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

Shreha Gupta, Research Intern ICS

Image: Vaccine diplomacy and Nepal
Source: Griffith Asia Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China’s Rendezvous with the Taliban: An Uneasy Alliance

Rangoli Mitra, Research Assistant, ICS

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

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

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

A Historical Overview of China-Taliban Relations

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

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

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

Chinese Development Ambitions in Afghanistan

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


Source: Stratfor

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

China’s CBDC: Cross-border Prospects and Challenges

Raj Gupta, Research Intern, ICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annesha Bhattacharjee, Research Intern, ICS

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

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

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

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

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

Shadow Banking and the Real Estate Bubble: Is Financial Crisis a Real Possibility in China?

Anushka Maheshwari, Research Intern ICS

Image: Property-hungry Chinese millennials and shadow banking could fuel a financial crisis
                    Source: South China Morning Post

The Chinese economy, due to the strict measures adopted by the government to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus,  is back on track, with output back to pre-pandemic levels and a surge in credit activity. China’s financial regulators are having a hard time containing risks at home while limiting disruptions from abroad as the economy is opening to foreign investment. The fear of missing out has stoked the investors’ expectations and many people are now buying property for investment or speculative purposes, which Guo Shuqing, chairman of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, termed as “very dangerous”. The household debt in China had reached 150 percent of its disposable income in December 2020 driven by a rise in property prices and seems to be concentrated among the millennials. The youth of China is clearly banking upon the government to sustain this growth in real estate prices, but a major portion of this debt is financed by shadow banking. People’s Bank of China (PBOC) defines China’s shadow banking as “credit intermediation involving entities and activities outside the regular banking system”.Since this sector is outside the formal banking sector, it lacks a safety net that comes from being financially backed by the government through deposit insurance publicly guaranteed or ‘lender of last resort’ facilities by China’s central bank. This raises an important question: Is China on the verge of a financial crisis like the one faced by the US in 2008-09?

China escaped the 2008 financial crisis primarily because of its booming domestic market and little exposure to the overseas market for wholesale funding. But the contraction in capital inputs through foreign direct investment during the crisis and fall in exports made the government announce a $586 billion stimulus package to provide a boost to the economy. Major infrastructural activity, constituting 72 percent of the package was undertaken, and only 30% percent of this was financed by the central government. The rest had to be funded by the local governments, and since they couldn’t borrow funds themselves, local government financing vehicles had to take on debt on their behalf from banks. But banks had severe restrictions in terms of lending such as caps on lending volumes imposed by the PBOC, mandatory bank loans to deposits ratio, restrictions on lending to certain industries, reserve requirements, among others. Due to this, shadow banking activities grew along with an increase in fixed investment, driving economic growth but at a high cost, so much so that the corporate debt to GDP ratio reached a record 160 percent in 2017 as compared to 101 percent 10 years prior to it. 

The Chinese leadership claimed that it had successfully defused the housing bubble that had formed in China by the end of 2014 due to these shadow banking activities. So, in order to uplift the dampening economy in 2015, it eased restrictions on second-hand home purchases and the property market since then has been booming, with more households buying houses and property developers borrowing more to engage in construction activities. There are many factors causing an increase in shadow banking activities, which in turn contribute to the growing real estate bubble. Firstly, Chinese authorities are trying to sustain high GDP growth rates through credit borrowing which puts strain on financial institutions of the country. Secondly, zombie companies that have little to no productive use, are borrowing more and more simply to meet their current obligations. Thirdly, many state-owned and private companies in China have property subsidiaries, and property loans made to these subsidiaries are sometimes presented in the books as going to the parent company. This results in the share of property-related debt being much higher than what is available in the official data. The overall impact was that the amount invested in Chinese housing hit $1.4 trillion in June 2020, while the total value of houses and developers’ inventory, according to a Goldman Sachs report, had reached $52 trillion in 2019.

Image: Shadow banking in China has ballooned into a $10 trillion ecosystem that connects thousands of financial institutions with companies, local governments and hundreds of millions of households.
Source: Bloomberg Quint

The shadow banking system in China works independently of its monetary policy, amplifying increases in the money supply but working opposite when the restrictive interest-based policy is imposed. Thus, it can be inferred that in spite of the Chinese policy changes to curb the real estate sector, the negative role of shadow banking is why the bubble continues to build. President Xi Jinping’s statement in 2017 that “houses are built to be lived in, not for speculation”  clearly indicates that the PLA government is sensitive to this issue. The government in China has adopted stringent measures to stop the rise in property prices over the past few years, and the latest mandate in August 2020, restricted credit supply to both developers and investors. These new regulations that mandate all lending institutions to decrease the quantity of loans given to this sector are going to stay in place until the real estate cools off. There are two forms of shadow banking in China, one is the channel business of Chinese banks that hide some of their lending activities to keep them outside the purview of the auditors and regulatory bodies. The other is P2P(Peer-to-Peer) lending platforms like trust companies, factoring companies, etc. In order to contract both these forms, the Supreme Court in China has lowered the interest rates on microlending, which will make it unprofitable for lenders while the CBIRC(Chinese Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission) has forbidden trust companies to finance developers that do not meet the necessary requirements of shareholders and capital or lack necessary licenses.

The PBOC has significant control over lending activity in China as compared to the independent decision-making possible in the U.S. markets, which implies that the situation in China is more stable. There are many structural differences between the shadow banking systems in China and the United States, such as in China, market-based financial instruments do not play as significant a role as they do in the USA. Also, in China, smaller banks went off-balance sheet as they were constrained by liquidity requirements as compared to the larger banks in the US that were constrained by capital requirements. All these factors considerably lessen the chances of a financial crisis like that of 2008-09. Also, the Chinese real estate market has higher-than-normal down payments, sometimes as high as 40-50 percent of the transactions as compared to the 10-20 percent in most western markets. This implies that the debt to transaction price ratio is low, which discourages people from the lower socioeconomic strata of Chinese society to purchase high-priced properties, thereby reducing the risk of defaults. The PBOC and the CBIRC stepped in to take over the Baoshang bank when it collapsed in 2019, whichhas both positive and negative implications.  On one hand, it indicated that the Chinese government may intervene in case of any crisis-related situations caused by defaults in the shadow banking sector, but on the other hand, it may also encourage risk-seeking behaviour from creditors depending on the government to back the financial system. The Chinese government is caught between trying to curb shadow banking activity in order to reduce system risk in the country due to the real estate bubble and ensuring liquidity in the economy. Thus, although the possibility of a financial crisis is low, China does need to reduce risks posed by its shadow banking sector and ensure financial stability.

How Nepal’s Immediate Neighbour Takes Opposite Approaches to its Political Crisis

Shreha Gupta, Research Intern ICS

Source: Myrepublica

On 20 May 2021, the Supreme Court of Nepal intervened and overturned the decision of dissolving the Parliament in another landmark verdict. The verdict ordered the appointment of Sher Bahadur Deuba, Nepali Congress President, as Prime Minister.  Deuba was sworn in as Prime Minister on 13 July, 2021. Earlier, on 21 May, President Bidya Devi Bhandari, on the recommendation of the then Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli had dissolved the Parliament and announced mid-term polls on 12 and 19 November, 2021.

Nepal had plunged into political turmoil twice after Oli’s contentious recommendation to dissolve the Parliament on 20 December, 2020 and again on 21 May, 2021. In February, Nepal’s Supreme Court intervened and ordered the reinstatement of the Parliament that was dissolved on 20 December, 2020. This came as a setback to Oli who was already preparing for snap polls. Nepal’s highest court reinstated the Parliament for a second time in just five months.

The political crisis in Nepal has created a measure of uncertainty in the Indian and Chinese policies towards Nepal. The two countries have followed different trajectories in their response to Nepal’s domestic developments in the recent past. China, despite their claim of non-interference in domestic affairs have shown a keen interest in Nepal’s political crisis, whereas India, despite having been accused of interfering in Nepal’s internal matters in the past, has decided to step back and wait for the situation to unfold.

In December last year, Hou Yanqi, Chinese Ambassador to Nepal met with Nepalese President, party chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Standing Committee member, Barsha Man Pun after dissolution of the House of Representatives.  Earlier in May and July, she had held a series of meetings with top party leaders including Oli and Dahal in a failed attempt to reunite the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).

On 27 December 2020, China had sent Guo Yezhou, a vice-minister of the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party to Kathmandu to take stock of the political situation. The visit came at a time when China was concerned over the political stability in Nepal and the unity of the NCP. China was also concerned that the political crisis in Nepal could threaten to reverse the gains made after President Xi Jinping’s visit in October 2019 as it was instrumental in taking China-Nepal bilateral relations to a new height.

The Guo-led delegation had met with President Bhandari, Prime Minister Oli, Nepali Congress President Deuba and chair of the other faction of the NCP, Pushpa Kamal Dahal. The Chinese delegation reportedly wanted to explore the possibility of a reunion between the two warring factions of the NCP, the reasons behind its spilt, its impact on Nepal-China relations and the possible road ahead for the future political course in Nepal. The Chinese team had to return empty-handed after the NCP factions failed to bury the hatchet.

While China sent a high-level delegation to Nepal to persuade the rival factions of the NCP to stay together, India stated that Nepal’s political developments are its internal matter and it is for the country to deal with them under its domestic framework and democratic processes.

On 6 February 2021, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a press statement in the context of a telephonic conversation between Nepalese Foreign Minister, Pradeep Gyawali and Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi. According to the statement, Wang Yi said that China adheres to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and respects the path towards development chosen by the people of Nepal.  “As a friendly neighbour, China hopes that all parties and factions in Nepal will bear in mind the fundamental and long-term interests of the country and its people, seek common ground while shelving differences, and maintain unity and stability, so as to create favourable conditions and environment for its own development and prosperity,” the statement added.

Although Wang Yi claims China’s adherence to the principle of non-interference in the internal matters of other countries, observers in Nepal don’t agree with it. Political analyst Uddhab Pyakurel criticised China for meddling in Nepal’s internal matter. “No matter what the Chinese side say to justify their visit to Nepal, we all know that they are trying to interfere in Nepal’s internal affairs. For this, NCP leaders and Nepali media, which helped build the narrative that Chinese leaders had played a role in unifying the erstwhile CPN-UML and CPN-Maoist Centre, are responsible,” he said. He was concerned that Chinese activities would turn Nepal into a strategic playground in its tiff with India and other western powers including the United States of America.

Analysing China’s recent actions, Political scientist, Dev Raj Dahal stated that China is using its soft power by sending CPC leaders to influence Nepal. He added that China was alarmed about the security and stability in Nepal as Nepal shares its border with the Tibetan Autonomous region, ‘the geopolitical loophole of China’. He said that China is concerned about stability in Nepal also because it is interested in doing business with India’s vast market through Nepal. This would be possible only if Nepal remains politically stable.

China’s meddling in Nepal’s domestic politics has drawn international attention. Some foreign diplomats in Kathmandu viewed China’s brazen interference as a demonstration of its growing influence in Nepal’s internal matters while India’s decision to steer clear has been appreciated by former diplomats. “India, which is usually the whipping boy of their politics is correctly staying out of the picture, while China attempts to involve itself in their politics,” said Manjeev Singh Puri, former Indian Ambassador to Nepal.

There could be several reasons why India preferred to keep a low profile and refused to take sides in a political tug of war between different parties in Nepal. In the past, India has been seen as trying to meddle in Nepalese politics which hasn’t been received well by people in Nepal.

To reiterate, China had invested in buttressing the Oli government which has now been ousted. In the short term, recent developments in Nepal could result in a limited setback for the Chinese policy towards Nepal. However, these developments have not fundamentally undermined China’s position in Nepal. China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its ongoing and proposed involvement in hard infrastructures, including highways, bridges, airports, hydroelectric projects have significantly helped China entrench its presence in Nepal. China has also built up its soft and sharp power in Nepal in recent years. The latest change in government is unlikely to have a major impact on China’s position in Nepal.

India’s present policy of non-interference with regard to Nepal’s political crisis is serving India well. The change in government will help India to some extent in developing its equities in Nepal as it has been given credit for not interfering in Nepal’s domestic affairs. Durable political stability in Nepal augurs well for India whereas, instability will only pave way for inimical external influences. India must encourage the strengthening of a people-driven polity, invest in reinforcing its considerable linkages and synergies in Nepal and work towards improving its image that has been hampered in recent years. It is important for India to avoid being perceived as partisan and adopt the strategy of detached pragmatism rather than proactive involvement.

New PLA Commander Across Our Northern Border: What Does General Zhang Bring to the Table?

KK Venkatraman, Research Fellow, ICS

On 18 December 2020, President Xi Jinping promoted four officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Armed Police Force to the highest rank of General.  This includes Zhang Xudong (张旭东) newly appointed Commander of the Western Theatre Command (WTC) which looks after the Line of Actual Control with India.  While the exact date when General Zhang took over from Zhao Zongqi is not known, it can be confirmed that General Zhao Zongqi tenanted the appointment till as late as end-September 2020, despite being due for retirement in April 2020. 

Not much is known about General Zhang Xudong.  His date of birth – Mar 1962 and native province – Liaoning reflected in Wikipedia cannot be corroborated from other sources.  This article deals with the knowns before proceeding to the realm of analysis and prognosis.

Knowns

Promoted as Major General in 2012, Zhang commanded the 115 Division which was part of erstwhile-39 Group Army* before being promoted as Chief of Staff of 39 Group Army and was appointed as its Commander in April 2014.  As Commander of 39 Group Army, he is credited with introducing standards for precise evaluation of combat effectiveness and conducted a Joint Campaign Planning Exercise of the 39 Group Army at Horqin, Inner Mongolia in October 2014.

Post-2016 reforms, he was appointed as Commander of Central Theatre Army prior to 18 Mar 2017 and later Deputy Central Theatre Commander in early-2018.  He was promoted as Lieutenant General on 01 Aug 2018 and was Deputy Commander of the Military Parade commemorating the 70th Anniversary of founding of China in 2019.

From the party status perspective, his elevation is unusual as he is neither a member nor an alternate member of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.  In fact, other than Wang Chunning, Commander of the People’s Armed Police Force who is an alternate member of the Central Committee, the other three generals who have been promoted are neither members nor alternate members of the Central Committee. It is also known that he was Deputy Party Secretary of 115 Division and later 39 Group Army. 

He is likely to have co-authored an article titled Use the Party’s Innovative Theory to Focus on Military Education (用党的创新理论贯注部队教育官兵要做到这四点) with Zhou Wanzhu, then Political Commissar of Central Theatre Army, which was published by the PLA Daily on 22 Mar 2017. The article talks about the implementation of party’s innovative theory as expressed through speeches of Xi Jinping, using the Chinese dream to strengthen the Army, improvement of combat effectiveness to meet traditional and non-traditional threats and educating officers and soldiers on the same.

Analysis

PLA officers generally spend their complete career in the same military region. Thus, General Zhang would have spent the bulk of his career in the erstwhile-Shenyang Military Region, which covered the North Eastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning and was responsible for the Russian Far East and Korean Peninsula. The 39 Group Army (including the 115 Division), a Type A Group Army** was responsible for contingencies in Korea and was amongst the first armies to fight UN troops in the 1952 Korean War.  While the terrain and weather are not comparable to North-Western Plateau, the Eastern part of Korean Peninsula is mountainous with sub-zero temperatures in winters and provides adequate experience for operations in mountainous terrain.

His command of 115 Division and 39 Group Army is also significant as Korean Peninsula underwent a period of heightened tensions around the same time, with North Korean nuclear tests in 2009, 2013 and 2016, sinking of South Korean naval ship Cheonan by a DPRK submarine in 2010, death of Kim Jong-Il and the political transition in North Korea in 2011, failed satellite launch by North Korea in 2012 and the joint US-South Korean announcement of deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) in 2016.  In response, the Shenyang Military Region enhanced its military preparedness to intervene in the Korean Peninsula, if necessary, and both 115 Infantry Division and 39 Group Army under Zhang Xudong would have had a significant role if the PLA had intervened in the Korean Peninsula. 

The Central Theatre Command is responsible for defence of Beijing, providing security to CCP leadership and acts as the strategic reserve.  Thus, General Zhang as Army Commander and Deputy Commander of Central Theatre would be well versed with operational plans of WTC as well as shortcomings identified during the current crisis. It would also attest to his political reliability as the Theatre is also responsible for the security of Beijing.

The Jinan Military Region served as the testbed for PLA Army’s reforms in pre-Reforms era. It is likely that the Central Theatre Command, as its successor, is in the forefront of PLA’s experiments in Joint Operations in the post-reforms period providing him with significant experience in preparing for Joint Operations in addition to his earlier experiences with Joint Command Planning in 39 Group Army.

Change of commanders*** indicates that Beijing does not view conflict as imminent. However, it is likely that WTC would carry out a deep introspection of its operational plans and preparedness based on the current crisis. With the PLA issuing its Outline of Joint Operations recently and the Fifth Plenum Communique stressing the need to improve strategic ability to defend national sovereignty and achieve Centennial goals of PLA by 2027, PLA and WTC will undergo further reforms.

His appointment also confirms two trends observed in China and PLA.  One, of promoting little known personalities to higher levels to ensure their loyalty to President Xi Jinping. Two, of transferring senior PLA officers to other theatres on promotion to ensure that they do not create/ strengthen their power bases.

Prognosis

 

General Zhang brings with him expertise on mountain warfare, joint operations and crisis-management skills, tag of political reliability as well as the backing of Xi Jinping. He is well placed to rectify shortcomings identified in operational plans in the past eight months as well as ensure success of reforms in WTC. Thus, it can be expected that WTC under General Zhang would focus on preparing for a potential conflict with India at short notice****. In the interim, it can be expected that barring misunderstandings, WTC would not trigger a crisis, which it is not capable of handling. Two aspects however, need to be watched out for; one, the de-induction of formations which have inducted from other Theatre Commands to WTC during the current crisis and two, the elevation of General Zhang to the 20th CPC Central Committee in 2022.

Author’s Notes

* The 39 Group Army was redesignated as 79 Group Army and became part of the Northern Theatre Command following the 2016-reforms.

** The 18 Group Armies in the pre-reform era were classified into Type A and Type B Group Armies, with Type A Group Armies, well-equipped and fully manned with a higher state of operational preparedness. 

*** On 13 Oct 2020, Lieutenant General PGK Menon took over as General Officer Commanding of the Indian Army’s Fire and Fury Corps, responsible for operations in Eastern Ladakh.

**** This does not necessarily mean war.  However, it must be kept in mind that prior to the 1962 War, formations had inducted as early as 1959 and by 1962, they were well-prepared.  The final decision for war was only taken (p.117) on 6 Oct 1962, just four days prior to the war.

The views expressed and suggestions made in the article are solely that of the author in his personal capacity and do not have any official endorsement.  Attributability of the contents lies purely with the author.

A Critical Outlook on PLA’s AI Development Philosophy

Megha Shrivastava, Research Intern, ICS

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) strategists have recognized Artificial Intelligence (AI) as part of the ongoing military revolution, which has immense potential to change the metrics of military power balance in the future and makes AI central to its military modernization plan. Lieutenant General Liu Gouzhi (刘国治), Director of Central Military Commission’s Science and Technology Commission, recognized the disruptive nature of the technology and warned that whosoever does not disrupt will be disrupted. Recently, the fifth plenum of the CCP released its Communique (October 2020), which has emphasized completing informatization and intelligentization by 2027, highlighting the applications of AI in its military modernization plan.

PLA defines AI weapon in its official dictionary as “a weapon that utilizes AI to pursue, distinguish, and destroy enemy targets automatically; often composed of information collection and management systems, knowledge base systems, decision assistance systems, mission implementation systems, etc.” Some PLA thinkers anticipate that future warfare may be fought fully with unmanned autonomous and intelligent weapons systems, including robotic weapons.

PLA’s Initial Trajectory and Long-Term Plan

PLA’s careful study and analysis of the USA’s Third Military Offset Strategy has guided its approach towards AI. It has focused on developing advanced capabilities like unmanned swarms to gain a strategic advantage over the Pentagon’s military potential. Having a competing vision with the US, it is actively planning on accelerating and advancing its technological development with the strong support of the civilian sector through its ambitious Military-Civil Integration (军民融合) program to narrow the gap with US defense capabilities.

While the goals of both countries endeavour to reach the ‘Commanding Heights’ ((制高点), their paths are not the same. Rather, the PLA has adopted the strategy of ‘Overtaking on the Curve’ to catch up and bypass the US and Russia. Beijing will strive towards prioritizing defence innovation through military intelligentization (智能化) and Chinese ‘Superintelligence’ (Brain-inspired intelligence), which creates the fear of shaping an entirely new domain of cognitive warfare.

To catch up with its overwhelming aspirations, China’s 2019 Defence White Paper emphasizes early informatization (信息化), which will facilitate intelligentization in warfare (智能化作战). The PLA strategists visualize military applications of AI from intelligentized command and control or support to decision making. Some PLA strategists believe that in the future, the intelligentization of warfare may result in battlefield singularity (奇异), which will help in making the best use of human and machine capability.

Leveraging AI for Warfare

PLA defines war as a scientific concept that can be deconstructed, and AI is more suited to predict calculated outcomes or to identify the adversary’s vulnerable systems. Thus, the asymmetric thinking of targeting adversary’s vulnerability will remain a central theme in leveraging AI applications.

It is likely to leverage AI to strengthen its military capability not only towards intelligentization but also to gradually develop advanced autonomous and unmanned vehicles, war-gaming, and data fusion. Further, it will leverage the potential of associated technologies like 5G, Quantum computing, the internet of things, etc. to assist its strategies related to warfare in general and Information Warfare (cyber and electronic warfare) in particular. It can support and enhance PLA’s psychological warfare capabilities to target combatant’s behaviours and emotions.

PLA thinkers argue that AI should be used both kinetically and non-kinetically to dominate the information domain and target the enemy’s information networks. They believe that a ‘system of systems’ warfare will occur as a result of ubiquitous networks. These networks will diminish the distance between action, decision-making, and perception. With PLA recognizing that modern warfare is “system’s confrontation” (系统浓度) (a system versus system conflict) and information dominance is essential to achieve dominance in other domains, the emphasis on the application of AI to achieve information dominance can be understood. With such an edge, PLA seeks to pursue the style of mosaic warfare with Chinese characteristics. Its ultimate goal of leveraging AI is directed toward achieving a cognitive advantage over its adversaries while being able to defend its system of systems.

AI in Decision Making

On the question of keeping humans ‘in the loop’(在循环) of decision making, it is quite uncertain and may be too early to predict. However, strategic thinking towards AI predicts that PLA might increasingly favour intelligible and cognitive decision making rather than human judgments. They believe that PLA is likely to integrate command-and-control systems into built-in systems by designing and operationalizing plans in advance. Also, the PLA’s historical analysis of warfare is based on its study of military science that is focused upon war-gaming and simulation to arrive at critical military concepts. It will thus incorporate AI to formulate appropriate military theories and tactical decisions. This may also disrupt the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act) loop given by Col. John Boyd, and that is also frequently discussed by PLA thinkers. Former US Deputy Secretary of Defence Bob Work believes the authoritarian regimes and those who believe in the weaknesses of humans and rely heavily on machines are more inclined to move toward fully autonomous weapons and to keep humans out of the loop. It is likely that the decision to put human ‘in the loop’, ‘on the loop’ or ‘out of the loop’ shall rather be determined based on the lethality and criticality of the system, and PLA may adopt a combination of all three to meet the perceived threat.

The Bigger Picture

At this stage, the extent to which militaries will be able to harness the potential of AI in decision making is difficult to predict. However, the ongoing military modernization process suggests that PLA will emphasize integrating AI in its reconnaissance and surveillance system, weapons systems and, command, control, and communication structures apart from training and supervision of personnel under its efforts to make PLA truly modernized by 2027. The High-End Laboratory for Military Intelligence (HELMI), which was set up at Tsinghua University in 2018, is serving as a breakthrough point for developing what China calls “AI superpower strategy”. Today, China is behind in AI and semiconductors, and present trends suggest that the gap will narrow soon in the future. These are the key government priorities, receiving enormous attention and investment.

Disruptions led by militarized AI will be decisive for the future of warfare. AI is here to stay and develop to surprising levels in times to come shaping military innovation, nature of the conflict, and warfare in the 21st century. Only time will tell whether the disruption will be China-led or American. If the PLA succeeds well in materializing the potential of AI, it will turn out to be a game-changer, thereby placing greater challenges for future military power balance, peace, and stability.

Civil Code 2020- Implications for women

Shruti Jargad, Research Intern, ICS

2020 has been a big year for Chinese politics, and not just because of COVID-19 and China’s great power entanglements. After four unsuccessful attempts in 1950s and 1960s, 1979 and in early 2000s, the National People’s Congress’ Standing Committee (NPCSC), on May 28 adopted the Civil Code with 2879 votes in favour. Before this code, several standalone laws like the 1989 Marriage Law, 1985 Inheritance Law, 1995 Security law, etc. were enacted.

A civil code is a codification of private laws that regulate property and personal rights including laws on contracts, property, marriage and torts. It is a highly consequential document as it affects the lives of the general population in the most direct and intimate manner. No wonder then it led to intense public engagement with 900,000 public comments during the process. Further as a fist such code, it shows the maturity of China’s legal system. It would also reduce inconsistencies between standalone civil statutes. Finally, it is being lauded as an achievement for the Party which has brought China’s institutions to this level of sophistication and promulgated a set of laws uniquely Chinese in nature.

While much of the code is based on previous laws and pertinent judicial interpretation, there are two provisions that are of special relevance to women in China. These are – Part on Personality Rights and Part on Marriages and Family. While the first sails on the headwinds of the MeToo movement in China, the latter is a throwback to state manipulation in private lives.

The Part on Personality rights which generated a fair amount of controversy among legal scholars does not have corresponding standalone statute but builds on the 1986 General Principles of Civil Law. It consists of 5 sets of rights including rights to life, body and health (Chapter II). It protects the “security and dignity” of individuals’ lives (article 1002), individuals’ “physical and psychological integrity”, and their freedom of action; right to health protects individuals “physical and psychological health”

Importantly, it creates a cause of action for sexual harassment, requiring employers (including government agencies, businesses and schools) to adopt measures to prevent, accept complaints of, and investigate workplace harassment (art 1010) Further the code clarifies that written text or images alone, in addition to spoken words or conduct, may also amount to sexual harassment.

This is indeed a big moment for the nascent MeToo movement in China, currently at a critical point with the ongoing case against prominent television host Zhu Jun on the charges of harassing an intern at the state broad caster CCTV. Youth, especially University students have come out in support of the victim, known as Xianzi on internet platforms as the case is being heard in the Haidian District Court in Beijing. Inspired by the MeToo movement in the West in 2018, Xianzi has posted her experience on WeChat account, which became viral and generated intense debate on platforms like Weibo. However, women are still reluctant to come forward and it is rare for cases like this to make it to court. Further, in the conservative society, women often end up shouldering the blame.

Before the new provisions, Chinese law had long prohibited sexual harassment, but its legislation was generally confusing about what behaviour constituted harassment, and the absence of a clear liability framework had sometimes left victims and employers uncertain about whether a legal violation had occurred making it difficult for  victims to report harassment and employers to respond to it. Further, BBC reports that in a 2018 survey, 81 percent of the 100 companies surveyed did not have anti-sexual harassment policies on the books.

As employment terminations are subject to high standards under China’s Labor Contract Law (misconduct giving rise to an employment termination must be both egregious and demonstrated though a fair process and clear evidence, with unfairly dismissed employees able to claim reinstatement through a simple labor arbitration process), employers faced with credible claims of harassment had to choose between paying substantial settlements or facing the risk of forced reinstatement.

The new laws acknowledge explicitly the role that abuse of power and influence plays in enabling sexual harassment which is a remarkable development, particularly given the extent to which guanxi is embedded in Chinese culture. Affirmative institutional effort will indeed be powerful symbols for the harassment victims.

While the above discussion shows a progressive leaning, the Part on Marriage and Family is another section that was debated upon greatly. The two most controversial aspects of this provision are that under Chinese law, only men and women can marry i.e. same sex partnerships are not allowed. Second it stipulated a ‘cooling off’ period of 30 days after filing for divorce. While this seems like a harmless provision that is applied in many other countries like US, Germany etc. there is a need to understand the larger context behind this law.

The socio-economic landscape in China has changed tremendously in the last few decades. The divorce rate in China has been rising, reaching up to 3.2 (per 1000 persons) in 2018. In 2019 more than 4 million couples parted ways. According to lawmakers the above provision will help reverse this trend by preventing divorces on a whim. Opponents argue that it will threaten lives of victims of domestic abuse, largely women. Falling marriage rates (7.7 percent decline in 2019), ageing population, skewed child birth rates have all exacerbated the looming labour shortage. Further, more women in the workforce is not sitting well with the Party goal of promoting ‘family values’, good social order and higher birth rates. Thus from a progressive stance on gender equality, Party leaders have moved on to advocating more conservative and traditional virtues for women like getting married and raising children, from ‘women holding up half the sky’ to promoting ‘strong family values for a harmonious society’.

This kind of policy disincentive is also being derided for greater state intrusion in private lives and manipulation of peoples’ lives for achievement of national goals.  However, according to lawmakers, the new marriage act is an embodiment of the integration of socialist core values into the civil code. The above discussion about two specific aspects of the Civil Code indicate the churning in Chinese society with aspects of both top-down and bottom-up reforms in the wider context of changing state-society relations in a state led market economy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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