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

North Korea’s Strategic Significance to China

Pritish Gupta, Research Intern, ICS

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

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

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

The question of stability on the Korean Peninsula

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

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

Avoiding a refugee crisis

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

Economic Aid

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

US-China equation

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

Way forward

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

Biden actually means more trouble for Beijing

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

The Communist Party of China has allegedly forbid state-controlled media from choosing sides between Trump and Biden. The leftist intelligentsia had hoped to see hostile “mad king Trump” continue for four more years. The “nationalist” left is also accusing the pro-reform, pro-market neoliberal “right” of pretending to be blind to the fact that “Sleepy Biden” will bring more trouble for Beijing.   

With president-elect Joe Biden not declaring himself winner yet and President Donald Trump refusing to concede defeat, China’s pro-US elite too appears to be confused and divided. Unlike what the international press would want us to believe, that is, overwhelming opinion in China does not see a “Red” or “Blue” White House would bring a turnaround in the worsening Sino-US relations. The truth however is the continuing unclear verdict of November 3 vote is causing ugly ideological spat in the open among the Chinese elites. In the ideological battle being fought on the country’s “lively” social media, there are the anti-US leftists on one hand and the pro-US rightists on the other. The two rival groups are popularly referred to as fanmei and qinmei in Chinese respectively.

From the outset, the leftists in China firmly maintain the American elite will never be friendly towards China. A blog post under the name Weile zuguo qinagsheng, or “For the Prosperity of the Motherland” recently declared, “Given the US imperialism’s aggressive character and its natural tendency to loot and plunder, the United States cannot be friendly with China. The United States will always look at China as an enemy and it can never cooperate with China. The US and China can never enjoy a ‘win-win’ relationship.” Therefore, most Marxist scholars in China uphold the view that a more internally chaotic America augurs well for China. No wonder several leftist commentators have welcomed the turn of events in the past couple of weeks making it clear that President Donald Trump is refusing to accept his electoral defeat and is actively engaged in a coup to overturn the elections and establish “individual” dictatorship.

A recent article in one of the country’s leading leftist current affairs and news platform claims, as compared to a stubborn, inveterate and incorrigible Donald Trump, the Democrats are out-and-out believers in exporting their ideological doctrine. “Scores of NGOs, public intellectuals in China are receiving funds from the US Democratic Party. For example, ‘Wildcat’ – a fake women’s rights blog on Weibo has fallen silent following the closing down of the US Consulate in Chengdu. Why? Because its source of funding has been cut off,” the article proclaimed. Further, the leftist commentators are also pointing out, with the prospects of Biden sure to become the 46th president of the United States, several Chinese public intellectuals – a euphemism China’s leftist scholars despicably employ to describe “pro-US” intellectuals – who had been quiet in past four years have suddenly resurfaced on the Chinese social media, thanks to Trump’s foreign policy of “isolationism” and massive funds cutting to pro-democracy intelligentsia abroad.  

China’s leftist intelligentsia, which disdainfully lambasts those pro-America Chinese who are keenly following this years’ US presidential election, broadly tags them into three types: first, large majority who look at the US election as a source of great amusement. They can easily switch sides from supporting Trump or Biden. It really doesn’t matter to them who eventually enters the White House. What they need to do is to pull a chair to sit, spread enough munchies and beverages in front of them and watch the election ‘drama’ being played out on TV. What they hope to see is Biden winning with a thin margin and Trump adamantly refusing to step down; the white supremacist Trump supporters thronging the streets wielding guns and swords, and Biden fan-followers not far behind. These Chinese are most happy to see 50-50 election outcome tearing the United States apart.

Of course, a small faction among this group would love to see Trump emerge as the winner. This group subscribes to the view that to oppose China has become the US national policy and to contain China is the consensus position of both Democrats and Republicans. But Trump being more blunt and ruthless, like the past four years have shown, another four Trump years will be a good wakeup call to all those “confused” pro-US Chinese. At the same time, there is another small faction who thinks the Democrats, under the curse of “not fully advocating anti-China policy,” will be relentlessly egged on by the Republicans and therefore will be forced to implement a more hardened “anti-China” policy. As a result, the pro-US Chinese will be forced to turn against whoever leads the US administration.

The second types are those who according to the leftists are big fans of President Trump. The leftists accuse them of “living in China but dreaming of America.” For these Chinese, Trump is almost a semi-god or a hero. They have no qualms in their motherland going to tatters while they worship the Unites States. Furthermore, they are in awe of Trump not only because he is being tough on China but because Trump’s protectionism and “isolationist” policies are helping America regain its core values and are rescuing both the United States which is already in decline and rescuing the humankind. In other words, Trump is the only saviour of humanity.

There are not many such people in China. They are easy to identify. They include pro-market “liberals” such as Caixin editor Hu Shuli, the Beijing-based think tank Charhar Institute, economist Justin Lin Yifu, and the author of Wuhan Diary fame Fang Fang, etc. and several other elites from culture and art circles. But they are harmless.

In the third category are those whose hope for the reversal of currently hostile US attitude towards China rests on Biden. In this group, one faction seriously thinks China’s national strength is lagging far behind the US. For they believe though China and the US are destined to collide but because the enemy is stronger it is only wise on China’s part to maintain policy of appeasement at least as long as China grows in strength. Another faction in this group of US supporters believes the past four years under the Trump administration have been rather “abnormal.” They consider the four years under the second term of Obama presidency – called “Chimerica,” as a normal phase in China and US bilateral relations.

Making a dig at the Global Times editor, Hu Xijin, the leftists claim he couldn’t even wait for the final outcome of the vote count and used a fake Twitter account to make an appeal to Biden to revive the Sino-US “marriage.” A couple of weeks ago, Hu Xijin found himself at the receiving end of a fury of attack by leftist scholars for inadvertently stating “Reform and Opening Up is Chinese people’s natural choice.” Besides, the so-called “US worshippers” – as the public intellectuals such as Hu Xijin in China are called by the leftists, are also drawing flak from the leftists because of their feigned “ignorance” of not seeing Democrats as the bigger devil as compared with the Republicans. Unlike Trump who ensured America’s global hegemony accelerates into eclipse for reasons too well known to all, Biden is both a true believer of “liberal multilateralism” and “Cold Warrior.”

Finally, convinced that Biden’s core foreign policy team comprises of Obama “old hands,” the leftist Chinese commentariat no doubt apprehends continuity of Obama administration’s legacy under Joe Biden, especially in the US policy toward China. China International Relations University Professor Chen Zheng, an influential foreign policy analyst recently wrote: “Although Obama administration did not openly declare China as the US strategic enemy, but Trump’s anti-China policy has been built on what he inherited from the Obama White House, that is, the failure of the US national strategy to continue to ignore ‘a rising China’.” In the last phase of the Trump presidency, the US not only openly and publicly started addressing the CPC-led China as the strategic enemy of the United States, but the Republican Party’s extreme right-wing elite was already pitching for US-China “decoupling” and pushing the world’s two largest economies into “Cold War,” Chen Zheng added.

To conclude, China’s leftist intelligentsia appears to be spot on in their assessment that in recent years – as also during the COVID era – the Republicans and Democrats as well as the US political establishment have struck consensus only on one issue, i.e., how to prevent China from rising. Joe Biden will be too happy to carry forward the consensus, the leftists in China are telling us.           

Originally published as Chinese Public Opinion Split over Biden by Nepal Institute of International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE), Kathmandu on December 3, 2020.

Chinese Commitments in Afghanistan: A Strategic Calculus

Aadil Sud, Research Intern, ICS

Afghanistan has long been a country on the periphery of Chinese policy due to its inherent instabilities, the presence of foreign coalition forces and the influence of the West acting as a buffer against overt Chinese involvement. Well aware of Afghanistan’s reputation as a ‘graveyard of empires’, China has refrained from serious involvement with the country, supporting the Afghan-led, Afghan-owned policy propagated by the West instead. However, with the imminent withdrawal of coalition troops, China has found a security and diplomatic void it is suited to fill, adding to its pre-existing investments in the country.

Since 2014, the National Unity Government has lobbied China for their assistance on issues of security, economic and regional integration. The prospects of peace in Afghanistan has since motivated China to ramp up its commitment to the nation. China’s Central Asian policy has the possibility of replication here, with economic commitments under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), military aid through arms sales and training, and reciprocal security assistance – with China aiding in dealing with the Taliban, and the Afghani government working to mitigate cross-border Islamist influence in Xinjiang, helping them combat their ‘three evils’ of terrorism, separatism and extremism. These commitments have led many to question the future role of China in Afghanistan’s post-coalition future. Namely, can China effectively integrate their relations with Afghanistan, in line with their own goals in the region?

Economic Integration with Afghanistan

Over the past few years, China has initiated numerous projects in Afghanistan’s key sectors – mining, transportation infrastructure, and agriculture. While the country is seen as geographically strategic, the BRI initially bypassed it. However, since 2016, both countries have jointly promoted this cooperation. Afghanistan acts as a link between China and Southern, Central and Western Asia, with the countries being connected in north by the Sino-Afghan special railway transportation project and the Five Nations Railway Project, which aim to connect to southern Afghanistan via the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Afghanistan is also home to massive resource deposits, such as rare earth metals and lithium, which have the capacity to reduce the dependence of Afghanistan on foreign aid if exploited properly.

China, Afghanistan’s largest foreign investor, is using this position effectively to increase their influence in the region. According to Arif Sahar, an Afghan security expert based in London, these resources can only be effectively exploited by close neighbours, because of geopolitics and logistics. Aware that their manufacturing sector would benefit massively from this access to resources, ‘China is signalling that it is the only country in the region with the financial and economic capabilities that can be relied on as a trustworthy partner’.

This takes on more weight due to China’s interactions with Afghanistan’s neighbours. While China and Pakistan are perennial, all-weather allies, and remain economically and politically integrated, the recent push in Iran has provided Afghanistan further incentive to remain aligned with China, that of coastal access through Iran. Pakistan has consistently blocked Afghanistan from using their territory; and being aligned with Iran through China and the BRI remains a position that the Afghanistan government could be willing to accept.

Political-Strategic Integration: Indifference to Engagement

Over the years, China’s regional policy has gone from a calculated indifference to active engagement, with China realising the best chance to achieve their goals is a strong, stable Afghanistan. As such, China has pushed to reconcile with, and build contacts with both the Taliban and the Afghan government. It also strives for greater cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan, by pushing for greater opportunities for trade and investment.

Chinese motivations in Afghanistan vary. They remain wary of the country being used as a launching ground for Uyghur separatism (such as the East Turkestan Independence Movement), which it often claims could radicalise Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. It also aims to portray itself as an important regional and global player, with the potential to solve one of the world’s longest running insurgencies . China has hence embarked on numerous policies aimed at achieving these. It has portrayed itself as a point of contact between the government and the Taliban, acting as a facilitator in the Afghan peace process. It had also initiated a joint training operation with India for Afghan diplomats, as a gesture of goodwill. However, the future of this collaboration remains to be seen, due to renewed tensions with India following the Galwan incident. It has also aided Afghanistan militarily, helping build the military mountain brigade in the Wakhan corridor, with the primary goal of preventing infiltration by the Islamic State into China.

Afghanistan also hopes to use China as leverage against Pakistan. Quetta is widely believed to be the base of the Afghanistan Taliban leadership, and Pakistan has historically held some sway over the Taliban. Hamid Karzai was quoted as saying that ‘China is a close and strategic friend of Pakistan, and Chinese words with the Pakistani government carry weight… we believe that China can use that asset in a way that brings good relations between us and Pakistan and also leads to peace in Afghanistan’,  laying the groundwork for cooperation between the three countries. Preferring multilateralism over unilateralism in the region, China has also been examining using institutions like the UN to ensure regional peace and stability. Rightly so, any unilateral action in the region will face blowback from Afghanistan’s regional partners, as well as the international community.

The Way Forward

Over the past few years, China has steadily increased its involvement in Afghanistan, taking the form of military, economic and diplomatic commitments. However, these acts have not been without pushback, with China’s policy perceptions as giving pre-eminence to their own geopolitical and security concerns being the concern of many in the international community. As such, while the Afghani government views China as an important partner in Afghani stability, their impact so far has remained limited.

One last factor to consider is the influence of Russia. While not one to disrupt the coalition withdrawal, Russia under Putin has been steadily increasing its reputation as a great power with an international reach, as seen also in Libya and Syria. Additionally, Afghanistan is part of the erstwhile Russian sphere of influence, and any attempts by foreign powers to increase their influence in these regions have often been met by opposition. Some recent examples stem from accusations of Russian support to the Taliban, and allegations of state-sponsored bounties on US soldiers.

The force withdrawal provides China with an immense opportunity to increase their influence in the region – unilaterally through the BRI and its associated investments, or multilaterally through organisations like the UN. However, the viability of these projects largely depends on the confidence the international community and Afghanistan’s partners have in the Chinese leadership, which has taken a hit in the aftermath of the pandemic and China’s belligerent ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy. China’s engagement in Afghanistan had started to take shape before this crisis, but the efficacy of such policies now remains to be seen, especially with increasing diplomatic challenges, such as with the USA, UK, Canada, and India. Without the support of the countries involved with Afghanistan, the expansion of Chinese policy remains a distant dream, which shall face numerous hurdles in implementation.

China’s Infrastructure Development Projects in Bangladesh

Sayantan Haldar, Research Intern, ICS

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, with Chinese President Xi in Beijing, on 5 July, 2019.Image Source: AP Photo

On 14 October, 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping created history by being the first Chinese leader to visit Bangladesh in 30 years. This visit bears great importance for the deepening of Sino-Bangladesh relations as well as China’s increasing outreach towards South Asia. Bangladesh is situated at the heart of the Bay of Bengal which makes it a strategically indispensible country in China’s growing network along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route and the New Silk Road. China-Bangladesh relations dates back to 1976 when Beijing began diplomatic relations with Dhaka. However, President Xi’s visit to Dhaka in 2016 has been seen as an important development in the Sino-Bangladesh relations, especially after the onset of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Bangladesh has responded positively to the BRI drawing some criticism from India which is a dominating factor in Bangladesh’s foreign policy, particularly in the neighborhood. Bangladesh is a developing country with major demand for infrastructure development which has largely inspired its engagement with China, while its strategic location has significantly shaped China’s outreach. Therefore, it is important to take stock of China’s infrastructure development projects in Bangladesh.

President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina signed twenty-seven agreements worth billions of dollars and also elevated their relationship from ‘a comprehensive partnership of cooperation’ to a ‘strategic partnership of cooperation’ during the Chinese President’s visit to Dhaka in 2016. Earlier in 2015, China emerged as the top trade partner of Bangladesh replacing India. China’s growing engagement with Bangladesh has been based on steady economic linkages along with infrastructural assistance by China in Bangladesh. As a small country with a growing economy, Dhaka has positively embraced Beijing’s engagement. Even during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to China in July, 2019, the two sides agreed to enhance cooperation on trade, defense and infrastructure projects, which have further deepened China-Bangladesh ties.

The Padma Bridge Rail Link Project is one of the flagship projects undertaken by China in Bangladesh which aims to connect Dhaka with Jessore through the Padma Bridge. The estimated budget of the project is approximately BDT 40, 000 Crores jointly sponsored by the Exim Bank of China and Bangladesh government. The project began in 2016 and is aimed to be completed by 2024. The Padma rail project has been divided into three phases connecting Dhaka to Mawa, Mawa to Bhanga and Bhanga to Jessore. Rail connectivity is an important instrument for the bourgeoning market of Bangladesh. The Padma Bridge Rail project in particular is important to Bangladesh as it improve accessibility to Dhaka with central and south-western regions of the country and provides a shorter alternative to the Dhaka-Jessore-Khulna railway connectivity. It is also important to Bangladesh as it is expected to ensure socio-economic development and minimize regional disparity. China’s involvement in this project pertains to funding it. China is funding 85% of the project while the rest is funded by local contractors in Bangladesh. Interestingly the project was elevated to the ‘fast track’ status in Aril, 2016, emphasizing on China’s commitment of timely progress and delivery. This can be seen as an attempt by China to establish itself as a better alternative to India in the region, because one of the major issues flagged off by most countries in India’s neighborhood concerns New Delhi’s delivery deficiency. Infrastructure development in Bangladesh is also a strategically important sector for China to establish itself in, as it would increase greater dependence of Dhaka on Beijing. The biggest hindrance to the project so far has been the operational discontinuity caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Bangladesh’s Road Transport and Bridges Minister’s briefing, the infrastructural progress of the project is 24.43% and the financial progress is at 30.52% until May.     

Another important project undertaken by China in Bangladesh is the Payra Deep Sea Port. The Payra shipping port is situated at the Patuakhali region of Bangladesh on the banks of the Bay of Bengal. This project will be given shape by China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC) and China State Engineering and Construction Company (CSCEC). China’s interest in this project is not a matter of surprise as it is strategically situated and falls in line with China’s string of maritime bases across the Indian Ocean region. The total cost of the port is expected to be between USD 11 billion to 15 billion. For long, China has expressed its interest in building port projects in Bangladesh. The Payra port project was inaugurated in November, 2013, and started operating in 2016. This project holds great significance for Bangladesh as it is expected to facilitate internal development. The deep-sea port is vital for reinvigorating Bangladesh’s internal connectivity which will boost its booming economy. Bangladesh has however made it very clear that it is not meant to be developed as a Chinese naval base, as has been the experience with Gwadar and Hambantota in the past. Interestingly, China’s involvement in this project has not aroused suspicion in India as well, primarily because it does not follow the ‘field of dreams’ approach. The Payra port will also be complemented by the Padma Rail Link project, as the latter is expected to create opportunity to construct a second line in this route and connect Barisal & Payra Deep Sea Port. Even though there have been questions about the feasibility of this project, from China’s perspective, projects like this help Beijing engage its bloated state-owned enterprises and increase dependence of other countries on China.

While Bangladesh’s ties with China have been steadily growing, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has also maintained a balanced relationship with India. Notably, she described Bangladesh’s relations with India as ‘organic’ and ‘beyond a few billions of dollars of trade’ at the World Economic Forum in Dalian in 2019, reiterating her bonhomie with India. Towards this end, New Delhi and Dhaka have made progress in strengthening their connectivity linkages which have, for instance, manifested in terms of the shipment of the cargo vessel from Kolkata to Agartala via Chittagong for the first time in fifty-five years. However, participating in the BRI has been a strongly felt need in the Dhaka making China emerge as the seemingly perfect fit to alter Bangladesh’s infrastructure deficit. The two countries have increasingly shared more comfort in jointly developing infrastructure projects which have been beneficial to both. While Dhaka benefits with assistance in infrastructure development, Beijing also views this as an opportunity to expand its geo-strategic footprint in South Asia. It is important for Dhaka to draw lessons from fellow South Asian small-states like Sri Lanka and cautiously engage with China. However, Bangladesh has been firm on its view of engaging with China at a level that is mutually beneficial to both. Infrastructure development has been at the heart of this relationship, and is expected to strengthen further in light of the current Covid-19 pandemic. While the crisis has been a hindrance to the existing projects which were under progress, it has also opened a new avenue for both the countries to cooperate on health infrastructure. Bangladesh-s recent demand of priority for cooperation from China reaffirms their willingness to cooperate. Towards this end, Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh, Li Jinming has reassured Bangladesh that China will remain its ‘most reliable’ partner.

Geopolitics of Tibet’s Rivers for Lower Riparian India

Yash Johri, Research Intern, ICS
Shivi Sanyam, Advocate and former Judicial clerk, Supreme Court

Source: AsiaNews

Grave hostilities in Ladakh along the line of actual control (LAC) between India and China and actions on the part of government and business have dominated public discourse. External developments apart from those relating to Pakistan are rarely an issue in the domestic narrative but brewing anti-China sentiment amongst several parts of the populace has positioned our eastern neighbor in the national consciousness. While all eyes are fixated on the game of brinkmanship being played out on the LAC, it is an opportune moment to highlight another important area of contention: China’s management of Tibet’s rivers and the plausible impact on lower – riparian countries like India, this matter has arisen in the past and will certainly arise prominently, in the future.

We need to be better informed about this issue, therefore, it’s important to aggregate the cross-section of experience that exists on the issue from varying fields of business, government, law, climate studies, agriculture and others via analyses and interactions. As a student of China and Sino-Indian ties, one feels there are is a lack of dedicated efforts in the country to understand and prepare for the numerous complexities of our relationship with our eastern neighbor, especially with regard to the issue of management of the waters of Tibet. There is an urgent need to generate greater domain knowledge on this matter.

China in the present situation to deflect from the economic devastation that Covid – 19 has been inflicted on its economy and to divert the anger of its people with genuine grievances from the failures of the CCP, has kindled many of its rivalries. At this critical time, the mandarins of the middle kingdom have thrown caution to the wind and are acting unilaterally, disregarding norms and agreements, both bilateral and multilateral to further their agenda. There is a laundry list of enmities, many of these disputes are territorial and stem from China’s desire to maximize its economic and cultural influence.

It is in this political environment that there is a serious need for India to arouse consciousness nationally and build support at multilateral levels to put checks on China’s uninhibited dam building, water diverting and mining projects along the course of the Brahmaputra River (in China known as Yalung Zangbo). While the Chinese share hydrological data for the Sutlej and Brahmaputra, enabling us to anticipate water levels to prepare in time for flooding, they charge us a fee for that. It is interesting to note that, India does not charge its downstream neighbors- Pakistan and Bangladesh. Further, even though there have been numerous MOUs on sharing hydrological data, the latest being in 2018, they stop sharing data as and when they please, as was seen around the time of the Doklam crisis. There is little cooperation in addition to sharing hydrological data, while India has robust water sharing treaties with Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is estimated by Brahma Chellaney in his book, ‘Water: Asia’s New Battleground’ that until China has achieved its national objectives of power generation and river water diversion to its parched northern lands, it is unlikely to acquiesce to any agreement. India has on numerous occasions suffered from floods due to bursting of dams, polluted waters flowing into Arunachal due to upstream mining and construction activity and various other actions where the doctrine of ‘‘sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas’’ (To use and exploit one’s sovereign property in such a manner so as to not harm the neighbor’s rights and interests) has not been followed.

China has a dual design on reigning in the Brahmaputra river with the future objective of not only generating power for the relatively underdeveloped region but also to divert waters of the Brahmaputra to their northern parts as the third phase of the South North Water Diversion Project (南水贝雕工程总体规划). The dam site they’ve chosen has been detailed by Chellaney in his book at Metog County, Nyingchi Prefecture, where they aspire to build a 38 GW(Gigawatts) generating facility (a capacity larger than the Three Gorges Dam), in comparison the Bhakra Nangal Dam generates a meagre 1.3 GW. Supporting infrastructure in the form of roads and railroads has already or are in the process of being constructed. This location near the Namche Barwa gorge is ideal for power generation given the steep natural fall that water takes before they enter India. Additionally, the point for the water diversion project is further upstream. This entire region is in the proximate area of Pemako, a region considered very sacred by Tibetan Buddhists – where there is vast virgin forests and varied flora and fauna. Further this region in particular is close to where the Indian and Eurasian plates converge thereby being prone to seismic risks.

It is now settled that China is the upper riparian power and reigns sovereign in these areas, following the NDA Government’s 2003 recognition of the Tibet Autonomous Region as a formal part of China. However, its exploitation of Tibet’s blue gold in the aforementioned megaproject and by way of numerous other projects such as the Zangmu dam (completed in 2014 with installed capacity of 500 MW), certainly affects the interests of lower riparian countries such as India and Bangladesh adversely. The NDA government’s action of course is only a cherry on top of the cake that was India’s concessionary foreign policy in the years post-independence. Other rivers such as the Irrawady, Mekong and Salween that also originate in Tibet have been heavily dammed leading to concerns in the countries of South-East Asia into which they drain. Given that many of China’s neighboring states have high dependency ratios (Food & Agriculture Organization data) relative to China for their water supply, with India (33.4%), Bangladesh (91.3% Including Ganga which originates in India), Laos (42.9%), Thailand (47.1%), Cambodia (74.7%) and Vietnam (58.9%), there is certainly a need for a mechanism to ensure a sustainable integrated river basin management. However, the Chinese style is to only deal bilaterally, if at all, as they have stayed away from any such multilateral arrangements, the Mekong River Commission being one of them. Further, China was one of three countries along with upper riparian Turkey that opposed the UN Convention on Non-Navigational use of International Watercourses in 1997, the resolution carried 103-3 with 27 abstentions.

Any questions pertaining to integrated basin management with China will in turn throw up our policy on Tibet, while as a rule – following country we must abide by past treaties and commitments but should certainly not leave any leverage we may have with regard to the land of the Dalai Lama of the table. The entire world is re-evaluating and taking a hard-look at their respective approaches to China, in the aftermath of the events in the Galwan valley, we must do the same.

The North-East of our country being a riverine civilization will feel the major brunt of China’s unilateral action in Tibet, which it refers to as its water tower. While the seven sisters are undoubtedly far away from New Delhi, and given our food surplus at the moment water security may seem like a distant concern. However if we are to act east, we must ensure our water security, not only for the purposes of agriculture, fisheries and the dependent communities but also to generate our own power.

Originally Published as The Great Sino-Indian Water Conundrum in The Guardian,15 July 2020.

The State of China’s Automobile Sector

Amidst the uncertainty regarding the trade war’s impact on Chinese industry, the automobile sector in China will remain profitable

Bhavana Giri, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies

Photo: Visual China

Automobile sector in China is the largest in the world when measured by the number of units produced. Apart from domestic production, people’s demands for all kinds of vehicles in China are met by Joint Ventures (JV). For a foreign company to establish a JV, it is required to enter into a 50-50 partnership with a Chinese company in order to start production in China; a similar arrangement is required for foreign companies to export automobiles to China.

Automobiles from the US are one of the most significant exports to China, ranking just behind aircraft and agricultural output. With a trade value of more than $10 billion, this sector is of great significance to the ongoing trade war. Currently, the automobile sector in China is witnessing a downfall in output growth when taken as whole which is driven by a drop in the production of gasoline based automobiles. However, in the long run, China’s drive to lead in global production of new energy vehicles (NEVs) is slated to offset this downturn, even if the trade war continues. Additionally, the upper hand China has in the automobile joint ventures will also help to recover from the downfall. In contrast, the resilience of China’s NEV sector will adversely impact the competitiveness of its American counterpart.

Demand side conditions are highly favourable and will continue to be so. Three decades ago bicycles were the most popular mode of transport in China and most cars needed to be imported. Today, however, Chinese car makers are producing more cars than any other country in absolute terms. As can be seen from the data, the production of automobile in China increased from 9 million units in 2007 to 23 million in 2018. To be sure, economic conditions are currently turbulent in China.

Observers predict that China’s GDP will decelerate in the near future and its leaders have urged precaution in this regard. The automobile sector, however is poised to remain buoyant, despite macroeconomic woes. The Chinese government intends to prioritise the preservation of automobile demand and supply by providing subsidies and exempting consumers from purchase tax on electric vehicles. These subsidies will ensure that there will be no significant shock to the automobile sector.

China has become the biggest giant in the production of electric cars and bikes. With Domestic Value Addition (DVA) of more than 80 per cent, and a strong grip over the production of essential inputs such as batteries, the sector enjoys a substantially strong footing. Recent falls in automobile stock prices should not obscure this fact.

To the rest of the world, it may appear that China has struggled to make progress in automobile manufacturing. However, the situation has changed drastically with recent developments. China now possesses massive potential for substituting imported automobiles with electric vehicles. With trade talks in a state of disarray and the heightened possibility that China will reapply auto tariffs, it is also likely that automakers will be incentivised further to produce in China. With the exception of the luxury segment, which is less easily substituted, China’s automobile sector is likely to withstand the headwinds it currently faces. Moreover, with the Chinese government establishing stricter norms for controlling carbon emissions and attempting to reduce pollution in cities, the scope for domestic companies to defeat automobile giants such as Toyota, BMW, etc has escalated. The Chinese government is also granting special manufacturing permits to companies which are working to develop NEVs.

The electric vehicle world sales database shows that in 2018, 2.1 million units of electric vehicles were sold which is almost 64 per cent higher than that of 2017. China has advanced its position in this particular segment and has a share of almost 56 per cent of the total sales. Although companies like Tesla, Toyota, etc. are also developing electric vehicles they lack the cost advantage China has, and are, thus unable to capture the market. Several subsidies and tax cuts provided on purchases of electric vehicles further boost demand in the highly populated cities of China. This is illustrated by the fact that profits for BYD jumped 632 per cent jump in 2019. On the other hand Tesla, which is exporting to China in an increasingly hostile trade environment, lost nearly $700 million in the first quarter in 2019, despite robust demand.

Another factor that will support China’s automobile sector is technology transfer. Most automobile production in China happens by way of Joint Ventures (JV) between Chinese and foreign companies, which allows local companies to acquire know-how. The Chinese have also acquired automobile technology by heavily investing in foreign-based automobile companies. Therefore, China’s automobile sector is unlikely to reel in the long-run. Moreover, China is less dependent on foreign value addition than it used to be – its contribution to processing and non-processing value addition process in the production of automobiles is uninterruptedly increasing.

The optimism expressed above does not apply to the American automobile industry, however. To a large extent, US-based automobile companies are dependent on revenues from the Chinese market that their JVs enjoy and are, thus, highly vulnerable to disruptions in bilateral relationship between two nations. For example, automobile giant BMW, is not introducing a new model because of the environment of uncertainty created by the trade war. US automobile companies are experiencing sluggish production while on the other hand Chinese NEV start-ups and companies are scaling up their production.

Unlike others, the automobile sector in China will likely remain profitable irrespective of ongoing trade contestations and tensions, due to the Chinese government’s encouragement to develop NEVs. China’s NEV companies are poised to emerge as leaders in markets all around the world, as they race ahead their counterparts from the US, Japan, and Germany.