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).

Contemporary Dynamics of Sino-Japanese Relations

Mohd. Adnan, Research Intern, ICS

Contemporary Sino-Japanese relations rested on the logic of economic competition and interdependence along with prevalent distrusts and territorial disputes, have become one of the most crucial bilateral relations in the world. Despite competing with each other over various overlapping economic and strategic interests, their increasing bilateral trade have inextricably bound to each other. World’s second and third largest economy China and Japan respectively, at one side, entangled in regional competition to gain influence and their confrontations over disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands situated in East China sea. On the other side, their indispensable economic interdependence has been the key aspect of their complex relationships. In 2012, the relations between them were severely strained over the confrontations on Senkaku islands. However, increasing economic interdependence and United States’ inward looking “America First” approach have provided an impetus for both states to pacify their relations. This paper intends to explore the contemporary dynamics of Sino-Japanese bilateral relationship.

Historically, Sino-Japanese relations have been of a competitive nature rather than mutual collaboration. Japanese aggression during the late nineteenth and first half of twentieth century has left a deep impact on contemporary Sino-Japanese relations. The relations between them got normalized in the beginning of 1970s and subsequently, they have signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978. Japan has invested heavily in and provided much needed essential technologies to China for its development in the post-Mao era. As Kerry Brown in his 2016 article in The Diplomat, explained, without Japan’s assistance in form of ‘technology and knowledge’, China’s opening up and reforms would not have succeeded ‘as quickly and extensively’ as it happened.

The end of the Cold War and relative rise of China created an environment of competition between these two giants. In 2012, the relations between them hit a serious blow when Japanese government purchased three out of five Senkaku islands from their private owners in order to fully legitimize its claim over the disputed islands. China vehemently opposed this act and various anti-Japan protests erupted across mainland China. Japanese products were boycotted by public and relations between them were severely damaged.

The impasse between China and Japan remained intact until a surge of populism was witnessed in 2016 US presidential election. Consequently, the United States partially relinquished its previous neoliberal approach of leading free trade and open market and opted for an increasingly inward looking “America First” approach. This so called “America First” approach allows the US administration to renegotiate trade deals with its major trading partners and its adoption of protectionist approach to pressurise these partners by putting tariffs. This new development in the international market has unintentionally pushed China and Japan to step aside their differences and come to a cooperative platform. Amid US-China trade confrontation and its protectionist approach, first, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Tokyo and a subsequent reciprocal visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinjo Abe was witnessed in 2018. Since then both states maintained their complicated relationships despite competing and confronting with each other in many overlapping economic and strategic interests.

Contemporary Sino-Japanese economic relations revolve around two sets of notion. On the one hand, they are increasingly interdependent owing to the huge amounts of bilateral trade. According to the data provided by Japan’s foreign ministry in fiscal year 2019, China is by far the largest trading partner of Japan and bilateral trade between them well exceeds above US $ 300 billion. Further, China’s vast demography and rising middle class provides a lucrative market to export-led Japanese economy. While, witnessing the increasing rift between the United States and China, Japan’s importance to China has grown in many ways. Japan has been the major source of essential technology for China since its ‘opening up’ in late 1970s. At a time, when the US is barring Chinese companies from acquiring essential technology, China’s reliance on Japanese technology will only increase. Moreover, while the US is retaliating against its major trade partners including China and Japan, increasing economic engagement becomes a necessity for both states to reduce their dependence on the US markets.

The economic interdependence between China and Japan is expected to further increase once the Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership (RCEP) is signed. RCEP is a trade agreement, which emphasises on reducing tariffs, between the ten member countries of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. Last year in November, these states signed text-based negotiations, in which India opted to exclude itself. However, a fissure has surfaced in RCEP because Japan seems reluctant to sign the deal without the inclusion of India. Japan fears without the involvement of India, RCEP will be dominated by China. Though, China is coaxing both Japan and India to get back in the fold of RCEP. It is expected that the Pact will be signed in the year 2020. According to a report published in Xinhua on 5 November, 2019, “once (RCEP) signed, it will form the largest free-trade agreement in Asia covering 47.4 percent of the world’s population, and accounting for 32.2 percent of global GDP, 29.1 percent of trade worldwide and 32.5 percent of global investment”.

On the other hand, since both states are largely export-led economy, they have been competing with each other in third party markets. China and Japan, in recent years, increasingly competed with each other in third party markets on trade, infrastructure projects, and investments, particularly in Southeast Asian countries. Such is the competition that Japan initially avoided to become part of China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) – a land-based and maritime infrastructure projects aimed to enhance China’s influence in and connectivity with the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa. And in 2015, Japan initiated its own policy known as ‘Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ aimed to rival BRI through developing infrastructure projects in foreign countries.

However, in 2017, Japan agreed to cooperate with BRI under certain conditions. A year later, on June 26, 2018, during the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to Beijing, the first ‘Third-Party Market Cooperation Forum’ was organised in which both states agreed to participate in conducting joint venture projects in third-party markets. According to a report published on the website of the State Council of China on 26 October, 2018, ‘At the (aforementioned) forum, more than 50 cooperation agreements were reached between local governments, financial institutions, and enterprises from the two sides, with the total amount exceeding $ 18 billion’. But conducting such projects is fraught with difficulties, given the competitive nature of this agreement and conditions placed by Japanese government on its enterprises while venturing on third-party projects with China. Further Japan’s insistence on quality and financial viability of targeted projects contrasts with China’s ignorance of these elements. For example, in 2018, a high speed rail project in Thailand was planned to be conducted by the companies from China and Japan but Japanese company abandon this project due to the financial risks involved.

From the strategic point of view, there has been a deep distrust and clash of interests between China and Japan. China’s growing assertiveness in East and South China seas and its claim over Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands and South China Sea increasingly discomforts Tokyo. Further, China’s insistence to ignore International Laws such as Permanent Courts of Arbitration’s July 2016 decisions nullifying its claims in South China Sea contrasts the principles and interests of Japan. To counter Chinese interests and claims, in 2015, Japan introduced the vague concept of ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’. Vague in the sense, it does not have a coherent policy and over the years various elements have been added and removed. As the name indicates, it promulgates for an open and free Indian and Pacific Ocean contrasts to China’s claim over South China Sea and its growing influence in Indo-Pacific Ocean. Apart from that, this vague policy also emphasises over freedom of navigation and acceptance of international norms and laws.Through propagation of ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ approach, Japan seeks to mould China in the Western-led International Laws and Treaties, and at the same time, Japan also wants to constrain China’s assertiveness in the region detrimental to its interests.

Further, China’s growing military power and its assertive nature in the region creates a sense of insecurity in Japan. It is a common notion in Japan along with other regional states that China seeks dominance and hegemony in Asian continent. To counter it, Japan propagates a multi-polar order in Asia and adopted a policy of building alliances with like-minded countries, which share the same views and are worried with China’s relative rise. Japan has historical military alliance with the US since the end of Second World War. Recently these two states along with Australia and India have revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue initiative, which earlier, in 2007, came into existence but faded away amid China’s opposition. Quad initiative similar to ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ policy but differ in the sense that it has four member state seeking to counter-check China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Along with the territorial dispute, Japan’s close association with the United States and its opposition to Chinese assertiveness in the region have been contrary to China’s interests. It is widely held belief in China that through the revival of Quadrilateral strategic alliance, the US is trying to contain Chinese influence in the region. Japan’s participation in this alliance is perceived by China as a step to limit its growing influence in the region and taking side in a broader Sino-US rivalry. In other words, China sees itself as a major power capable of dominating Asian Continent and feasible challenger to the US led World Order. It expects from Japan along with other regional actors to conform to its interests and do not take side with the US in the broader Sino-US rivalry.

The relations between China and Japan are one of the most complex bilateral relations in the world. Despite competing and clashing with each other in myriad of overlapping interests and prevalent distrust, their economy is well integrated and bilateral trade have continuously been increasing.  Their bilateral relations, which were severed in 2012 over Japan’s nationalization of Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands, have been steaming up again owing to relative decline of the US in the region and it’s America First’ approach. Both states have been continuously propagating for increasing engagement and cooperation. However, structural and political differences between China and Japan remained intact as they were three years ago before their rapprochement.

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

Preksha Shree Chhetri, Research Assistant, ICS


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

Image Source: Aljazeera

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

Sino-Italian cooperation on BRI

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

Sino Italian ties and COVID-19

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

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

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

India’s Strategic Choices to Engage China

Amb. Biren Nanda, former High Commissioner/Ambassador to Australia, Indonesia & ASEAN

What are the Key elements of the Chinese world view at this Juncture?

China perceives the current phase as demonstrating increasing multi-polarity and a decline in US power after the Global Financial crisis of 2007-08. This is seen as giving rise to a period of ‘great strategic opportunity’ to seek the realization of China’s key goals, including challenging the dominant position of US power in Asia, aggressively pursuing maritime and continental territorial claims, pursuing a rapid expansion of maritime power, seeking to dominate its periphery through the BRI and pushing a new Asian Security Architecture that seeks to diminish the role of outside powers. China’s assertiveness has resulted in a pushback from the United States and some regional powers.

How is India reacting to these developments?

First, from a strategic perspective India has moved closer to the United States. Second, India has pursued comprehensive engagement with China based on the belief that there is enough strategic space in Asia to support to support the phenomenal rise of China and the accelerating rise of India. The two countries can emerge without becoming adversaries if they are aware of each other’s’ red lines and make sure that these red lines are never crossed.

Third, India has actively sought to counter Chinese actions in our South Asian and India Ocean neighborhoods, particularly those that have adversely affected India’s national security. Fourth, India has developed closer strategic ties with other powers in the region including Japan, Vietnam and Australia. These growing relationships are based on a convergence of views on the prevailing threats and opportunities in the Indo-Pacific. Fifth, with its “Act East Policy” India is working vigorously to strengthen relations with ASEAN countries bilaterally, and through active participation in ASEAN dialogue forums.

What are the broad trends that characterize the present phase of India China Relations?

Within the emerging US-China bipolar system China is aggressively diminishing India’s Strategic space in its neighborhood and shaping India’s strategic choices in engaging with China. India’s strategic tilt towards the United States is a response to aggressive Chinese actions inimical to Indian interests and a source of growing concern for Beijing. The United States has characterized China as a ‘revisionist power.’  which seeks to challenge the United States’ dominant position in Asia. As long as there are continuing tensions in Sino-US relations, China will make positive overtures towards India, without any assurances that it will not revert to a confrontationist posture under different circumstances in the future. The two summits embodying “the Wuhan Spirit” and the “Chennai Connect” are an attempt to reinvent bilateral relations in order to bring stability to the relationship. They rest on the foundation of maintaining respect for each other’s’ core interests and aspirations.

Closer Strategic Communication between the two leaders has been an overarching objective. Understanding each other’s national visions, developmental priorities, aspirations and red lines that must be respected in order to maintain stability in the relationship has been the priority. The India China trade deficit has continued to grow despite years of discussions between the two sides. While the Chinese side views it as a ‘structural problem’ that cannot be resolved in the short term, we regard it as an issue of ‘market access’ requiring Beijing to address non tariff barriers.

On the RCEP India’s core concern is the same – the impact of the agreement on the bilateral trade deficit. The decision to elevate the trade dialogue to the ministerial level signals the resolve of both sides to find some common ground to address the issue. An important issue for China is the US targeting of major Chinese technology firms to prevent them from getting global business in the 5G roll out. China is keen that India resist US pressure. The Indian government is caught between competing demands. Telecom companies want Huawei to bid because it keeps prices down. But the Government must address the security risks of exposure to cyber threats in the future and the ‘potential US sanctions risk’ of being caught up in increasingly fractious US-China trade tensions.

While China seeks to move towards a Sino-centric Asian Order, India’s vision is that of a multipolar Asia. Within a Sino-centric order China would regard cooperation with India as a priority. India’s growing economy, its importance to China as a trading partner, its role in Asia centric governance institutions like the AIIB and the BRICS Bank and its accretion of strategic capital through its strategic partnerships make it an important Asian interlocutor from China’s point of view.  The Indian Ocean is witnessing a rapid rise of Chinese naval presence on the high seas and in bases and places along the littoral. India’s challenge is to counter the expansion of Chinese presence and influence without appearing too provocative. At Mamallapuram Xi continued to urge Prime Minister Modi to cooperate in China-India Plus projects and connectivity networks in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa and the BRI. Beijing may regard India’s participation in BRI essential for its characterization and success as an Asian project but India remains cautious because of BRI’s strategic intent which to create a Sino-centric Asian order. China seeks to diminish the strategic space for India in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. India is concerned at China’s growing investments and influence in South Asian countries and the IOR. The strategic collusion between China and Pakistan exacerbates security challenges for India in the region. China is unlikely to be flexible on key issues affecting India’s National Security including the boundary dispute or its expanding footprint in South Asia and its growing strategic ownership of Pakistan. Nor will it cooperate on issues India regards as key milestones in India’s rise as a great power – as for example our quest for permanent membership of the UNSC or membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. While a combination of external circumstances and summit level diplomacy appear to have stabilized India-China relations, it remains to be seen how long India and China can sustain the process without substantial progress on the core issues that divide them.

China and the ongoing Iran-US Conflict

Bihu Chamadia, Research Intern, ICS

The US-Iran conflict has been a long drawn one but it wasn’t until recently that the Middle East witnessed the involvement of another powerful actor in the region. Of late, China’s role in the Middle East has become more proactive. China has been trying to fill the void created by the current US leadership. In the past, The US intervention in Middle East has been twofold – both in terms of military presence as well as civilian efforts. However, the present era in the Middle Eastern region has been characterized as ‘post-American era’. This majorly indicates that while the US’s military presence remains the same there has been a massive decrease in the civilian and diplomatic efforts in the Middle East by the US. China has been trying to fill the long stretches of soft power diplomacy left by the US’s decision to ‘go out’ from the region. While the US-Iran conflict has exacerbated tensions in an already conflict ridden region, China’s rise as a global actor and its Belt Road Initiative (BRI) has led to its greater involvement in the Middle East. As such, it can rightly be said that China’s policy in the Middle East has undergone a big shift – from the policy of non-intervention to that of ‘crisis diplomacy’.

China’s response to the ongoing US-Iran crisis can be described as both strategic and balanced. As a responsible global actor and an important stakeholder in the region, China has given a call for upholding international norms and has been critical of any country that has tried to undermine it. China has been critical of the US actions in Iran especially with regards the following:  the US pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran Nuclear deal, imposing sanctions on Iranian oil imports and the killing of Iranian major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qasem Soleimani. All the above actions have received condemnatory reactions from China but not without an act of balancing.

The US pulled out of the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018 calling it “a horrible one-sided deal that should never, ever have been made”. China responded by expressing regret over the US’s decision. China mentioned that it “will take an objective, fair and responsible attitude, keep communication and cooperation with all parties concerned, and continue to work to maintain the deal.” China’s response to US’s pulling out of JCPOA can be viewed in a similar light as its response to US’s backing out of various multilateral agreement including the Paris Agreement. While US has been continuously pulling out of various multilateral international agreements China has been continuously giving calls to “Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind”

In 2018, after pulling out of JCPOA, the US reinstated its sanctions on Iran on the following sectors:  energy, shipping and financial sectors. The sanction banned the US companies from not only trading with Iran, but also with foreign firms or countries that were dealing with Iran. China responded by criticizing the US for its “unilateral sanctions” and “bullying”.   It even defied the US sanctions and continued buying oil from Iran. Defying the US sanctions, China continues to buy Iranian oil. Nevertheless, China’s response has been more than a mere lip service.  It has been constantly advocating the significance of multilateralism as a way to manage political as well as economic matters.

With regards Qasem Soleimani, the killing of the General who headed the Elite Quds Force of IRGC in an airstrike carried out by the US forces has led to criticism of the US by various states. US had earlier designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including its Quds Force, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Responding with a call to maintain restraint by all parties involved in the incident, China singled out the US “for violating international norms”. The US killed Qasem Soleimani, a uniformed personnel of IRGC travelling in a flagged car in a sovereign third party state, which hosts US forces. Killing of Qasem Soleimani by the US forces has raised questions on the legality of the US’s actions. According to UN charter, unless the purpose for using force is an act of self-defense or to prevent an imminent attack on US interest or US forces, the US is prohibited from using force in or against any other nation without UN’s authorization. In case of self-defense, attack killing Qasem Soleimani will be lawful under Article 51 of the UN charter. The killing of Qasem Soleimani would have been lawful under Article 51 of the UN Charter as an act of self-defense. Though, Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State has claimed that self-defense led to the killing of Qasem Soleimani, US has not been able to provide the evidence of the same in front of UNSC.

Domestic Impact of US-Iran conflict on China

 Escalation of conflicts in the Middle East could lead to rise in the prices of oil, thereby, severely affecting China’s economy. China’s economy is heavily dependent on oil imports.  China is the world’s largest importer of crude oil (US$ 239.2 billion in 2019). Among the top 15 largest exporters of crude oil to China 7 countries belong to the Middle East.  Moreover, Middle East is also an important part of China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI). Most vessels transporting goods, including oil, between China and Europe must pass through several choke points in the Middle East for e.g. up to one third of crude oil shipped over sea has to transit through the Strait of Hormuz, off the coast of Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)

The BRI and China’s economic growth both are major factors undergirding CCP’s legitimacy at home. Until China finds an alternative to its energy supplies, a stable Middle East would be more favorable to China than an unstable one.

Impact on the International Stage

The US along with some other western powers, had set up the current framework for international law and norms after WW II. While it worked in favor of the Western powers earlier. Today, as China adopts the ‘going out’ policy, it has been largely benefitting China.

On Killing of Qasem Soleimani, China responded by saying “The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq should be respected, and peace and stability in the Middle East and the Gulf should be maintained” further, it Chinese authorities also stated, “We urge all parties concerned, especially the United States, to maintain calm and restraint and to avoid the further escalation of tension.”

China’s role in the Middle East has been a strategic one, unlike the US it does not have any permanent enemy or an ‘all weather friend’ in the region. China’s role in the Middle East has been that of a regional leader where it has brought the conflicting parties to hold talks with an aim of peacefully resolving the crisis situations.  It also remains cautious about not being engaged in the conflict. China’s geographical distance also helps to maintain a distance from the region to a considerable extent, China also remains careful to merely criticize the US without taking any concrete action that can go against its own interest and derail the trade negotiation talks. However, if the US continues with its misadventure, China will also be able to legitimize its criticism over US meddling in the internal affairs of other countries.

The escalation in US-Iran conflict coincides with the US-China trade war. China has always been highlighting the political nature of the trade war. President Trump’s policies in the Middle East and especially vis-à-vis Iran  has paved the way for China’s intervention in the Middle East which has benefited China in at least two areas – , the assurance of continuous energy supply within a system that is beneficial for China and  the opportunity to ratify itself as a world leader. On one hand China defied the US’s sanctions and continued to import Iranian oil, which establishes China as a leader. Meanwhile it remains practical to look for other sources of energy, which secures its long term plan as Iranian oil export to China is decreasing.

Natuna Crisis: Is South China Sea a Fisheries Dispute?

Mahesh Kumar Kamtam, Research Intern, ICS

The recent crisis in the South China Sea erupted in December 2019, when a group of nearly 30 Chinese fishing vessels, accompanied by the Chinese Coast Guards (CCG) intruded the “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) of Indonesia around the Natuna Islands, a part of the sovereign rights guaranteed by the “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea” (UNCLOS). China’s aggressive posturing in the South China Sea, accompanied by its large fleet of fishing vessels and maritime militia, brings new challenges to the region and the sustainability of South China Sea.

South China Sea has been at the centre of dispute since China began asserting its sovereignty over the entire sea as part of its historical claim of the “nine-dash line”. This claim not only makes it an expansionist power but presents a challenge to the sovereignty of the neighbouring coastal states with overlapping jurisdiction (see the map below). The Natuna crisis and China’s aggressive postures has irked the eye of many ASEAN member states. Nevertheless, I would argue that the crisis presents not only a security threat for the neighbouring coastal states but also challenges the sustainability of the entire South China Sea ecosystem.

South China Sea Ecosystem

Source: South China Morning Post

The South China Sea dispute must be viewed from the perspective of fisheries development and the conflict for fishing grounds in the region.  A report by the Centre for Strategic International studies (CSIS) has shown that the region is dangerously overfished and over-capacitated with the fishing boats. For instance, the report cites a paradoxically worrying trend with South China Sea accounting for 12% of the global fisheries and more than 50% of the gross fishing boats of the world present in the region. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) images captured by Asia Maritime Initiative depict this trend in the region (see image below). This shows that there is sheer overcapacity in the region in terms of fishing which has further led to aggressive behavioural tactics by countries involved in the South China Sea dispute.

SAR images

          Source: White Shipping Data, Asia Maritime Initiative

Tactics to intimidate the fishing community are adopted frequently by the CCG in the region to deter the non-Chinese fishers from fishing in the South China Sea region. Chinese fishermen, with the support of CCG and Chinese Navy, have also displayed aggressive behaviour in the cross-fishing activities in the disputed waters. One of their tactics includes ramming foreign boats and sinking them. For instance, a Filipino boat was sunk by the Chinese fishermen leaving 30 Filipino sailors at the mercy of others for rescue. Gregory Poling, Director of Asia Maritime Initiative describes this approach as a “constant exercise of low-intensity warfare”.

The Natuna crisis comes in the context of the departure of Indonesia’s Minister for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, whohas a strong track record of adopting tough policies on the protection of ocean ecosystem and the crackdown on illegal fishing activity in the Indonesian waters. With the departure of Susi, China is probably testing Indonesia’s ability to confront CCGs in the Natuna Sea. However, it is also aware that Indonesia stands as the fulcrum that connects the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Therefore, it is seeking not to escalate the dispute further which can lead to a “crisis situation” in the region. Moreover, Indonesia has no conflicting claims in the South China Sea, unlike its neighbours.

China has for long claimed sovereignty over the entire South China Sea by arguing that “it is part of Chinese historic traditional fishing grounds” and expanded its naval presence through aggressive tactics. The Chinese Navy and the CCG are at the forefront by providing security and accompanying the Chinese fishing vessels, survey ships, and other mineral exploration activities in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, these activities are not confined to the “traditional fishing grounds” alone. Chinese ships have often crossed the established “nine-dash line” to either assert their control over fishing grounds by driving out foreign fishers or to test the neighbouring states’ potential and their capabilities in handling the crisis in a “matured” manner. Both the tactics are working in China’s favour to steadily extend its influence in the region.

Chinese activities in the South China Sea have expanded in the recent past with an expansive military build-up, transforming the “ecologically fragile coral reefs” into a military outpost in order to establish their continuous presence in the region as a strong naval power. The modernization of the Chinese Navy and the inclusion of the indigenously built aircraft carrier, “Shandong” is an example of China’s growing capabilities in the region and its quest to become a “naval superpower”. Nevertheless, the disrespect for international laws and non-compliance with international norms can have possible implications not just for the maritime security in the region but also severely affects the livelihood of fishing communities who are solely dependent upon the ocean resources. The data compiled on the marine fishery production in the region by the Pearson Institute of International Economics shows dangerous levels of fishing activity in the region (see graph below). The Chinese fisheries community along the coast, being overwhelming dependent on fishing as their sole occupation, has put China in a compelling position to venture into the extra-territorial waters of other countries.

Fishing activity in the region

    Source: Pearson Institute of International Economics

So, where are we heading towards in the South China Sea dispute? It seems, for the time being, China is trying to carve out its extra-territorial geographical expansion through a multi-prolonged strategy, with CCG and fisheries at the forefront of China’s expansionist agenda. However, the military escalation and the disturbance to the ecological fragility in the region may bring many livelihoods to standstill, ultimately affecting the region’s ecology and economy alike. This presents a long-term challenge to the region that risks human security at the cost of national security. Countries in the region and especially China, should be cognizant of the consequences that follow. Therefore, countries need to redefine the concept of security in the context of growing livelihood challenges.

Challenging International Norms: Chinese Censorship Model Goes Global

This self-censorship would leave no room for a dialogue or interaction to take place over contested issues if people and states choose not to voice their opinions.

Adveetya Kachiar, Research Assistant, Institute of Chinese Studies


Image Source: Wall Street Journal

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects the right to freedom of speech and expression, including the freedom to hold opinions without interference. The right is protected under many treatises such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and ratified by an overwhelming majority of the countries, making it an international norm. In an emerging trend, China is increasingly leveraging its vast consumer market, especially the recent technological advancements in the areas of 5G and AI, to force businesses and states either to co-opt with its worldview or lose out of the race. The censorship model within China is well-known: by managing the discourse and curbing the flow of information, the party ensures its survival and maintains its hold over the system, which is to say, the CCP decides on what can and cannot be talked about in the country. However, the expansion of this model outside China is rather new. Under its global campaign of telling ‘the Chinese story well’, the party-state has increased its efforts to control the narrative of its perceptions outside its borders. The censorship model working at various levels targets businesses, states, academia, and cultural spaces, whose views are not in line with the state’s discourse.

In October 2019, Daryl Morey, the General Manager of Houston Rockets of the National Basketball Association (NBA) tweeted an image supporting the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, causing a huge outrage on social media platforms like Weibo. The tweet almost jeopardized the $500 million market that NBA is trying to establish in the country. Following a major backlash from the Chinese media and nationalists, both CCTV, NBA’s broadcasting partner and Tencent, its streaming partner, canceled the broadcast of the pre-seasons game.  Consequentially, the NBA gave a statement apologizing to the Chinese people for hurting their sentiments and expressing the respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China.

In their apologies, companies and people such as Daimler, owner of Mercedes, have ended up using the phrase ‘hurting the sentiments of the Chinese people’. It is important to understand that the backlash does not come mainly for the government but also from the Chinese people on social media who see themselves as victims of ‘centuries of humiliation’ by the outside forces. Florian Schneider describes ‘National humiliation’ as the underlying idea around which most of the social media outrage/debate is taking place in the country. The Chinese government then benefitting from this nationalism can continue to have relations with states or businesses, but on its own terms. Due to the asymmetry of information in China, where the government has most of the control over information flow, the businesses are constrained to show their side of the story or reach out to the Chinese public.

Dreading the backlash, corporations and people are now apprehensive about voicing their opinions. Even on American soil, the fear of losing access to the Chinese market and the related risk of financial loss, forces people to stay silent, thereby, do self-censorship. Major movie-making giants, such as Disney, have chosen to accommodate Chinese demands such as removing the Tibetan origins of the character ‘Ancient One’ from their movie Doctor Strange, in return of access to the world’s second largest economy. Even in Academia, according to interviews with professors, students and administrators, many graduates had admitted to self-censorship and choosing not to be overly-political that might threaten their ability to get a visa to China. Samantha Hoffmann argues that, if businesses continue to adhere to the Chinese demands, self-censorship would ultimately become a mechanical decision by the companies, creating a new international norm, threatening the sovereignty of other nations and challenging the values on which the liberal world order operates. This self-censorship would leave no room for a dialogue or interaction to take place over contested issues if people and states choose not to voice their opinions.

Increasingly, many nation-states are also adopting the norm of self-censorship. This trend is especially visible in the EU-member states, avowed proponents of liberal values such as democracy, human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law. States are now willing to make concessions to the Chinese government either because of fear or to curry favor. The normalization of relation between China and Norway in 2016 is one such example, where Norway, distanced itself from the Chinese political activist Liu Xiaobo after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 resulting in freezing of the relations. Ever since then, Norway has tried to mend its relations with China by helping it gain observer status in the Arctic Council, and also refusing to meet the Dalai Lama in 2014. According to a report by the European Think-Tank Network on China, a trend is emerging in Europe where states are downgrading the emphasis on political values while dealing with China.

However, there has been a pushback against the Chinese campaign, for example, Sweden rejecting the threats from China after awarding a freedom of speech prize to the Chinese-Swedish scholar, Gui Minhai, and Google terminating its Dragonfly project, a prototype censored search engine which could be used to monitor people’s behavior online. However, such options are not available to smaller powers that are much more dependent on China. State and corporations have to choose between their commitment to the values of freedom of expression or taking the path of least resistance. One must realize that China has risen in an environment of unprecedented levels of interconnectedness and interdependence, and that it is not only the world that needs China, but China also needs the world.

BRI through India? An Idea that Still Stays Grounded

P.K. Anand, Research Associate, ICS

When an idea grips the masses, it becomes a material force – Karl Marx

German philosopher and political theorist Karl Marx’s quote depicts the power of ideas and how, if other factors remaining stable and equal, the value of ideas to generate transformation is very potent.

However, in the world of policy-making, ideas are not mere abstract concepts; in its germination from a seed to reach full fruition, they often have to navigate through the thick architecture of systems, structures and processes. Mostly, the shape of the ideas would have been altered significantly, to the extent they might even be indistinguishable. If this is the story with ideas that have potential traction, what about those which are yet to even lift off the ground, or even be difficult to execute due to systemic, and political-economic constraints?

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Subramanian Swamy’s recent suggestion of getting the Chinese to redirect their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) through Mumbai and Kolkata ports falls into the latter category — incoherent, and without attention to details. In domestic politics, Swamy’s extreme Right-wing opinions and verbose are often ignored by his party and the Union government. However, on this count, he attempts to indicate seriousness to his idea, by indicating the apparent affirmation of the Chinese leadership.

Juxtaposed with the concrete realities on the ground, it is doubtful that his signalling would get across to the intended sections in the government. This is largely due to the avowed opposition of the Indian government on the BRI though it is yet to come out with a concrete, well-articulated response to the initiative or offer a credible and tangible alternative. Rather, oft-handed comments and terse statements are all that are available for analysts to parse through to understand the official position.

If one were to build a macro picture going by those comments as well as looking at the Chinese assertiveness, the non-transparency in most of the projects and increasing contrarian voices on the BRI from some of the participant countries, it is difficult to imagine that merely keeping out of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) would resolve the issue.

As a rising power, India aspires to play an equally enhanced leadership role in the world and, therefore, competition with China is inevitable, at multiple levels. In this context, any involvement in the BRI with next to no control on the narrative would be perceived as playing second fiddle. Furthermore, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), even with all its fragilities, is now moving to the second phase and therefore, the chances of Beijing revising its position are slim.

Swamy’s comments on the Mumbai and Kolkata ports — though BRI is not only about transportation and movement of goods but also infrastructural expansion — provides the opportunity to highlight the pressing concern of weak infrastructural capacities in India. In the hypothetical possibility of flow of goods through both the ports, the (in)capacities in the form of human and material resources, ill-equipped mechanisms, and red-tape, remain plaguing issues and cast serious doubts on preparedness. Given that the Chinese also like to put the money where the mouth is, absence of enhanced basic infrastructure will discourage potential investments.

The lack of resources and structural constraints brings to the fore the critical question of State capacity, or why, despite having high population and economic growth around same levels, China was more responsive than India in distributing resources and directing development? The high degree of organisational capacity of the Chinese State being under one-party rule notwithstanding — and thereby looking beyond the simplistic notion of type of regimes, or multi-party democracy vs one-party State — the key to the answer might lie in India’s weak public institutions.The inability of the State to perform the functions of economic and social development due to constraints of societal rifts or administrative barriers negatively impacts the people. The ongoing churning on ideas of belonging and citizenship has only exacerbated the lack of faith and trust in institutions, questioning their efficacy and effectiveness.

Clearly, material force, and concrete conditions, are key factors in actualising ideas.

Originally published as Why BRI through India is wishful thinking at best in Moneycontrol.com, 23 January 2020

‘PRC Scholars React to India’s Contentious Kashmir Move’: An Analysis

One expert said that “Kashmir war escalation shows that India is a rogue state.”

Dr. Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies; Associate Professor, Centre for Chinese & South East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Scholars in the P R China have reacted quickly and sharply to the Indian government’s sudden decision to remove Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 and reorganize the state into two centrally governed territories – Jammu and Kashmir being one, Ladakh the other.  In the views of most Chinese experts, India’s ‘unilateral’ move is not only ‘irresponsible and is source of tension in one of the most complex border disputes in the region’ but it (the Indian move on Kashmir) has the potential to ‘seriously derail’ the recent consensus arrived at between the president Xi Jinping and prime minister Narendra Modi.

Echoing Beijing’s official position on the status of the state of Jammu & Kashmir, the scholarly commentaries too describe the Kashmir region as internationally acknowledged disputed area between India and Pakistan; as also established in the 13 August, 1948 UNSC Resolution, 5 January, 1949 UN Resolution on India Pakistan Commission, and 1972 Simla Agreement etc. respectively.   

Interestingly, in sharp contrast with the section of the Indian English language national media – both the print and electronic – reports last Tuesday that “India and China (on Monday) seemed to have stepped back from allowing Kashmir to become an unmanageable irritant between the two countries,” just as the visiting Indian foreign minister, Mr. S. Jaishankar was holding talks with his counterpart in Beijing, op-ed columns in the mainstream Chinese media were screaming out with contradictory tones. Take a look at the sample: “As India scraps Kashmir’s special status, Pakistan’s dream lies shattered,” “India Revoking Kashmir Special Status is Violation of China’s Sovereignty: Don’t Expect Beijing to sit by idly,” “China will Never Let India’s Kashmir Power Grab Succeed.”

In addition, even as the Indian EAM was shaking hands with the Chinese vice president, Wang Qishan, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, SIIS, Mr. Liu Zongyi wrote in a signed syndicated column, “Due to India’s classification of Ladakh as a centrally administered area, the territory of the region, which was occupied by India in the western sector of the Sino-Indian border, will also have an impact on the stability of Sino-Indian relations.” Mr. Liu Zongyi also dons the position of a visiting research fellow at the Renmin University of China’s Chongyang Institute, an influential Beijing think tank on foreign affairs issues.

In another signed article on the same day, a Chinese scholar argued that India’s arrogant action has posed an increased security risk to the LAC in the western sector along the boundary between China and India. “China immediately and firmly opposed (India’s Kashmir move) not only because the Indian arrogant action will exacerbate regional tensions and pose a threat to China’s peripheral security, but also because the Indian action will render the LAC along the western sector of the boundary between the two countries increasingly vulnerable.” In the wild Indian imagination, the composition of the so-called Kashmir region includes the IOK – which includes Jammu, the Kashmir Valley, Baltistan and the China’s native land of Ladakh; the POK, the Chinese Aksai Chin as well as the Demchok region to the west of Aksai Chin – currently under dispute, the article claimed.    

Several Chinese commentaries view the controversial unilateral Indian push to change Kashmir’s status is aimed at fulfilling Modi government’s Hindu nationalist agenda. According to Liu Zongyi, “the Bhartiya Janta Party and its parent organization the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have always believed India has been at the forefront of resisting the Muslim invasion for 1300 years. The revocation of the Kashmir special status is the successful accomplishment of the BJP/RSS political agenda, i e, to strengthen Indian control over Kashmir, to alter Kashmir’s demographic nature, and to fully integrate it into the Union of India.”

The article, which first appeared on the Chongyang Institute website on August 12 and was quickly picked up by various Chinese news portals claims, the Kashmir move had been hatched based on a well-synchronized strategy, with keeping in mind both national as well as international factors. Speaking of the internal factors, the article contends that the Modi government wanted to fulfil its election promises to integrate Kashmir with India, which it had failed to implement during the previous five years on account of lack of majority in the Indian parliament. Likewise, several other Chinese commentators too have interpreted the parliamentary move on 5 August as an attempt by Modi, emboldened by the recent election victory, to have greater control over Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state and the main source of conflict between India and Pakistan.

On the other hand, the external factor which largely contributed to the timing of the Kashmir move was the rapid progress achieved by the US and Taliban recently. Leaving India not only marginalized and isolated in the renewed Afghan peace process but also pushing India face the risk of losing initiative on both Afghanistan and Kashmir vis-à-vis Pakistan.  Besides, Chinese commentators over time have been highlighting India desperately trying to win over the US support to isolate Pakistan/Taliban in order to strengthen control over the entire Kashmir region. It is in this context these experts see a close link behind the Indian unilateral action in Kashmir to two more possible external reasons: to alert as well as draw the US attention to the fact that India alone has the right to determine what goes on in Jammu & Kashmir; and that India will not tolerate Pakistan to make use of the Taliban militants to unleash terrorism in Kashmir.

Furthermore, typically least surprising, not one Chinese commentary so far has voiced concerns such as total clampdown on democracy in Kashmir, closing down of schools, tourists evacuation, cutting off internet connectivity, and putting some of the local political leaders under house arrest etc.; on the other hand, what is also noticeably absent in the Chinese commentaries are the worldwide heightened concerns of both India and Pakistan being the nuclear weapon possessing neighbours. Neither China’s leaders nor the experts/scholars have indicated worrying signs that any escalation might push the two South Asian hostile neighbours ‘over the edge’ and start a conventional war that might well grow into a full-on nuclear conflict. 

Finally, as already mentioned, the Chinese concerns are largely centred on how Pakistan is going to equip itself both diplomatically and otherwise to successfully thwart off the arrogant Indian move in Kashmir; whether the immediate counter measures the Imran Khan government has announced would exercise any impact on India – measures such as to downgrade diplomatic relations, to cut off economic and trade ties, to put a ban on the Indian movies, to deny air space access over Pakistan to the Indian air flights and so on. A few Chinese scholars did however warn India of serious consequences of carrying out ‘aggression’ over the Chinese sovereign areas in the so-called Union Territory of Ladakh. Likening India’s highly contentious move in Kashmir to the behaviour of a rogue state, one commentator questioned: India has been dreaming of becoming a UNSC permanent member, does India aim to achieve this by deliberately violating the UNSC Resolutions and by trampling on the authority of the UN and the Security Council?

The dance of dualities in the Chinese Social Credit

Unlike the conflicting nature of dual forces in western philosophy, traditional Chinese philosophy manifests this duality in the form of complementary and balancing forces exemplified in the Yin-Yang.

Nishant Dilip Sharma, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi

Dualities have always held a prominent place in traditional Chinese philosophy. Unlike the conflicting nature of dual forces in western philosophy, traditional Chinese philosophy manifests this duality in the form of complementary and balancing forces exemplified in the Yin-Yang. The way in which the Chinese government has gone about experimenting and implementing the infamous Social Credit System in China is another duality at play.

What is being seen as the emergence of an Orwellian “Big Brother” age in China, is being carried out in several cities through a number of pilot projects running on a dual ‘carrots & sticks’ model. Just like any other ‘reward-punishment’ scheme, this programme offers certain incentives (carrots) to people complying with the expectations of the governing body and at the same time, has punitive sanctions (sticks) in place for non-compliance. Interestingly, the quality of the carrots and the size of the sticks has not been uniform across all pilots.

This arises from the fact that the implementation of pilot programmes is being undertaken in a two-pronged approach. At one end are the Government run mandatory SCS programmes that are operational in more than 43 Chinese cities. At the other end, there are the corporate-run Social credit systems. Unlike the Government SCS programmes (GSCS), the corporate ones (CSCS) are not mandatory. The CSC pilots do offer virtual and monetary rewards to their customers, however the real intent is to eventually become incorporated with the government’s plans. This way the corporate in question remains in the forefront when SCS is rolled out in a more comprehensive measure. Speaking of the sticks, punishments are harsher in GSCS than under CSCS. The carrots and sticks in the GSCS are in the form of ‘red-lists’ and ‘black-lists’ respectively. While one’s name in the ‘red-list’ would mean a special honor and privileged/subsidized access to public services, a name in the ‘black-list’ would mean lesser privileges or denial of certain privileges. This could mean low internet speed, ban from traveling, denial of bank loans, public naming and shaming, etc. In short, one’s social credit scores could have a great impact on his/her routine life and social reputation.

In a country which bears the tag of the most populous nation on Earth, such measurement of reputation scores for each individual is no small undertaking. This is accomplished through the creation of a systematic surveillance state where big data and artificial intelligence play a major role. Each camera captures the movement of every face and small offenses like jaywalking or walking your dog without a leash could result in an immediate fine from the government. Thus, surveillance in the eastern industrialized towns is associated more with governance and has helped bring down law enforcement costs and many governance issues.

In contrast, state surveillance in Xinjiang and Tibet is employed to address security concerns. Surveillance cameras here snoop into the personal lives of the inhabitants to stamp out any cultural expression. Any sign of resistance opens up the gates of re-education camps, the insides of which many have seen but few have come out to tell the story. Here state security is a priority while separatism is viewed as evil and surveillance becomes a tool. This dual nature of surveillance, that of governance in the eastern region and that of security in the western region, is another duality present in the Chinese system. This duality, however, begs to question the coherence of what China plans to achieve with a full-scale rollout of the SCS model in the entire Mainland China, which could be up and running as early as 2021.

These dual objectives, dual implementation models, dual outcome conditioning, raise multiple questions: Will China be successful at creating a reputation state amidst the incongruities that exist in China? The answer seems to be hooked to a second question: Will China be willing to respect the socio-geographic disparity present between the historically separatist western regions and the presently thriving eastern industrial hubs?

One way of doing so would be to prevent any punitive sanctions and credit reductions on the grounds of cultural suppression. A conundrum in the eastern region could be credit rating reductions caused due to systemic failures, human errors, or corrupt bureaucracy. As remediation mechanisms, legislations are being put in place to prevent such reputation harms. Shanghai’s local credit legislation passed in 2017 on the “right to be forgotten” provides a much-needed right to credit restoration and a reasonable requirement on administrative agencies’ query over citizens’ social credit information.

Such remediation mechanisms are also extended to cover data protection and norms for safe collection, processing and storage of personal data. These measures are limited to eastern cities like Hubei, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. The lack of such legal remedies in the GSCS pilots being run in the western region calls for a systemic shift in the way the pilots are being conducted. More polarized developments in the way the pilots are conducted could likely leave the western inhabitants estranged and brew discontent if the policy is applied without systemic planning and West-specific trials. Perhaps it’s time for the policymakers to take a hint from their traditional philosophies and create more balancing dualities than conflicting ones.