Eye on China World

Boao, Borders and Bases

A weekly bulletin offering news and analysis related to the Middle Kingdom. This week, the Boao Forum for Asia, border clashes and a base in Vanuatu dominate the headlines.

The Leading Group

  1. Xi’s Hainan sojourn

It took 31 minutes for Chinese President Xi Jinping to announce his reform agenda at the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA). Even then, the steps that he promised were rather underwhelming. Xi pledged to broaden market access in sectors like finance, insurance and securities, strengthen Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), expand imports, ease foreign equity restrictions in automobiles, ships and aircraft industries lower tariffs on automobiles, and move rapidly to join the WTO Government Procurement Agreement. Most of these steps have been discussed earlier, with implementation likely to be a lengthy process, given the Chinese penchant for “gradualism.”

Despite that, the markets cheered. American President Donald Trump welcomed what he saw as a conciliatory gesture to avert a trade war. Chinese officials and press were adamant that the idea that China had “blinked” was “fake news.” I tilt a touch towards the Chinese perspective in this context, given this key caveat that was part of Xi’s speech, “We hope developed countries will stop imposing restrictions on trade of high tech products with China.” Beyond the trade deficit, this is at the heart of the US-China dispute, with talks reportedly hitting a roadblock. This Xinhua commentary calling the US a “two-faced” unilateralist that is “trampling on the rules-based multilateral trading system” and even borrowing from Spiderman, best sums up Chinese frustrations with Trump.

Xi’s speech at BFA was less about trade frictions and more about his vision for the global order. The Chinese leader spoke about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) not being based on geopolitical calculations. He defined the overwhelming trend of the world as a desire for peace and cooperation, openness and connectivity and reform and innovation. He reiterated his support for protecting the environment, promoting globalisation and preserving the multilateral trading system. And finally, he expanded on his conception of a shared community of mankind.

Also, as is customary for Xi, there were poetic interludes. Two of these, however, warrant attention to understand Xi’s worldview beyond the rhetoric:

  • With right direction and unremitting efforts, all roads will take us to Rome.
  • Heaven has its own law and those who embrace it will prosper.

The first one underscores the legitimacy of the Chinese model, as one of the paths to modernisation as opposed to liberal democracy. The second is a reflection of the significance of the Middle Kingdom thought process in Xi’s approach to the world.

After Boao, while in Hainan, Xi put on his fatigues and hopped on board the destroyer Changsha to inspect China’s largest ever maritime military parade on the South China Sea. 48 warships, 76 aircraft and more than 10,000 sailors and soldiers took part in the parade, state media reported. During the inspection, Xi emphasized that the need to build a strong navy “has never been more urgent than today.” Both China and the US have been showcasing strength in the disputed waters this week. Earlier, USS Theodore Roosevelt led a carrier strike group during a “routine training” in the waters on Tuesday, enroute a port call in the Philippines. China, meanwhile, has said that it will be conducting live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait next week.

  1. Sino-Indian Push and Pull

A report by The Quint this week claimed the Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be visiting China in May for a bilateral summit with Xi. If confirmed, this would be quite a surprising move, given that Modi is anyway scheduled to travel to Qingdao for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in June. A number of high-level visits, including Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, are scheduled for April. The Quint report claims that NSA Ajit Doval is also likely to visit Beijing this month, carrying a special message from Modi.

The report essentially focuses on a possible breakthrough between the two sides with regard to BRI. Incidentally, reports in the Chinese press this week have quoted Indian attendees at BFA, such as Ratan Tata and Ajit Ranade, talking about the potential for economic cooperation, with the former quoted as saying that it was important for India to “pay attention to infrastructure construction under the framework of the China-proposed Belt and Road initiative.” Xiaomi’s new expansion in India, the spike in Indian cotton exports to China and potential cooperation in the energy sector are indicative of the economic potential that the relationship possesses.

All of this is taking place as frictions along the border persist. PTI reports that in March the Chinese military strongly protested against what it called the Indian Army’s transgressions into the strategically sensitive Asaphila area along the disputed border in Arunachal Pradesh. The Indian army reportedly dismissed the complaint. The report on Asaphila has also provoked sharp reactions across the political spectrum in Arunachal. The Chinese Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, wants border issues not to be “hyped up,” arguing that Beijing’s position on Arunachal is well-known.

But that sounds like wishful thinking, given that along the Western front of the boundary, there are are concerns about possible Chinese road-building in the Shaksgam Valley. Around 5,163 square km of this area was ceded by Islamabad to Beijing in a controversial 1963 boundary agreement. Also, the Chinese air force has reportedly conducted live-fire drills on high plateau (usually reference to Tibet), while border defenses are being improved with new equipment, such as a satellite early warning system, a new patrol boat that is made of non-metallic materials and improved scout vehicles.

Meanwhile, China and India held the fifth round of the Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Dialogue in Beijing, exchanging views on developments related to disarmament, non-proliferation, nuclear issues and the role of science and technology in international security, disarmament and outer space. There was, however, no official comment on India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which China has opposed.

  1. Neighbourhood Watch

Nepal’s new Prime Minister KP Oli visited India this week, with New Delhi eyeing a reset in ties. The joint statement after the meeting between Oli and Modi saw the two sides resolving to work together to take bilateral relations to newer heights on the basis of “equality, mutual trust, respect and benefit.” In terms of deals, three agreements were inked in agriculture, a deal on inland waterways connectivity and expanding linkages to connect Indian railway lines to Kathmandu. While Beijing now looms as a factor in Indo-Nepal ties, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale was categorical that China was not discussed during the visit.

Also in the neighbourhood, India’s friction with the Maldives intensified over reports that Male wanted to return the Dhruv helicopter gifted by India and instead wanted a Dornier. A Times of India report, citing sources, claims that Male was being duplicitous, given that a letter of exchange for deployment of Dornier in the archipelago had been pending with the Yameen government since 2016. Amidst this, Joe Felter, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, expressed Washington’s concerns about Chinese activities in the Maldives and the Indian Ocean region, calling the region “India’s backyard.”

Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, the China Communication Construction Company will reportedly invest $800 million to build an underground road network to the $1.4 billion Port City, which is being built on reclaimed land. Cheng Xueyuan, China’s ambassador in Colombo, also revealed that the two countries are discussing deals on LNG power stations, a petroleum refinery and cement, iron and steel manufacturing plants.

  1. Syrian Chemical Attack

The situation in Syria took a turn for the worse this weekend, with a chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Douma allegedly carried out by the Syrian government. The Assad regime has denied carrying out any such attack. However, the report of the attack has resulted in a war of words between the US, France and the UK on one side and Russia on the other, with potentially dangerous consequences.

Responding to the unfolding events, China has said that:

  • it opposes the use of chemical weapons and opposes the wanton use of or threat of use of force in international relations.
  • It wants a comprehensive, objective and impartial investigation shall be carried out to reach a fact-based conclusion that can stand the test of time.
  • any such actions must be conducted via the United Nations Security Council and the OPCW, to safeguard the solidarity of the Security Council.
  • Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity remain crucial principles for Beijing, as it calls for restraint.

Speaking at the Security Council meeting on Tuesday, Wu Haitao, China’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, reiterated the above. Unfortunately, the meeting failed to deliver, with three draft resolutions falling by the wayside. The first was a US-led draft, which China abstained from, while voting in favor of the two Russian drafted options.

Despite the votes it cast, Beijing has been seeking to strike a cautious balance when it comes to Syria. It has so far refrained from joining or endorsing the Russia-Iran-Turkey troika, despite signaling its increasing proximity to Moscow. China’s primary goals in the Syrian context, as Fadi Esber, argues in this piece, are stability for the progress of BRI, containment of terrorism in Xinjiang and getting its share of the deals that come with the rebuilding of Syria.

  1. A Base in Vanuatu?

On Monday, Fairfax Media reported that China was in talks with the Vanuatu government to establish a naval base in the South Pacific, pointing towards Chinese investment to develop Luganville wharf. The report stated that talks were still at a “preliminary stage” with no formal proposals yet on the table. It further added that, “Beijing’s military ambition in Vanuatu would likely be realised incrementally, possibly beginning with an access agreement that would allow Chinese naval ships to dock routinely and be serviced, refuelled and restocked. This arrangement could then be built on.”

According to the Fairfax report, China accounts for roughly half of Vanuatu’s $440 million foreign debt, and is building key infrastructure such as roads, government buildings, a sports stadium, schools and even a new home for the country’s president. Dan McGarry, in The Guardian, explains the strategic significance of Vanuatu and how gradually Chinese businesses have built constituencies with local elite.

Both Vanuatu and China dismissed the report as incorrect. Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu called it “groundless” and the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson termed it “fake news.” While Australian Prime Minister Turnbull termed any potential Chinese base in Vanuatu a matter of “great concern,” he and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop appeared to downplay the report.

Putting aside the denials, the Fairfax report raises an interesting question: Why would China even want a naval base in Vanuatu? This piece by Rory Medcalf does a good job of thinking through that question and putting it in perspective. China, he argues:

  • might want to improve its ability to deploy assets for operations other than war, such as for evacuations or responding to natural disasters.
  • want to establish a presence that could support (and protect) resource-exploitation activities in the regional commons, such as intensive fishing and seabed mining.
  • might seek a security footprint to enable its training of the forces of small island states as it extends influence over them.
  • might see the open ocean as useful for testing missile and space capabilities.
  • might desire a naval or air base that would give it a foothold for operations to coerce Australia, outflank the US and its base on US territory at Guam, and collect intelligence in a regional security crisis.
  1. BRI buzz

The Asian Competitiveness Annual Report 2018 released after the Boao Forum this week stated that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was being extended to Afghanistan. This isn’t the first time that such statements have been made. Wang Yi had formally put forward this idea in December last year. Perhaps, this could be part of the conversation between the Pakistani Prime Minister Abbasi and Afghanistan’s President Ghani later this week as the two meet in Kabul. Abbasi met with Xi on the sidelines of BFA, with both sides reiterating their all-weather friendship. Abbasi also addressed BFA, saying that Pakistan had already been reaping the benefits of CPEC, which was an example of inclusive development paradigm benefitting all stakeholders. Unfortunately, Balochistan Chief Minister Mir Abdul Quddus Bizenjo doesn’t quite agree. He says that “More than Rs 5,000 billion is being spent on the CPEC, but Balochistan is not receiving even one percent of it.”

Meanwhile, in a sign that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was coming onboard the BRI bandwagon, the Fund is partnering with the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) to host a conference on ‘Macroeconomic and Financial Frameworks for the Successful Implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative’. During the event, Managing Director Christine Lagarde and PBOC Governor Yi Gang launched a joint Capacity Development Centre (funded by China) that will provide training on policy and economics. Speaking at the event, Lagarde warned of debt risks and unviable projects, adding that the IMF may be able to use its experience to guide BRI countries in overall public financial management. She also urged China to improve the transparency of its decision making in connection with BRI.

  1. Televised Confessions

A new report published by Safeguard Defenders, a US-based organisation, sheds light on televised confessions that have become fairly common in China of late. The report is based on an analysis of 45 confessions broadcast between 2013 and 2018 and interviews with people or family members of those whom the Chinese police had made, or had tried to make, give a confession on camera. The document also features chilling first-hand accounts of some of the individuals who had been forced to confess before camera.

Addressing the purpose of such confessions, the report states that:

China’s televised confessions are much more than simple admissions of guilt. They often include statements of self-criticism, regret, and accusations against others. Suspects apologize to their families, their fans, and the Chinese government; they warn others not to repeat their mistakes; they plead for mercy; and promise not to commit crimes again. Detainees in “rights” cases typically confess or accuse others of committing “anti- China” crimes, such as plotting to overthrow the CCP.

Here are some key points from the report.

  • Nearly 60% of the confessions examined are of detainees who either worked in media (journalists, bloggers and publishers) or were human rights defenders (lawyers, NGO workers and activists). The remaining 40% cover crimes such as terrorism, financial crimes, drug use and murder.
  • These confessions are made before trial and often even before formal arrest.
  • Confessions are extracted through threats, torture and fear, with the police routinely dictating and directing them. For instance, interviewees talk of the “police dressing them in “costume;” writing the confession “script” and forcing the detainee to memorise it; giving directions on how to “deliver” their lines—including in one case, being told to weep; to ordering retake after retake when not satisfied with the result.”
  • Such confessions are propaganda tool serving domestic and foreign policy purposes.
  • State media is an active participant in this process, playing a supportive role in painting the individual guilty even before charges are officially framed. In fact, the report calls the use of such confessions “CCP’s appropriation and weaponisation of a routine style of “news reporting” by China’s state media.”

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About the author

Manoj Kewalramani

Manoj Kewalramani is a multimedia journalist based in New Delhi. Over the past 11 years, he has worked with prominent news networks in India and China. His news and editorial work includes field reporting, commissioning and managing assignments and producing shows and documentaries along with formulating and executing digital news strategies. Manoj is an alumnus of Takshashila’s Graduate Certificate in Public Policy. At Takshashila, he curates a weekly brief, Eye on China, which tracks developments in China from an Indian perspective.