Do Bilateral Summits Mean Anything Anymore in Diplomacy?

Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS

Image: Bilateral diplomacy online course     


“No-show” in Alaska and naked hostility with Moscow at feverish pitch  are raising a big doubt about what President Biden said in his State Department address: “Diplomacy is back at the centre of our foreign policy”.  If Biden chooses to hold a bilateral summit on the sidelines of the upcoming Earth Summit later this month, as is being speculated, who is it going to be with – Xi or Putin? 

Do bilateral summits in diplomacy mean anything anymore? As the Biden administration tries to revive the “American leadership” in the world by signalling “the end of the Trump interregnum, it is largely relying on multilateral and summit diplomacy to achieve the goal. In order to win back trust of its major allies and partners, President Biden has been bellicosely reiterating his “America is back” rhetoric. At the same time, following a spree of virtual foreign policy appearances from Munich Security Conference to G7 to more recently Quad leaders’ summit, “statesman” Biden is now desperately wanting to hold a summit diplomacy with the leader of a major country – not an ally or a friendly leader. The purpose will only be served if a bilateral summit is held with a competitor nation or with an “enemy” power. The sooner it is done, the better. The White House admits its heightened expectations for Biden-Xi summit if the Alaska talks were productive.

Following the World War II, summit diplomacy or conference diplomacy between heads of government became the “New Normal” as the advent of new technology accelerated the tempo of diplomacy. The practice of world leaders calling each other on telephone in the 1930s was epitomized as “hot line” by the Soviet and American leaders. The establishment of the Munich Agreement in 1938 was the result of British Prime Minister, Chamberlain’s flights to Germany – a new trend in diplomacy. Taunting “air diplomacy” of the leaders of the colonial and imperialist powers in the West during the post-war decades, a Ghanaian diplomat once remarked, “Radio enables people to hear all evil, television enables them to see all evil, and the jet plane enables them to go off and do all evil.”

Image: President Biden awaits Xi or Putin?           


But summit diplomacy entails risks too. A point well-articulated by the Burgundian diplomat Philippe de Commynes six centuries ago: “Two great princes who wish to establish good personal relations should never meet each other face to face, but ought to communicate through good and wise emissaries.” 

Trump-Kim summit diplomacy not too long ago, ridiculed by the Democrats as “treason,” serves a good example. Surely, neither Trump (obviously) nor Kim Jung-un (not expected of him) had enough intellectual resources to be aware of the wisdom left behind for modern day diplomacy by the 15th century diplomat and chronicler cited above. Yet even most bitter critics of President Trump’s foreign policy enthusiastically welcomed the prospect of a Trump-Kim first summit in 2018, despite being fully aware the outcome would least lessen (nuclear) tensions on the Korean peninsula. Why? “It’s delightful to watch Donald Trump discombobulate the bipartisan American national security and foreign policy establishment with his impulsive assent to talks with DPRK leader,” is what Jim Kavanagh, the editor of The Polemicist wrote within days after the news of Trump-Kim summit was first made public.

The other good example of risks involved in face-to-face diplomacy, as Philippe de Commynes had warned, is the “2+2” meeting in Anchorage, Alaska between the top “pair” of emissaries of the worlds’ two largest powers two weeks ago. Too much has been already been written on the frothy exchange which was everything but diplomatic for us to chew. For the early reactions on the no-show in Alaska, my two articles – one a couple of days before the talks and one a day after the opening day talks – reflect the heightened tensions produced and not abated by the dialogue in Alaska.

Perhaps, a bigger setback entailed in the anti-climax at Alaska was the dashing of all hopes of much anticipated possible virtual Biden-Xi summit on the sidelines of the upcoming Earth Day global leaders gathering on April 22. “Beijing is seeking a meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping next month if the first high-level U.S.-China talks in Alaska starting Thursday are productive,” a Bloomberg report claimed while the two-day high-level diplomatic tete a tete was still being held in Anchorage. A similar claim was made by VOA news on the eve of the dialogue to be held in Alaska. “U.S. President Joe Biden could meet virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping as early as April 22, as Biden hosts the ‘Global Leaders Climate Summit’ in Washington on Earth Day,” speculated Nike Ching of the US largest broadcaster

Image: Biden’s China policy…?        

Yet the optimists in Beijing welcomed the Alaska outcome and called it “testy opening dialogue”. “Although Antony Blinken was very blunt in talking about a fight between rivals, he did not officially single out China,” observed Professor Shen Dingli of Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, one of China’s globally most respected US affairs watchers based in Shanghai. “The two-day, three-session talks did yield more than symbolic deliverables. Such frank exchanges of dissatisfaction could well become the new normal between China and the U.S.,” Shen Dingli commented.

Who will Biden choose to hold bilateral summit first? A summit with Iran is ruled out at the outset. For two reasons – Biden’s decision to bomb Syria and Team Biden’s condition that Tehran returns to compliance with JCPOA or the Iran deal, i.e. limitations on its nuclear development. Summit with Kim Jung-un was out of question even before Pyongyang fired two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan last Thursday – the first such violation of ballistic missile test ban since Biden became the US President. Two additional reasons are: the DPRK vehemently opposing the US-South Korea joint military exercises; the North Korean refusal to denuclearize without the US first committing to not using nuclear weapons against Pyongyang.

This leaves Biden to choose between Beijing and Moscow. Norman Soloman, who founded the Institute of Public Accuracy in Washington a quarter of a century ago, has appealed for an urgent Biden-Putin Summit in an article last Tuesday. “The spate of mutual denunciations is catnip for mass media and fuel for hardliners in both countries,” Soloman wrote. The urgency in Soloman’s appeal has arisen from the recent outbreak of rhetorical hostilities between White House and Kremlin thanks to Biden’s undiplomatic remark of calling Putin a “killer.” To which Putin replied in his characteristic style, saying “It takes one to know one.” Interestingly, in Moscow’s assessment the Biden remark confirms “He [Biden] doesn’t want normalization” with Kremlin. In other words, this implies no prospects whatsoever of an early Biden-Putin summit.

   Image: Will Biden-Putin summit happen soon?   

On the other hand, despite no-show fiasco in Alaska, there is more than one reason to expect a virtual Biden-Xi summit on Earth Day next month. First, as Professor Shen Dingli, cited above, said: “According to the post-dialogue statements of both sides, Beijing and Washington have agreed to set up a joint working group on climate”. Echoing similar sentiments, senior US officials have described the need for the world’s two largest carbon emitters to cooperate with each other on climate change as a “critical standalone issue”. Second, although ruling out that China is in any kind of hurry to hold summit meeting with Biden, Professor Cui Lei of influential think-tank, China Institute of International Studies, agreed on the likelihood of a virtual summit between the two leaders on climate change: “When positive achievements in these areas take place, there will be ample reason for the two heads of state or senior officials to meet,” Third but not the last, following the appointment of John Kerry as the US Special Envoy for Climate, China followed suit and brought back its most well-known environment official Xie Zhenhua from retirement as special climate envoy. Xie, China’s chief negotiator for the Copenhagen Accord or COP 15 has been described by friend Kerry as “environment man, not geo-politics man.”

Finally, oblivious of the warning by Philippe de Commynes, and going by all positive indications in the spirit of Biden’s earlier remark during Chinese Lunar New Year telcon with Xi on areas of convergence of interest between the two competing powers, Biden and Xi virtual summit in April or in Singapore’s “Davos” WEF from May 25-28 may not promise anything but will be a welcome move to just ease tensions by “opening champagne and celebrating via the internet”. Or, as they in Chinese: “ganbei!”                                             

This is revised, updated version of an earlier article “Biden’s Summit Diplomacy: Who will he choose first, Xi or Putin?” published in Modern Diplomacy on 2 April, 2021.

China’s Art of Thwarting Democracy

Ananya Raj Kakoti, former Research Intern

On 30 June, 2020, President Xi Jinping signed a National Security Law which will drastically curb the freedoms that Hong Kong exclusively enjoys because of its ‘Special Administrative Region’ status. On the very same day, at 23:00 hours local time, an hour before the anniversary of the British handover which happened in 1997, the law came into effect. But, this was only one of the many nails that China has hammered into the coffin of Hong Kong’s ‘higher degree of autonomy’ status.

In 2018, the murder in Taipei, involving two Hong Kongers led to several complications as there is no extradition treaty between Taiwan and Hong Kong. In 2019, Beijing used this opportunity and proposed changes to update Hong Kong’s existing extradition laws claiming that the 2018 murder acted as a catalyst to the formulation of this bill as it highlighted a major “legal loophole”. The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019 allows the Hong Kong government to detain and transfer individuals wanted in territories and countries with no former formal extradition agreement for trial, which includes Taiwan and Mainland China.

This bill triggered the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement 2019, or the popularly known as ‘2019-20 Hong Kong protests,’ causing massive protests to erupt in the city. This bill also caught the attention of many countries which led to diplomatic pressures on the city’s government, with Britain and Canada showing concern for their citizens in the city, the EU issuing a diplomatic note to Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam and the US pointing out that this action will make Hong Kong vulnerable to China’s “political coercion” to which China responded by asking them to not interfere in China’s internal matters and “politicise” the proposal. In September 2019, Chief Executive Carrie Lam formally withdrew the bill, but by then the protests had ballooned into a movement with demands of greater democratic freedom and liberties.

As the protests entered 2020, the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak steadily de-escalated the unrests and movements with social distancing became the norm and with it, through voluntary civil society initiatives and legal measure, crowd gatherings were discouraged, giving an impression of apparent “peace” being restored. When the media, in May, announced the drafting of a new bill by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) covering “secession, foreign interference, terrorism, and subversion against the central government,” which was to be added to Annex III of the Hong Kong Basic Law, it caused several diplomatic fallouts. The UK, Australia, Canada and the US, gave a joint statement expressing concern regarding the proposal, as it was understood to violate the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and a dismissal of the “one country, two systems” principle. This draft also ignited the dormant movement and Hong Kong witnessed the largest protest, since the onset of the pandemic.

In March 2021, during the most recent National People’s Congress (NPC), there was a proposal of drastically overhauling Hong Kong’s electoral system, to ensure that city is only governed by “patriots.” While addressing the NPC, Premier Li Keqiang warned the world to not interfere in their matters. Wang Chen, NPC vice-chairperson announced that the changes were necessary as “the rioting and turbulence that occurred in Hong Kong society revealed that the existing electoral system has clear loopholes and deficiencies”. One can say that this is an extremely interesting proposal because the Chief Executive of the city who is responsible for governing and administering the internal matters of the city, implementing laws, deciding policies, and others, is “elected by a broadly represented Election Committee in accordance with [the Basic] Law and appointed by the Central People’s Government” as established by Annex I of the Basic Law of Hong Kong. Thus, ensuring that the electoral college responsible for the election is filled with professionals, representatives, and elites of Hong Kong who are Beijing loyalist, who consequently will elect a pro-Beijing Chief Executive.

These past two years have not been the only time when China has tried to meddle in Hong Kong’s matters. China has tried to encroach on the internal matters of Hong Kong through various means by pursuing policies that could blur the status of Hong Kong being separate from the mainland. In 2003, Hong Kong protested against the city government’s plan to impose controversial and stringent sedition and internal security laws. 2012 saw mass protests when Beijing tried to implement a compulsory Chinese school curriculum, which was later made voluntary, praising Chinese communism and influence the education system of Hong Kong. Protesters said it was to “brainwash” the students.  In 2014, a decision was issued by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC), popularly known as the ‘31 August Decision’ in response to the demands of universal suffrage by the pro-democracy activists, which set parameters for the 2017 Chief Executive elections. According to the new framework, had it been adopted, citizens of Hong Kong would have been given the privilege of universal suffrage.However, the nominated candidates will have to be selected by the new nomination committee comprising of pro-Beijing members, ensuring no pro-Democrat candidate could ever get nominated. This proposal enraged the citizens, giving birth to the ‘Umbrella Revolution.’

On the eve of the 23rd handover anniversary, the National Security Law was passed, signed and implemented without informing, the city government or the public, the content of the law. Canada, the UK, Australia, the US, New Zealand and Germany, suspended their extradition treaty with Hong Kong. The US had one of the most severe responses to the law, as it went on to impose sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam, in response to undermining the city’s freedom of speech and political freedom, as a sign of standing with the people of Hong Kong. Considering the souring relations between Beijing and Washington, the US took the opportunity to show its support to the people of Hong Kong in their fight for political freedom and greater democracy.  Steven Mnuchin, the then secretary of the treasury said, that “[they] will use [their] tools and authorities to target those undermining [Hong Kong’s] autonomy.” Mike Pompeo, the then US Secretary of State also stated that Hong Kong no longer enjoys a higher degree of autonomy from China and that the new bill “fundamentally undermines” the autonomy and freedoms of Hong Kong, therefore can no longer receive special treatment under US law. The UK, who was party to the Joint Declaration in 1984 obligating them to ascertain the the provisions of the treaty is adhered to, responsed to this bill by announcing special resettlement policies for the British National (Overseas) Passport holders in Hong Kong from early 2021, in retaliation to which, the Chinese authorities said it will de-recognised BN(O) as a travel and identity document from 31 January 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic also aided China in its decisions, with the world distracted and the pandemic restricting large-scale protests. At the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, on June 2020, Cuba on behalf of 53 countries gave a statement in support of the law and criticised the discussion of the law as it is China’s internal matter, as opposed the 27 countries, represented by UK, who were against the law. According to the Freedom House’s global rating, all the 27 countries against the law are considered “free”, and the countries backing China, which includes Saudi Arabia, Syria, North Korea, are either “not free” or “partially free.” Three small “free” countries also backed China but they, along with several other countries supporting the law are involved in China’s BRI project. Most of the African countries supporting the law are trying to re-negotiate their way out of China’s debt-trap. China’s economic power in terms of its huge investments across continents, could leverage the support of UNHRC for a law it was established to oppugn.

The 2019-20 Hong Kong protests influenced Taiwan’s 2020 election, as it helped the young voters of Taiwan imagine what their future might hold, which finally led to the landslide re-election of President Tsai. Slogans such as “Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow” resonated among the Taiwanese and Beijing’s offer of “one country, two systems” lost its credibility, as the youth of Taiwan observed the gradual erosion of freedom and autonomy of the Hong Kongers.  China-Taiwan relations and the island democracy’s domestic policies will be drastically affected seeing China impose such draconian laws on Hong Kong.

India has an extradition treaty with Hong Kong through the 1997 Surrender of Fugitive Offenders treaty. Keeping in mind the large Indian community in Hong Kong, along with the many Indian professionals, and students, India can consider re-examining and altering the various extradition and travelling policies with the city. But it must also be noted that the treaty exempts Indian citizens “for an offence of a political character.” India has not released any statement yet from its Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, but its representative at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Rajiv Kumar Chander did point out that India has been “keeping a close watch on recent developments. [They] hope relevant parties will take into account these views and address them properly, seriously and objectively”.  However, if India decides to suspend the extradition treaty with Hong Kong like many other countries, it will indicate India’s position regarding the imposition of the National Security Law.

Hong Kong since its handover in 1997, after Britain’s 99-year lease had come to an end, has been fighting for its political freedom. The signing of a Joint Declaration between Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, at the time of the handover, grants Hong Kong a relatively “high degree of autonomy” for at least another 50 years, until 2047, to “preserve Hong Kong’s familiar legal system and the rights and freedoms enjoyed there,” according to Thatcher, with the intent of Hong Kong’s “continued stability, prosperity and growth”, eventually making the transition a smooth process. Hong Kong did prosper under the “one country, two systems” principle, a feature enshrined in the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, according to which China’s laws cannot be applied to Hong Kong, except for in the matter of foreign affairs and defence, listed in Annex III of the document. The city became an international hub for finance and investments, allowing its economy to boom, a “golden goose” of Communist China. It also helped mainland businesses to raise capital from global investors yet, the current leadership is willing to sacrifice it, and one might wonder why. The reason might be that Hong Kong’s significance in China’s economy has dwindled considerably, compared to what it was in 1997, with Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen leading the race. With Hong Kong becoming an ‘any other city’ in terms of its contribution to China’s rise, Xi Jinping is opting for more control and stability than growth or development. Hong Kong has lost its leverage to maintain its autonomy till 2047, this can only mean that by no means will China allow for more democratic freedom to the city than it already enjoys and no amount of international rebuke will make the country change its decision. As the battle for freedom in Hong Kong continues, with the citizens fighting for their rights hammer and tongs, one can only hope that this city emerges victorious, for now not only its political freedom is at stake, but also its economic future.

US-China Alaska Talks: Substandard Diplomacy, “Dense” Translation-Dual Failure?

Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS


The top diplomat “pair” in the Biden administration’s Team China was in Alaska last week to indulge their counterparts from Beijing. As it were, the first high-official talks between the US and China reached anti-climax from the word go. The highlights of two-day drama in Anchorage included hungry visitors, purple hair and Blinken and Yang “going purple in the face.” But why did the first top level diplomatic show since President Biden took office two months ago ended in a no-show?

 Image: US-China talks in Alaska     

The US and Chinese delegation concluded two days of talks in Alaska on last recently. The two sides’ first in-person contact since the Joe Biden administration came to office ended as abruptly as the “strategic dialogue” was suddenly announced. For China, the Party politburo member and director of the CPC Central Foreign Affairs Commission Yang Jiechi and foreign minister Wang Yi attended the summit in Anchorage, Alaska. The US side was represented by secretary of state Antony Blinken and White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan. Interestingly, despite prevailing tensions on both sides, the snow-covered, quiet Alaskan capital was brought alive all thanks to sparks flying between the top diplomats – something as theatrical and as spectacular the world had not witnessed for a very long time. The other highlight at the talks, or rather a “duel” just short of a fistfight, was the “purple hair” woman – an instant hit with millions of Chinese netizens than with people in America still struggling to cope with fast spreading corona pandemic.

Amid two sides accusing each other of not observing diplomatic protocols, the most controversial features in talks in Anchorage was the so-called translation follies committed by the “purple hair” woman sitting next to Antony Blinken. While analysts in the US criticized the presence side-by-side of the woman at the high-level dialogue as “unprofessional.” In China, on social media – reports claim the Alaska talks had remained the “hottest” agenda on WeiBo with 28.2 billion clicks during the two days – “purple hair” woman, identified as the official US translator, was blamed for inadvertently adding fuel to the uncharitable beginning of the talks. Allegedly, her Chinese language expressions were found to be far more “attacking” and “aggressive” than what Blinken actually said in his opening two-minute remarks. 

  Image: US-China trade angry words…     

To commit diplomatic faux pas is one thing; strategic miscalculation quite another. During the Cold War early phase, the US Ambassador George Kennan was “punished” by the USSR as persona non grata in 1952 for comparing Stalin’s Moscow to Hitler’s Berlin. Calling Kennan’s folly a colossal gaffe – “unthinkable for a trained diplomat” – an article in The American Prospect a decade ago cited the legendary Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis describing Kennan as the only American ambassador “to be ejected during more than 230 years of the US diplomatic relations.” Gaddis is also well-known for writing the outstanding biography of the US diplomat who most hated the Russian communism, entitled George F. Kennan: An American Life. Not surprisingly, Gaddis wrote of Kennan’s recall from Moscow “an inglorious conclusion to an illustrious career.”

It is not known if Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s level of hatred for Mao’s or rather Xi’s China, matches George Kennan’s for communist Russia. Indeed, what is certain is unlike the then US President Eisenhower or his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles who told Kennan after he returned home “there was no position for him in the administration,” Blinken need not worry about “inglorious end” to his career. For Biden, a seasoned Cold War Warrior himself – as the Chinese address the US President – has applauded his secretary of state for “tough and direct” face-to-face in Alaska. According to a Reuters report cited by the USNEWS, when asked about the outcome of the talks on the first day, President Biden told reporters at the White House the following morning: “I am very proud of secretary of state.”

However, notwithstanding Blinken-Sullivan being given a clean chit by the White House, the first reactions to a rare and fiery kick-off on the opening day when the two sides publicly   “skewered each other’s policies in front of TV cameras” have been mixed and varying to say the least. Referring to “unusually pointed remarks” in the course of both Blinken and Yang Jiechi taking aim at each other’s country’s policies, the Washington Post termed the talks as “staid diplomatic meeting.” In the words of Nick Wadhams of Bloomberg, the talks were a no-show from the start. “Several current and former State Department diplomats said they were horrified, saying we lost control of the meetings from the start and gave the Chinese an easy opportunity to tee off on them,” Wadhams wrote.

Image: Zhang Jing, China’s star interpreter in Alaska    

In China, on the other hand, the government, the media and scholars have reacted from measured and sober tone to hyperbolic and angry outbursts. However, at the end of the talks, Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat who led the Chinese side at the talks said: “The dialogue was candid, constructive and helpful.” State councillor and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi expressed confidence that “the door for China-US dialogue would always be open.” Usually not cited in the international press, the English-language China Daily headlined the outcome of two-day talks absolutely miserly: “High-level talks ‘constructive’”. Wang Fan, vice-president of China Foreign Affairs University, told China Daily: “Dialogue is better than confrontation, and such a dialogue itself means a positive impact.”

  Image: A purple-haired US translator   

Notably, reactions from China’s nationalist commentariat and some non-official media backed by the Party were in sharp contrast as compared with the press release issued after the talks concluded on the second day. For the early sharp anti-US reactions, my two articles – one a couple of days before the talks and one a day after the opening day talks – reflect the Chinese leftist perceptions on the US as well as on the dialogue in Alaska. Following the dialogue, as the Chinese media prefers to refer to Alaska talks, more commentaries have been appearing in the leftist news online platforms and media websites.

Surprisingly, a leading Chinese leftist website carried a signed commentary on Wednesday, entitled “Is Thucydides trap Finally Here?”. Surprising for two reasons, namely during his first official visit to the USA as China’s president six years ago, on the day Xi Jinping arrived in Seattle, President Obama’s use of the term Thucydides trap to describe the US-China competitive rivalry took the leader of the world’s second largest economy by surprise. Next day, after sufficient briefing from his accompanying aids, Xi rejected his hosts’ mistaken analogy and said: “There is nothing called Thucydides trap in the world.” The second reason being the Chinese Communist Party itself dismissed the concept as nothing but a “discourse trap.” Soon after President Xi embarked on his second term as China’s and the CPC’s top leader, the party’s leading theoretical journal Qiushi called upon the party ideologues to avoid falling into trap and instead “construct an IR theory with Chinese characteristics.”

  Image: Icy US-China relations and hot spat   

In a strange and unusual way, another commentary signed under a historian’s blog and posted on the website – China’s equivalent to – justifies Beijing abandoning its taoguangyanghui or “keep a low profile” practice in foreign policy in the face of all-round “attack” on China, especially as was on display in Alaska. The article “Goodbye, taoguangyanghui” applauded the aggressive stance of Yang Jiechi. The article opens with quotes from Yang’s 16-minute “counter charge” – “The US is not qualified to condescendingly speak to China,” “This old disease of America needs to be cured” and “the Chinese people will not swallow this anymore.” The article concludes by saying [the Alaska talks] was an equal dialogue between two major powers, and what China said was the diplomatic discourse of a sovereign nation. “Ours is a call to the world that China has said goodbye to the era of keeping a low profile,” the article emphatically stated. (Emphasis given)   

Finally, let us return to the “spectacle” of “purple hair” woman translator. Not only Lam Chung-Pollpeter, the official White House translator went viral on WeiBo for her translation “misdeed,” she was declared no match as compared to “translation beauty” or “translation wonder-woman” or “translation goddess” – Zhang Jing, China’s own official interpreter at the talks. Commenting on the quality of interpretation by the two top language professionals representing America and China at the talks respectively, a popular Chinese digital news platform wrote: “there were several bright spots in the performance of Zhang Jing; whereas her American counterpart, Lam Pollpeter, looked dwarfed.”

Image: T-shirts carrying “China won’t be bullied anymore”   

Blaming America’s diplomatic gaffe and American substandard translation for the dashing of hopes in Alaska that exposed the growing rift between the two powers, the news platform expressed disappointment over the outcome and evaluated Biden administration as “insincere”. China’s English language “independent” online daily, Caixin Global, while refraining from commenting on Lam’s translation, termed the ties between the two largest economies not only as “frosty” but caught in Thucydides trap. “No matter whether Democrats or Republicans win the US presidential election in 2024 or 2028, we are going to see at least 10 years of frosty ties between Beijing and Washington” Caixin Global commented.               

This is revised, updated version of an earlier article titled “No-show in Alaska: Diplomatic or Translation Failure?” published by NIICE, Kathmandu on 1 April, 2021

Two Sessions: NPC & CPPCC Ignore Demand to End Xìngbié qíshì

Author: Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS

 Image: Gender discrimination in Gaokao                       
Summary: For over a decade now, female undergraduates have outnumbered men in    China. However, the country’s gender discriminatory (xìngbié qíshì) policies prefer men over women in entry into higher education and in the job market. Last month, hundreds of Chinese women have written to China’s “two sessions” legislatures to put an end to “gender quota” favouring men.

Over five thousand Chinese elite deputies and national committee members have assembled at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing this week for what is known as “two sessions” or lianghui, to deliberate and ratify the Chinese Communist Party’s social and economic vision for China’s next five years and beyond. “Two sessions” stands for the simultaneous week-long meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) – China’s rubber-stamp parliament, and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) – largely an advisory body comprising of representatives from public life and non-CPC organizations. The two bodies are known to the people of China as Renda and Zhengxie, respectively.

Chinese state-controlled media has called the event as one of the most important “two sessions” in decades. All national, provincial newspapers and television channels have for days publicized the significance of the event, defining its timely convening as the symbol of political stability and social order under the CPC rule led by Xi Jinping. According to the South China Morning Post’s John Carter, “two sessions” are also seen as “window on the central government’s priorities and plans for the coming year.” However, going by “two sessions” past track record, thousands of Party elite who gather once a year every March are too disciplined to even look at the people’s appeal(s) or any demand not already circulated in the agenda usually decided on and approved months in advance.

China’s premier Tsinghua University: Only Male applicants eligible! 

For several decades, Chinese women have been voicing their frustration and anger against gender discrimination they face while applying for enrolment into certain elite universities and professions. China’s education ministry has finally initiated rolling back of enrolment quota based on gender – but only partially. “Except for some special institutes such as military, national defense, and public security, institutions shall not stipulate gender ratios for admitting new students,” the Ministry announced last January. “Although the new regulation is welcomed by many as relatively progressive for a country as patriarchal as China (Emphasis added), some people are dismayed that the authorities apparently still feel that some study programs should continue to be the exclusive domain of men, calling this discriminatory,” according to recently launched English language “liberal” digital news platform Sixth Tone in Shanghai.

According to recently launched English language digital news platform backed by the Shanghai branch of the CPC, Sixth Tone – described in the foreign media as China’s new model for foreign propaganda under the tightening news censorship at home – as soon as the Ministry announcement was picked up by the domestic media, the news led to public debate, especially on the social media. The controversy centering round “quota for men” in the country’s Project 211 – an official consortium of elite universities which follow a gender-based admission quota and allow either limited number of women to enroll or deny admission to women applicant altogether. Angered by the outrageous gender-based quota regime, a gender equality advocacy group launched a campaign on social media and also wrote open letters to more than 1000 NPC deputies demanding to take up the issue at the forthcoming “two Sessions,” Sixth Tone reported. 

  Lower entry point for men in university enrollment

In fact, the gender discrimination in higher education the Chinese women have been fighting against is of two kinds. Namely, limited proportion of seats for women in elite universities and several programs of study off-limit for women; for various majors such as science and technology, computer science, engineering, public security, seafaring, aviation and military etc, women are not allowed even to apply. Secondly, in China’s highly competitive university/college entrance examination system – Gaokao, not only the male-quota for admissions is higher but the qualifying score for men too is lower than for women. “The gender imbalance in many fields isn’t just limited to education, but employment as well,” the report in Sixth Tone said.  

A NYT article two years ago observed, “Thirty years ago, when the country first began implementing market reforms, Chinese women earned just fewer than 80 percent of what men made. By 2010, according to the latest official data, the average income of women in Chinese cities had fallen to 67 percent than that of men, and in the countryside 56 percent.” Besides, experts have dismissed the CPC belief that by pushing women back to home to produce more babies, saying it is only going to impact China’s demographic scene more adversely. Since Xi Jinping took over in 2012, marriage rate has fallen to its lowest point, the birth-rate has dropped to a level unseen since the New China was established, and divorce rate – initiated mostly by women – has been climbing up. In Beijing, according to data made available by the city officials, one divorce was reported for every two marriages in 2017.  

Mao Zedong once famously declared that women “hold up half the sky.” But that was socialist, egalitarian China half a century ago. Yet despite its many flaws – largely the result of Lenin’s “state capitalism” model aimed at achieving transition from the post-revolutionary economy to a genuinely post-capitalist economy – the Chinese Communist Party replicated the USSR model, observed Richard Wolff recently, an economics professor and radio host. But driven by the Marxist ambition of liberating women, Mao was not deterred by China’s recent turmoil and still persisting centuries-old patriarchal traditions, and mobilized women to enter “the work force in greater numbers and enjoy greater rights.”

     Gender discrimination in employment!

But strangely, although Mao did celebrate Xiang Jingyu (1895-1928), who had joined the CPC within a year after its foundation in 1921, as the only woman comrade among the founding members of the party, no Chinese woman has been elevated to the CPC highest political body – the standing committee of the political bureau, since the establishment of New China in 1949. Now, under Xi Jinping, it is highly unlikely for any Chinese woman to rise to the upper echelons of the party or the PRC. Why so? Because Xi has become the first communist leader to openly call upon women to return home and take care of the families.

In a shocking statement made just a couple of months before starting his second term as the China’s top leader at the last CPC National Congress in October 2017, President Xi said: women should embrace their “unique role” in the family and “shoulder the responsibilities of taking care of the old and the young, as well as educating children.” How Liu Yandong’s hopes to advance further upwards from the 25-member CPC political bureau into 7-member standing committee of the political bureau, the country’s top political body, were crushed by Xi Jinping at the party’s 18th National Congress, serves a good example here. According to a report by The Guardian’s Tania Branigan, Liu was the only woman vice premier during Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao’s regime between 2007and 2012.

What is bizarre and unbelievable is, All China Women’s Federation (ACWF), socialist China’s and the party’s women’s rights organization founded in 1949 is fully behind the CPC leader promoting these traditional ideas.

Image: A women equality advocacy group which invites posters, photos on gender discrimination in China

Accusing the CPC of extolling Confucian filial pities, Leta Hong Fincher, author of the book on gender inequality in China, Betraying Big Brother: Feminist Awakening in China (2018), recently wrote: the CPC “aggressively perpetuates gender norms and reduces women to their roles as dutiful wives, mothers and baby breeders in the home, in order to minimize social unrest and give birth to future generations of skilled workers.” Reacting strongly to the party’s recent campaign to try to stimulate a baby boom, the main reason behind Xi’s drive to send women back to home, professor Wang Zheng, a gender studies professor at the University of Michigan, was quoted in the NYT two years ago as saying: “Instead of making it easier for women to both work and have children, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has led a resurgence in traditional gender roles that has increasingly pushed women back into the home. When the state policymakers needed women’s hands, they sent them to do labor.”

Reflecting on women’s liberation movement in socialist China, Wang (cited earlier above), recently delivered a talk in mainland China, in which she emphasized that social media debates soon die out until the next ‘assault’ on a woman.” Perhaps inadvertently, what Wang further stated was an explicit reference to President Xi’s anti-women remarks. “The origin of this trend [on social media] has a lot to do with the criticism of socialist women’s liberation by China’s elite in the 1980s, demanding women to be feminine and to be good wives and mothers,” she said.

On the other hand, a series of recent social media campaigns – Movement to occupy men’s toilet in Guangzhou, #woyeshi (#MeToo), Gaobie “yuejingchiwu” (Say no to ‘menstrual shame’), Gaokao “xingbieqishi”(Gender discrimination in University enrolment), including the most recent appeal to the NPC deputies to end gender discrimination by abolishing pro-men quota in higher education and in employment, are all resolutely conveying to the male-chauvinist ruling patriarchy: it’s time Chinese women themselves “hold up half the sky!”                                      

This is a modified version of the original article “Two Sessions: Hundreds of Chinese Women Demand End to Gender Discrimination” published by  Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE) on 7 March 2021.

Year of the Ox Brings Cheers for China’s Diplomacy: PRC Scholar

Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS

Image: China in the international order  


Summary: On China, the US public stands apart and India’s Hindu majority population is described by Beijing as “self-deceptive.” In the wake of the Indian government’s decision to withdraw troops on the border with China and Biden’s recent “twin” failure to rally its European allies against Beijing, a Chinese scholar is claiming a “double” victory over both Washington and New Delhi. 

On February 19, the US President Joseph Biden delivered a speech at the 2021 Munich Security Conference. In his first public appearance in the world, President Biden categorically outlined his foreign policy approach and said: “How the United States, Europe and Asia work together to secure the peace, and defend our shared values and advance our prosperity across the Pacific will be among the most consequential efforts we undertake.” The international media, from London to Paris to Tokyo to New Delhi, applauded Biden’s 15-minute virtual assurance to partners, allies and friendly countries in Europe and Asia that “America is back.”

In Beijing, however, the Biden speech was not only interpreted in a strikingly different manner, but the conclusions drawn in the state-controlled Chinese media too were “out of the box,” so to speak. Commenting on the new US leader’s first “twin” multilateral appearances since taking office – at the MSC and at G7 summit, both on the same day – the sister publication of the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily but widely acknowledged in the global media as China’s authentic official view, the English Language hyper-nationalist Global Times dismissed Biden’s debut “twin” attempt “to rally allies against China” as utter failure.

Chinese diplomacy in the Year of the Ox    Image:


In a signed commentary entitled “Biden fails to pit allies against China in debut at G7, Munich events,” GT staffer Zhang Han wrote: “In a speech to the virtual G7 summit, Biden stressed the need for US and allies to collectively deal with economic threats posed by China. At the Munich Security Conference, Biden said we must prepare together for long-term strategic competition with China and vowed to restart multilateralism after four years of America first policies.”(Emphasis added) But as was expected, Biden’s calls did not gain much traction among US allies in Europe, Zhang Han concluded.

Calling Biden’s efforts to project China as “fabricated enemy” in his twin attempt in one day as gross error, professor Li Haidong of China’s authoritative Foreign Affairs University was quoted in the above GT commentary as saying: “The uncertainty of US politics has weakened Europeans’ own confidence in the former leader of the alliance, not to mention the fact that each country has their own problems to handle and is unlikely to confront an ‘fabricated enemy’.” In another GT story published a day before the G7 summit, professor Wang Yiwei, director of the International Affairs Institute at Beijing’s Renmin University said: “What Biden wants to do at the G7 meeting is like putting ‘new wine into an old bottle,’ but other G7 countries such as Germany, Italy and France, including even Japan, not all of them see China as the ‘enemy’.”

Reporting for the popular news app platform, Zhang Chengjing reminded her readers “Of course, he [Biden] did not forget to mention China in his speech and called on European allies to be prepared for long-term strategic competition with China.” To which, a reader responded by saying “I wonder if Mr. Biden knows about the ancient Chinese idiom Kè zhōu qiú jiàn – ‘silly solutions?’ The humankind has entered the 21st century, is it possible to return to the world pattern of the 20th century?” The reader was obviously jibing at Biden’s remark in Munich that “The partnership between Europe and the United States in my view is, and must remain, the cornerstone of all that we hope to accomplish in the 21st century, just as we did in the 20th century.”

  Biden fails to pit allies against China   Image:


It is pertinent to mention, Beijing’s commentariat meticulously scrutinizes the global media – especially op-ed columns on China related themes. A recent POLITICO analysis on the Europe’s expectations from Biden’s Munich address surely did not go unnoticed in Beijing. Widely influential in the European Union, the analysis said: “Indeed, while there is bipartisan consensus in the US that China represents a   fundamental threat to Western democracy. The Europeans are much more sanguine. That’s due in large part to Europe’s desire to maintain and expand commercial ties with China.”

What is most intriguing or perhaps cynical was the reading of the US leader’s online speech in Munich by Zhang Zhikan, a seasoned US affairs analyst at Beijing’s left-leaning and the CPC sponsored Kunlun Research Institute. In his signed commentary on the Institute’s website, Zhang wrote: “US President Biden delivered a speech at the G7 summit in which he declared that the era of American exceptionalism is over.” (Emphasis added) Zhang didn’t stop at that but went to conclude: “The fact that President Biden delivered such loaded speech on his world’s foreign policy debut is a clear admittance that an era (of the US domination) is over, and that a more complicated struggle is coming.” Indeed Zhang was referring to Biden’s remark that “be prepared for a long-term strategic competition with China.”

Going by the language and substance of the manner in which the Chinese media has been reporting the Biden speeches respectively at the MSC and at the G7 summit, it is quite likely Zhang Zhikan has surely substantially missed a vital component of Biden’s remarks and is a victim of what is proverbially called “lost in translation.” Granted Zhang might have been “misled” by the twisted manner in which the Chinese media reported Biden’s twin speeches at G7, Munich events. What is startling is Zhang claiming Biden has “retreated” from Trump’s aggressive stance on Taiwan. Referring to Biden’s remarks made on China – including on Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan, at the CNN’s town hall event days before the Munich online speech, Zhang said: “[Biden admits] The US has withdrawn from Trump’s past practices on Taiwan and other issues.”

  Biden and Modi: China?   Image:


Let us recall what did Biden say at the town hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that Zhang Zhikan was referring to? On February 16 at the town hall event, when asked about his Lunar New Year call with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Biden replied: “I point out to him no American president can be sustained as a president, if he doesn’t reflect the values of the United States. And so the idea is, that I am not going to speak out against what he’s doing in Hong Kong, what he’s doing with the Uyghurs in the western mountains of China and Taiwan trying to end the one China policy by making it forceful…”

Implying the Biden administration was climbing down in the wake of China’s amazingly quick economic recovery from the impact of Covid-19 pandemic, Zhang Zhikun’s cynical approach was evident in his claiming “victory” over India too. Attributing the news of the Indian troops withdrawal from the conflict-ridden China’s western border – just a few days before the Biden “retreat” – to China’s formidable national strength, Zhang saw a close link between the two developments. Echoing Zhang’s view, an article in a popular Chinese mobile phone news platform recently argued “the Indian economic asymmetries with China” is why India frequently provokes border skirmishes with China. Citing the news platform Jinri Toutiao, an Indian China watcher wrote: “India dreams to become the centre of the world manufacturing but has been bullied and pushed over by the biggest hegemon China, therefore by way of ‘border provocation,’ ‘flaring up anti-China sentiments,’ and ‘by boycotting Chinese goods’ India wishes to achieve this goal.”

Xi embraces Year of the Ox   Image:


To sum up, Zhang Zhikong rejoicing over China’s “twin” victory over Washington and New Delhi is no doubt reflection of the current mood in Beijing based on “managing” the world situation well. In Beijing’s view, a series of international “China’s diplomatic” victories in recent months, namely China’s success in fighting coronavirus pandemic, China being the only leading world economy to register economic recovery and relatively spectacular economic growth in 2020, signing of the RCEP, inking China-Europe Investment Agreement, more recently and last but not least China’s vaccine diplomacy as well as Xi-Biden telephone conversation – all these have been the key factors resulting in both Biden “retreat” and China’s “psychological warfare” defeat of  New Delhi, respectively.

Finally, if tone and tenor of most international affairs commentaries during the past fortnight in the Chinese media are any indication, the Lunar Year of Ox has proved to be an auspicious beginning for China and her standing in the world. In the words of a Chinese IR scholar: “All the areas where we failed to make breakthroughs in the recent past are now showing our victories. All good things are now being delivered at China’s door. The world is suddenly cheering for us!”

It seems the world had started believing the China story has ended in Shakespearean tragedy. However, Beijing reckons the China story is going to end in a Shakespearean comedy. The Chinese Lunar year calendar cycle is of sixty years. The zodiac animal when the most famous Chinese slogan “The Chinese People have now Stood Up” was first heard in mainland China in 1949 was Ox – many Chinese are reminding the world!                                                         

This is a modified version of the original article “Chinese Diplomacy: Xi’s “Twin” Victory over Biden, Modi?” published by ModernDiplomacy on 7 March 2021.

North Korea’s growing economic dependence on China

Pritish Gupta, Research Intern, ICS

In wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic dependency of North Korea on Beijing is set to increase as the country faces an unprecedented economic crisis. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is in the midst of a critical phase where the effort to manage the economy while facing crippling sanctions is impeded with the consequences of the pandemic impacting the overall performance of the economy.

With limited access to the information inside the country and despite Pyongyang’s efforts to cover itself from the spread of the pandemic, the impact on the economic activity in the country is foreseeable. The strict measures undertaken by the regime are having side-effects on its already vulnerable economy. After the closure of borders, trade with Beijing came to a halt, resulting in shortage of supplies and leading to a surge in prices. The situation is much worse in the rural areas. Last year, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said that the country was struggling to meet its economic objectives. It was a blow to the dual policy of nuclear weapons development and economic growth known as “byungjin line”.

The punishing sanctions

The sanctions have been progressively expanded by the UN Security Council and US government over the years given the nuclear ambitions of the DPRK, aiming to suppress the ability of the economy aiding its nuclear program. Though, over the last few years, the sanctions have had a negative effect on the internal economic activity, crucial to support the basic needs in health and food security. The sanctions have been partly responsible to the vulnerable state of the economy too. The restrictions on the inflow in the country, while restricting its ability to export to generate foreign exchange to import further has impacted the GDP of the country.

As North Korea found itself cornered on the international stage, Beijing was the only reliable partner for Pyongyang both economically and strategically. In terms of international trade, China accounts for North Korea’s largest trade partner. North Korea’s trade dependence on China has increased over the last few years. One of the most important reason why China is North Korea’s leading trade partner is the increase of Chinese imports of North Korean natural resources such as minerals in the last few years, leading up to 300 percent.

No change in economic policy

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s response to the situation is certainly not laudable. Lately, the regime has emphasized more on central planning and rather discouraging the private sector, an important element in country’s quest for a mixed economy. It is not keen on the economic and market reforms that could revive the domestic economic activity and prove instrumental on the road towards improving the situation. In the speeches at the party meeting, Kim stressed on the restoration and reinforcing the system whereby the economy runs under the management of the state. His unwillingness to reform the state- controlled system has exacerbated the economic situation in the country. The state control of the economy is also driven by insecurity in the regime. The rising scarcity of goods in Pyongyang and discontent among the elites has concerned Kim Jong-Un lately. The juche ideology that the leader is trying to implement in wake of the crisis stemming out of sanctions may worsen the economic situation in the country.

Post-pandemic consequences

The consequences of the pandemic on the North Korean economy may further complicate the crisis. The slump in global economic activity would also impact the country’s overseas business interests in China as well as the workers in Russia. Travel restrictions have made it difficult for Pyongyang to send the workers overseas. North Korea’s reluctance to publish the economic data also makes it difficult to understand the impact on the country’s economy. The effect on small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in China are indicative that the North Korean SMEs would be facing challenges with labor shortages, supply chain issues etc. But, with Chinese economy recovering well from the slowdown, it is predicted that with the easing of the border controls, trade with China would be normalized. Though, with prolonged restrictions, the negative impact on the economy may expand widely and last long enough to a full blown economic crisis accelerated by the pandemic.

Economic Dependence on China to stay?

North Korea prefers the Chinese system for banking, trade and business with no alternative in sight. Both the countries are willing to expand these exchanges in the near future. Economic independence and diversification in trade relations for Pyongyang may be beneficial in the long run but given the crisis on the peninsula, it seems a distant possibility. Chinese dominance also remains strong given the close connections between the business communities, despite the sanctions. For China, the bordering provinces with North Korea are the poorest in the country therefore trade and economic exchange is crucial for economic activity. Pyongyang understands the massive advantages of maintain robust economic ties with Beijing. If negotiations with the new US administration in terms of the denuclearization of the peninsula and regime stability are successful in the near future, the sustained economic ties with Beijing would prove to be an important catalyst for opening up of the economy for Pyongyang.


With the pandemic curtailing the economic activity globally and the stalled talks on the Korean Peninsula, it is imperative for Pyongyang to depend on the economic benevolence of Beijing. Economically, North Korea is likely to remain in China’s economic sphere for a foreseeable future until the international sanctions are eased and the relationship with the West is normalized. Pyongyang also understands the consequences of overdependence on China in economic terms, but given the uncertainty on the peninsula it has to sustain its enduring alliance with Beijing.

Is ‘guht’ the anagram Biden must solve before calling up President Xi?

Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS

Image: How will Biden deal with China? 


Is China’s Xi Jinping shaping our world? Yes is the answer if you are in Beijing but a definite no if you are in Washington. Is the CPC strongman a ‘thug’? Yes if you are in Washington but a definite no if you are in Beijing. Is this what causing Biden delay set up conversation with the PRC President?

  How will Biden handle China?    Image:

In Washington, or on the Capitol Hill to be precise, the buzz word is ‘what is to be done with China’? The joke is, Biden knows Xi “pretty well” and no leader in the democratic world – so Russia’s Vladimir Putin is excluded – has spent more time with Xi Jinping, therefore, he (Biden) has a reason to not call Xi. However, on a serious note, Biden is hugely disappointed in Antony Blinken, Kurt Campbell and Jack Sullivan – Biden’s top China advisors – for not advising the President even after nearly three months since the president-elect was confirmed, to what to say to Xi on the phone?

         Will improved US-China relations be called A Shakespearean comedy?  

In Beijing, or inside Zhongnanhai to be precise, the sixth tone being heard is (there are five tones in Modern Standard Chinese – MSC or Mandarin) Baideng zenme le? Or ‘what is wrong with Biden? Why is the guy not calling? The joke inside Zhongnanhai is, Xi Jinping was heard angrily telling his three top policy advisors on the US: “I proposed win-win to Trump in November 2016, but the guy was so arrogant that he pooh-poohed me. And look, what happened to him in the end?” However, in a much more serious tone, Xi warned Yang Jiechi, Wang Yi and Cui Tiankai (China’s envoy in Washington) “I am so disappointed in you three, it is three months and you couldn’t arm twist him (Biden) to at least call me”. How I wish I could pack you all off to the labour camp in Xinjiang, including the “old oil fritter” Biden!”

Seriously, why are Biden and Xi not conversing? Since he defeated Trump in November last year, as also after being sworn in more than two weeks ago, Biden has been talking to the leaders of the “free world” – with the exception of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Eventually, Biden also had to talk to Putin last week to extend New START treaty on nuclear weapons for another five years. Yet, despite this hopeful sign, no one is expecting a turnaround in US-Russia relations. As John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy in Focus has observed: “no one expects anything close to a full reset of U.S.-Russian relations during a Biden administration.”

Waiting for Biden?

Following initial reluctance but finally succumbing to the mounting pressure of the formidable   Russian nuclear weapon capability and agreeing to extend New Start treaty, there were speculations of Biden calling up Xi to wish him Chinese Lunar New Year greetings this week. However, just like one-off phone call to Putin made under duress will not result in a dramatic turnaround of ties between Washington and Moscow. Likewise, a Chinese Lunar New Year telephonic greeting from Washington to Beijing is not going to “warm up” icy relationship either. No matter even if the Chinese New Year is also popularly known as Chunjie – the Spring Festival. (Just as this write-up was being sent to the press, news filtered in of a 2 hour-long telephonic conversation between Biden and Xi).

   Image: Turning his back on China?          Source:

As was expected, the “opportunity to break the ice” between Washington and Beijing, despite Biden-Xi phone call, ended up in only exchange of New Year niceties. Why? The first high-level online contact between Xi’s high profile foreign policy advisor Yang Jiechi and Biden’s top China hand Antony Blinken on February 6 faded away in their respective high expectations from each other, according to the reports originating in Hong Kong. However, we must acknowledge the due credit to Yang-Blinken success in setting up the New Year courtesy call between the two non-talking presidents. But as a news report in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post said, “Such top official-level phone call traditionally helps prepare for the two presidents to talk. But the misalignment between the two sides remains huge.”

 On the other hand, it cannot be ruled out that though President Joe Biden is facing a host of challenges in foreign policy – as was evident from his first address to the world on February 4, “relations with the People’s Republic of China is going to be the thorniest.” As Conn Hallinan, writing in his post in says, “[How] the Biden administration handles issues of trade, security and human rights will either allow both countries to hammer out a working relationship or pull the US into an expensive–and unwinnable–cold war.”

Image: If Biden-Xi fail to reverse the current state of US-China relations, will it be called a Shakespearean tragedy?


In China, the official response to Biden’s latest stance on Beijing as expressed in his interview to CBS on February 7 saying “there is no reason not to call Xi Jinping,” has been that of measured tone and un-wolf warrior-like patience. Last Monday, China’s official news agency Xinhua published a commentary that said “candid and constructive” dialogue was needed to better understand each side’s strategic intentions and rebuilt trust. The commentary also recommended to Washington to heed to what Henry Kissinger recently said: “Both America and China should merge their efforts to not to shake the world, but to build it.”

However, typically, several other media outlets and scholars have pointed out Beijing’s growing anger with the Biden administration, especially for two reasons. First, it is apparently becoming clear (to Beijing) the new administration is unlikely to significantly alter U.S. policies on trade, Taiwan, human rights and the South China Sea, as reported in the English language Global Times recently. Second, in a joint article written in hardened tone, two international relations scholars Wu Tong and Zhang Cong have cautioned: “Under the Biden administration, the US basic perception on China may have changed from a ‘regional power’ to a revisionist power ‘seeking global hegemony.’ Therefore, Beijing should be prepared to counter further pressure from the Biden administration.”

Finally, sceptics in Beijing, Washington and elsewhere maybe right in asking the question arising out of the delay in setting up the conversation between the two leaders: is this more a posturing of the Cold War kind?

Well, seems like it. 

The article was earlier published by the Indian Defence Review under the same title on February 15, 2021

Beijing Drives a Wedge between Australia and New Zealand

Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS

           President Xi Jinping and New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern

Summary: Neither did Trump nor will Biden, the US is not going to specially reward any of the “Five Eye Alliance” allies if they out compete each other against China. Look at how New Zealand is giving Australia a lesson, Chinese scholars are saying.

Trump is gone. So is Mike Pompeo – the “crazy” rabid anti-China former Secretary of Defence, who according to Chinese international relations experts miserably failed in rallying together the US “Five Eye Alliance” partner countries against China. With the return of Biden to the White House after four years as the President of the United States, Australia is already paying a heavy price for blindly following Trump-Pompeo anti-China policy. This is what a recent Chinese article claimed and described Australia’s predicament in a rather telling joke: To push its anti-China drive, the US called on its allies to come up on the frontline and take lead. The US said: You lead; the UK said: you lead; Germany, Japan and New Zealand one by one too said the same. However, when its turn came, Australia, beaming with enthusiasm replied: Okay, I shall lead! But soon Australia was seen running back towards the allies “crying” and complaining: “He is beating me! He is punishing me!” Alas, no one came forward to help or rescue Australia.

As it turns out, according to some Chinese analysts, it is New Zealand which is “teaching” Australia on how to get along with China. Recently, concerned that its tiny neighbour has been   “changing its priorities a little bit” and “not fully committing itself to Five Eyes and trying to keep an eye elsewhere,” the Australian Prime Minister Morrison told Sky News on February 1: “The Five Eyes is really important, and so are liberal market democracies… all of these countries need to align more… on security issues and intelligence” in opposition to “authoritarian” countries.”  

     New Zealand signs upgraded FTA with China on Jan. 26, 2021

What is FVEY?

The origin of the Alliance, also called FVEY, can be traced back to the post-WWII period when the multilateral UKUSA Agreement was signed for joint cooperation in signal intelligence. During the Cold War, the five countries developed a surveillance system called ECHELON to target monitoring the communications of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries. Following the end of the Cold War, in the 1990s and in the following period, FVEY initiated ECHELON system expanded it surveillance on the “war of terror” and soon included widespread spying on the citizens of even the alliance partner-countries.

More recently, since early 2018, FVEY along with three more countries – France, Germany and Japan – introduced an information-sharing framework to counter threats arising from foreign activities of especially China, and also Russia.

                     China takes a stab at one of the Five Eyes Alliance country

It is worth paying attention how the controversial arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive and daughter of Ren Zhengfei, Huawei CEO, in December 2018 at the Vancouver International Airport was carried out. According to the Chinese government, the entire operation was conducted based on the information supplied by the world’s oldest intelligence alliance, the Five Eyes.

The US push to allies in Indo-Pacific and SCS

Now, pumped up by “anti-Xi Jinping” and “anti-CPC” Mike Pompeo, Australia as one of the FVEY countries, decided to step up the US anti-China campaign in the region. This led to more and more Chinese commentators dig out the recent history of Australia’s increasingly over- enthusiastic and proactive frontline role against China in the Asia-Pacific and in South China Sea. Broad consensus among China’s strategic affairs circles is, beginning with the US “re-equilibrium strategy” during the early 2010s under President Barack Obama, Washington has greatly expanded its military presence in the Asia-Pacific (now Indo-Pacific) region.

                                         NZ Trade Minister Damien O’ Connor  

In this backdrop, it is pertinent to refer to what Admiral Charles Richard, head of the US Strategic Command, which oversees nuclear weapons stated recently. Reacting to last year’s China’s military report, Adm. Charles had said at the Department of Defence press briefing on September 20: “[China] military report is an explanation in terms of what China’s overall strategy is. And China in particular is developing a stack of capabilities that, to my mind, is increasingly inconsistent with a stated no-first-use policy.” A WeiBo blogger, Bu Yi Dao, whose write-up, like several other commentators perceived Adm. Charles’ above remark “a clear reflection of the US bipartisan elite consensus behind increased provocative military exercises in SCS, along with some allies in the region, aimed at preparing for an attack on China.”

Australia miffed over New Zealand’s leaning towards Communist China

Let us return to the Australia, New Zealand spat over China. During the past few years, under Labour and Liberal and/or right-wing nationalist alliances-led governments, both Australia and New Zealand have strengthened military ties with the US and have adopted more explicit anti-Chinese stance respectively. Some have even argued the two Oceania neighbours, like most Western countries, faced with the world economic crisis and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, have increased their military spending and have allowed nationalism to go unchecked. It is in this context, New Zealand upgrading its “free trade” agreement with China last month, was seen both in Beijing and Wellington of added significance.

However, what triggered Prime Minister Morrison to warn “prickly” New Zealand “not to eye elsewhere” was the remark by NZ trade minister after the FTA was signed. Widely reported in Australia and New Zealand, Trade Minister Damien O’Conner – who is not particularly a leading light in the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s second-term cabinet – with his spectacular jibe at Morrison, at once “stepped into diplomatic doo-doo.” Writing for the Lowy Institute’s the-interpreter, Robert Ayson awarded O’Connor both douze points and extra bonus “for telling Australia, a somewhat important partner, to follow New Zealand’s example in crafting a more positive relationship with China and for suggesting that Australia needed to show China some respect.”

                                                        Australian PM Scot Morrison    

China having the last laugh

In China, commentators welcomed the FTA signed on January 26, especially in comparison with the deteriorating Sino-Australian ties. The agreement will remove or reduce tariffs and compliance costs on most forestry, dairy and other exports from NZ, while providing benefits for its education, aviation and finance industries. Moreover, several Chinese commentaries, in particular the strategic affairs experts, in the context of the FTA described New Zealand as the “last eye” among the FVEY countries. A popular military affairs blogger under the name Hou Sha, whose blog on Australia-New Zealand spat was picked up by multiple Chinese online news platforms and mobile news apps, including the influential leftist Utopia, even asked if the New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern’s praise for China in her curt reply to the Australian PM Scott Morrison had left the latter “red faced?”

Prime Minister Ardern had sought to distance herself from the controversy stirred up by her trade minister. However, with Australian Prime Minister Morrison taking up the issue with O’ Connor, Ardern disdainfully dismissed Morrison by saying: “I don’t necessarily take that same position in the way he’s [O’ Connor] presented it… In the same way we wouldn’t expect Australia to give too much commentary on our relationship [with China]; we shouldn’t be giving commentary on theirs.” Commenting on the controversy, The Guardian, in a report cited above, warned both Australia and New Zealand to be careful with China “attempting to drive a wedge” between the two members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.

                                 Ground Zero for Chinese Influence         

China’s hyper-nationalist Global Times, in an article “Why New Zealand and Australia’s relations with China are cases of ice and fire” published the day after the FTA, listed out three reasons why the two countries, both members of the Commonwealth of Nations and the FVEY, have such a huge difference in their relationship with China. Namely, First, New Zealand respects rules of the market economy and has reached consensus with China in promoting free trade; by contrast, citing “national security,” especially since 2018 Security of Critical Infrastructure Act, Australia has set limit on Chinese companies which has led to a sharp decline of Chinese investment in Australia. Second, Wellington doesn’t take sides between Beijing and Washington; whereas Australia has been acting as an anti-China vanguard for the US. Thirdly, New Zealand is relatively open toward the rise of China. It was the first Western country to have signed a cooperative document with China under the framework of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); Australia is not only filled with hostility toward China’s rise, it has use legislative means to abolish the BRI cooperation agreement signed between China and its state of Victoria.                                                                                             

Another Five Eyes alliance joke which went viral on the Chinese social media recently, hailed New Zealand as its eyes wide open while ridiculing Australia for its totally blind eye!

The article is a modified version of the original article titled Beijing having the last laugh as Australia, New Zealand spat over China turns ugly published by modern diplomacy on 11 February, 2021

China-Japan Relations: From Economic collaboration to Strategic contestation.

Abhyoday, Research Intern, ICS

Japan and China have for a good part the 2010s been able to maintain a relationship which was mutually beneficial. The economic collaboration between the two countries has kept on increasing and it was the Japanese investment which has played a big role in the rise of China as the world’s manufacturing center. However, since the trade war between the USA and China, Japan is struggling to balance its economic interests with China and strategic interests vis a vis the United States.

The two countries have their fair share of problems, be it the seasonal Yasukuni shrine problem, or the constant increase in Chinese activities in the East China Sea’s areas which are claimed by Japan as an incursion. While the Japanese have a huge dependence on the manufacturing from China and the supply chains emanating out of it, the transformed foreign policy approach of Chinese in 2020 has made it all the more difficult for Tokyo to maintain its economic interests without jeopardizing the strategic quotient.

The conundrum was in full view when in June, the Trump-led US government lashed out at the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) for their new national security legislation in Hong Kong, and as a result of which, the USA wanted to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and Mainland China. USA wanted a joint statement of G7 nations condemning China, however, only four countries came forward, them being, USA, UK, Australia and Canada. The absence of Japan raised many eyebrows. Some analysts and news reports mentioned that Japan wanted to condemn these acts by China, but not to a level to jeopardize its economic interests.

As the Chinese military maneuvering in the East China Sea has seen an uptick coupled with the larger change in Chinese diplomacy, which has become highly aggressive, popularly known as wolf warrior diplomacy, Japan finds itself in a difficult situation.

In dealing with the tensions in the East China Sea, both the countries are treading a narrow line. On the one hand, China wants to continue its activities to the extent that Japan finds it within its comfort zone to deal with it bilaterally, and on the other hand, Japan wants to maintain its sovereign rights of the Senkaku Islands (as declared in 2012) without compromising its economic interests with respect to China. Both countries maintain a level of complex interdependence, add this to their proximity and the military capabilities each one of them possesses, both want to get the largest slice of the East China Sea cake without agitating the other party beyond reconciliation.

Thus, as Japan wants to unchain from these shackles of complex interdependence to have a more independent China policy, it is looking at options to nullify this interdependence. In line with this, the Japanese have been trying to diversify their supply chains and move to manufacture away from China and to South East Asia and India.

In the process, according to a report by Bloomberg, 57 companies would receive 57.4 billion yen or $536 million in subsidies from the Japanese government to move to manufacture away from China. In addition to this, thirty other firms would receive money to move factories to Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries stated the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The payments would come from the 243.5 billion yen that was earmarked by Government in Tokyo to reduce dependency on Chinese supply chains.

In addition to these steps for economic diversification, Japan is also taking up military modernization. Be it, converting Helicopter carriers into Aircraft Carriers or military pact with Australia (which is Japan’s second agreement on allowing a foreign military presence in its territory, the first being the 1960 Status of Forces Agreement with the US). In addition to all this, Japan has also increased its engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.

The whole visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also has confirmed that both sides are not willing to relent on their respective positions. The differences have only widened and the fact that the two countries shied away from discussing the controversial yet important issue of Senkaku Islands means that Japan will keep on increasing its military strength, to increase its position on the negotiation table. Just recently Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi has invited German warships for naval drill with their Japanese counterparts and Japan has also decided to hold naval drills with France.

Japan, for a long time, has been constrained by its economic interests. Thus, it has not been able to act out its strategic interests. For perspective, the trade with China of Japan’s total trade in 2019 was 21.3 percent. However, as the country diversifies its economic options, the Chinese will lose the Achilles Heel (Japan’s supply chain dependence) and could increase the probability and intensity of strategic contestation. In the meantime, the attempt to showcase things as normal is in Japanese interest as it gives it time for the companies to move their manufacturing out of China and diversify its supply chains, thus, gaining the ability to act out its strategic interests and deter China’s activities in the East China Sea.

Book Review: Xi Jinping, 2020. The Governance of China III (English Version).

Beijing: Foreign Languages Press

Sreemati Chakrabarti, Vice-chairperson and Honorary Fellow, ICS

Writings and speeches of leaders of countries around the world and mainly in socialist states are normally called Selected Works. President Xi Jinping’s speeches have been  published with a different kind of name ‘The Governance of China’.  Perhaps someday a detailed explanation may come from the publishers and other political analysts about this title, however I will not make any guess why it is so.  This volume comprises mainly of writings and speeches delivered by the Chinese President who is also the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, between October 2017 to January 2020.Very much like the writings and speeches of his predecessors Xi’s style is simple and intelligible to the ordinary person.

 To understand contemporary China such a volume can be a very important primary source material for research as well as to understand the priorities in terms of policies of the ruling dispensation. The volume’s first section is Xi Jinping’s speech at the 19th Party Congress on 18 October, 2017. Many scholars and analysts have already commented about this speech which runs into many pages and covers a wide range of subjects which President Xi considers significant for both the Chinese nation as well as the Chinese Communist Party. All through this Report President Xi refers to “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. Whereas ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ as a guiding  principle was upheld since the 1980s by Deng Xiaoping and the communist party of that period but adding the words ‘new era’ shows that Xi jinping wishes to recreate and rejuvenate some old policies taking into account the new and emerging realities of the Chinese social, political, economic, cultural and environmental situation. The long speech which runs into 79 pages in its English translation while covering a whole range of issues from innovations to culture to the armed forces to national reunification and so forth, seems to give a lot of stress on the role and significance of the Party. While it is natural that at the party congress which meets only once in five years the supreme leader will emphasize on party work to inspire and energise the junior most party worker yet the extent and intensity of Xi Jinping’s continuous stress on the party is almost unparalleled in the history of communism. The speech gives due importance to many other aspects of the social, economic and political life of people in the PRC but his call to the youth, I thought, was, remarkable. Towards the end of the speech, he says: “A nation will prosper only when its young people thrive; a country will be full of hope and have a great tomorrow only when its younger generations have ideals, ability, and a strong sense of responsibility. The Chinese dream is about the past, the present, and the future. It is the dream of our generation, but even more so a dream of the younger generation” (p.75).

A young Indian political scientist, Dr. Bhim Subba, who studies politics in China while summing up the Report has made the following comment, “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ also called as Xi Jinping Thought has been enshrined into the party doctrine/constitution as a guiding ideology. This is a part of a continuum which indicates that Xi like his predecessors wants his ideological innovation to be added to the party charter but after his name. The Report stressed on the party leadership to guide towards socialist modernization and the national rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Further, the Report also stressed on the Chinese people and the Party not to forget the ‘original mission’ (bu wang chuxin) of the Chinese communists through the alertness of the cadres, continuing by deepening reforms (rule of law) and strict governance (anti-corruption and rectification continues to make waves until this day). However, the most important pronouncement was the mentioning of the Belt and Road Initiative (OBOR) more than five times. This has become the bed-rock of Xi’s grand strategy of economic and foreign relations since 2013 and more vigorously post-19th party congress in 2017.”

Other noticeable points that Xi Jinping makes in his speech include supporting a new generation of entrepreneurs and giving a boost to the private sector (p.315). For readers who may be interested in knowing President Xi’s ideas on diplomacy and foreign policy it is necessary to point out that here also he focusses on strengthening the CPC’s leadership role (pp.489-499). The volume includes Xi’s speeches at all major international events like the SCO, BRICS Business Forum, APEC CEO Summit, G20 as well as the Asian Civilizations Dialogue, (which this reviewer had the opportunity to attend), among others.

In my opinion, however, the most significant, relevant and with far-reaching consequences are the Chinese President’s views and policies on ecology and environment. Speeches  and writings on these issues are in the section called ‘Harmony between Humanity and Nature’.  Speaking at the National Conference on Eco-environmental Protection in May 2018, he states at the beginning of his speech that the major challenge facing Chinese society today “is the gap between the unbalanced and inadequate development and the ever-growing expectation of the people for a better life”. Since people of the country and their support are top priority it is absolutely necessary to promote environmental protection, preserve the ecosystems and provide more quality eco-products (p.417) When it comes to economic development it is important to adhere to the principle of giving priority to “conservation, protection and the restoration of nature. We should not think of taking from nature without giving back, developing without protecting, and consuming without restoring” (p419). One cannot overstress the significance of the above-mentioned statement. Development and progress without adequate precautions to keep the environment healthy is already haunting mankind. At this stage if corrective measures are not taken the future of humanity will be jeopardized. In this speech the President urges and pleads to protect the environment as one protects one’s eyes and life. Insisting that environmental quality cannot be allowed to drop further, it should only improve, he warns that local Party and government functionaries will be held directly accountable if in their areas of work ecosystems are badly damaged and there is deterioration in the quality of the environment (p.420). In this speech he mentions that “each and every individual is a protector, builder and beneficiary and so  should not be a bystander, an outsider or a critic” (p.421). Towards the end he makes a commitment that China will be heavily involved in global environmental governance and actively take part in the transformation to help form global solutions to eco-environmental protection and to sustainable development. (p.423). 

In the same speech President Xi refers to the ever-important issue of air and water pollution. Stating that air pollution is top priority he reminds the audience that China has made a promise to the international community that before hosting the 2022 Beijing winter Olympics air quality will be improved. Specifically targeting the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Region and its surrounding area, the Yanztze River Delta, and the Fenhe-Weihe river Plain would be essential for a substantial improvement in air quality which he calls an “unconditional requirement ….to bring back blue skies” To achieve this it will be necessary to eliminate individual coal-fired boilers and suspend operations of outdated coal-fired power plants and then transform and upgrade them. On controlling water pollution Xi Jinping suggests that all urban water bodies need to be cleaned up and in particular the Bohai sea water must be improved and the Yangtze River ecosystem should be protected and restored. In addition, soil pollution control can be done through promulgating and implementing a law to enforce the action plan (pp.427-29).

This section on environment and ecology also consists of the inaugural speech President Xi delivered on April 2019 at the International Horticulture Exhibition in Beijing. Since this event was attended by many foreign heads of governments and other dignitaries he urges all nations to join hands to meet the common challenges, he says “Only together we can effectively address climate change, marine pollution, biological conservation, and other global environmental issues, and achieve the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” (p.436). Towards the end of this speech he mentions that China is prepared to work with other countries “to create a better homeland and a global community of shared future.” (p.437). The last sub-section on this subject is the Chinese president’s speech at the Forum on Eco-conservation and quality Development of the Yellow River Basin. Here he emphasizes on improving water conservation and preventing potential hazards due to too much sediment in the Yellow River.

Overall, the selection of speeches on ecology and environment made by the publishers is rather commendable as it gives the reader a very comprehensive picture of the policies and priorities of the Chinese leadership on a matter which has world-wide consequences.