China’s Frantic Scramble for ‘Common Prosperity’: Premise, Promises and Problems

China’s Frantic Scramble for ‘Common Prosperity’: Premise, Promises and Problems

By – Mahima Duggal

2021 has been a year of critical importance to China; in July the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrated its centennial anniversary, as President Xi Jinping announced the completion of a moderately prosperous society. With Xi now rallying the Chinese people to realise the CCP’s second centenary goal—to build a “great modern socialist country”—achieving ‘common prosperity’ (共同富裕, Gongtong fuyu) as part of promoting people’s well-being has emerged as a priority under the CCP’s long-term agenda. On August 17, at the 10th Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs (CCFEA) meeting of the CCP, Xi called for China’s elite to promote ‘common prosperity’ in undertaking “high-quality development” and “forestalling major financial risks”. 

Such focus on the ‘common prosperity’ ideal essentially entails narrowing the sharp wealth gap and widening socio-economic inequality that not only threatens the upward economic trajectory of China but also the political legitimacy of the CCP. It has massive implications for the how we may see the Chinese economy moving forward, since it essentially puts equal income distribution and people-centred development across various industrial sectors and geographies at the helm of China’s economic ideology and modernisation plans. With Chinese elites now scrambling to take forward and effectively realise Xi’s undoubtedly ambitious and complicated vision, what does ‘common prosperity’ mean, how is it being promoted, and what are the underlying connotations and implications of the notion? 

From Mao to Xi: ‘Common Prosperity’ in Chinese Socialism

The idea of ‘common prosperity’ is far from a new development in Chinese socialism, but has been a recognised feature of China’s promoted modernisation model since the 1950s. It was first mentioned in party documents during the Mao Zedong era at a time when the Chinese economy was highly unstable. Under Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s ‘common prosperity’ philosophy took a back burner in favour of a new “quasi-capitalist” economic development strategy. This open-door economic policy focused on achieving rapid growth (through strategies like attracting foreign capital, building economic and technological zones, and supporting a domestic entrepreneurial activity spurt). Although it had clear positive outcomes in thrusting China into a new economic bracket (or status), this has also brought about some serious negative repercussions; the extreme gap between the rich and the poor ranks top amongst these. 

Under Mao’s socialist economy, despite low national incomes and sub-par living standards, there was little inequality—which was a phenomenon deemed far more deplorable than poverty under the communist ideals. However, under Deng Xiaoping’s open-door economic policy, disparate growth with high speed, for instance in coastal provinces (under a coastal development strategy) over inland regions, was deemed acceptable, if not preferable. Overtime, even though China has become the world’s second-largest economy by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), continued emphasis on an ‘efficiency first’ economic growth policy, even if unequally distributed, has resulted in a wide wealth gap between the coastal and inland regions and urban and rural societies. For example, as of 2019, average disposable income per capita in Shanghai (69,441 yuan) is almost four times higher than those in the Gansu province (19,139 yuan). Furthermore, 10 percent of the richest own a growing portion of China’s wealth; this gap between the rich and poor in China is larger than the US or European nations like Germany and France, and is more in-line with the characteristics of a capitalist country than a socialist one. More importantly perhaps, this inequality in the living standards and development of cities and rural areas has prompted people to migrate to highly populous urban areas, putting a strain on the agricultural industry in the inlands and posing a threat of food shortages in the long-term. 

Notably, alleviating poverty has been a core objective of the CCP over the past two decades; Xi even declared a “complete victory” in alleviating absolute poverty from the country in February 2021. However, while China has undoubtedly made strides in reducing extreme poverty, more than half of China’s 1.4 billion population still has a bare minimum of 12,000 yuan in annual income. On the other hand, China boasts of more billionaires than any other state barring the US with 81 Chinese persons making Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index and China leading the Hurun Global Rich List 2021 with 1058 billionaires (more than any other state including the US). At the same time, China’s unique mixed system of a socialist regime combined with a market-based economy had bred corruption, tax evasion and smuggling amongst the Chinese elite, including members of the CCP. A 2017 report found that China’s parliament was home to about 100 billionaires—truly giving credence to the modern Chinese saying that “those in authority (quan) will be able to acquire money (qian)”. 

‘Common prosperity’ aims to remove such a trend as it marks something that could cause people to rise up in rebellion, thus threatening the CCP’s political control and legitimacy. Since assuming office as President and CCP General Secretary, rooting out corruption has been a highly-touted agenda of Xi’s administration. Through such an agenda, Xi’s has strengthened not only the CCP’s, but also his own power and authority over the country. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign became a pretext to eliminate political rivals and potential successors—much like Mao’s crusade (although his political purge was perhaps less discerning). Xi’s campaign and methodology is hence eerily reminiscent of the great helmsman Mao, putting his “centennial leap” in mobilising ‘common prosperity’ ideals in direct contrast with Mao’s own “Great Leap Forward” that was rooted in a perverse ideology and proved rather catastrophic. 

Therefore, although several official Chinese media outlets have sought to frame the return to ‘common prosperity’ as Xi’s campaign to innovate China’s communist ideology and the CCP’s governance philosophy, the focus on the ideal is in fact merely a resuscitation of the Maoist notion. It is not a progression to a new era in Chinese politics, but rather “a retrogression to the Mao era” aimed at reflecting the CCP’s pursuit to reinstate an egalitarian communist society. In other words, while it appears an almost utopian ideal, when considered in a larger context of Xi’s policies and ambitions thus far, the push for ‘common prosperity’ requires more attention and critique.

Promises and Problems

Xi first emphasised delivering ‘common prosperity’ in his speech to the 19th National Congress of the CCP at the onset of his second term in 2017; however, the ideal has found renewed attention in Beijing’s public messaging in recent months as Xi prepares for his third term. Recent analysis by Bloomberg found a sharp increase in the number of times President Xi referred to the term ‘common prosperity’ from fewer than 10 in 2019 to about 30 in 2020 and more than 60 in 2021, thus showing the rapid pace of heightened commitment to the ideal. 

Xi’s ‘Common Prosperity’ Pilot Programs

Xi has already introduced several policy guidelines to take forward the ‘common prosperity’ agenda. In the CCP’s Central Comprehensive Deepening Reform Commission, Xi approved strengthening anti-monopoly and fair competition laws to promote high-quality development for ‘common prosperity’. Moreover, to pilot test the ‘common prosperity’ model, Xi designated the Zhejiang province—China’s third-richest province, home to numerous IT firms including Alibaba, and one with which Xi shares historical ties as the region’s party secretary from 2004-2007—a demonstration zone. The policy guidelines to realise the model is laid out in a CCP and State Council document released in July 2021. The guidelines not only aim to increase disposable income per capita to 75,000 yuan by 2025, but also mandate raised salaries and social benefits for middle-income and underprivileged people.

Another pilot model for ‘common prosperity’ is the Xiong’an New District that was established in 2017 featuring policies like “standardised income and social welfare perks such as subsidised housing and generous retirement benefits”. Notably however, even after four years of establishing this pilot zone, the region has seen little growth and investment. Although both high and low-income persons benefit from subsidised housing, apartments remain barren as the total population of town is still a little over a million. Simultaneously, Xi is also cracking down on private tutoring to create a ‘fairer’ education system, although it is far more likely that the lucrative private industry will move underground and only be accessible to the ultra-wealthy.

A Crackdown for ‘Control’ Revolution?

Beyond such official policy measures, Xi has also injected the ‘common prosperity’ ideal into the social and cultural domains—like people’s everyday lifestyles—essentially aimed at curbing any modern, “western” activity. In fact, many analysts have likened Xi’s actions to Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that decapacitated the entire Chinese economy. Beijing’s recent policies include restricting children under 18 to only one hour of playing video games to limit addiction. Regulators have mandated restrictions be applied to all devices to protect the physical and mental health of the younger generation from “spiritual opium” that are video games, in the “era of national rejuvenation”. Not only has this curfew adversely impacted the gaming industry, but also opened doors for grossly invasive measures—like Tencent’s facial recognition system that identifies children using adult IDs to evade the ban.

Furthermore, in an extension of ‘common prosperity’, as part of bringing to fruition Xi’s vision of tighter party control for a healthier Chinese society, Beijing has banned broadcasters from televising any “sissy men [effeminate men] and other abnormal aesthetics” and “vulgar internet celebrities”. Instead, Beijing wants to correct the prevailing beauty standards by encouraging Chinese traditions and a socialist revolution culture. Following Beijing’s dictate, Chinese social media platform Weibo banned 145 internet celebrity accounts for a range of reasons (including national sovereignty and territorial integrity) in August, and suspended another 22 k-pop fan accounts for “star-chasing behaviour”. Although Chinese analysts have framed Beijing’s “rectification actions” as a “profound revolution”, they are in fact a blatant “control revolution” with propaganda tools, intimidation tactics and Xi’s ambition to assert greater individual dominance. The growing coercion to study the Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, including at the highest levels of education, is a perfect example of such control. 

A Frenzy of Elite-driven Philanthropy

Simultaneously, Beijing has also clearly urged highly lucrative private firms and high-income individuals to further ‘common prosperity’ by engaging in more philanthropy. In almost a mad rush to stay in the CCP’s good books—and perhaps discourage upcoming actions like nationwide residential property tax—seven Chinese billionaires donated USD 5 billion thus far in 2021 (more than total national charity in 2020). Meituan founder Wang Xing, for instance, pledged USD 2.27 billion in shares after his firm was subject to state scrutiny. In the private sector, Tencent (USD 15 billion), Pinduoduo (USD 15 billion), Alibaba (USD 15.5 billion), and Xiaomi (USD 2.2 billion) have furnished some lavish contributions in a bid to avoid regulatory investigations.

This frenzied top-down philanthropy only goes to show the panic prevalent in China’s business elites. Notably, Alibaba founder (and China’s fourth richest man) disappeared for three months immediately after a controversial speech to high-profile figures in which he criticised the Chinese banking establishment, angering Xi and prompting an anti-monopoly investigation into the company. While firms have little choice but to cooperate to the CCP’s dictate and support ‘common prosperity’ to avoid becoming targets, reform is more difficult when it comes to areas like residential property taxes wherein party members have more to lose. 

Is China Entering a New Political Era?

‘Common prosperity’ is therefore not isolated to the economic domain, but stretching into a ‘purification’ of the Chinese society, and by extension, a vice-like political control held by President Xi and the CCP. It is not therefore surprising that the emphasis on ‘common prosperity’ comes just as Xi is about to embark on his third term in office. The COVID-19 pandemic and the following (albeit brief in China’s case) economic crisis raised the risk of social unrest in China, with early 2020 reports  in global media noting protests in Wuhan and unprecedented levels of discontentment online that forced government censors to work overtime. In this context, Xi has used the CCP’s centennial to launch a new (and rather Edenic) campaign for ‘common prosperity’ to distract citizens and prevent domestic unrest. In other words, Xi has used the philosophy to suppress popular rebellion and exploit people’s frustrations to eliminate his political rivals.

Simultaneously, the drive for ‘common prosperity’ is also very much driven by an international impetus; Beijing no doubt hopes that the move will be viewed by its international audience as a ‘good’ and detract from its dismal human rights record, which has been subject to intense foreign censure over the situations in Xinjiang and Tibet. Although domestic, ‘common prosperity’ is partly a way for Beijing to establish itself as a more credible global leader—after its disastrous ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy efforts—that has the will and capacity to be a pivotal player in global development, prosperity, justice and common security.

In essence, inequality has becoming somewhat of an Achilles’ heel of the Chinese governance system, and tackling it comes as a necessity to maintain the public’s trust in the government—something Confucius believed was even more important than securing material growth and prosperity. However, in practice, the concerted push for the new ‘common prosperity’ model puts social values front and centre and could have dangerous social/cultural repercussions. Economically too, the cost and conditions for doing business in China are bound to increase under the new ‘common prosperity’ era and, as was the case with the Xiong’an New District, this will inevitably put off foreign (and perhaps even domestic) investors. Beijing must ensure that the push for ‘common prosperity’ does not adversely impact a booming economy and follow Mao’s disastrous example by regressing to “common poverty”. ‘Common prosperity’ implies significant CCP intervention in all walks of the Chinese state, from economic to political to cultural—a worrying phenomenon for the international community.

Ms. Mahima Duggal is a Research Associate at the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) in New Delhi. She is also an Associated Research Fellow at the Stockholm Centre for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs (SCSA-IPA) of the Institute for Security & Development Policy (ISDP), Stockholm, and Editorial Assistant to the Series Editor for Routledge Studies on Think Asia. Ms. Duggal holds a MA (distinction) in International Security from the Department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS), University of Warwick, UK.

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Future of China’s ‘New Asian Security Concept’ in the emerging regional security landscape

Future of China’s ‘New Asian Security Concept’ in the emerging regional security landscape

By – Manav Lal

In an important foreign policy speech at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Xi Jinping, championed a new regional security framework for the Asia-Pacific. Building on a previously conceptualised framework by Jiang Zemin in 1999, (“xin anquan guan) Xi put forth the idea for a “New Asian Security Concept” to foster trust building among Asian nations, and enhance security cooperation. Driving home the need for a fresh architecture, he condemned the 65-year-old US-centred “hub-and-spokes” alliance system which he argued, was emblematic of an anachronistic “Cold War security structure”. Additionally, he implicitly specified United States of America’s influence to be the weak link of constructive efforts towards building a more sustainable, and inclusive regional security order in Asia.  The central purpose of the proposed security architecture was to weave tight knit partnerships of organisations and entities, devoid of Washington’s influence, so as to further China’s strategic interests in the region.

Continuing to denounce the philosophy of binding alliance frameworks,  Xi Jinping, crafted an architecture that proposed the    formation  of ‘strategic partnerships’ than formal alliances; Xi’s idea hinged on creating informal and flexible relationships that were rooted in principles of mutual understanding, and trust among its neighbouring states. By extending a similar idea to the security concept, he attempted to showcase multi-pronged benefits for joining the architecture, beginning with the non-obligatory and non-constraining nature of commitment. 

Xi’s efforts behind furthering the security blue print served as a pivot to bolster China’s role in the region “commensurate” with its perceived economic status. By using economic development as a “precondition” for   security cooperation, China dexterously constructed a message for its Asian neighbours-to deepen ties with Beijing and create a “win-win” security architecture. Seven years after its inception, experts and representatives of Asian nations continue to romanticize  the “China solution” to regional security. Several confer Beijing’s efforts to have a significant impact on shaping international relations, and firmly believe in China’s aspiration to uphold regional peace, and pursue sustainable development.  . 

While the proposed architecture has gained prominence, and displays immense potential for operationalising a ‘win-win’ agenda,  the framework’s ‘Achilles Heel’ lies in China’s provocative expansionist strategy. Examples of its aggressive expansion range from China’s militarisation and illegal capture of islands in the South China Sea, clarion call for operationalising the “reunification” process with Taiwan, deepening partnership with South Asian countries, and increased border infiltrations at the Himalayas with India. China’s assertive expansionism is reminiscent of its mission to project dominance in the Indo-Pacific and seek global prominence. Wary of Beijing’s actions, countries are resisting Chinese military and economic expansion causing strategic changes in the Indo-Pacific region. As a consequence,  disenfranchisement with the China model has grown –coupled with doubts over ‘debt trap’ diplomacy projecting economic clout, via inception of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In a freshly emerging regional security landscape through the Indo-Pacific network, what future does Xi’s ‘New Security Concept’ hold?

Building a Rules based security order versus an oppressive one

At its core, the Indo-Pacific outlook has been built on a shared belief of nations to uphold the principles of international law. In a working paper drafted by the State Department, the United States reaffirmed the importance of the rule of law, by pledging to preserve “a free and open” Indo-Pacific where all nations regardless of their size, are “secure” in their ‘sovereignty’ while pursuing their economic ambitions. The same document in the subsequent section also re-iterated the nation’s commitment towards challenging any attempt made to deter the achievement of objectives in the region. Like minded democratic countries in the region have also maintained similar positions with regards to preserving the “blessings” of open seas. In this context, India, US, Japan and Australia —which also constitute the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) grouping —could leverage the opportunity, and sell a distinctive architecture using the Indo-Pacific network which does not compromise ‘territorial sovereignty’ and ensures inclusive economic progress and security cooperation. 

Making constructive use of infrastructure development with neighbouring states through the US-Japan-Australia led Blue Dot Network (BDN), Japan’s Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EXPQI), and utilising India’s Bharatmala, SAGAR and ‘One Sun-One Grid’ initiative under the International Solar Alliance could serve as anchors to showcase mutual development benefits, and counteract China’s concept of ‘mutual economic prosperity’ under its architecture. Initial progress in critical technological infrastructure, collective capacity development, coupled with the Quad’s promising endeavour to create a resilient supply chain for tackling the COVID-19   pandemic, will provide significant impetus to project economic dominance in the Indo-Pacific. Essentially, the Quad will be able to solidify strategic partnerships with neighbouring countries by furthering their economic ambitions which will help in scoring some critical diplomatic points. Concretisation of such economic partnerships would reinforce the advantages of maintaining a stable rules based order, where in countries can thrive without the fear of lawless economic co-optation. 

The Sea Dragon Exercises held in 2020 between United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, and the subsequent Quad+1 military exercises held with Canada and France, are key markers of progress for reaffirming each country’s commitment to strengthen the role of international law in the security domain. Continued affirmations of similar minded nations to uphold international law in the security realm, establishes the long-lasting authenticity of preserving a rules based order. Additionally, the salience of such exercises also underpin the significance of plurilateralism in preserving the rule of law in international relations. At the Raisina Dialogue 2021, India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar echoed the need for adopting a plurilateral approach as an alternative to multilateralism, on account of its ‘failure to deliver’.  With the Quad gaining diplomatic momentum, a plurilateral rules based approach could serve as a strong counter to neutralise China’s efforts in promoting a tightly held multilateral system. Such ideological shifts in global governance could significantly influence perceptions of Asian neighbours to align their values with a like-minded Quad, and continue embracing ideologies of a rules based order, rather than retracting from it.   

By maintaining an assertive stance in the region, China has failed to convince its neighbours that it can be a “fair and trustworthy guarantor” of regional security.  If Xi’s concept were to achieve fruition, Beijing needed to construct an architecture, such that neighbouring countries perceived it to be the anchor behind fostering security cooperation based on principles of mutual trust, equality and coordination, echoed by Xi at the CICA. But, China’s belligerent actions have only deepened its threat perception among Asian neighbours, exposing a fundamental contradiction in its foreign policy. Beijing has been relentless while offering ‘carrots’ in the form of economic incentives to its Asian neighbours for necessitating their deference. However, it has been equally committed to its “combative diplomacy” with other countries who do not toe the Chinese line.Such a strategic outlook discloses Beijing’s double standards, and tarnishes the legitimacy of its objective to nurture tight knit partnerships. More importantly, cognisant of the Quad’s strides in propelling a rules based security framework, nations could only deem it as strategic prudence to join hands with a grouping that safeguards their interests, and advances them by upholding the practice of international law. 

 The maritime manoeuvre and the Quad: Optics matter 

Realising security objectives under the Indo-Pacific strategy significantly depends on the operationalisation of the Quadrilateral grouping. While each member state has put forth varied interpretations about the Quad’s central purpose, it is clear that Chinese assertiveness has catalysed dialogue to push for an alternate regional security policy. The virtual summit held among member states earlier in March, 2021, resulted in “the spirit of the quad” which reaffirmed each nation’s commitment to the partnership. Maritime policy was a prominent subject of discussion, with all member states agreeing to prioritise the “role of international law in the maritime domain”. MALBAR 2020 and 2021 naval exercises have demonstrated the seriousness of the promise, and have also showcased the Quad’s willingness to strengthen interoperability, and enhance maritime cooperation.   

The grouping’s specific emphasis towards improving Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) through a coordinated mechanism for tracking developments at the high seas, could spur significant momentum to contain Chinese naval threats. Key developments in MDA could make the Quad a joint forum for deterring unregulated and unreported fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zones of countries troubled by Beijing, thereby enforcing international law.  Additionally, each member state’s defensive endowments at “strategic checkpoints” in South East Asian nations are being developed for accommodating state of the art military equipment, which goes to project its combined military clout. Furthermore, bilateral-geo-spatial intelligence sharing agreements, security treaties, and joint action plans on security cooperation between member states, catalyses the ability of the grouping to shape a cohesive security order with a potential to expand such agreements with other like-minded actors in the region. 

Even though Beijing has made significant strides in the form capacity building, strengthening coordination mechanisms, and financial assistance to institutional secretariats such as the Shanghai Corporation Organisation, CICA, ASEAN+3 dialogue and ASEAN+China dialogue, its effectiveness in achieving security cooperation through the proposed framework has been subprime.  Additionally, while Xi took a strong position to strengthen security cooperation in the maritime domain by embracing a conflict free resolution approach, the Chinese have shown meek commitment towards bolstering maritime cooperation, and remain resilient to use the domain for advancing a sheen of military operations as part of its expansionist trajectory. 

 Actively making an attempt to operationalise a maritime policy, sends a message of re-assurance to deter malevolent activities that omit international norms. This in turn demonstrates the loyalty of the Quad, and its commitment towards being the flagbearers of maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Importantly, an operative maritime policy has the potential to bolster the Quad’s soft power tremendously, with a potential to cause strategic modifications in the security sphere. Countries would re-assess the possibility of joining an alternate security architecture that does not only promise cooperation as part of its maritime policy, but also safeguards their security at the high seas. In this manner, the Quad would gain immense leverage over China to tip the balance of regional security power in it is favour, thereby diminishing the scope of an operational Asian Security Concept. 

Acknowledging strategic imprudence: Need of the hour for the Chinese

In a nutshell, the New Asian Security concept requires a significant strategic overhaul to maintain China’s security posture in the region. Beijing’s lackadaisical efforts to reassure its Asian partners to be the ‘ambassadors’ of security cooperation has spurred considerable uncertainty to align with its vision. An alternate security framework spearheaded by the Quad- using international law as a guarantor of fairness and justice, gives the architecture legitimacy when contrasted with Beijing’s insincere security concept. Additionally, the Quad making progress in devising a functional maritime strategy could propel countries to gravitate towards joining hands with the grouping as a consequence of its power projection and dependability for upholding regional security. China’s strategic weakness lies in its  adversely impacted soft-power with neighbouring countries, and the Quad’s maritime manoeuvre could intensify the weakness. 

Although, China’s economic appeal has made room for unquestionable deference with a few, it cannot rest on its laurels and devise strategies that are solely central to economic prosperity. Beijing needs to reconsider its position on several matters of conflict at the high seas and land borders, before attempting to appease its neighbours to build the New Asian Security Concept as envisaged.

Manav Lal is an Economics and Public Policy graduate from FLAME University, currently interning at Centre for Civil Society, New Delhi.

Tiger vs Dragon? Poland needs to cooperate with the European Union

Tiger vs Dragon? Poland needs to cooperate with the European Union

By – Patryk Szczotka

Broad and shallow approach to Asian countries persists in Polish society to this day. India is no exception – Polish people often talk about Indian food, Bollywood movies, but there is no knowledge about the huge economic and geopolitical potential that lies dormant in this country. The knowledge from the expert bubble is slowly seeping into the rest of the society – the knowledge that this country is located in a place that is increasingly called the new geopolitical center of the world – Asia. China is currently breaking through into Poland’s mainstream discussion about international relations, but India is still a country not well studied. It is in the interest of the Polish government to build a conscious foreign policy in this region of the world. Can India become an important Polish partner in Asia? From the point of view of a young researcher from Poland, whose main field of interest is China, it is difficult to answer this question unequivocally. To answer the aforementioned question,  it is worth examining the current state of Poland-India relationship, its placement in the European framework, as well as the possibilities and difficulties lying in them.

India has more than 1.3 billion inhabitants and is the seventh largest economy in the world, growing the fastest among G20 members. With growth rates of more than 7% of GDP, by 2030 it will not only be the most populous country, but also the third biggest economy in the world. As the world’s largest democracy, India has long advocated for a rules-based, free, open and equal world order, offering its leadership on international platforms at times of crises while following a policy of strategic autonomy. This country has enormous potential at present, and in the future, it can become the third pole of economic and geopolitical power, just behind the US and the People’s Republic of China. From the Polish perspective, it is necessary to embed this knowledge in both academic  and political contexts so as to a nexus with active policymaking.

When it comes to political relations, one can certainly talk about a friendly atmosphere between Poland and India, which can be a prelude to strengthening contacts between states. Apart from Pakistan, India is the only South Asian country with a Polish embassy with the Ambassador of the Republic of Poland in New Delhi is also accredited in  Afghanistan,  Bangladesh,  Bhutan,  Maldives,  Nepal  and Sri Lanka. New Delhi is also one of the few Asian capitals where Poland not only has a diplomatic mission with military attachés, but also maintains the Institute of Polish promoting the country’s culture. In 2018, the Polish Investment and Trade Agency opened a new Foreign Trade Office in Mumbai. In 2019, the first visit of an Indian Foreign Minister to Poland in 32 years took place when Dr. S Jaishankar visited. It underlined the positive accents of cooperation between India and Poland in the international environment. In a joint statement, it was announced that the Polish side appreciated India’s support for the candidacy of Poland for a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council for years 2018-2019 and expressed support for India’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat for years 2021-22. It is worth noting, however, that despite the mutual support, this visit is one of the few that representatives of both governments have made to each other. 

The lack of regular contacts has its reflection in economic data. Although Poland is India’s largest trading partner in the Central European region, according to Indian statistics, the total trade turnover in 2019 amounted to only USD 2.85  billion. India’s exports to Poland accounted for 0.48% of India’s total exports. Only 0.15% of India’s imports in 2019 were covered by Poland. It is worth noting that these are data from before the COVID-19 pandemic.  In 2020, trade turnover between Poland and India decreased by 4.2%, which amounted to USD 2.73 billion. The pandemic situation has had a negative impact on contacts between countries, further reducing the dynamics of business contacts.

At present, regrettably, foreign policy towards Asian countries is not the strongest point of the Polish state. Despite the existence of analytical centers and experts with the knowledge needed to create a strategy to face the challenges and opportunities associated with the gradual growth of Asian countries, there is a lack of political will to implement comprehensive solutions. This is particularly evident in the case of China.  In 2015, the Law and Justice party came to power, and approached Chinese proposals made under the aegis of the New Silk Road quite enthusiastically. In the same year President Andrzej Duda participated (although it was a format intended for prime ministers, not heads of state) in 16+1 format summit in Suzhou, after which the Chinese organized his official visit; less than a year later, President Xi Jinping visited Warsaw. Until now, around 40 bilateral agreements have been signed. However, as Professor Bogdan Góralczyk from the University of Warsaw notes, the development of these contacts was significantly weakened after Donald  Trump came to power and declared a trade war with China in 2018 –  Poland is strongly associated  with Washington in terms of security and strategy. For this reason, the  main topic discussed in Poland in the context  of China is primarily the issue of suspicions against Huawei  and the debate on  5G technology. 

The Chinese issue is a very important component of the context of Poland-India relations, as it concerns what foreign policy options not only Poland, but also the European Union has.  This is particularly important due to the fact that Poland – firmly embedded in the economic and political system of the EU – is not capable of pursuing a policy completely detached from the interests of the European community. So, can India compete with China for Poland and Europe?

Both Poland and India support the law-based international order and the free trade system. This naturally facilitates bilateral cooperation as well as that within the European Union (which has now adopted a joint European-Indian roadmap to year 2025). This is particularly important when one looks at difficult relations of the EU with the People’s Republic of China, in which the lack of European unity on many issues makes it difficult to create common areas for cooperation. The lack of a systemic response particularly highlights the dichotomous approach to Beijing as both a partner and a “systemic rival.” 

Economically, the European Union now wants to reduce its dependence on Chinese and other foreign suppliers and limit the ability of  companies supported by foreign  subsidies  to buy EU companies or participate in public tenders. India, in turn,  is focusing on increasing access to various fields of its economy, liberalizing regulations, facilitating operations on the market and creating new business opportunities for foreign partners. At the same time, the current trade exchange between Poland and India does not reflect the potential of these relations. All these facts provide Poland with a window of economic opportunities. 

Geopolitical challenges and the question of different values (as in the case of China) do not seem to be a critical issue in the case of relations with India, which makes it possible to present them as a less controversial choice when it comes to the development of economic and political relations. The current situation will not make India a substitute for cooperation with China, but it may open the door to greater involvement in the development of relations. Positive incentives for the development of relations also come from the United States. The reason is the increasingly closer partnership between the US and India and the tightening of NATO’s position on China.

However, this does not mean that the path to cooperation is one without obstacles. The Polish  and European  elites  lack an understanding of India as a major player not only in the rivalry between the US and China  (to which the European Union is forced to respond if it wants to remain a major player in the international community),  but also on the global stage. The lack of understanding is mutual: both India and the European Union have complex political systems, and in     the case of both actors, the expert community that could explain and interpret such complexity is small.

There is another potential problem between Europe and India. This is a matter of concern about India’s position as a so-called “swing state”. Researchers Richard Fontaine and Daniel  Kliman  have defined swing states as  countries that have large,  developing economies and occupy central positions in  a given  region. They are increasingly active at the regional and global levels and want changes in the existing international order, but they do not seek to break the overlapping network of global institutions, rules and relationships. Despite significant changes in foreign policy made from year 2014, India continues to be guided by the idea of “strategic autonomy” – an independent foreign policy aimed at maximizing the realization of national interests. For this reason, it is worth remembering that common values can help in  cooperation, but it is common interests that create a real partnership.

In the final analysis, Poland has room for maneuver when it comes to the development of economic relations with India, but the matter is a bit more complicated when it comes to political relations. Nowadays, Poland – unlike India – cannot afford strategic autonomy. This forces it to define its foreign policy within frameworks such as the European Union and NATO. The situation is also complicated by the Chinese issue. It can be expected that due to the cooling relations between the EU and the PRC (best examples are the frozen Comprehensive Agreement on Investment or the Lithuanian situation), the European community will look for alternative partners in Asia. Taking into account the rather passive Polish policy towards China, it is not an exaggeration to say that the matter looks similar in relation to India. It is therefore primarily at the European level that decisions will be made as to whether there will be a positive development between the EU and India. There are many potential benefits to making this decision, but it is also not without its difficulties. Time will tell what the leaders of the European community will decide to do.


*Patryk Szczotka (@p_szczotka) is a MSc student at “China and International Relations” double degree program at Aalborg University and the University of International Relations (国际关系学院) in Beijing. His research interests include political and economic relations between the CEE countries and the PRC.

India-Japan-US trilateralism:  Shaping the Indo-Pacific and its challenges

India-Japan-US trilateralism: Shaping the Indo-Pacific and its challenges

By – Simran Walia

The evolution of the Indo-Pacific region has its origins in the interest of dependence on the Sea lanes of the Indian Ocean for energy and trade. China’s growing assertiveness in the region has driven both India and Japan to have a reformed partnership with the US, keeping in mind the presence of the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. India’s collaboration with Japan in the region underlines the political and strategic trust between India and Japan. The growing cooperation of the US, Japan and India on various issues regarding infrastructure development and maritime security reflects that each nation views China’s aggressive behaviour with caution. How does India-Japan-US cooperation in the Indo-Pacific remain vital  to countering China’s belligerence in the region? In the post-pandemic order, what differences have emerged between the three nations in terms of their strategic interests and conduct vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific?

In 2016 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Japan, he made his desire of strengthening the relations between India and Japan and labelled their relations as, ‘special strategic and global partnership’. While their bilateral relations have been deepening, Modi and then Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seemed keen on nurturing an emerging trilateral relationship with the United States. In the joint statement, the two leaders agreed on the need to expand their bilateral relations to promote trilateral cooperation with major partners in the regions, one of them being the US. The trilateral aimed to promote the rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific and increase engagement with the ASEAN countries to provide an alternative to the Chinese investments, which would lay the groundwork for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. 

The trilateral also fits together with the Obama administration’s dire commitment to ‘Rebalance to Asia’ by encouraging its allies. The three sides held the inaugural US-Japan-India trilateral dialogue in 2015 at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. The current Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshihide Suga also supports the trilateral cooperation between the three countries and aims at enhancing it over time. 

Their trilateral relations have seen a boost since 2015 when India decided to include Japan as a permanent participant in its annual Malabar naval exercises with the United States.. The decision to expand the Malabar exercises is a significant yet turning point for the US-Japan-India relationship. The three countries have also been a part of the revitalized Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) framework with Australia. Malabar’s expansion also saw Canberra’s inclusion in 2020 which further enunciated the continued importance of the exercise. 

Maritime security remains a central pillar in this trilateral relationship. The navies of the three countries also meet at the biennial RIMPCA exercise, where India started participating since 2014. Furthermore, Indian and Japanese navies too meet for bilateral exercise JIMEX. This trilateral cooperation has been promoted further in areas like counter-proliferation, counter-terrorism, security in areas like space and cyberspace and quality infrastructure investment. 

Japan has also demonstrated leadership in terms of connecting the economic growth poles in the subregions of the Indo-Pacific through its Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI). Moreover, Japan is working with both India and the US to advance infrastructure, connectivity and capacity building in the Indo-Pacific. 

China continues to increase its involvement in the Indian Ocean region as well as the South China Sea, with the development and infrastructure projects of Bangladesh and Pakistan. New Delhi’s concerns regarding Beijing’s intentions in the region has pushed its alignment closer to the US-Japan alliance. Their trilateral cooperation is also significant because it helps in connecting the US alliances and partnerships in East Asia with a South Asian anchor in India. The recent takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban has also put pressure on other countries like China, Japan and India to provide support to the region for ensuring peace. In this regard, Japan has been supporting the country through its aid and assistance and this trilateral framework could further work towards ensuring peace in the region, wherein, India and Japan could contribute towards peace in Afghanistan. 

Country specific positions on the Trilateral 

Japan was the first country to come up with the notion of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region. The then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called this region, the ‘Seas of prosperity, governed by freedom, rule of law and the market economy and that it would be free from force or coercion’. In 2016, at the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI), Abe unveiled Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy (FOIP). The fundamental aim of the strategy is shared prosperity which also necessitates improving connectivity and infrastructure projects along with maintaining peace and stability. 

PM Suga has also emphasized the FOIP strategy and visited the United States to meet with President Joe Biden in April 2021. One of the main agendas of their meeting was cooperating and strengthening the vision of the Indo-Pacific region. Japan has been trying to protect its interests in the East China sea against the rampant intrusions by China around the Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by China as Diaoyu Islands. Japan claims this area as Senkaku Islands, which is spread across the Pacific Ocean and the Pacific Coast of the US and Canada. This area endures a significant volume of commercial and military traffic and is an important SLOC for Japan. Therefore, to protect these lanes and keep them free and open to sustain trade, Japan aims to build a network of US allies. Furthermore, the core element of Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy is economic in terms of identifying and expanding cross-cutting sectors that allow Tokyo to displace China while creating regional security. 

Concurrently, India is considered a vital partner in Japan’s FOIP strategy owing to their shared vision of goals as they are the Asian maritime powers. The two countries have been strengthening their cooperation in areas of maritime security, connectivity and also as stakeholders in the QUAD. One of the common concerns of these three nations is that of China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region, for which they cooperate and make efforts in strengthening their position in the region and counter Chinese moves. India also unveiled its Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative which was followed by PM Modi’s vision of the Indo-Pacific. India also found consonance in Japan’s Vientiane Vision 2.0, whose objective is to ensure the rule of law, maritime security, capacity building and disaster prevention. This consonance proves to be pertinent for the US for the trilateral to flourish further in terms of securing peace in the Indo-Pacific region. 

At the Quad summit held in March 2021, India held the position of navigating through political and security concerns along with ensuring stability and peace in the Indo-Pacific. India also seeks to uphold the freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific and to serve as a net security provider in the region. India’s relationships with partners across the region determine the nature of India’s role and its participation in networks like the Quad and the trilateral arrangements, such as that between India-US-Japan. The Biden administration can also capitalize on its opportunities to cooperate with India and showcase its vision for the Indo-Pacific by collaborating on capacity building, infrastructure development and the region’s post-pandemic recovery. 

India and Japan have made steady progress towards Tokyo’s first large defence sale. Furthermore, Japan has also provided India with the US-2 amphibian aircraft which enables better defence relations between the two. The deepening ties between India and Japan are crucial for the interplay with the United States. As ties between India and Japan grow closer strategically, there will be a push from Tokyo to align closely with the United States. Beijing sees the relationship between India and Japan as a concern, which would further bolster the trilateral cooperation between the US, Japan and India. 

In Washington, the Biden Administration believes that India is critical to the US strategy of the Indo-Pacific as the two countries share a common vision for it to be free and open, amidst China’s growing assertiveness. In line with the common vision of the US and India, Japan also comes to play a crucial role as it was the first country to come up with the concept of the free and open Indo-Pacific. The United States has also played a vital role in signalling Tokyo and New Delhi that further accelerated growth in their strategic relationship. 

Challenges ahead of their trilateral cooperation 

India has been an important country in the geopolitical strategic alignment which is influencing the Indo-Pacific strategy in the US and Japan. All three nations are highly committed to securing a stable rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific. 

All three countries have their down divergences with China but Japan’s strategy is shaped by the complex interplay of security and economic interests within the Japan-US-China. Tokyo’s approach in the Indo-Pacific is also shaped by the quality infrastructure financing, promoting trade liberalization and trying to put efforts to ease the tensions with Beijing. Washington has been nurturing a zero-sum competition with Beijing by committing to rules-based economic governance. 

The US also believes in the networked security architecture and the Quad, which does not align with the trilateral cooperation between the US, India and Japan. It is believed that if there is an escalating competition of the US with Beijing, the US would have to consider the military dimensions of the Quad to uphold the international order. China sees the Quad as a military alliance aimed at containing China and also as a Japanese attempt to marginalize China. However, the Quad is founded on issue-based alignment and is not a military alliance. 

To keep the SLOC free and open to sustain trade, Japan has aimed to build a network of US allies, despite Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It is a part of Abe’s economic policy in helping Japan combat deflation with private investment. America’s withdrawal from the TPP and India’s issues with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) have created uncertainties on trade multilateralism rather than providing clarity of the three nation’s economic vision for the Indo-Pacific.

There is also a concern of Tokyo relying on Beijing for trade as it is Japan’s top trading partner despite tensions over the Senkaku islands. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, Japan planned on diversifying its supply chains elsewhere to lessen the burden on China and reduce its reliance on China. 

India’s strategy is complementary to the US and Japan’s strategy for the region, and has emphasised on ‘inclusiveness’ in its Indo-Pacific position. However, not being on the same page is a major hindrance for the trilateral. 

There is also a lot of scope to scale up the trilateral cooperation in areas such as counter-proliferation, counter-terrorism, maritime security and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). Furthermore, there is a need to formalise the JAI trilateral dialogue through regular summit level meetings and also the expansion of the multidimensional partnership to areas that are beyond strategic issues. 

The US, Japan and India will benefit in security and prosperity terms from stability in the Indo-Pacific and have a joint responsibility to safeguard this order. The three nations should focus on strengthening their trilateral cooperation through the Malabar exercises. 

Since India and Japan have signed the logistics agreement, that is, Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) in 2020, the three nations could look for ways to improve the logistical coordination through ACSA.

Despite certain challenges and Quad being at the forefront, the three nations have been managing common security concerns such as securing the maritime global commons and combating terrorism quite efficiently. Japan has also shown its leadership through the expanded partnership for quality infrastructure. Tokyo is working separately with India and the US to advance infrastructure, connectivity and capacity building in the Indo-Pacific. Japan and India have also collaborated in conceptualizing third country cooperation through the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC). Third-country collaborative infrastructure cooperation has also started to take shape in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The idea is purely to coordinate bilaterally and also within the trilateral framework of India-US-Japan for advancing strategic infrastructure. 

The US-Japan-India trilateral Infrastructure Working Group can also explore projects like the Mekong-river basin and the Bay of Bengal. The three nations can explore opportunities to cooperate in new technologies and digital infrastructure. 

It is important to understand that the US, Japan and India will have to work bilaterally and trilaterally to make China engage in maintaining the liberal order. In the coming times, due to the complexity in the geopolitical nature of the Indo-Pacific region, it will be a crucial trilateral framework to look forward to in the future. There have been a lot of emerging trilaterals in the Indo-Pacific region and the recent one being, the US, The UK and Australia (AUKUS). The four leaders of the QUAD will be meeting recently in Washington, wherein they will discuss China’s aggressive behaviour in the region, Covid situation and how the world will grapple with the post-Covid situation, Tech supply and Supply chain resilience.

Simran Walia is a Research Scholar, pursuing M.Phil in Japanese Studies under the Centre for East Asian Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Prior to this, she was working as a Research Assistant at ORF, New Delhi. She has published articles and papers in magazines and websites like ‘The diplomat’, ‘the Geopolitics’, ‘Indian Defence Review’, Global Policy Journal and elsewhere. Her research interests include Japanese politics and foreign policy and East Asian foreign policy too. she can be reached at Twitter handle: @simranwalia10