DPG China Monitor

Vol.III, Issue.7

Date: August 01, 2020
The month saw a complex set of developments in China-India relations. On the one hand, political and military level talks generated the possibility of disengagement at the LAC; on the other, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s back to back visits to Ladakh signalled doubts over China’s willingness to actually disengage and return the situation along the LAC to the status quo ante prevailing in April, 2020.

Chinese strategists interpreted these high profile visits in the middle of the ongoing standoff as India’s attempt to gain bargaining chips at the negotiation table. Some analysts even accused India of buying time through peace talks, while secretly planning to launch surprise attacks on China, and warning that “What is not available at the negotiating table, cannot be obtained through force”.

Chinese media kept a close eye on the India-Japan naval exercise in the Indian Ocean on June 27, and the earlier PASSEX with the US Navy comprising the USS Nimitz Carrier Battle Group off the Andaman islands on July 20-21. Concern was raised in Beijing as reports suggested that India might consider inviting Australia for the Malabar naval exercise, scheduled to be held in August or September this year.

India’s deepening military/intelligence collaboration with various countries, particularly the US, and its announcements of military purchases following the Galwan Valley incident, also drew concerns.  The Chinese media accused Washington of taking sides in the border conflict, called out Russia for being a “reluctant partner (of China)”, and rebuked Israel for cancelling the early warning aircraft contract with China, while supplying India with the Barak 8 Air Defence Missile Systems.

In terms of economic ties, Chinese commentaries noted with concern how in the recent past India has been rejecting Chinese capital and technology, while providing a red carpet to American giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google. Some even accused India and the US of collaborating against China’s economic interests. Others, however, expressed satisfaction at the breakdown of China-India economic ties on grounds that China no longer needs to play the role of a “development partner” to a potential strategic competitor like India.

There was some mention in Chinese strategic circles about creating “a positive atmosphere” for a new comprehensive re-assessment of China-India bilateral relations.  However, hardliners were of the opinion that in the present international situation, China does not need to take any special initiative to improve ties with India. As long as no large scale conflict breaks out, China should be happy to maintain basic and minimalistic relations with India with more room for discord and disagreements, including small or medium level conflicts. This approach will not only dampen India’s tough stance vis-à-vis China, but will also slow down the ongoing process of US-India detente. 

To further build pressure on India, China seems keen to play the ‘South Asia’ card. On July 27, the foreign ministers of China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nepal held a video conference, where Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi actively promoted the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and a Trans-Himalayan Multidimensional Connectivity network, while also supporting the extension of the CPEC to Afghanistan.

On the US-China front, an escalatory spiral continued through the month. Much to China’s unease, the month saw three key speeches by high ranking US administration figures on the US’s China policy - by FBI Director Christopher Wray on July 7, Attorney General William P. Barr on July 16 and finally Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on July 23 . Wray accused China of “stealing its way up the economic ladder” at the US’ expense; Barr’s key argument was “the ultimate ambition of China’s rulers isn’t to trade with the United States...It is to raid the United States; Pompeo pulled the curtain on the post-1971 US policy of engagement and urged the Chinese people and "free world" countries to "change" the Communist Party of China (CPC). Further, Secretary Pompeo’s July 13 statement declaring “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea (SCS) as completely unlawful” rattled China. Some Chinese commentators suggested that China should not bite into such all-out US attacks, continue with its strategy of opening up to the world and avoid a new Cold War with the US. Others, however, advocated that China should remain alert to the possibility of military clashes with the US in the near future.

Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong became the forefront of China-US rivalry and tit-for-tat diplomacy. As the US signed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, issued a business advisory against Xinjiang supply chains, banned Chinese companies from buying American technology and put visa restrictions and sanctions on CCP officials for their role in perpetuating China’s “repressive” policies in Xinjiang, China retaliated by imposing sanctions on US companies like Lockheed Martin for arms sales to Taiwan, the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and four members of the US Congress, namely, Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz, Congressman Chris Smith, and Congressman Sam Brownback.

Furthermore, in a major diplomatic escalation, the US on July 21 asked the Chinese Consulate General in Houston to cease operations, ostensibly in order to protect US intellectual property and the private information of Americans. In retaliation, the Chinese Foreign Ministry on July 24 asked the US to shut down the US Consulate General in Chengdu.

As the CCP celebrated its 99th anniversary on July 1, the Chinese media accused the US of “targeting” the CCP to achieve two “sinister” purposes – first, mobilisation of the western world or the ‘democratic world’ against Communist China, and second, to drive a wedge between the Chinese people and the Party, thereby dividing Chinese society. While acknowledging that there exists a radical minority within Chinese society which seeks to separate the party-government and the country, China’s state media claimed that the overwhelming majority understands that “once the political system led by the CCP is overturned, China will collapse and the outcome will be even more tragic than the disintegration of the Soviet Union”. Therefore, it is unlikely that Chinese people will “fall into the US trap”.