bosnia-Herzegovina accounted for 11.6%, despite attracting four fewer greenfield projects than in 2017, according to fDi Markets. On the other hand, Montenegro performed well in 2018, attracting a record 11 greenfield FDI projects. According to the latest annual FDI Markets statistics, Albania and North Macedonia received $184.4 million and $809.9 million of inbound greenfield funds, respectively, as the number of inbound greenfield projects grew by 200% and 80% compared to the same duration a year before.

Soft-power diplomacy such as the setting up of Confucius Institutes, scholarships, and people-to-people exchanges also play an imperative role in terms of penetrating Western Balkans. Under Confucius Institutes, there are higher educational institutes set up in southeast Europe. These institutions host Chinese cultural programs, provide Chinese language, culture, and also host Chinese political, social, and economy-related seminars. Confucius Institutes are operated by the Han Ban, a part of China’s Ministry of Education. Over 10,000 students are currently studying the Chinese language in respective countries of the western Balkan region. Cultural centers set up by the Chinese government are also a vital step to maintain cultural diplomacy.

Another critical component of China’s soft power diplomacy is tourism. Visa liberalization and simplification has attracted a lot of tourist from China and undoubtedly lead to the flourishing of tourism industries in Western Balkans countries. China is also gaining additional credit through its assistance to these countries in their fight against the COVID-19.

The Western Balkans are a congenial target for China’s Eurasian diplomacy and offer them a south-western entry point to Europe. Chinese have been able to identify and understand the regions which are not catching up well with their economy and having infrastructural issues; perhaps China has addressed those regions with a structural solution. Studying China’s involvement in Western Balkans gives an outlook that China is filling the gap which the European Union (EU) has not been able to address. The position of the EU here is being undermined by aggressive Chinese diplomacy, mainly through the BRI.

A geo-economic and political logic drives China’s increased engagement in the Western Balkans. Her main motive could be to use the Western Balkans as a commercial platform for Western Europe, as Beijing is eager to search for markets. While the EU remains preoccupied with its fight against the pandemic and is beset by continuing threat of fragmentation, the COVID-19 pandemic may offer even more opportunities for consolidation of Chinese influence in Western Balkans.

Fang Fang: Literary Voice of Dissent Amid China’s Coronavirus Disaster

The party’s ill-governance of the deadly virus has given birth to a new critical voice: Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary.

Hemant Adlakha, Ph.D., Honorary Fellow, ICS and Professor of Chinese at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Fang Fang 方方 picture

Fang Fang is definitely not the most famous living writer in China, but she is revered by hundreds and thousands of Chinese as the literary voice of COVID19-stricken China. Even before the outbreak, Fang had published widely in different genres and won several literary awards, including China’s most prestigious Lu Xun Literary Prize in 2010. Until recently, she served as vice president of the Hubei Writer’s Association. Having spent her early and late childhood during the tumultuous Great Leap Forward years and adolescent years in the cataclysmic decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), she worked as a porter for four years to support her family before entering Wuhan University to study literature in her early 20s in the 1970s. Fang Fang’s early works, mostly short stories, concentrated mainly on poor Wuhanese – from urban factory workers to the city’s middle-class intellectuals – part of China’s “new realism” literature. Born into a literati family in 1955, she inherited the legacy of the May Fourth socialist realism and her own experiences of a struggling life made her remain committed to social consciousness. According to well-known Chinese literary critic Han Shaogong, “the secret of Fang Fang’s success is that she can capture the complexities of an ever-changing life without losing its thread.”  

Now, she is famous for another reason: her Wuhan Diary posted on social media. Also called the Quarantine Diary, the daily account of the locked down city’s millions of inhabitants’ untold sufferings during the ongoing health crisis has recast Fang Fang from a well-known literary figure into China’s most revered living literary voice of dissent. Her fans in China are already proclaiming her to be the conscience of Wuhan.   

On the night of February 7, Dr. Li Wenliang, who was reprimanded for warning about the coronavirus on social media, lay dead in the quarantine ward of the Wuhan Central Hospital. The same day, the first page of the Wuhan Diary was put up on Fang Fang’s WeChat account, and disappeared within hours. But before being taken down by China’s cyber censors, her Wuhan Diary had gone viral with thousands of re-posts. Fang Fang already enjoyed 3.5 million followers on social media even before she began chronicling her life during Wuhan’s quarantine. Wuhan Diary first appeared on day 14 of Wuhan’s lockdown. The latest page of the diary (as of this writing), entitled “Let’s see if you scare me!” was put up on March 20, on Day 57. “Dear internet censors, you should let Wuhan people speak,” Fang wrote recently, as quoted by Kiki Zhao in the New York Times.“If you don’t allow us to express our anguish or complaints or reflections, do you want us to go really mad?”

Interestingly, throughout nearly two months of lockdown and three months since the central authorities confirmed and publicly announced the coronavirus outbreak, each entry in Fang’s Wuhan Diary has been consistently deleted by Beijing’s censors within an hour or so of it being posted on Fang’s social media page. Yet each post has gone viral before being struck down, being shared by millions of WeChatters within China and abroad. More committed fans of Fang Fang are happily and with great enthusiasm sharing the entire series. Some of Fang Fang’s censored posts are being archived by China Digital Times (CDT) in Chinese, and Fang Fang’s Caixin blog is one of the multitudes of sources being preserved on the nCoVMemory Github, a repository of personal narratives from the outbreak in China.          

CDT has also translated her censored WeChat post entitled “As long as we survive” in which, as CDT puts it,“Fang Fang expresses the frustrations of lockdown, laments the many displaced and affected by the virus, lauds the brave journalists attempting to uncover truth amid propaganda, and demands accountability from those who allowed the situation to develop.” The post begins:

“It is cloudy again and a bit chilly, but not too cold. I walked out to look at the sky. A sky without sunshine is somewhat gloomy and dismal, I thought. The article I posted on WeChat yesterday was deleted again, and my Weibo account has also once again been blocked. I thought I couldn’t post on Weibo anymore, and then found out that they only censored yesterday’s post and that new posts can still be published. It made me instantly happy. Alas, I am like a frightened bird. I no longer know what I can say and what I can’t. When it comes to something as important as this fight against the epidemic, I’m cooperating fully with the government and obeying all their commands. I’m now just short of taking an oath with a fist over my heart – is this still not enough?”

It is no exaggeration to say the ongoing swelling debate over Wuhan Diary on both WeChat and Weibo – China’s main social media platforms – has led to a near vertical split among the country’s educated millions. Viewed in the context of how Charter 08, a manifesto for constitutional reforms issued by Liu Xiaobo and others, jangled the nerves of the Communist Party of China more than a decade ago, Wuhan Diary and the emerging discourse it has triggered have to be understood in the context of political criticism at home during the current health crisis, the critics in China are telling us. Of course, both supporters and opponents of Fang Fang can be found in large numbers.For example, one online group of Fang’s detractors spelled out 20 reasons why Wuhan Diary deserves to be rejected and condemned. Reason 20 for “Why we are opposed to Fang Fang” — as the group is called in English – reads: “Some people are really weird and crazy. The more they have to appear in front of the public, the more they show off. These people easily get excited and go berserk. They fiercely start attacking all those who disagree with them. When provoked, these people will not only bully others. They will even pull out a gun if necessary!” But each Wuhan Diary post has also inspired hundreds of her supporters and eliciting comments from them. One comment reads: “Dr. Li Wenliang and Wuhan Quarantine Diary are ‘flowers of thought’ and ‘flowers of Wuhan’ that bloomed in the blood and tears of Wuhanese people during the epidemic period. Blooming in spring in early February, she is destined to be ‘cold and crystal clear’ and eye-catching. I hope she is always blooming.”     

The controversial and at times acrimonious debate over Wuhan Diary touches on a wide range of issues – political, social, cultural. But a fundamentally disturbing aspect of the debate invokes the specter of the Cultural Revolution. A few days ago, an “open letter” written by a 16-year-old boy challenging Fang Fang, not only sent shockwaves through China’s netizens but it shook everyone who had experienced the 10 chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution – including Fang Fang. The reason for the shock, according to Li Yongzhong, China’s leading anti-corruption scholar-expert, is that “our generation, including Fang Fang, always thinks that the Cultural Revolution has gone, at least our generation will never see the Cultural Revolution again.” But the open-letter by the high school student rekindled the memories of the nightmare that teenager Red Guards unleashed to commit violence, especially targeting intellectuals.        

Thus readers of Fang Fang, and perhaps even some of her detractors who were wounded during the Cultural Revolution, profusely thanked her for her befitting reply to her teenage provocateur in March 18’s Wuhan Diary entry: “Son, all your doubts will be answered sooner or later. But remember, those will be your answers to yourself.” And hundreds and thousands of Wuhanese and people all over China continue to impatiently wait for her next Wuhan Diary page.

This article was earlier published in The Diplomat under the title ‘Fang Fang: The ‘Conscience of Wuhan’ Amid Coronavirus Quarantine’ on 23 March 2020.