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Changing equations of US-China relations and Taiwan Factor

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The relations among the two permanent members of security council have improved since the Nixon surprise visit to China in 1972 and ending the 22-year long isolation of Mainland China, although the reasons may have been many, the immediate result was consolidating the Sino-Soviet split and weakening the USSR geopolitically as well as strategically. By the next decade, China went through sweeping reforms and under Deng Xiaoping opened-up to the world. The pragmatic Deng Xiaoping’s two statements best encapsulate this period, “Poverty is not socialism, to be rich is glorious” and “Hide your capacities and bide your time”, here we can understand that he was sure that without opening-up economically and becoming an economic powerhouse, the People’s Republic of China will not be able to fulfill its objectives and while in pursuit of it, the best option is to stay humble and keep working. However, since the 2000s the policy shifted towards the peaceful rise of China, and after the 2008 financial crisis which hit western economies disproportionately, provided the opportunity for China to begin creating its sphere of influence. The accession of Premier Xi Jinping brought to fore the ambitions of China and in his inaugural address, he even talked about the China Dream. The Chinese employed the strategy of coercive economic assistance and provided pompous loans to countries in ASEAN, East Asia, South Asia, and even Eastern Europe (the 17+1 dialogue is a good example). The tools for this diplomacy are the Belt & Road Initiative and Debt diplomacy. With governments finding it difficult to get credit lines from the USA backed IMF and World Bank because they are not in a position to comply with the policy decisions which these organizations prescribe, the Chinese provide a solution that is too good to deny. Chinese say we do not care about what type of governments you have and we are ourselves an authoritarian regime, thus, it is not necessary to follow the politico-economic model prescribed by the liberal west to be successful. Although it may be music to the ears of many countries, China asks for something bigger in return; they ask for a great deal of deference and compliance as well as they, in the long run, take control of areas of strategic importance; a good example is Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka.

All the while the USA is continuously ceding space, moving inward, and creating opportunities for China to take advantage, unintentionally of course. Right from the 2008 financial crisis, the USA was embroiled with internal strife & division which culminated in the election of Donald Trump. The Trump slogan of Making America Great Again moved the US towards isolationism & made the Chinese more resolute to implement BRI and practice Debt diplomacy with greater vigor and aggression. However, although China is trying to carve out its sphere of influence (earlier covertly and now more & more overtly), USA will not likely let it happen while trying to contain China and for that, it has been supporting the claims of other party countries in South & East China seas, frequent military drills and exercises with allies, Malabar Exercise with India and Japan in the Indian Ocean, moving military assets in the South China Sea as well as tackling Chinese challenge on trade & technology front.

We know that the conflict between the two countries is on multiple fronts and as China has become more assertive amid the Pandemic, opening up border disputes with Japan in the East China Sea, ASEAN nations in the South China Sea, Taiwan in the straits and India in the Himalayas. This geo-political tango initiated by China can spiral from conflict into a confrontation. And what feeds into it is the absence of any channel of communication except the top between China and USA which if existed could have held track 1.5 or track 2 talks to reach a Modus Vivendi between these two nations. And what feeds into this fire is both the Xi and Trump administrations ceding to a discourse hyper-nationalist, which had led to further depletion for any diplomatic flexibility.

The tit for tat can only go so long without getting out of hand. We can observe, everywhere China is in confrontation, the USA is backing the aggrieved party. However, in the case of Taiwan, we can see direct confrontation among the two powers, China claims Taiwan to be its territory under One China policy and on the other hand, the USA feels it is its responsibility to honor the defense agreement with Taiwan and with the democratization, the two countries have come further close.

Taiwan factor & shrinking space for maneuverability

President of the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) Tsai Ing-wen in her inaugural address laid out her articulation of Taiwan’s cross-strait policy – peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue. This policy statement in the wake of Hong-Kong’s new security law, confirms that Taiwan will in no way compromise with its democratic set-up which it had earned after a long 38 years of struggle against the authoritarian state.

The success of Taiwan in dealing with COVID-19 (creating a Taiwan model), its warnings to the World & WHO which were never heard and its philanthropist actions for many countries have earned a lot of goodwill and international praise. The world is now waking up to the fact that being a strait away from PRC and facing the brunt of its coercive tactics to amalgamate Taiwan with PRC, Taiwan is very experienced in the Modus operandi of CCP and can help the like-minded countries deal with the asymmetric warfare which is practiced in real-time via disinformation campaigns on social media. Taiwan can with other like-minded democracies establish a framework to counter cognitive warfare (of which disinformation is a part) by providing a proactive & accurate narrative against influence operations that are attempting to undermine democracy by trying to nudge outcomes that will affect the political process.

The Taiwanese foreign policy revolves around 4 tenants which are, maintaining status-quo with PRC, gaining goodwill among world democracies and likeminded countries, increasing defensive capabilities, and economic strength.

However, managing the four tenants with increasing animosity between China and the USA is a challenge in itself. The current shift in the Trump administration’s approach towards distinguishing the Chinese Communist Party from the Chinese people by remembering the May 4th movement and the roots of democracy, the USA is trying to counter cognitive warfare by delegitimizing CCP on mainland China (as perceived by the CCP ideologues). In addition to this, because of Taiwan, CCP is reconciling with the fact that its approach towards Taiwan has failed, and what once China considered asymmetry of interests for Taiwan to be inclined towards China, has been shifting (with the latest pew polls showing record-low support for increasing ties with CCP). All of this mixed with China’s psych of perpetual vulnerability may soon lead to China trying to alter status-quo militarily.

This tells us that space for Taiwan to maneuver has been shrinking with every passing day. In the context of the greater Indo-pacific geopolitical theatre, Taiwan has a lot to offer be it for the USA or other middle powers who would like to maintain the status quo towards free and open International waters for trade and commerce. The current world order, being unstable and challenged with non-traditional security issues (an example being COVID-19 pandemic) as well as the assertive rise of China with a proportional rise in its vulnerabilities requires a new perspective. Taiwan being a Subject Matter Expert in these issues with a unique perspective that comes from facing vulnerability because of global isolation can become an asset to the USA as well as middle powers in developing stratagem which can be successful in saving the multi-polar world order. Taiwan understands this and should move practically ahead while calculating in real-time the permutations and combinations of possibilities and take every step likewise.

The world ahead & way forward

The whole world is looking at the American elections which are 6 months away, and the policy till then would be to contain Chinese aggression. Even China would take steps calculating the impacts and will focus on the elections. The middle powers (Japan, U.K, France, Germany, India, South Korea, etc.) should work out a strategy (less dependent on the USA) to focus on maintaining the status-quo (multipolarity).

The combination of Chinese overconfidence (overt expression of its vulnerabilities) coupled with its perception of Taiwan’s under importance in the USA’s foreign policy doctrine can lead to serious conflict and which could easily spiral in this season of Nationalism.

The situation between China and the USA will deteriorate, but to which extent and what speed will depend on the shifts in Chinese aggressiveness here onwards and the American elections in November’20. Taiwanese citizens can play an important role and so do the middle-power countries if the people and government cherish and pursue to maintain its vibrant democracy and the middle powers help the Taiwanese people in this pursuit. Hopefully, it may deter the two nations from further escalations and it may very well be the only chance to contain Chinese ambitions with minimizing the Damage to Humankind.

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East Asia

Who would bell the China cat?

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If the G-7 and NATO china-bashing statements are any guide, the world is in for another long interregnum of the Cold War (since demise of the Soviet Union). The G-7 leaders called upon China to “respect human rights in its Xinjiang region” and “allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy” and “refrain from any unilateral action that could destabilize the East and South China Seas”, besides maintaining “peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits”.

China’s tit-for-tat response

The Chinese mission to the European Union called upon the NATO not to exaggerate the “China threat theory”

Bitter truths

Amid the pandemic, still raging, the world is weary of resuscitating Cold War era entente. Even the G-7 members, Canada and the UK appear to be lukewarm in supporting the US wish to plunge the world into another Cold War. Even the American mothers themselves are in no mood to welcome more coffins in future wars. Importance of the G-7 has been whittled down by G-20. 

Presumptions about the China’s cataclysmic rise are unfounded. Still, China is nowhere the US gross National Product. China’s military budget is still the second largest after the US. It is still less than a third of Washington’s budget to be increased by 6.8 per cent in 2021.

India’s role

India claims to be a natural ally of the G-7 in terms of democratic “values”. But the US based Freedom House has rated India “partly free because of its dismal record in persecution of minorities. Weakened by electoral setbacks in West Bengal, the Modi government has given a free hand to religious extremists. For instance, two bigots, Suraj Pal Amu and Narsinghanand Saraswati have been making blasphemous statements against Islam at press conferences and public gatherings.

India’s main problem

Modi government’s mismanagement resulted in shortage of vaccine and retroviral drugs. The healthcare system collapsed under the mounting burden of fatalities.  

Media and research institutions are skeptical of the accuracy of the death toll reported by Indian government.

The New York Times dated June 13, 2021 reported (Tracking Corona virus in India: Latest Map and case Count) “The official COVID-19 figures in India grossly under-estimate the true scale of the pandemic in the country”. The Frontline dated June 4, 2021 reported “What is clear in all these desperate attempts is the reality that the official numbers have utterly lost their credibility in the face of the biggest human disaster in independent India (V. Sridhar, India’s gigantic death toll due to COVID-19 is  thrice  the official numbers”, The frontline, June 4, 2021). It adds “More than 6.5 lakh Indians, not the 2.25 lakh reported officially are estimated to have died so far and at best a million more are expected to die by September 2021. The Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that actual Indian casualties may be 0.654 million (6.54 lakh), not the official count of 0.221 million (2.21 lakh as on May 6 when the report was released. That is a whopping three times the official numbers, an indicator of the extent of under-reporting”.

Epidemiologist Dr. Feigl-ding told India Today TV on April, 16, 2021 that “actual number of COVID-19 cases in India can be five or six times higher than the tally right now” (“Actual COVID-19 cases in India may be 5 to 10 times higher, says epidemiologist. India Today TV April 16, 2021).

Concluding remarks

India’s animosity against China is actuated by expediency. There is no chance of a full-blown war between China and India as the two countries have agreed not to use firepower in border skirmishes, if any. Modi himself told the All-party conference that not an inch of Indian territory has been ceded to China. In May this year, the Army Chief General M M. Naravane noted in an interview: “There has been no transgression of any kind and the process of talks is continuing.”

It is not China but the Quad that is disturbing unrest in China’s waters.

History tells the USA can sacrifice interests of its allies at the altar of self interest. India sank billions of dollars in developing the Chabahar Port. But, India had to abandon it as the US has imposed sanctions on Iran.

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East Asia

Xinjiang? A Minority Haven Or Hell

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While the G7 meets under the shadow of Covid 19 and the leaders of the most prosperous nations on earth are focused on rebuilding their economies, a bloodless pogrom is being inflicted on a group of people on the other side of the world.

In this new era, killing people is wasteful and could bring the economic wrath of the rest of the world.  No, it is better to brainwash them, to re-educate them, to destroy their culture, to force them to mold themselves into the alien beings who have invaded their land in the name of progress, and who take the best new jobs that sprout with economic development.  Any protest at these injustices are treated severely.

Amnesty International has published a new 160-page report this week on Xinjiang detailing the horrors being perpetrated on Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.  Amnesty has simultaneously announced a campaign on their behalf.

Persecution, mass imprisonment in what can best be described as concentration camps, intensive interrogation and torture are actions that come under the definition of ‘crimes against humanity’.  More than 50 people who spent time in these camps contributed first-hand accounts that form the substance of the report.  It is not easy reading for these people have themselves suffered maltreatment even torture in many instances.

The UN has claimed that 1.5 million Muslims (Uighurs, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Tajiks) are in these internment camps and China’s claims of re-education camps made to sound as benign as college campuses are patently false.

People report being interviewed in police stations and then transferred to the camps.  Their interrogation was frequently conducted on ‘tiger chairs’:   The interviewee is strapped to a metal chair with leg irons and hands cuffed in such a manner that the seating position soon becomes exceedingly painful.  Some victims were hooded; some left that way for 24 hours or more, and thus were forced to relieve themselves, even defecate, where they sat.  Beatings and sleep deprivation were also common.

Activities were closely monitored and they were mostly forbidden to speak to other internees including cell mates.  Trivial errors such as responding to guards or other officials in their native language instead of Mandarin Chinese resulted in punishment.

Amnesty’s sources reported the routine was relentless.  Wake up at 5am.  Make bed — it had to be perfect.  A flag-raising and oath-taking ceremony before breakfast at 7 am.  Then to the classroom.  Back to the canteen for lunch.  More classes after.  Then dinner.  Then more classes before bed.  At night two people had to be on duty for two hours monitoring the others leaving people exhausted.  You never see sunlight while you are there, they said.  That was because they were never taken outside as is done in most prisons.

The re-education requires them to disavow Islam, stop using their native language, give up cultural practices, and become Mandarin-speaking ‘Chinese’.

Such are the freedoms in Xi Jinping’s China.  If China’s other leaders prior to Mr. Xi effected moderate policies in concert with advisers, it is no longer the case.  Mr. Xi works with a small group of like minds.  He has also removed the two-term or eight-year limit on being president.  President for life as some leaders like to call themselves, then why not Mr. Xi.  His anti-democratic values make him eminently qualified. 

An enlightened leader might have used the colorful culture of these minorities to attract tourists and show them the diversity of China.  Not Mr. Xi, who would rather have everyone march in lockstep to a colorless utopia reminiscent of the grey clothing and closed-collar jackets of the Maoist era. 

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Looking back on India-China ties, one year past the Galwan incident

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modi xi jinping

Two nuclear-armed neighbouring countries with a billion-plus people each, geographically positioned alongside a 3,488-km undemarcated border in the high Himalayas. This is the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Differences in perception of alignment of this border for both sides have contributed to a seemingly unending dispute.

Chinese unilateral attempt to change status quo in 2020

One year back, on 15 June 2020, a clash between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh turned bloody, resulting in the death of 20 soldiers in the former side and four in the latter side. It was an unfortunate culmination of a stand-off going on since early May that year, triggered by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops encountering Indian troops who were patrolling on their traditional limits.

It was followed by amassing of troops in large number by China on its side and some of them crossed the line over without any provocation, thereby blocking and threatening India’s routine military activities on its side of the traditionally accepted border. It was a unilateral attempt by the Chinese Communist Party-run government in Beijing to forcefully alter the status quo on the ground.

The LAC as an idea

Over the years, the LAC has witnessed one major war resulting from a Chinese surprise attack on India in 1962 and periodic skirmishes along the various friction points of the border, as seen in the years 1967, 1975, 1986-87, 2013, 2017, and the most recent 2020 Galwan Valley incident, the last being the worst in five decades. Post-Galwan, the optics appeared too high on both sides.

The LAC as an idea emerged with the annexation of Buddhist Tibet by Chinese communist forces in the early 1950s, bringing China to India’s border for the first time in history. This idea just emerged and was taking shape through the Jawaharlal Nehru-Zhou Enlai letters of correspondence that followed.

In 1962, while the world was engrossed upon the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chinese inflicted a huge military and psychological debacle on unprepared and outnumbered Indian soldiers in a month-long war along this border.

Even to this date, there is still no mutually agreeable cartographic depiction of the LAC. It varies on perceptions.

What could’ve led to 2020 stand-off?

One of the reasons that led to the current new low in India-China ties, other than differing perceptions, is the improvement in Indian infrastructure capabilities along the rough mountainous terrains of the Himalayan borders and its resolve to be on par with China in this front. This has been a cause of concern in Chinese strategic calculations for its Tibetan border.

The carving up of the Indian union territory of Ladakh with majority Buddhists from the erstwhile Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 has indeed added to Beijing’s concerns over the area.

For the past few years, India has been upfront in scaling up its border infrastructure throughout the vast stretch of LAC, including in eastern Ladakh, where the 2020 stand-off took place. There is a serious trust deficit between India and China today, if not an evolving security dilemma.

Post-Galwan engagement

Several rounds of talks were held at the military and the diplomatic levels after the Galwan incident, the working-level mechanisms got renewed and new action plans were being formed before the process of disengagement finally began.

The foreign ministers of both countries even met in Moscow on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meet in September, which was followed by a BRICS summit where Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping came face-to-face in November, although virtually.

By February 2021, the process of disengagement of troops gained momentum on the ground around the Pangong lake area. So far, eleven rounds of talks were held at the military level on the ground at the border. But, the disengagement is yet to be fully completed in the friction points of Hot Springs and the Depsang Plains.

Diplomacy is gone with the wind

All the bilateral border agreements and protocols for confidence-building that were signed between the both countries in the years 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 were rendered futile by the Chinese PLA’s act of belligerence in Galwan.

The spirit of two informal Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping summits to build trust after the 2017 Doklam standoff, one in Wuhan, China (2018) and the other in Mamallapuram, India (2019) was completely gone with the wind. This is further exacerbated by the Chinese practice of ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’, which is clearly undiplomatic in nature.

India’s diversification of fronts

Coming to the maritime domain, India has upped the ante by the joint naval exercises (Exercise Malabar 2020) with all the Quad partners in November, last year. Thereby, New Delhi has opened a new front away from the Himalayan frontiers into the broader picture of India-China strategic rivalry. Australia joined the exercise, after 13 years, with India, Japan, and the United States, a move indicative of militarisation or securitisation of the Quad partnership.

Recently, India has been consolidating its position over the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, lying southeast to the mainland, and close to the strategic Strait of Malacca, through which a major proportion of China’s crude oil imports pass through before venturing out to the ports of South China Sea.

Economic ties, yearning to decouple

Last year, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar remarked that border tensions cannot continue along with co-operation with China in other areas. In this regard, the Narendra Modi government has been taking moves to counter China in the economic front by banning a large number of Chinese apps, citing security reasons, thereby costing the Chinese companies a billion-size profitable market. The Indian government has also refused to allow Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE to participate in India’s rollout of the 5G technology.

Moreover, India, Australia and Japan have collectively launched a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) in 2020 aimed at diversifying supply chain risks away from one or a few countries, apparently aimed at reducing their dependence on China. In terms of trade, India is still struggling to decouple with China, a key source of relatively cheap products for Indian exporters, particularly the pandemic-related pharmaceutical and related supplies in the current times.

But, the Indian government’s recent domestic policies such as “Self-Reliant India” (Atmanirbhar Bharat) have contributed to a decline in India’s trade deficit vis-à-vis China to a five-year low in 2020, falling to around $46 billion from around $57 billion in 2019.

The broader picture

The border dispute remains at the core of a range of issues that define the overall India-China bilateral relations. Other issues include trade and economics, Beijing’s close ties with Islamabad, the succession of Dalai Lama who has taken asylum in India since 1959 and the issue of Tibetan refugees living in India, educational ties, and the strategic rivalry in India’s neighbourhood, i.e., South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region, among others.

Chinese belligerence has led India to find its place easily in the evolving ‘new Cold War’

The more China turns aggressive at its border with India, the more it will bring India close to the United States and the West. Despite India’s traditional posture of indifference to allying itself exclusively with a power bloc, in the recently concluded G7 summit, India referred to the grouping of liberal democracies as a ‘natural ally’.

India has been raising the need for a free, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific in as many multilateral forums as possible, a concept which China considers as a containment strategy of the United States. Possibly, India might also join the G7’s newly announced infrastructure project for developing countries in an appropriate time, as it is initiated as a counterweight to China’s multi trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

There was a time in the past when the former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought to lead Asia by cooperating with China. Considering today’s changed geopolitical realities and power dynamics, nowhere in anyone’s wildest dreams such an idea would work out. Prime Minister Modi’s muscular foreign policy imperatives are aligning well with the Joe Biden-led Western response to the looming common threat arising from Beijing.

Today, encountering Xi Jinping’s grand strategy of Chinese domination of the world (by abandoning its yesteryear policy of ‘peaceful rise’) is a collective endeavour of peace-loving democracies around the world, to which Asia is particularly looking forward. Most notably, it comes amid an inescapable web of global economic inter-connectedness, even among rival powers.

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