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.

Following RCEP “victory,” China’s CPTPP challenge to Biden

Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS and Associate Professor, JNU

Straight from celebrating the signing of the world’s largest trade pact, the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Chinese President Xi Jinping surprised everyone when he announced at the virtual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit five days later that China will actively consider joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade agreement.

Why is Beijing suddenly interested in joining a trade bloc that was initially pitched as anti-China? China’s state-controlled media has been very candid in stating that Beijing’s desire to join the CPTPP is strategically timed and aimed at a possible reconciliation with the United States under President-elect Biden. In a commentary released just a day after Xi made the announcement, the state-owned CCTV’s English language news and current affairs channel, CGTN, said: “With the incoming Biden administration now on the horizon, China has decided the ‘strategic time’ is now right to actively consider joining the CPTPP.”

CGTN acknowledged that the agreement, first orchestrated as the Trans-Pacific Partnership four years ago under the Obama administration, was framed as a trade counterweight to China. Now, however, CGTN pronounced the biggest takeaway from Xi’s interest in the CPTPP is that China is serious about expanding multilateral free trade and that, ultimately, does not view the trading system as a zero-sum game, as it has been depicted by the Trump administration.

On the other hand, a report on November 21 in the “hawkish” pro-establishment Global Times was far more forthcoming on the political motives. The Global Times’ story, entitled “China’s interest in CPTPP membership seen as a chance to ease Sino-U.S. tensions,” posited that Beijing is gauging the headwinds in Washington by signaling to the incoming Biden administration that China is ready to evolve away from the tense standoffs of the Trump era. Citing Wang Huiyao, the pro-U.S. and influential president of the Beijing-based Centre for China and Globalization, the Global Times article emphasized that unlike RCEP, the “CPTPP represents the world’s highest-level free trade agreement, and China’s interest in joining it shows the country’s desire and determination for deeper, higher-level opening up.”

Xi’s comments were not the first time China’s top leadership has expressed a desire to join the 11-country trade pact. In May of this year, Premier Li Keqiang became the first top-ranking Chinese leader to publicly confirm China’s interest in the CPTPP. At a press conference at the end of the 13th National People’s Congress, in reply to a specific question by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun as to whether China had a plan to join, the Chinese premier said: “China has a positive and open attitude toward joining CPTPP.”

Although Li’s remark was widely picked up by the international press, official Chinese media, including the Global Times, were conspicuously silent about the premier’s reply. However, the semi-official authoritative financial Caixin prominently headlined Li’s statement as “Premier Sends ‘Powerful’ Signal for China to Join Asia-Pacific’s Largest Trade Pact.”

Interestingly, the second influential Chinese figure to publicly advocate for China to join the CPTPP trade pact was none other than the senior financial commentator Hu Shuli, who is also the chief editor of Caixin. Charles Finny, an international trade expert and a senior official in New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, cited Hu’s comment in an article he wrote for the Auckland-based Asia Media Centre in July.

But not everyone outside China is willing to yet take at face value what CGTN and the Global Times would want us to believe – that China’s keenness in joining the Asia Pacific trade pact “is a kind of ‘Chinese vow’ on promoting Asia-Pacific cooperation and globalization.” Earlier on, when Li first indicated in his low-key tone some interest in joining the CPTPP, skeptics outside of China had read Li’s remark as a slap in the face for the U.S., as both the Trump administration and the Democrats were generally opposed to Washington (re-)joining the trade pact. That was made apparent from the headline of one article published within days of Li’s remarks: “Trumping the U.S.; China could join CPTPP.” The author claimed that China’s membership in the CPTPP would also underline its growing position as the pre-eminent superpower in the West Pacific.

As the “repository” nation among the CPTPP members, New Zealand has denied receiving from China a formal expression of interest in joining the pact. This indicates that, riding on the success of the recent signing of RCEP, China is fully aware of the potential opponents to its entry among the CPTPP’s 11 member nations. For example, even if true that Japan’s newly elected Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has clearly indicated interest in expanding CPTPP membership next year, when it is Japan’s turn to host the CPTPP leaders’ summit, it is not hidden from anyone that Japan is highly suspicious on trade matters. Remember, Japan has been negotiating a three-way free trade agreement with South Korea and China since 2002.

Besides, most of the Japanese business and political elite is convinced that China will never join the CPTPP, at least not in the near future. Miyake Kuni, in a recent article in Japan Today, argued that by announcing China’s willingness to consider joining the CPTPP, Xi is indulging in pure propaganda. Miyake is a former career diplomat and currently serves as special adviser to Suga’s Cabinet. Miyake, critical of Beijing’s role in negotiating RCEP, feels that the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might have been emboldened after RCEP to believe that China can join, change, and remake the rules of regional trade under a new TPP. “Based on my experience as Japan’s chief negotiator for trade in services at the World Trade Organization from 1994 to 1996, I don’t expect China to abide by the ordinary rules or regulations for joining the free trade agreement,” Miyaki opined.

Digging deeper into China’s real purpose behind indicating a desire to join CPTPP, a recent commentary in the Chinese-language version of the Financial Times claims that pushing for more globalization is Beijing’s latest mantra to tackle the U.S.-led China containment strategy. Written by Beijing-based scholar Cao Xin, secretary general of the International Opinion Research Center, Charhar Institute – an influential “liberal” think tank in Beijing – the article tried to explain China’s sudden interest in joining CPTPP, almost like a twin declaration following the RCEP, as exclusively aimed at the U.S. “China very well knows that developing closer economic and trade relations with other countries in the world is the most effective way to hit back at the ‘contain China’ policy being carried out by the United States and its allies,” Cao wrote.

Finally, in the two months before Biden the oath of office as U.S. president, China is going to be more and more aggressive in forging as many as multilateral and bilateral economic and trade agreements as possible. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently visited Seoul after spending two days in Tokyo, trying to expedite the signing of the China-Japan-South Korea FTA. Recently, Chinese Ambassador to Germany Wu Ken assured business leaders and political elites that Germany and the EU stand to gain momentum from China’s “dual circulation” policy as China pushes an end-of-year goal for the China-EU bilateral investment pact.

But even Cao’s special column in FT Chinese notes the reconciliatory mood toward Washington that is currently prevalent in Beijing. With the prospect of Biden moving into the White House next month, the CCP leadership, it seems, is working out a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, Beijing will seek to put the new U.S. administration under pressure from the very start by openly extending an olive branch. On the other hand, it will look to “encircle” the U.S. by developing economic and trade relationships with more and more countries that are American partners and allies.

Originally published as With RCEP Complete, China Eyes CTPTT in The Diplomat on December 1, 2020

North Korea’s Strategic Significance to China

Pritish Gupta, Research Intern, ICS

The Chinese saying ‘if the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold’ has often underscored the relationship between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The standard perception that China has been North Korea’s natural ally and strategic asset never lost resonance. Geographical proximity and ideological similarities also played a significant role in the bilateral relationship. However, as Kim Jong-un came to power in December 2011 and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions began to be purposefully pursued, China’s North Korea policy evolved with a strategic orientation.

Under President Xi Jinping, as Beijing began to increasingly identify itself as a great power, it adopted a more pragmatic approach towards the Korean peninsula. With a sharp strategic competition with the United States over the years, North Korea has become an important vector in China’s evolving foreign policy in pursuit of Xi’s Chinese dream.

The 2017-18 crisis on the Korean peninsula sparked a debate in Beijing’s questioning its continued support to Pyongyang, though Beijing continued with its North Korea policy, which is based on the geopolitical calculus.

The question of stability on the Korean Peninsula

In terms of China’s interests in the Korean peninsula, North Korea acts as a variable in regional competition with the United States. It maintains cordial relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) while maintaining its strategic influence in the region. Beijing is apprehensive about any conflict in its backyard as it may jeopardize its strategic advantage on the Korean peninsula. In case of an imminent threat to its regime, North Korea may resort to a conflict with South Korea, which would lead to instability and uncertainty in the region. Clearly, Beijing prioritizes a peaceful and stable Korean peninsula over the denuclearization of the DPRK. The collapse of the regime may invite all the stakeholders, the United States, South Korea, and China, to intervene militarily to stabilize the peninsula, which might prove to be detrimental to the Chinese interests.

Beijing opposes Pyongyang’s nuclear program but prefers peace and stability over a full-blown conflict. Beijing fears that a direct intervention from the United States and South Korea over DPRK’s nuclear program may result in a unified Korean peninsula. The challenges of a unified peninsula could also pose concerns for Beijing. China has stuck to its principle of ‘no war, no instability, and no nukes’ to avoid any conflict on its borders. North Korea acts as a buffer state for China against South Korea as well as the presence of US troops. It plays well for Beijing that the North Korean regime remains intact where it acts as leverage on the backdrop of US rebalancing to Asia.

Avoiding a refugee crisis

One of the main concerns for China will be dealing with a refugee crisis if there is a potential conflict across the China-North Korea border. Both countries share an 880-mile border. Given any escalation of economic stress in North Korea, there would be a significant number of North Koreans seeking refuge in China, which could result in a humanitarian crisis. It would be a herculean task for the People’s Liberation Army to prevent North Koreans from crossing the border. China’s northeast provinces would always remain vulnerable with the development of any future events on the Korean peninsula.

Economic Aid

Beijing’s potential leverage over Pyongyang is also important for the survival of the North Korean regime. China has been the source of continued assistance to the hermit kingdom. Beijing has always found ways to skirt the sanctions imposed by the United States in the wake of the nuclear program. China has been cautious in dealing with North Korea over denuclearization, which might instigate instability. It understands that any response from Pyongyang may have an adverse effect on the bilateral relationship, Chinese interests and may diminish Beijing’s influence.

US-China equation

The Korean peninsula is a strategic theatre for great power competition between the United States and China. China’s strategic priority has been to contain the US influence in the region. Talks between the United States and North Korea have stalled after the failure of the Hanoi summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. The Biden administration would vary in the fact that its foreign policy approach should push for normalizing relations with North Korea. The withering of the US’s multilateral trade framework in Asia favors China’s interests. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited China twice before the proposed US-North Korea summits, which strengthened Beijing’s position with respect to the negotiations between both the countries. Also, the possibility of a trilateral alliance between the United States, Japan, and South Korea against China is never ruled out.

Way forward

The global pandemic and fraught relations between the United States and China may impede the prospects of a resolution of the crisis on the peninsula. Though, China has expressed its willingness to play a productive role in the political solution of the issue along with other stakeholders. The targeted sanctions on North Korea have done little to contain its nuclear program. The resumption of the Six-Party Talks could lead to a breakthrough in the negotiations. The new US administration would have its hands full after taking charge with the issue of the Korean peninsula still unresolved and US-China relations at an all-time low. The coronavirus pandemic has led to North Korea being more dependent on Beijing as well. The normalization of relations would give an opening to the American policymakers to work towards the reduction of troops in South Korea, thus reducing the tensions in the region, but if denuclearization of North Korea continues to be a precondition by the Biden administration for normalization of relations and easing of crippling economic sanctions on North Korea, then chances of any forward movement towards peace are rather slim. Though, it is understandable that Beijing’s support for Pyongyang would continue for the foreseeable future, and Beijing’s role would be central in the resolution of the crisis.

The Progression of Chinese Soft Power

Aadil Sud, Research Intern, ICS

           In politics, soft power has often been described as the ability to be able to persuade or attract other political actors to support your own interests. It shuns the traditional carrot and stick approach, and strives to attract and co-opt, rather than coerce, seeking instead to achieve influence by building networks and making a country naturally attractive to the world. The most popular definition of this concept was given by Joseph Nye, who stated that soft power was “when one country gets other countries to want what it wants”. Over the years, many different aspects of soft power have been talked about. Some of the most common forms of soft power promotion are a country’s global image, political prestige, and cultural capital.

China is a country that has over the past decades invested heavily in its soft power capabilities, often accompanying its hard power strategies with soft power parlance. A good example of this has been China’s ‘historical’ claims to territory in the South China Sea, which they state had been controlled by China even before the rise of modern nation-states, trying to add more legitimacy to their claims. To date, it has also promoted itself heavily in the fields of diplomacy, education, culture, and economics as well, which have resulted in tremendous returns for them.

Soft power was explicitly referenced for the first time at the seventeenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2007, where former president Hu Jintao stated that “The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will definitely be accompanied by the thriving of Chinese culture”. Xi Jinping was further quoted as saying in 2014 that “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world”.

To this end, China has made efforts to increase its diplomatic power, overtaking the USA to have the largest diplomatic force in the world in 2019. It has also made a concerted effort to promote Chinese culture, focusing on language, art, music, and movies. One of its biggest achievements in this has been the spread of Confucius Institutes around the world. Having criticised Confucius for decades, the CCP has since co-opted interest in pre-modern Chinese culture, recognising that Confucius is one of the more recognisable intellectual minds outside of China, and has avoided negative connotations like those surrounding leaders like Mao. Starting in 2004, China began “establishing non-profit public institutions which aim to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries”. As of 2019, there were an estimated 550 institutes around the world. This has been part of the push to spread and increase interest in Chinese language education around the world. Another similar push has also been implemented in countries like Nepal, where China proposed covering the salaries of teachers who teach Mandarin, resulting in many schools making learning the language compulsory.

Another aspect of Chinese soft power, in the current world climate, has been touting the efficiency of its system of governance. Before the pandemic, China united countries behind the leadership of Xi Jinping, attempting to usurp the influence of a rapidly declining America under Donald Trump, which was heading towards further isolationism and walking back from previously agreed trade and climate deals. The most important issues where China has strived to integrate itself and replace the role of the USA includes, but is not limited to the Paris Climate Agreement, negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as with trade issues. It has showcased China under President Xi and the CCP as a conscientious leader, willing to sacrifice its own interests for those needed to combat issues like climate change. Since the advent of the pandemic, there has been a renewed interest in showcasing China’s institutional advantage worldwide. With the failures of liberal democracies around the world to control the spread of the pandemic, and with China effectively quarantining the epicentre of the pandemic, registering only around 80000 cases, China’s governance system has been touted as extremely effective in crisis situations.

This, combined with discourse about how a difference in attitudes between the East and the West influenced the handling of the pandemic, have resulted in a highly politicised soft power tussle, with Trump blaming China for the virus, referring to it as the “Chinese Virus”. Conversely, China has also made efforts to shift the blame onto western countries such as France and the USA and tried to raise international goodwill by donating medical equipment and supplies to many countries in need. Along with this, it has also engaged in pandemic propaganda. For example, China mobilised 5000 medicinal practitioners in support of their response to the virus, and proposed vaccines based on traditional Chinese herbal medicines. According to Prof. Ji Zhe, more than 90% of China’s cured cases had made some or the other use of such herbs, very similar to how certain sections of society in India have touted Ayurveda and immunity boosting as effective ways to combat the pandemic. While the effectiveness of such medicines is a separate issue, it has become highly politicised, as it has been portrayed as Chinese products, pushed forward by the CCP, which had been used to save the Chinese people (and can be used to save others across the world).

Finally, with the projected global recession, China has sought to improve its appeal economically as well. This, for them, would improve chances of governments working with the CCP, as a way to boost their economies in the post-pandemic period. This has been matched with a widespread admiration for the way China has successfully transitioned from a low-income country to a middle-income one very rapidly. The Chinese growth miracle has been one of its biggest successes, and one of its biggest attractions as well. For example, the Barbadian Prime Minister David Thompson has expressed admiration for the Chinese economic model and sought to emulate the way Chinese state-controlled banks guided development, both within China, and abroad. This has, in recent years, been combined with their promotion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s economic heft has also been used to promote the One China policy, where countries have been offered low-interest loans with the only preconditions being to recognise the PRC as the ‘real’ China, a method that has been immensely successful for them in the past.

However, the CCP’s efforts to promote Chinese soft power have often been met with many obstacles in the past, as well as currently. For many years, China has been seen as an imperialist nation by many of its neighbours, and by others around the world (due to, for example, its territorial tensions in the China Seas and beyond, with Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, as well as in Southeast Asia), something that has dampened excitement of integrating with the Chinese growth miracle. This has been exacerbated by allegations and concerns of falling into a debt trap over the BRI, which takes on more concern amidst a pandemic-induced recession, decreasing the pull of China as both an economic and political partner for many. Concurrently, China’s recent actions relating to Hong Kong, accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, as well as concerns over similar actions in Tibet have served to reduce trust and raise criticism of the Chinese state. According to Dr. Victoria Tin-Bor-Hui, international opinion of China around the world currently is at its lowest point since 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square agitations.

As we can see, China’s soft power, as well as its efforts to promote the same, are something many countries around the world can learn from. The CCP has learnt very effectively, that soft power does not only revolve around Nye’s erstwhile definition of it, but also includes aspects that may have come under traditional hard power tactics. However, we again see the importance of good relations with other countries, as despite all their achievements, China is often portrayed as having several black marks against it, that has served to reduce the willingness and interest of many countries to outright ally with it, as opposed to offering them issue-based support – which is the nature of world politics today. However, China’s pull – culturally, economically, politically, as well as technologically cannot be ignored, and has played a large part in how they have managed to secure a preeminent place in world politics, and solidified themselves as a major actor in issues around the world, providing a direct challenge to the US-based hegemony that we see in our world today.

The Lasting Effects of Hong Kong’s National Security Law

Aadil Sud, Research Intern, ICS

In early May 2020, China announced its plan to draft a new National Security Law (NSL) for Hong Kong, a move long required under Hong Kong basic law, but that too should have explicitly been written and enacted by the Hong Kong government. According to the South China Morning Post (South China Morning Post, 2020), the National People’s Congress Standing Committee unanimously voted to enact the law into power, taking effect the same day. This was a significant move as the law was passed weeks after it was announced, bypassing the Hong Kong legislature, with the text being kept secret from the public and even the Hong Kong government until it was enacted. It drew diverse reactions from around the world, most notably from the US, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the decision the ‘latest in a series of actions that fundamentally undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms’ and certified to congress that Hong Kong was no longer autonomous, with President Trump announcing that his administration would end Hong Kong’s trade privileges. The UK also announced that if passed, Britain would open a route for all Hong Kong residents born under British rule to apply for and become British citizens, numbering to almost three million people.

Under the law, acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with a foreign country are all seen as endangering national security. The law has been met with criticism by activists domestically as well as internationally. According to human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, ‘Endangering national security’ remains a very vague term that can be used to refer to anything and everything. The terms are so broadly defined that they can become catch-all offences used in politically motivated prosecutions with potentially heavy penalties. The law gives central, as well as Hong Kong governments the power to oversee and manage schools, social organisations, media, and the internet in Hong Kong. Additionally, suspects can be removed to Mainland China, with cases being tried within the Mainland criminal justice system and under their laws, which is of major concern, as China has an estimated conviction rate of 99% in Mainland courts.

This move has caused massive changes within the legal capacities of investigating authorities, allowing them to search properties, restrict travel, freeze assets, and engage in covert surveillance without a court order. Authorities can also require information from organisations and people even if it is self-incriminating and have the power to levy fines or imprisonment for failure to comply, a gross dilution of human and internationally agreed human rights. The passing of the law has acted as a death knell to the Hong Kong democratic movement. One of the more high-profile arrests was that of Jimmy Lai, the publisher of the pro-democracy paper Apple Daily, who was arrested on suspicion of foreign collusion. Additionally, as the law does not differentiate between Hong Kong citizens and overseas activists, the police have issued warrants for democracy activists living abroad as well, the first time that people not living in the city have been targeted. This has led many legal experts in Chinese law to state that the re-evaluation of extradition and legal assistance agreements is a necessary move that foreign countries must make, to be able to protect their people in exercising their rights to free speech and expression.

The law has purposefully been left vague, which prevents people from understanding how and when they are in violation of it. This has led to the shutdown of numerous social media accounts run by activists and organisations, the removal of banners and stickers in support of the protests by shops and restaurants, and even moves such as libraries sorting out books on ‘sensitive’ issues (and those critical of the government). Many leaders of Hong Kong political groups and student-led movements have since resigned, citing the new law as the causative factor behind them. This has resulted in the disbanding of important groups such as Demosisto, over fears of being labelled as ‘colluding with foreign forces’.

Legal aspects aside, the new law has also had a massive impact on academic freedom. According to a Global Times article, a large majority of the anti-extradition bill protestors were students. Carrie Lam has been quoted as saying that the arrests of teenagers and children at protests showed how city campuses had been influenced by forces hostile to both local and central governments. With this move, children as young as kindergartners are to be taught about this new law and the consequences it entails. While defenders of the law have argued that student freedom would remain untouched, they have reiterated that free speech comes with limitations. Most notably, Regina Ip, chairperson of the New People’s Party stated that ‘You can’t just allow teachers to talk, and impose their views, free for all’, and that ‘critical thinking does not mean training people to criticize or attack.’

There has been a commensurate impact of the policy in China studies in universities and colleges abroad as well. To try and safeguard students (especially those from China and Hong Kong) from the danger of frivolous litigation, Students in Chinese Politics classes at Princeton plan to use codes instead of names on their work to protect their identities. At Amherst, professors are considering anonymous online chats so students can speak freely, without fear or repercussion. Similarly, at Harvard Business School, students may excuse themselves from discussing potentially sensitive topics if they are worried about the risks. Another option put forth is to use codes to refer to sensitive events such as Tiananmen Square or Xinjiang. Such code switching is not dissimilar to what already happens on WeChat in China. As prestigious schools such as those in the Ivy League have thousands of Chinese students, and major donations from China, they aim to protect both their students, as well as their donors from prosecution by Chinese authorities.

Conclusion
The standards of free debate and parlance in academia and Hong Kong society have been sent into a tizzy following the passing of this law, and institutions worldwide are working to come up with methods to protect their students, especially ones from mainland China and Hong Kong, from any danger of litigation or arrest. It can be gauged that the CCP’s goal is to create a new generation of ‘loyal’ Hong Kong youth, aiming for a strategy of institutional and social control that could undermine Hong Kong’s reputation for academic freedom. The NSL is aimed towards strengthening the stranglehold China is attempting to establish over Hong Kong and is a slap in the face of pro-democracy activists and citizens alike. In line with the expectations of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ ideology, China must proceed to properly clarify how and when the law would apply, and to whom it should apply. The potential for misuse of this law is immense. Any effort for a nation to stifle democratic dissent against it (potentially around the world), especially for those most affected by it (those who reside in Hong Kong itself) by threat of prosecution is immensely condemnable, and should be of utmost concern for activists, governments, and citizens of a globalised world.

Interview of Aparna Pande on her book ‘Making India Great: The Promise of a Reluctant Power’

Yash Johri, Research Assistant, ICS

Q1. In your first chapter you illustrate an incompatibility between the prevailing nationalism and India’s ability to effectively engage with the world community? Can you please explain this further; particularly given that nationalism in India has been electorally validated as well as the fact that it has been on the rise across the world.

I accept both presumptions, nationalism, populism and protectionism are in ascendance across the world, including in the United States where I currently reside. India isn’t unique, however, there are differences, the United States has strong institutions, the American media, judiciary as well as the political parties provide an adequate balance of power to the executive. In the Indian scenario, these institutions aren’t commensurately strong. While our founders put us on the path of a constitutional democracy in practice, we are far from achieving the same. Conversely, there has always been an alternative idea of India which we see has gained electoral validation from the late 1980s onward.

The reason I say it matters today is because we are no longer in the post-cold war era, we live in a world where anything happening around the world is on social media within a very short span of time. At a time when the world is looking at India as a counter to China, as a democratic model for the rest of the world, ally and partner with the United States or other South East Asian countries as well as to be a model developmental state within our own neighborhood, we cannot say that what is happening within cannot impact what’s happening without. Domestic politics impacts foreign policy.

If India wants to be seen as a regional power and wants acceptance from its South Asian neighbors (Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bhutan) as well as from countries of Central Asia and Middle-East and seeks to project its power in the Indian Ocean Region and beyond then the vision of India portrayed to the outside world, has to be one that our neighborhood, extended neighborhood and the world is comfortable with. We may not like this and may say that our electorate has chosen us and others don’t have a right to criticize, but the world in the past has looked at India as a democratic, plural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic nation which despite numerous fissiparous tendencies managed to sustain high rates of growth.

Q2. Numerous analyses of India often compare it to the development story of China and how it lags behind on numerous measures, the book uses a number of these measures in the second chapter on human capital. However, India is an electoral democracy and it is true that a number of the government’s initiatives will work towards serving the platform which has elected it to power – yet at the same time the Indian people do trust the Prime Minister to deliver reform and a better standard of living. For all the criticism, the incumbent government is working on numerous initiatives such as Aayushman Bharat, National Digital Health Mission, Swachh Bharat Mission, a new National Education Policy, repeal of the Essential Commodities Act, on the digital front there’s been unparalleled global investment in the country even if its been to one corporation. Therefore, even though one can rightly question his politics, it has delivered to the country political stability. Further there is criticism on execution, that the entire government’s work can’t be remote controlled by one office and that enough ministers and domain experts are not empowered enough, is this hindering the process?

I’ll take the second part of your question first, if you are referring to the recent exits of Economists then yes, it is something which institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund closely monitor. Rating agencies like Moodys and Standard & Poor also observe and ascertain who is really making decisions about the economy, they keep a close tab on the management and health of the country’s economic institutions such as the RBI and Finance Ministry.

As to the first point, I don’t understand how these new initiatives counter the arguments that I have made in my book. Forget about China, over the last few decades Bangladesh has done a better job in literacy than India has done, why is that? The question isn’t about who you are being compared to, the comparison with China is important because they are who we always benchmark ourselves against. Let’s take one step back, which of these areas have we done a good job in the past. There’s a lot that’s been started now that could have been started 6 years ago, the reason I say this is that Covid has brought to light the many glaring deficiencies in both education and healthcare. The more literate a society the better it responds to crises and listens to experts, my argument primarily is at the core one has to rebuild institutions, we have to invest in people at the primary and secondary level. We need to build the skill capacity, and this has a long gestation period. The question is why is it that even when we start and talk about reforms, we rarely bring them to fruition?

Let us give an example there are numerous policies from the UPA years, such as MNREGA. At the end of the day if an industrialised country is supposed to have 60% skilling of the workforce and India has just 7% there is a real problem which has national security implications. If you fix the primary and secondary school systems along with skills and basic healthcare there’s a lot that will take care of itself. One will not have to worry about finding a job if he/she has skills. Our challenge is that we need vocational training to provide a productive outlet for the 1.3 Billion persons of our country.

Q3. You state that there is a mismatch in strategic planning, between the civilian and military arms of the government. However, what do you think about the latest reform that’s been brought of a negative import list in the realm of defence? Do you feel that this is a result of policy being created by the newly formed office of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) that wishes to address this very problem by bringing civilian and military personnel under one roof or is it just further encroachment on the independent institution of the army by the political leadership?

We will have to wait a few years to see how India’s CDS and the new Department of Military Affairs (DMA) actually works. Given the strong British legacy that continues to persist in our armed forces we haven’t ever had such an office that brings civil and military actors under one roof to jointly pursue strategic goals. There have however been integrated headquarters and there has been some coordination. So, it will take a few years to find out really how effective the CDS will be? We have to bear in mind the fact that most of the new capital acquisitions will not be under CDS and DMA therefore the jury is still out. There is a likelihood that the CDS can actually bring about the coordination that India needs and there’s a chance that it doesn’t really work. We have to wait a few years to see that.

What I would say is three things. First, at the end of the day what matters is how much money we allocate to the military. If we are spending only 1.5-1.7% of our, as of now, shrinking GDP the majority of which goes in salaries and pensions, we are going to have almost nothing to modernise and purchase new equipment. Almost 65%-68% of military equipment is outdated. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA- China) which is sitting on our border and has taken our territory has allocated large funds and has rapidly modernised. If we don’t increase our budget allocations the CDS will not have the money and resources to do what he needs to do. Second, in addition to the office of the CDS what we also need is to build a systematic method of working whereby the country can plan not just a few months ahead but 10-20 years ahead for each of the services. Third, is going to be the question of what purpose is achieved by adding a layer of bureaucracy to perform powers and functions that are already being performed by the incumbent Chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force on the military side and the defence officials in the Raksha Mantralaya on the civil side.

Budget allocations at the end of the day are indeed a deeply political exercise. However, there is an important need to ingrain a strategic culture that becomes a mainstay in defence allocations and isn’t affected by the whims and fancies of politics. Forget external events, to deal effectively with our internal insurgencies of Naxalites, North-East, Kashmir the fight begins in the correct allocation of resources. Secondly, for us to be able to continue to fortify the foundation of our national security, it is essential that we meet the challenges of developing our economy further

At end of the it is our country. It’s like, it’s your house. The house may have certain problems and you may need to you know, rebuild the floor and you may need to breakdown a wall and build a new one, but it’s your house at the end of the day. So, you care about it, you invest in it, and you want it to last, there’s a pride in it. At the end of I’ve written this book because, I really do believe India can become great, but like most Indians my concern is that to do that we are lagging and need to accomplish things, so this is a wake-up call. My duty is to ask the questions to provoke people to start thinking about the same.

Q4. To what extent do you believe that the recent events in Ladakh between the Indian and Chinese armies have hastened India’s western embrace? Do you agree with people like Gideon Rachman, who’s recent op-ed in the Financial Times states that India has picked a side in the new cold war, because Foreign Minister Jaishankar in a recent interview on the 20th of July has stated that non-alignment was a term of a particular era and geopolitical landscape but that India will never be a part of an Alliance? While there may not be a de jure alliance, but on the ground what strategic formation do you see taking place?

I would come more on the Jaishankar side of this debate. I don’t think that we have picked a side. We have had a close relationship with the West for decades, from the 1990s our relations with not just the United States but with the United Kingdom, France, Germany as well as American allies to our East. So, I would say, its not a question of India making a Western embrace, what I would say actually is that if China thought it could teach India a lesson and India for its growing proximity to the Western liberal order then I think it has miscalculated. We are not going to stop catering to our national interest which we have been pursuing in the past, which is building closer relationships with countries with whom it sees strategic, economic and cultural ties benefitting itself. However, that won’t stop India from having a relationship with the Russians or with Iran even though these countries face western sanctions. I also believe a further deterioration of relations with China is only detrimental to our national interest. But I don’t believe it is a western embrace. I believe we are already quite close to the US and many of the western countries.

Due to connectivity and inter-dependence the question of picking a side today compared to the Cold War era is very complex and challenging one. During the Cold War there were no global supply chains, the NATO and Warsaw Pact spheres provided economic aid to help development in their respective countries. It was basically the Soviets giving us aid or helping us set up factories. Today except for in the defence industry where we are dependent on the supply parts, we don’t have a supply chain Relationship with Russia. The difference is that China has since the early 90s built a strong trading relationship with most countries, further with its new initiatives of Belt and Road it is building a strong foreign investment relationship as well. Therefore, in practice, it is very difficult to decouple.

Abe’s imprint on India-Japan relations: Speculating the future of bilateral relationship post Abe

Shamshad A. Khan, Visiting Associate Fellow, ICS, New Delhi and
Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani Dubai Campus.

Weeks before a scheduled virtual India-Japan summit meeting, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s announcement to step down from the office citing his deteriorating health, have been received as a surprise and shock in India. As the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is engaged in electing Abe’s successor, it is unlikely that the meeting will be held on scheduled time. Ministry of External Affairs is also non-committal about the scheduled meeting. Irrespective of the cancellation of virtual summit meeting, Abe’s absence will be felt in India and especially the Indian strategic circles for a long time to come even though his departure is unlikely to derail the bilateral engagement process.

When it comes to India-Japan relations, Abe is regarded very high among the Indian strategic circles and media for strengthening the bilateral relationship. Undoubtedly, Abe has played a leading role in strengthening India-Japan relations during his previous short stint which ended in 2007 and during the present term which started in December 2012. He attached special importance to India-Japan relations much before he assumed the top post. While he was still serving as a Japanese Cabinet Secretary during Junichiro Koizumi’s regime, he envisioned in his most talked about book “Towards a Beautiful Japan” that in the coming decades India-Japan relationship will “overtake” Japan-US and Japan-China relations. He had developed deep emotional connect with India as we witnessed that New Delhi figured prominently in almost all his key policy strategies starting from confluence of the two Seas, (now evolved as Indo-Pacific) Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond and the Quadrilateral Initiatives envisioned in 2007 and revived in 2013. Why India was so special to Abe? Tomohiko Taniguchi an advisor to the prime minister and an speech writer for Abe once told this author that Abe spent his childhood with his maternal grandfather Kishi Nobusuke who held India in high esteem shared his memories of his India’s visit to Abe especially how India treated him when he visited India on his first overseas visit in 1957.

Indian Prime Minister Nehru offered Kishi Nobusuke a big platform to address a large gathering of Indian audience from the rampart of the historic Red Fort from where only the Indian Prime Ministers address to the nation on every Independence Day. At that time, the memory of Imperial Japan was afresh among the Asian countries and no Asian country was keen to give such a platform to a Japanese leader and Kishi Nobusuke was moved by this gesture offered by the Indian leadership. In a speech delivered at New Delhi based Indian Council of World Affairs in 2011, Abe noted that his grandfather’s visit to New Delhi before embarking on a US trip provided him much needed “political capital” to bargain with America with whom Kishi was going to renegotiate the revision of US Japan security treaty. While the Cold War politics dampened the chances of fostering a closer cooperation between India and Japan, Abe driven by the emotional connect and compelled by the strategic needs saw India as an inalienable partner in Japan’s National Security Strategies and Defense planning. Japan’s first National Security Strategy unveiled during Abe’s second term in September 2013 noted India’s ascendance and considered it as an important player to strengthen its relations “in a broad range of fields, including maritime security, through joint training and exercises as well as joint implementation of international peace cooperation activities.” Considering the fact that from Kishi to Koizumi, America was considered ‘first, second and third’ important country for Japan, the special importance Japan acceded to India during Abe’s period was considered as Japan’s acceptance of India as an important partner.

Abe, indeed, invested his energy to strengthen India-Japan relations when he assumed office after Koizumi left the scene soon after signing the bilateral Strategic Partnership in 2006 which gave much needed institutional backing to Japan’s relationship with the south Asian country. But he could not leave a mark on the bilateral relationship during his first stint as Abe held only one summit level interaction with the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In his second term in office, India-Japan relations progressed in a faster pace as Abe held seven summit level interactions with his Indian counterparts- two with Manmohan Singh and five with Narendra Modi. At the bilateral level, signing of the long pending India-Japan civil nuclear cooperation agreement, upgrading the ‘two plus two’ strategic dialogue to ministerial level, an annual Maritime Affairs Dialogue, an in principle agreement on Acquisition of Cross Services Agreement which will give a fillip to bilateral defense cooperation, signing the contract to lay first Shinkansen project between Mumbai and Ahmedabad and upgrading the currency swap agreement to 75 billion US dollar are a few agreement during his last tenure which will be remembered as Abe’s legacy on India-Japan relations. At the multilateral level he pushed for a greater cooperation with India by identifying New Delhi as an important partner including in Asia Africa Growth Corridor, Indo-Pacific, UN Security Council reform

Since Abe has left a deep imprint on India-Japan relations, it is quite natural that Indian media and New Delhi is missing his presence and is speculating the fate of India-Japan relationship post Abe. In the past, similar concerns also came to the fore in 2009 from the Indian strategic circles, when Japan was undergoing a regime change and in Japan in 2014 when change of government was certain in India. Since the Liberal Democratic Party which has forged the strategic partnership with India in 2006 lost power to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)-a party which sought to forge an equidistant security relationship between the US and China, it was believed that India-Japan relationship will be derailed. For those who believed that India-Japan relationship is a byproduct of a burgeoning US-India relations post Indo-US nuclear deal, it was quite natural to believe so. But belying those speculations, the DPJ showed keen interest in taking the bilateral relationship forward. In fact, the negotiation on the civil nuclear cooperation agreement started during the DPJ regime and a landmark Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement to uplift abysmal bilateral trade volume was signed. Similarly, when Manmohan Singh who is considered as an architect of modern India-Japan relations had various official meetings with Japanese government in the capacity of Finance Minister and Prime Minister of India, questions were raised about the fate of India-Japan relationship post Manmohan Singh. But the ruling Bhartiya Janata party continued the momentum in the bilateral ties and deepened it further. This is enough to suggest that India-Japan relationship enjoys a bi-partisan support both in India and Japan and will remain immune to the political changes at the domestic levels. Moreover, India-Japan relationship is no more personality driven as was the case during the Cold War period.

The bilateral relationship is much more “institutionalised” as both the countries have made a commitment in 2006 strategic partnership to hold a prime ministerial level meeting annually and it is evident that the change of government has not had any negative impact on the bilateral relationship. In addition to this, India-Japan relationship, thanks to the strategic partnership, is much more diverse. Apart from the bilateral level dialogues, they are engaged in various multi-lateral dialogues including on UN Security reforms, a quadrilateral dialogue involving US and Australia and two prominent trilaterals- JIA consisting of Japan, India and Australia and JAI-consisting of Japan, America and India. These bilaterals and multilaterals will continue to bind Japan and India together.

Moreover, most of the probable successors of Abe including Fumio Kishida, Shigeru Ishiba, Taro Kono, Toshimitsu Motegi and the top contender Yoshihide Suga have dealt with India in different ministerial capacities and India is no stranger to them. Even though Abe’s absence may be felt in India, Japan’s economic and strategic interest in India and the need to strengthen strategic partnership amid assertive China will not let the bilateral relationship go off the track.

‘Shinzo Abe Fails to Double Down under Mounting US Pressure Twice Over, Prefers to Step Down: Chinese Experts’

Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS and Associate Professor, JNU

Abstract: Experts in Beijing believe Abe got caught up in the unending hostility between Japan’s key ally, the U.S. and China, its largest trading partner — just like in 2007

Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, considered a strong leader in several foreign capitals, including Beijing, abruptly announced last Friday that he is resigning for health reasons. But writing for the New York Times last Sunday, a leading political scientist in Japan, Koichi Nakano, did not believe a relapse of ulcerative colitis was the only reason why Abe abruptly announced his decision to quit.

Like Nakano, most analysts both at home and abroad have cited multiple factors preventing Abe from extending his record as Japan’s longest serving prime minister – seven years and eight months, to date. At the time of Abe’s “surprise” announcement, his disapproval ratings stood at 34 percent, the highest ever during his record tenure. Among the most prominent reasons for his rising unpopularity include a negative view of Abe’s response to the pandemic and allegations of a series of scandals and controversies he is still mired in – including extravagant, lavish events such as “the cherry blossom viewing party” that the prime minister hosts every year but is paid for by taxpayer money. Other factors behind his dropping popularity include: a dismal failure in rebuilding the Japanese economy as promised by his signature “Abenomics”; the controversial re-militarization of Japan, which saw massive street protests by the anti-war Japanese people; and last but not least the ill-conceived “Abenomasks” policy, under which each household was promised two washable cloth masks – the plan not only irritated the people but was immediately dismissed as “useless” and “inefficient.”  The endless list of the Abe government’s failures goes on and on, analysts are telling us.

Interestingly, neither Japanese experts nor Japan watchers in the West have seen a possible connection between the prime minister’s resignation and the worsening U.S.-China rivalry. On the other hand, as the South China Morning Post put it, Abe’s “eight-year spell in office saw several ups and downs in Japan’s relations with Beijing, the most recent being the straining of ties between Tokyo and Beijing due to the introduction of a national security law in Hong Kong earlier this year.”

To be fair, some analysts in Japan haven’t lost sight of the predicament Japan finds itself in: The country continues to depend on China economically while remaining dependent on the United States for security. “Aligning with the U.S., but at the same time maintaining functioning relations with China, is Japan’s top priority…this will not change,” Michito Tsuruoka, associate professor at Keito University in Tokyo, told SCMP on the day Abe announced his decision to step down.

The authorities in Beijing have refused to react to political developments in Japan, preferring to maintain a stoic silence — even while knowing full well the implications of a new leader in Tokyo. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian declined to comment both on Abe’s resignation and on the leadership succession.

Chinese experts, however, have not only been forthcoming but even voiced differing opinions.

Liu Jiangyong, a Japanese affairs expert at the Tsinghua University in Beijing sees a “friendlier” post-Abe Japan. But Liu does not rule out continuation of the current Abe government’s foreign policy approach of trying to maintain a balance between Beijing and Washington in the event of U.S. President Donald Trump winning a second term. “If Trump wins and continues his aggressive policies with China, Sino-Japanese relations would be affected because Japan is, after all a key ally to the U.S. but Joe Biden may adopt a less extreme approach to Beijing,” Liu told SCMP.

Some Chinese scholars have been more appreciative of Japan’s mature approach toward Beijing under Abe in recent years, be it in the context of the two East Asian neighbors’ territorial dispute in the East China Sea — where Tokyo is not keen on starting a direct conflict with Beijing — or more recently, in tackling tensions with China over the COVID-19 pandemic and over Beijing’s imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong. “His [Abe’s] policy is one that emphasizes being both realistic and pragmatic,” according to Huang Dahui, an IR expert with Renmin University in Beijing.

Sima Nan, the stage name of a well-known nationalistic commentator, on Monday displayed a more hard-line approach toward Abe’s Japan. Sima dismissed a Keito University professor’s predictions about Japanese policies toward America and China in the post-Abe era as untenable. Overall, the take sounded like a warning to whoever is going to succeed Abe: “If you wish to reap China’s economic benefits, but at the same time you do not wish to sin against both China and America, this will no longer be possible in the face of the irreversible worsening U.S.-China bilateral relations.”

In 2007, Abe resigned for the first time from the prime minister position. Then, as now, the mainstream media both in Japan and in the West cited the following reasons for the fall of the government: Abe’s failing health, his controversy-plagued government, which foundered on scandals and gaffes, Japan’s decision to continue its military’s participation in the Afghanistan war, and most of all Abe’s rising unpopularity. In China, on the contrary, it was widely believed that a significant factor leading to Abe’s resignation in 2007 was his failure to maintain a perfect balance in Tokyo’s relations with the United States and China. Abe, who had just become prime minister, actually wanted to revive the fledgling Japanese economy by developing good relations with China and at the same time he wanted to establish a China-Japan-South Korea free trade area. Unfortunately for Abe, the United States found this to be against its national interest.

Abe proved to be wiser as he began his second tenure as Japan’s prime minister in 2012, Chinese Japan watchers say. He won former U.S. President Barack Obama’s confidence in Japan as a reliable ally committed to free trade and a stronger military ally in the Asia-Pacific region. Notably, Abe and Obama reached an agreement that would extend Japan’s ability to come to the defense of the United States. However, with the change of guard in the White House following the Trump victory in 2016, Abe’s policy of wooing the United States faced a huge challenge. And now as the worsening U.S.-China rivalry is accelerating, Abe has fallen sick once again.

In the words of veteran “leftist” Chinese foreign affairs observer Zhang Zhimin, if U.S.-China relations today were at the same level as before Trump launched the trade war or even before the outbreak of COVID-19, it would have been okay for Japan to still dabble with both parties. But now Japan is caught in a dilemma of having to choose between China and the United States. No wonder, Zhang uses the famous Chinese saying “one cannot have fish and bear’s paws at the same time” to describe Abe and Japan’s predicament. The saying actually means that in order to get something, one must sacrifice something.

In other words, what Zhang is implying is that Abe’s timing to resign both times has been perfect. And both times, his resigning in the middle of worsening U.S.-China tensions was not a coincidence.

Originally Published as Chinese Experts Think US-China Rivalry Accelerated Abe Shinzo’s Departure in The Diplomat, 2 September 2020.

Can Taiwan’s COVID-19 Diplomacy Help It Make Permanent Friends?

Sanjana Krishnan, Research Intern, ICS

The world today is full of uncertainty due to the outbreak of COVID-19. While the rest of the world is still in the grip of COVID-19, one small island, namely Taiwan has been successful in flattening the curve. This was made possible by the proactive measures it took immediately after the first news of  the outbreak emerged from China. In a way, Taiwan was already in a state of readiness after the outbreak of SARS in 2003.  It was able to respond quickly by integrating the working of various ministries and employing advanced technologies to achieve good results. It implemented measures such as on-board quarantine, 14-day home quarantine, health declarations, fever screening and so on. The travel details of people are stored in their National Health Insurance cards to alert the concerned authority about any spread of the virus by using the GPS technology. This has helped in curbing individual and community spread.

Taiwan, a self-ruled island that has been denied entry into the World Health Organisation (WHO), is not only setting an example to the world by the way it has handled its internal situation but also through its help to other states by exporting medical equipment, especially medical grade masks. The territory is now the second largest producer of masks after China. According to its Economic Affairs Minister, Sheng Jong-chin (沈榮津), Taiwan produces 15 million masks every day. In March, it had relaxed the ban on export of face masks  and in April, shipped PPE and masks to its diplomatic allies and the worst hit countries in Europe. Taiwan  also announced that it would donate 10  million masks to the most needy countries and 100,000 masks per week to the United States. It has also promised to share its electronic quarantine system that employs big data analytics.

These measures helped raise considerably the profile of this self-governed island but, in turn, has attracted Beijing’s anger. Even as Taiwan received praise from various parts of the world for its effective measures and the help extended, China termed these a political game played by Taiwan to gain admission into the W.H.O and the acceptance of the world community. This accusation was made while also pointing out that Taiwan had banned its mask export when China was in its most vulnerable state with respect to the Corona virus outbreak.

China considers Taiwan a part of its sovereign territory, awaiting reunification even by force, if necessary. Today, there are only a handful of nations in Central America and the Oceanic region, that recognise Taiwan. Taiwan has even been kept out of most of the international organisations such as the United Nations, W.H.O and so on. The island is in a geo-political absurdity owing to the fact that even its most important ally, the US does not recognise its status as an independent state, its territory is under constant threat as it is claimed by a powerful state such as China and its sovereign status slowly erodes with both states and MNCs withdrawing their engagement with it due to the threat of upsetting China. In this context, the latest engagement of Taiwan holds significance.

The world is now forced to recognise the advanced healthcare and technological capability of Taiwan. The helping hand extended by the island definitely aids the improvement of its image globally. It has made Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo call for greater inclusion of Taiwan in the work of the W.H.O. This move however, is sure to be blocked by China even though it marks a departure in spirit from the 2009 arrangement that China had agreed to for Taiwan’s participation at the annual World Health Assembly from 2009 to 2016 as an Observer. There has been a change since then. Taiwan has rejected China’s main condition for the former to be a part of the W.H.O, i.e, to accept that it is a part of Mainland China in May this year.

Taiwan today faces an opportunity to strengthen ties with other states and improve its international standing. Beijing has sought to strengthen its relations with Europe by sending them medical equipment. However, this has not meant necessarily that member countries of the E.U. have succumbed to Chinese pressure on Taiwan. Many of these states have accepted help from the island and openly acknowledged this help through Twitter.

Both China and Taiwan have been able to curb the first wave of the virus. But what brings praise to Taiwan is the fact that they did it without any support from W.H.O. Taiwan also shared COVID-19 related data with W.H.O. Although China is trying to bring in a narrative of it being helpful to the world, reports of suppression of news of its early outbreak from the media as well as export of faulty equipment has adversely affected these efforts. This has in turn been a supplementary factor in improving Taiwan’s image. While both China and Taiwan engaged in mask diplomacy, Taiwan has had more apparent and immediate success. Thus, exporting medical equipment, especially masks, has also become a tool of political expression.

Taiwan’s mask diplomacy has chances of increasing the support it gets from other states. The important question here is, how long this support will last and how far it will extend. Supporting Taiwan means directly going against Chinese interests. While such support may appear today as a necessity, this cannot last for long. States often behave differently under normal conditions and under emergencies. The common determinant here is national interest. While it might be in the national interest to accept Taiwan’s help and show acceptance towards it, it might not appear so in the future when such a policy will mean locking horns with a formidable power such as China. As the world gathers more knowledge and experience in handling the pandemic, its dependence on Taiwan will decrease. In international relations, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies. There are only permanent national interests. Some alliances last only as long as some issues do. Therefore, the effect of ‘mask diplomacy’ by Taiwan may last only as long as the pandemic lasts.

Rise of Anti-China Public Sentiments in Central Asia

Mohd. Adnan, Research Intern, ICS

Protesters during anti-China demonstrtion in Almaty, Kazakhstan September 4, 2019 Source: Reuters

Anti-China public sentiments are on the rise not just in Central Asia but almost in majority of China’s neighbouring countries. Over the years, intermittent anti-China public protests have occurred in Central Asian region, particularly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. However, in last one and half year, the intensity of these protests has increased significantly. In September 2019, a series of anti-China public protests erupted across the various Kazakh cities. These protests were largely premised on grievances such as moving Chinese factory in Kazakhstan, presence of illegal Chinese immigrants, China’s policy of leasing land, and detention of Kazakhs in Xinjiang, etc. Similarly, in late December 2018 and January 2019, Kyrgyzstan also witnessed a round of anti-China public protests in its capital Bishkek. These protests were also premised on more or less the same issues on which Kazakhstan has witnessed the protests. That is, China’s presence in the region is seen with suspicions from the broader populace in Central Asia. Even the economic relations between these two regions has been seen from suspicions and in some cases, opposition and nationalist groups exploit these fears to halt further integration of the region with China.

On February 17, 2020, a fresh protest erupted in Kyrgyzstan’s Naryn region over the construction of joint venture logistics project supposed to be constructed by a local company with the partnership of a Chinese company. Amid the backdrop of protests, this project was cancelled. In the wake of growing anti-China public protests and simmering sentiments, this article seeks to highlight the root causes responsible for emergence of anti-China public sentiments in Central Asia. Further, it also tries to evaluate the role of China’s re-educational policies in Xinjiang in aggravating the anti-China public sentiments and how Central Asian governments are responding to this phenomenon.

The root causes responsible for emergence of anti-China sentiments

Despite being the biggest trading partner and having strong relations with the governments of Central Asian countries, China’s presence in the region has generally been viewed with suspicion by the broader populace. This deep rooted suspicion towards China had its historical underpinnings. Back in 19th century, a warlord, Yaqub Beg, from Kokand Khanate led an expedition to capture the present day approximate area of Xinjiang. He captured this area and his reign lasted for almost twenty years, when imperial China reconquered it in 1876. Along with this, October revolution in 1917 and subsequent communist Soviet Union’s formulation in Tsarist Russia prompted Soviet regime to place direct control over Central Asian region. In 1960s Sino-Soviet relations were destabilized owing to the differences in ideology. Since then, Soviet Union spread propaganda about China’s ulterior motive in Central Asian region and it also supported the Uyghur cause in Xinjiang. The historical confrontation between Sino-Turkish civilization over the present day territory of Xinjiang and Soviet propaganda back in 1960s, have created a deep suspicions among the majority of Central Asian people towards China.

Further, after the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991, Central Asian countries, along with their independent, also inherited the unresolved border disputes with China. Subsequently, the border resolutions between China and Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in late l990s and early 2000s, where these states ceded territories to China, have profoundly impacted the consciousness of Central Asian populace. Moreover, Growing investments and economic integration of the region with China is sometimes seen through suspicion. For instance, proposals to rent land to China for agricultural uses have sparked protests in the past. Back in 2016, when the government of Kazakhstan proposed to rent land to China for agricultural activities, it drew public protests and later, this proposal was relinquished. Although, Chinese investments in Central Asia and growing trade between them have been beneficial for common people of the region, they still fear Chinese intention and suspect its presence in the region.

How re-educational centres in Xinjiang is aggravating anti-China sentiments

In a bid to eliminate extremist and separatist elements from its restive Xinjiang province, China opted for a harsh policy in the form of mass detention and re-educational centers, what it calls ‘Vocational Education and Training’ to de-radicalize its minority groups. In these so called vocational education and training centers, it has detained a large number of Uyghurs along with other ethnic minority groups such as Kazakh, Kyrgyz, etc. According to an estimate by United Nations Elimination of Racial Discrimination Committee, approximately a million people have been detained in these centres. These minority groups share close civilizational and cultural linkages with Central Asian people. Moreover, detained ethnic minorities such as Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tajik even constitute majority nationality in the neighbouring Central Asian countries.

Due to the close proximity and cultural linkages between the Central Asian people and minority groups in Xinjiang, Central Asia gets firsthand information of what happens in Xinjiang. Further, many of China’s ethnic Kazakh and Kyrgyz, who were previously detained in the re-educational centres, have escaped to neighbouring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. They shared their stories with local media and civil societies. Such was the case of Sayragul Sauytbay, a Chinese citizen of Kazakh origin who escaped to Kazakhstan in April 2018. Her illegal border crossing into Kazakhstan led to her arrest few months later and it was followed by a prolonged public trial. During her public trial, she claimed that she was forced to work in one of the re-educational centres as an instructor and told about the functions of these centres. However, her confession was dismissed by the Chinese authorities. Eventually, amid the growing public support, Kazakh court opted for mild sentence instead of deporting her to China.

In support of people like Sayragul Sauytbay and many others, who have escaped re-educational centres in Xinjiang, civil societies like Atajurt Eriktileri have also emerged. Atajurt Eriktileri, a Kazakh human rights group primarily concerned with the re-educational centres, has been working on to help people fleeing Xinjiang and highlighting harsh treatment meted out by Chinese authorities on its minority groups in Xinjiang. However it has been constrained by Kazakh authorities since early 2019, when its vocal leader, Serikzhan Bilash, was arrested in March 2019 and later that year, he was  released on condition to not to participate in any activities regarding Xinjiang issue for seven years.

Public testimony of Sayragul Sayutbay and many others have provided a rare insight of the functioning of re-educaional centres in Xinjiang. It has, certainly, aggravated the already prevailed anti-China public sentiments in Central Asia. It appears China’s attempt to stabilize its restive Xinjiang province through formulation of re-educational centres have irked the Central Asian people. The recent anti-China protests in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan show the growing discontent among the majority of Central Asian people.

Central Asian governments’ response to the emergence of anti-China sentiments

Recent public protests and simmering anti-China sentiments have been largely ignored and in some cases, suppressed by the authority due to the fact that Inter-governmental relations and bilateral trade between China and Central Asian countries are quite strong. As Alisher Ilkhamove-program manager in Open Society Eurasia Program-claimed, ‘China’s considerable investments and trade ties have chained the Central Asian states to Beijing’. At present, China holds a significant economic influence over almost all five Central Asian countries. China-Central Asia trade almost doubled to around US $ 40 billion between 2007 and 2018 and China has eclipsed EU as the largest trading partner of Central Asia. In addition to this, as of 2018, China has also provided US $ 14.7 billion in form of foreign direct investments and undocumented unconditional loans to the underdeveloped Central Asian countries. Since China does not provide official data of its international lending, it is difficult to find exact amount of loans provided by China to central Asian countries. However, Sebastian Horn and his colleagues conducted a study to find out China’s overseas lending. This study was issued by the Kiel Working Paper No. 2132 titled as ‘China’s Overseas Lending’ in June 2019. In their findings, they estimated Kyrgyzstan owed around 30 percent of its GDP while Tajikistan and Turkmenistan both owed around 15 percent of their GDP to China as of 2017. Such is the economic dependence of the region with China that the governments of Central Asian countries generally ignore these protests and related issues.

While Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are heavily indebted to China and Turkmenistan almost dependent on China for its export revenue, countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are well off compare to these states. However, China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) – land based infrastructure projects of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) connecting China with Africa, Europe and West Asia passing through Central Asia – has presented an opportunity for underdeveloped Central Asian countries to get much needed investments. In addition, given the military and economic might of China, Central Asian countries generally avoid to antagonise Beijing and primarily rely on back channels of diplomacy rather than making public comments to convey their concerns to China on its re-educational policy in Xinjiang.

China’s reliance on building strong relationships with the governments of Central Asian countries and emphasizing on mutual economic interactions with the region are not sufficient to mitigate the belligerent public sentiments. In order to improve its image among Central Asian populace, China has to consider other factors as well. Given the strong civilizational and cultural linkages between Central Asian people and China’s minority groups in Xinjiang, it will be naïve to overlook this bond between the people of these two regions. Building trust among the Central Asian populace will enhance China’s influence and secure its interests in the region. This way, China could cement its long-term partnerships with the region and ward off any possible emergence of anti-China forces in Central Asia. Amid its emergence at the global stage and the simmering Sino-US rivalry, it is imperative for China to secure its interests in neighbouring countries including Central Asia.