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The unbearable ‘complexity’ of being: Taking China’s weaknesses seriously

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In May 2020, as the EU-China tensions rise, Margareth Vestager, EU Commissioner for Competition, voiced concerns over Europe’s lack of “strong knowledge on contemporary China.” Vestager’s concerns are important because knowledge, perception and policymaking are closely tied in international politics. Nevertheless, how does a mere deficiency in China scholarship affects one of the world’s largest economic powers? Simply put, this dearth of knowledge yields at least two critical consequences for the EU. First, Brussels’ limited understanding of China may negatively impact the soundness of the many EU policies involving China, from trade to competition. Second, misperceptions of what China is and wants could push the EU towards an excessive alignment with Washington’s strong China stance to the detriment of its own interests, which could be better served by a more autonomous European approach. Hence, given the stakes, some reflection upon the representation of China on which the EU conducts its policymaking is long-overdue.

Representations are important in social life, including politics, for they constitute a cognitive basis on which individuals and groups engage with outsiders and themselves. Thus, back in the early Enlightenment, Jesuits’ accounts of China fed into the European philosophers’ meditations on ethics and non-arbitrary government as a powerful case study, which suggested that sustainable enlightened governance and areligious morals were possible. In a way, the Europeans’ representations of China played a key role in the rise of European Modernism. Nowadays, the EU bureaucrats’ meditations on ‘The End of Naïvety’ and China as a ‘systemic rival’ led to the toughening of many EU ‘naïve’ policies, which have had the benefits of arming the EU cruise ship to better navigate increasingly geopolitical waters – e.g. the upcoming anti-foreign subsidies instrument. In both cases, the Europeans’ representations of China were key in engaging with themselves and the world.

However, unlike in the Enlightenment, the late European thoughts on systemic rivalry, which draw from an American ‘all-powerful’ representation of China, seem to inform many though policy moves that directly affect Brussels’ relations with Beijing. But, is this understanding of ‘all-powerful’ China accurate? While it is true that China is an authoritarian great power that may pose certain political and economic challenges to Western states, Beijing is also riddled with systemic weaknesses, which cast uncertainty over its future – e.g. aging population, shrinking workforce, or massive economic inefficiencies. Hence, any excessive focus on China’s dazzling strengths to the detriment of a proper appreciation of its deep-rooted deficiencies could alter the EU’s perception in potentially dangerous ways. In short, sound policymaking should address ‘China-the-powerful’ without losing sight of ‘China-the-weak’.

Take Beijing’s foreign policy. Very often, foreign states view Chinese policies as parts of a grand strategy aimed to render the world more sinocentric. While such views rightly consider the strategic elements underpinning certain Chinese policies, they often overlook Beijing’s complex policy implementation processes. That is, despite Chinese President Xi’s efforts towards centralization, strategic policies formulated in Beijing are implemented by substate actors according to their interests, which sometimes diverge significantly from those of the central government. Thus, while the Belt and Road Initiative does involve strategic considerations, its strategic effectiveness is often undermined by its implementation along the interests of local politicians and Chinese substate actors. Many significant issues and international misperceptions emerge from these ‘implementation politics’, such as China’s massive overlending to certain countries, which is often mistaken for a ‘debt trap’ strategy. In this context, developing more fined-grain approaches to China is critical for they help make sense of the usual confusion around Chinese projects and policies. In other words, they generate the kind of ‘strong knowledge on contemporary China’ that should inform sound policymaking.

Now, take the popular ‘China economic powerhouse’ narrative, which focuses on the links between Beijing’s GDP and international power, and informed a lot of Western policymaking towards China. Political economist Sean Starrs found that while Chinese privately-owned enterprises accounted for about 45% of China’s total exports in 2017, they only accounted for 10% of tech-intensive exports, which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) deems central to the country’s future development path. By contrast, foreign-owned firms accounted for about 65% of these tech-intensive exports, while joint ventures mostly accounted for the rest. Nowadays, as China became the world’s first foreign direct investment recipient in 2020 and foreign companies seem unwilling to leave the country, Starrs’ findings on the role of foreign firms in the Chinese economy are likely to remain relevant.

Therefore, when hearing about ‘all-mighty China’ taking over the world, one should remember that the CCP’s enduring leadership – Chinese leaders’ fundamental objective – rests on an economy that is significantly fueled by firms tied to the US. In other words, Chinese GDP should not be equated to Chinese power for it merely reflects Beijing’s complex embedment in globalization, which, depending on various factors, may or may not support its international power. Huawei was reminded of this fact the hard way when the Trump administration weaponized global value chains to shut the firm from its US and foreign semiconductor suppliers.

However, some might say that China could replicate its successful catch-up in solar panels across the board and solve its external dependency problems. China certainly steers in this direction, nevertheless, after over 60 years of industrial policy, Beijing’s semiconductor industry still lags two generations behind the global leaders. This failure sheds light on another popular representation of China – Beijing as a ‘tech power’ –, which is also potentially misleading. While it is true that China has ranked 14th in the Global Innovation Index and is home to staggering technological change – e.g. ubiquitous digital payment systems –, partly supported by the Chinese society’s ‘natural’ leaning towards tech absorption, Beijing’s weaknesses in terms of basic research make it hard to foster the kind of scientific breakthroughs that allow countries to move beyond the realm of incremental innovation. In other words, China’s tech power comes with serious caveats, which happen to explain a great deal of the Chinese economy’s decreasing productivity and related declining GDP growth rate. In short, this alternative understanding of China’s ‘tech power’ is yet another indication that, for all its might, China must constantly deal with deep-rooted weaknesses.

These weaknesses are all the more concerning for Beijing, as they occur when the CCP must take the country towards a new tech/consumption-driven development path to escape the middle-income trap. Any failure would shake the Party to its core. Therefore, to get a clear picture of China, one must move beyond the glamourous foreign investment announcements and the flamboyant warships, and look at the less glittering stuff. That is, for instance, Beijing’s ability to build a social safety net to free up savings and boost its weak consumption, as a part of its ‘Dual Circulation’ strategy aiming to rebalance China’s growth engine from the global markets to its domestic market.

One way to get this clearer picture of the Chinese system is to enrich our traditional understanding of China, as a developmental and repressive state, with some thoughts on the emerging Chinese regulatory state. That is the CCP’s policy action is not only political but also functionalist for it must solve concrete economic issues while exerting significant yet limited control over national actors. Thus, yes, the CCP’s current crackdown on Big Tech is about reaffirming its authority. But, it is also about technical considerations, such as streamlining digital markets by addressing the consumers’ demands regarding the digital platforms’ abusive practices and data privacy. These pragmatic concerns led the CCP to draft a GDPR-inspired law, which combines state access to private data and a high level of privacy protection, notably including the data of deceased persons. However, Chinese Big Tech, which already refused to hand personal loan data to the authorities, are likely to attempt to circumvent the new regulations, thus fueling a complex bargaining process among actors with various degrees of connection to the CCP, which will contribute to shaping the Chinese tech landscape. Such important and ambiguous developments are hard to grasp when considering China a mere totalitarian state and further emphasize the need for more refined approaches to China in policymaking.

This kind of more refined representation of China may help make the EU policymakers aware that China’s growing regulatory needs could constitute an avenue for renewed European engagement, given the EU’s broad regulatory experience. However, EU policymakers should keep in mind that, beyond ideological considerations, the ‘Plan’ or the market, the regulatory or the repressive state, are nothing but tools to ensure China’s stability under the leadership of the CCP. Thus, further engaging with China to foster trust between politically diverse regimes rather than liberalization may be wise for the time being. After all, trust will be key in persuading the CCP that a balanced rules-based world, which suits the EU the most, is the best environment for China’s stability. Of course, such an approach should be coupled with a degree of smart market protection and a strong attachment to EU core values. That will be a fine line to walk, but hey, that is what diplomacy is for.

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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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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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