The Haqqani Network – China nexus in India’s Kabul Calculus

The Haqqani Network – China nexus in India’s Kabul Calculus

By Eerishika Pankaj;

The globally watched withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan which resulted in an extremely swift return of the Taliban to Kabul will remain one of the most pivotal geopolitical events of the year, if not decade. Despite being referred to as ‘Taliban 2.0’ –linked to efforts at building a more political rather than insurgent image –the group’s return brings with it serious security, political, socio-economic and diplomatic challenges for South Asia. For India, which is a traditional power in the region, the Taliban’s return foreshadows the challenges that will threaten its national security and sovereignty, especially as they merge with existing rivalries and tensions along the border. Beyond conventional factors such as Pakistan’s backing of the Taliban and security threats along the Indian boundary as well as in Kashmir, a key denominator linked to Taliban 2.0 has emerged in the form of China’s growing political clout within the grouping and the return to considerable central power of the Haqqani Network. Merging these two threats together, the question arises of China’s ties with the Haqqani Network and what such a ‘bilateral’ means for New Delhi. How will the presence of Haqqani Network in Kabul affect India’s security interests, investments and broader ties with Afghanistan and the official government formed by Taliban 2.0? What role does Beijing play in this regard? 

Haqqani Network and Taliban

A Sunni Islamist terrorist organization, the Haqaani Network was established by Jalaluddin Haqqani, who rose to power as a powerful Afghan warlord and guerilla-insurgency commander during the Soviet-Afghan war. When the Taliban 1.0 came to power in the early 1990’s, Jalaluddin aligned with the group as its Minister of Tribal and Border Affairs. He was a known partner of Usama Bin Ladin and was perceived as one of Bin Ladin’s closest guides during his formative years in the Afghan War. At present, Jalaluddin’s son Sirajuddin Haqqani —whose international credentials include being an UN-designated global terrorist since 2007 with a USD10 million reward by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for information leading to his arrest —  runs the everyday exercises of the Network, alongside a few of his nearest family members. In August 2015, Sirajuddin became as a deputy to Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansur—the then supreme Taliban leader who took over from Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar in 2015. Mansur was killed in a 2016 US drone strike, but Sirajuddin’s appointment in the Taliban nonetheless successfully established the alliance between the Haqqanis and the Taliban which has grown progressively since.

In September 2021, Taliban 2.0 while awaiting international recognition announced the formation of an interim government —-with heavy representation of the Haqqani Network, showing the endurance of their ties. Taliban’s attempts at presenting its new avatar as more political than insurgent will find in its dependance on the Haqqani Network a key fallback; the Network’s associations with transnational jihad are well documented. With four key individuals from the infamous Network holding cabinet level positions —Sirajuddin himself as Interior Minister; his uncle Khalil-Ur-Rehman Haqqani (a listed terrorist since 2011) as the Minister for Refugees; Najibullah Haqqani (a listed terrorist since 2001) as Minister for Communication; and Sheikh Abdul Baqi Haqqani as the Minister for Higher Education —the group’s power in the new Afghan state and with the Taliban only appears to be growing. However, it becomes important to note that despite Sirajuddin’s induction into the Taliban 1.0 and 2.0, the Network has successfully managed to remain outside Taliban control, often functioning as a separate identity that could draw power from its Taliban connect should it need to. 

India, the Haqqani Network and national security

The Haqqani Network, in its aforementioned capacity of operating with an individual identity, has long been a cause of security concern for India. The Network has operated and supported a number of anti-India terrorists and terror activities, often with the involvement of Pakistan, India’s neighbor and strategic rival. Pakistan’s financial and logistical aid to the Taliban –mostly via its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency –has continued across sectors, while Islamabad’s strong direct ties with the Haqqani Network itself have also grown. Pakistan’s ties with the Network are further documented in the shelter it provided to Haqqani leaders post the fall of Taliban 1.0 in 2001, allowing them refuge in North Waziristan. In its bid to undermine Indian influence in Afghanistan –especially as New Delhi enjoys more public support in the country as opposed to the non-state action support behind Islamabad  –Pakistan has provided security to the Network which has used the same to carry out lethal attacks, more often than not, targeting India. The 2008 bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, the 2020 attack on Gurdwara Har Rai Saheb in Kabul and even the introduction of suicide bombing as a non-state action tactic –which was inducted by the Taliban as well –are often credited as works of the Haqqani Network.

Such an outlook has also guided Pakistan’s non-attempts at bringing the Taliban and Haqqani’s together at the peace talks table, even as Islamabad and ISI wield great influence over both terror groups. Frustration on this point is shared by the US, which realized that no amount of persuasion would convince Pakistan to crack down on the Haqqani Network, termed a “veritable arm” of the ISI by a former US Joint Chief of Staff. A testament of Pakistan’s influence within the Network –and readiness to use the same for its national interest –can be seen at present as Sirajuddin Haqqani, in the capacity of Taliban’s interior minister, attempts to mediate talks between Pakistan and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to bring an end to twenty years of militancy by the latter in Pakistan. 

However, in lieu of current geopolitics and the Taliban 2.0’s new needs in lieu of a changed world order, Pakistan’s influence within the Taliban –and Haqqani Network –could decrease. This is because both the groups recognize that better political achievements could be achieved by building closer alliances with China and Russia (with both these countries being UN permanent powers) and Iran (based on a religious ideological connect vis-à-vis Sunni populations). Here also, China emerges as the clear choice especially as the Chinese government has long sought to build stronger ties with the Taliban especially in an attempt to make sure the group brings the anti-China Uyghur extremist group East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) under control. ETIM presents a major security threat for China in Xinjiang and has dominated China’s Afghanistan outreach from as early as 2000 when Chinese representatives met with Mullah Omar in a bid to get the Taliban to stop harboring Uyghur militants. This diplomatic outreach was not successful, as Omar failed to restrain the ETIM and in retaliation, China did not stop the US sanctions against the Taliban.

There has now emerged a security and power vacuum in Afghanistan post withdrawal of US-NATO forces; the Taliban’s swift and easy return to Kabul highlighted this overture. China hopes to fill this vacuum, especially by making an exclusive entry into the country via its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and ensuring safety of its own borders against ETIM. This narrative has dominated China’s Afghan –or more specifically, Taliban –outreach since the time of the peace talks itself. The meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with Taliban leaders in Tianjin as the US was still withdrawing from Afghanistan in itself lay the diplomatic official cornerstone of China’s warming ties with the insurgent group –official recognition of the Taliban is all but inevitable by Beijing should the grouping manage to give China the political, economic and diplomatic clout it wants in the country, especially to counter India. Post the return of Taliban, China has maintained that it will “respect the sovereign independence and territorial integrity of Afghanistan” while hoping that “Afghanistan can build a broad and inclusive political structure” while cracking down on “all kinds of terrorist forces”. Having endorsed the Taliban, China plans to hold the Taliban to its pledge of forming an ‘inclusive’ government, and it has the political sway to shape it narrative. An example of this power was seen when the Taliban extended their interim government by publishing new appointments post the Chinese (along with Pakistani and Russian) envoys met with the Taliban calling for more inclusiveness. 

China’s ‘bilateral’ with Haqqani Network

Despite talks to build further its BRI in Afghanistan, China is unlikely to press forward until it receives a guarantee that its own interests will be protected. Nonetheless, Kabul has been reportedly engaging with China over talks on the extension of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan; this would decidedly shape China’s entry into post-US Afghanistan while also adversely  affecting the power balance India holds in the region.  Strategic assets in Taxkorgan, Wakhan and Gwadar will highly aid China’s economic and political global outreach. Beyond BRI driven outlooks, China’s power in Afghanistan will deter India’s neighborhood power and influence. In this regard, China recognizes that beyond the Taliban, the eventual fate of New Delhi’s US$3 billion (S$4.02 billion) investments in Afghan infrastructure development projects and India’s security interests in the region would extraordinarily rely upon how the Haqqani network assesses the underlying necessities and external imperatives of its activities in its quest for power. This recognition has driven China’s focus on the Haqqani Network —extending beyond the purview of the Taliban-China bilateral, but accentuating it all the same.

In what is emerges as the biggest threat for India, the Taliban have put security for Kabul in the hands of the Haqqani Network, or more specifically, Khalil Haqqani. Khalil’s close ties with the ISI, Taliban and Al-Qaida create a trifecta of potential terror activities that could be directed at India; there is considerable threat to Indian national security as the power of the Network grows, especially in light of Al-Qaeda’s statements regarding ‘liberation’ of Kashmir post-Taliban ‘victory’ have stirred security tensions. Here, the China-Pakistan ‘iron’ brotherhood will allow Islamabad to emerge as a trump card for Beijing in its outreach to Kabul –and the Haqqani Network. It becomes important to note that the Haqqani’s are Pakistan’s “favored Taliban”; furthermore, with growing power, the Network is emerging as the true “kingmakers” in the country, allowing Pakistan to use the strategic geography of Afghanistan to its advantage by positioning itself as an indispensable ally to the US.

China’s outreach to the Haqqani Network has been long built; even during the peace talks phase, reports of Chinese nationals being in touch with the Network fast emerged. At present, the long-nurtured outreach is being used by Beijing to reach its goal to get the Taliban to ‘cut ties’ with militant groups, especially ETIM, while current reports suggest that Chinese intelligence heads are building pressure on Sirajuddin to extradite Uyghur militants. In a state-arranged chartered flight, ten Chinese ‘spies’ reportedly flew out from Afghanistan earlier this year; two of these Chinese nationals were in direct and close contact with the Haqqani Network. Chinese spies have long stayed in touch with key Haqqani leaders, with ISI agents often acting as the intermediaries

Debate within Chinese public on the Taliban has been divided; a post by the CCP’s mouthpiece People’s Daily was deleted from Weibo after it faced backlash due to its narrative that sought to ‘whitewash’ the Taliban’s violent history. The Chinese public has seemed at odds on whether or not to support the Taliban and its affiliated groups simply because it is an anti-US group, or to focus solely on officially recognizing the grouping should it move away from terror activities. Beijing’s delay in officially recognizing the Taliban –even as its embassy continues to remain one of the last few operating normally in Kabul –could also potentially be due to the public divide in China. Even as the same is rapidly censored, the article by People’s Daily highlights the CCP’s attempts to push forward a more-favorable outlook of the group before making a formal policy announcement. 

However, such debate does not exist vis-à-vis ties with the Haqqani Network. China and its ‘iron brother’ Pakistan have both sought to undermine India’s role in the Afghanistan nexus; a key diplomatic example of this was their decision to skip the security dialogue India convened on the situation in Kabul in November. The Taliban has already welcomed Chinese contribution to “rebuilding” Afghanistan; such an overture spells trouble for India. New Delhi’s most ideal choice at present would be to maintain a channel of correspondence open with the Taliban. How New Delhi maneuvers its role in the country will hence have to be decided in close consultation with its partner states like US, Japan and Australia bilaterally or as part of the Quad. Nonetheless, it becomes evident that India’s Afghanistan policy will be driven by the nexus between the Haqqani’s, the Taliban and the China-Pakistan bilateral. 

Eerishika Pankaj (@eerishika) is Head of Research and Operations Director at the Organisation for Research on China and Asia (ORCA). She is also an Editorial and Research Assistant to the Series Editor for Routledge Series on Think Asia, a Young Leader in the 2020 cohort of the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program and is a Commissioning Editor with E-International Relations for their Political Economy section.

China’s economic engagement and protests in three continents

China’s economic engagement and protests in three continents

By – Sanjay Pulipaka, Mohit Musaddi ;

There have been protests in three countries located on three different continents in the past few weeks. The common thread tying these disparate protests is the presence of Chinese investments. 

For over a month, the Gwadar port city in Pakistan experienced large-scale protests with mass participation of men and women, indicating the prevalence of deep discontent in the populace.The protestors called for wide-ranging demands, including the provision of clean drinking water, better educational facilities, improved healthcare infrastructure, removal of unnecessary check-post, and easy cross border trade with Iran. In June, Dawn reported that the federal government’s decision to grant Chinese trawlers fishing rights in Gwadar had prompted protests from local fishermen. Therefore, it was not surprising that issues pertaining to fishing, such as easy access to the sea and restricting the fishing mafia figured in the protesters’ demands.

There is also deep anguish that locals are not getting employed in various projects implemented in the region. Reportedly, there is an opinion that the Chinese firms developing the port have deployed a large number of personnel from outside Gwadar. Therefore, protestors demanded better employment opportunities for the locals. On December 16, after more than a month of protests, the residents of Gwadar called off their sit-ins after the government reportedly accepted all demands. However, even though large scale infrastructure projects such as ports, airports and stadiums are getting operationalised in Gwadar, issues surrounding basic amenities such as drinking water haven’t received adequate attention.

These protests suggest that there is a lack of confidence that the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects will deliver positive economic outcomes. As Maulana Hidayat, one of the protest movement leaders noted, “when the Gwadar port has brought no prosperity to those living in its vicinity, what good can it do for the people in the rest of the country?” 

Chinese investments in Africa have been under the scanner in the recent past. Towards the end of November, there were reports that China may soon take control of Entebbe International Airport in Uganda. Such speculation reportedly stemmed from a parliamentary probe report which noted that the provisions pertaining to a loan taken from China enable attachment of government assets. However, the Ugandan government officials and the Chinese Embassy in Uganda quickly refuted the allegations. Even before the controversy could subside, the financial commitments made by Beijing at the Eighth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) generated further discussion. There were reports suggesting that China proposed reducing its investments in Africa. Sun Yun reflecting on the FOCAC deliberations noted that “the amount of financial commitment, the number of promised projects and opportunities, and the relatively thin content of the action items together illustrate China’s cutback of activities on the African continent.”

In a tragic development, towards the end of November, five Chinese nationals were kidnapped in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The kidnapping threw a spotlight on Chinese mining activities and their interactions with local authorities as well as populations. According to a South China Morning Post report, “in August, South Kivu authorities suspended the work of half a dozen Chinese-financed companies after residents accused them of mining for gold without permission wrecking the environment”. It is possible to argue that China is likely to run into a few law-and-order issues given the large-scale investments across the African continent.

However, as researchers from UNU-MERIT, Harvard University, and ETH Zurich argue, “regions [in Africa] hosting Chinese-led projects are more likely to experience protests”. They contend that “lack of transparency in loan conditions” makes “Chinese finance… prone to being used by local elites,” which may engender protests by locals.

Since the end of November, there have been ongoing protests in the Solomon Islands, in which large parts of the Chinatown District in the island’s capital Honiara has been subjected to arson and at least three people have been killed. The protests are directly related to Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s decision in September 2019 to establish diplomatic relations with China instead of Taiwan. Around the same time, a few senior politicians had published a letter stating the long- term interests of the Islands “in terms of our development aspirations, as well as respect for democratic principles, human rights, the rule of law, human dignity, and mutual respect — lie with Taiwan, not the PRC [People’s Republic of China].” The interethnic tensions are also getting reflected in the foreign policy, with people from Malaita Island preferring to maintain a closer relationship with Taiwan and the United States. The protests led to Australia dispatching a contingent of police and military officers to improve the law and order situation in the Solomon Islands. Similar protests in Honiara had taken place in 2006 when rioters burned Chinese-owned businesses over allegations that Beijing had provided financial assistance to the then newly- elected prime minister.

In little over a month, Chinese investments and policies have generated protests in three different regions – in Asia, Africa, and Oceania. This has added to the numerous protests against Chinese projects and activities in other regions such as Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands (see table).

Some reports have referred to Beijing’s use of the ‘elite capture’ tactic – a process through which the elite in a country get a disproportionately large share in the emerging economic and infrastructural initiatives – to make rapid economic inroads in various countries. The developments in the past few weeks have demonstrated that the elite capture tactic may be encountering popular resistance.

These protests also highlight the limitations of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and external economic engagement strategies. There is an opinion that China often seeks to operationalise big-ticket projects without reference to local HDI, amenities and responsiveness of local governance frameworks to basic needs. The absence of revenue generation with positive spillovers for the local economy engenders negative perceptions regarding Chinese economic engagement. If China’s economy does not register a quick economic recovery from the after-effects of COVID-19, it is possible that Beijing’s investments in areas where it encounters resistance may experience a downward trend in the longer term. Such a development may open up greater space for democratic countries to indulge in healthy economic interactions.

CountryNature of Protest
VietnamVietnam’s Special Zone Act which allows foreign investors to lease land for up to 99 years. Civilians carried anti-Chinese banners such as “No leasing land to China even for one day”. Source: Reuters,  June 11, 2018
PhilippinesChina’s increased presence in South China Sea. Around 1,000 protestors converged in front of the Chinese consulate in Manila waving signs with phrases such as “China Out”.  Source: SupChina, June 14, 2021
LaosBuilding of a 100-meter-tall Buddha statue in a Chinese SEZ as it is viewed as a cultural encroachment. “The statue to be erected is a Mahayana-style, Chinese Buddha wearing a long frock and standing, rather than a Theravada-style Lao Buddha sitting in a meditative pose.” Source: Radio Free Asia September 14, 2021
CambodiaAlleged plans to boost China’s military presence in Cambodia. Civilians protested in front of the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh, where they were involved in a scuffle with the police.  Source: Reuters  October 23, 2020
MyanmarChinese factories were torched as civilians urged Beijing to condemn the February 2021 coup. Source: France 24 March 17, 2021
ThailandChina-backed Chana Industrial Park in Songkhla Province, which locals said would lead to environmental damage. In December 2021, the government decided to delay the project. Source: Radio Free Asia December 11, 2021
IndonesiaChinese workers arriving in the South Sulawesi Province without approval from the Indonesian government. It was a student-led protest against jobs being stolen from locals. Source: International Business Times July 07, 2020
MalaysiaSummoned China’s Ambassador to lodge an official protest against presence and activities of Chinese vessels off the coast of Sabah and Sarawak.  Source: Bangkok Post October 05, 2021
Nauru, Kiribati and Federated States of Micronesia (FSM)Reports indicate that Nauru, Kiribati and FSM jointly raised security concerns over Huawei Marine Networks (HMN) laying undersea communication cables. As a result, the project was not awarded to HMN.  Source: Reuters June 18, 2021
Table 1: Select Protests Against Chinese Projects and Activities across Southeast Asia

(The article first appeared originally in The Economic Times)

Sanjay Pulipaka is a Senior Fellow at the Delhi Policy Group, India. He was a Pavate Fellow at the University of Cambridge and a former Fulbright Fellow in the United States. Twitter: @psanjay_in

Mohit Musaddi is an independent political and security risk consultant. He has a master’s degree in international relations from the War Studies Department of King’s College London.

China’s Sixth Plenum and Xi’s Political Future

China’s Sixth Plenum and Xi’s Political Future

By – Saranya Sircar;

The year 2021 is a milestone one in China for a handful of significant occasions. The 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) was approved in March 2021 by the country’s legislature, National People’s Congress (NPC). Also, the hundredth anniversary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was celebrated in the month of July. Recently another vital event, the Sixth Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee of the CPC was held in Beijing from November 08 to 11, 2021. This four-day long closed-door conclave, comprising more than 370 members of the CPC’s Central Committee, was conducted by President Xi Jinping in the capacity of his role as the General Secretary of the party. 

This Sixth Plenum, in particular, was of immense importance, given the fact that key matters on ideological issues and party building were highlighted in this meet as per tradition, but more so, it marked a key political event in lieu of the upcoming year in which a new 20th Standing Committee is expected to be assigned. What makes this meeting even more momentous is the formal statement “Resolution of the CCP Central Committee on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party’s Century of Struggle” that was passed alongside the Communique report at the end. It is only twice in the past that such historical resolutions were released – first by Mao Zedong in 1945 and the second by Deng Xiaoping in 1981. The statement seeks to project the CPC and China’s meteoric rise and growth over the past decade, while simultaneously putting Xi at a pedestal equal to his predecessors.

Xi’s Legacy and the CPC Sixth Plenum

Xi is currently the most powerful leader of China that the world has seen in decades. Right from joining the CPC during his student life as an official party member, Xi had an upward-trending trajectory rising through various ranks within the party, and in the long run became the president of the country in 2013. In 2016, at the Sixth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the CPC, Xi had been “anointed as the core,” whereby he was bestowed with a designation that was earlier formally attributed to Chairman Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. Eventually the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” which is primarily a collection of policies developed from his speeches, got enshrined in the State and CPC Constitutions. In the same year, the removal of the two-term threshold for the presidency was an indication that Xi is going to be in power as president for more than ten years — and probably for life. The historical resolution of the latest Sixth Plenum has somewhat indicated that President Xi is now being elevated to the rank of a helmsman, cementing his status as equivalent to that of Mao Zedong as well as Deng Xiaoping – two of the most robust and famous Chinese leaders. Unlike his predecessors, Xi has been carefully managing to quell possible threats to his leadership or any other hindrances in front of him, there were very less hindrances and threats in front of Xi to his headship, and therefore he has solely concentrated on building working on his the ‘Chinese Dream’ and promotion of the ‘Peking model’. Post the Sixth Plenum, there remains very little doubt that Xi will indeed be taking on another term in office, especially as he has yet again begun to reorient political appointments to bring forward his supporters.

Sixth Plenum shaping China’s Foreign Policy

President Xi’s rise can be seen as parallel to the remarkable rise of China in the world stage. During his tenure, China sanctioned economic reforms to combat decelerating growth, and consequentially has witnessed unprecedented growth in the past three decades. Over the years, China has become nationalistically bold and assertive in taking robust decisions and actions in the foreign policy domain. China, under Xi’s presidency, has highlighted its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to magnify its geo-economic as well as geostrategic authority overseas. In spite of international declarations, China continues to exert influence further into the South China Sea, claiming disputed lands and zones as its own territory, building islands artificially, increasing naval presence, constructing armed installations and industrial infrastructure, and conducting military drills. 

Amidst the pandemic, China further expanded its belligerent posture with assertions along India’s border, a trade war with Australia, imposing a draconian new security law for Hong Kong and continued intrusions into Taiwanese airspace, besides its continuous tussle with the West. With reference to external policy stances, the communique released at the end of the recent Sixth Plenary Session has talked about Chinese China’s reunification endeavours with Taiwan, and uses terminologies such as “major country diplomacy”, expanding “China’s international influence, appeal and the power to shape” and so forth. All of these imply continuity in Chinese external policy stances, with persistent focus on the United States (US), Russia and the European Union as major global powers. Over the years and more recently, China has made a clear standpoint of defying the “status-quo international order” led by the US, and instead advocates restructuring remaking a new one era based on socialism with Chinese characteristics. In Xi’s vision for a Sino-centric world order, the ‘Peking model’, it is China which is the global leader “building a new type of international relations”.

Overall, examining the Sixth Plenum’s impact on Chinese foreign policy through the lens of an assertive CPC, it can be inferred that China is not likely take a step back in conflicts that further promote the ‘strongman’ image of Xi in the theatre of world politics. This holds true in case of instances like the stalemate along the Indian border, the East and South China Sea disputes and even on the tech-trade war with the US.  

Relevance for Regional Security Architecture

The larger Asian region including the Indo-Pacific have consistently argued for and maintained multipolarity, marked by a rules-based, open and transparent formula of like-minded democratic countries like India and Japan as well as the US. But China under the authoritative guidance of President Xi has maintained a concrete partition with the other regional nations in principle. Towards that, it can be anticipated that Chinese policies like “wolf warrior diplomacy”, “grey-zone strategy”, and hybrid warfare would largely continue in a likewise aggressive manner in the foreseeable future, especially after the Sixth Plenum. Hence the Tibet issue, rivalries with the US and India, reconsolidation of Hong Kong and Taiwan, and territorial claims over East and South China Seas – everything being of crucial geopolitical magnitude to China – are expected to persist in its regional foreign policy activities. 

Although there is a broad official acknowledgement of the free and open Indo-Pacific construct by the Chinese Foreign Ministry in the past month, China expressed its patronage for ASEAN centrality in the regional security architecture and even maintained the stand that it believes in the ASEAN in playing a greater role in international affairs. The Quadrilateral grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia has always been a source of discomfort for China and has been termed by its Foreign Minister as “Indo-Pacific NATO” that cherishes a Cold War mentality and stirs up “geopolitical competition and confrontation among different groups and blocs”. Despite the fact that ASEAN centrality is backed even by the Quad countries (individually as well as a group), China is still unhappy and suspicious about its formation and sees it as a potential threat in the regional security arrangement. This year, China passed three controversial laws – Land Boundary Law, Maritime Law, and China Coast Guard Law – by means of regulating its land borders and marine boundaries militarily. Examining this development through the Sixth Plenum angle, this is a blatant indication of a more aggressive Chinese outlook and strategy for its future, capable enough to create tensions in the Indo-Pacific as well as altering world geopolitics. Now that there is an overall acceptance of the Chinese unilateralism in world politics, Asian and Indo-Pacific countries should stay watchful of China as it would also attempt to act through regional and global diplomatic channels and image modification strategies so that stability in its relations with major powers is safeguarded, with the guarantee that there is less or no obstacle to its economic and strategic growth, as pointed out by scholars.

Link with the two Centennial Goals 

China’s centennial goals are related to and mark the centesimal anniversaries of the CPC that began life in 1921, and the formal establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. Towards that, the following are the goals that were set by the CPC:, viz., 

Goal No. 1 – to “build a moderately prosperous society in all respects” by 2021 to commemorate 100 years of the party; . and 

Goal No. 2 – to “build a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious” by 2049 that would observe the centenary of the PRC – hold great significance. 

In February 2021, it was declared that the first centennial goal has been successfully accomplished with President Xi’s leadership over the past eight years when around 98.99 million impoverished rural residents living below the current poverty line, got “free” from absolute poverty. Although Thethe World Bank had additionally affirmed that China is responsible for over 70 percent of the global reduction in poverty since the late early 198070s, the credibility of such statistics still remains a question to ponder upon. As far as the second centennial goal is concerned, China is determined to attain the target and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is considered to be fundamental to push forward sustained geostrategic, geo-economic and geopolitical advancements. Furthermore, to mark the centenary of the creation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in August 1927, China codified a new short-term military modernization goal termed as the “2027 Goal” at the annual meeting of the NPC in March 2021. The 2027 goal is sort of an addition to the prevailing target that China will “basically complete national defence and military modernization by 2035” and possess a “world-class military by mid-century”. With reference to the Sixth Plenum, it can be said that China has continually left no stone unturned to work enthusiastically towards achieving the remaining centennial goals in a post-first centennial chapter. 

The Sixth Plenum has reaffirmed China’s plans in making every single effort continuously in actualising its domestic goals as well as international aspirations of becoming a superpower. Domestically, the attempt of the Sixth Plenary was to imbibe the narrative about the CCP’s (with Xi’s legacy) undeniably positive role in the development of China over the past 100 years as a strong counterforce to the West. Externally, all policy targets, legal regulations, and activities by China seem to be recurring assertions that contemporary international politics is now increasingly driven by China, and it is a wakeup call for the rest of the global powers. Alongside thisthis, undoubtedly, President Xi Jinping’s political future look promising enough to steer world order.  

Saranya Sircar is associated as a Consultant for the East Asia Research Programme at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), New Delhi.  She previously interned with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. She did her post-graduation in Conflict Analysis and Peace Building from Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She graduated in Political Science Honours from Gargi College, University of Delhi. Saranya’s areas of research interest include geopolitical and security issues in larger East and South Asian regions, Indian foreign policy, global climate change and environmental issues, gender issues, matters of peace and conflict, regionalism, and other related domains. She can be reached at  

Seoul’s Comprehensive Re-Balancing Strategy Amidst Strategic Shift In Indo-Pacific

Seoul’s Comprehensive Re-Balancing Strategy Amidst Strategic Shift In Indo-Pacific

By – Abhishek Sharma;

A Geopolitical and Geoeconomics juggling is taking place between U.S. and China in the Indo-Pacific region, and the pandemic has only accelerated its pace. This new geopolitical game has nudged and aggravated developments in East Asia’s security and economic domain. These developments include signing the AUKUS deal, looking at the Resilience of Global Supply Chains, and the crisis in Taiwan Strait. The developments have forced states to realign their foreign policy and diplomatic balancing; South Korea is one among the many states positioned at the center of this shift as one of the significant critical technological leaders and a prominent security player in East Asia. 

With these developments influencing the South Korean interests directly and otherwise, moves in Seoul’s strategic calculation concerning China have been taking place. South Korea is now making decisions that signal a change in its traditional position. This can be seen by President Moon Jae-in’s acceptance of the AUKUS deal and a call for maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait. How do such shifts and balancing maneuvers in South Korea’s Foreign Policy align with the geopolitical and geoeconomics tide in Indo-Pacific concerning China? What challenges persist in maintaining a state of equilibrium between South Korea and China’s relations in the future?

Gauging ties driven by trade

South Korea and China’s relations have been dominated by trade since their diplomatic relations were established in 1992, apart from their cultural and historical relations, which goes back to the Goguryeo Kingdom. By virtue of being Seoul’s biggest  trading partner, China holds an important position in Seoul’s foreign policy as highlighted by their sheer trade numbers. . In 2019, the trade exports and imports from South Korea to China were around 136 billion dollars and 108 billion dollars, respectively. With the global economic slowdown, many countries have experienced their trade drastically dwindling, with some exceptions where the trade between countries has shown a positive growth trend recently. South Korea and China trade relation is an illustration among the exception. The exports to China from South Korea in October 2021 soared approximately 25 percent, reaching 14.39 billion dollars. Major commodities included semiconductors, electrical machinery, equipment, smartphones, and clothing. 

South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy November figures on exports to China show a climb of  27.1 percent to 15.3 billion dollars, recording growth for 13 consecutive months. China shares a significant part of the South Korean export-oriented economy, and hence traditionally, China’s views on issues are kept in mind while formulating South Korean foreign policy-making. However, with the global geopolitical and geoeconomics tides shifting between U.S and China, the trade factor between South Korea and China no longer remains isolated of the larger consequences. In other words, with the increasing intersection of geopolitical and geoeconomics, sectors that were earlier not influenced by global or regional developments like trade, high-tech technology and shipbuilding are now seen as part of the larger geostrategy to formulate policy-making. Security considerations of respective states overshadow this policy-making, and South Korea is no exception in this shift. The security framework emerging out of the changing tides puts South Korea in an arduous position, forcing it to rebalance the sectors to maximize its interests concerning China. The two domains where the intersection of geopolitics and geoeconomics influences South Korean policy-making concerning China are trade and supply-chain resilience as well as democratic solidarity and national security. However, there is an emerging security framework influencing South Korea’s policies.

Emerging Security Arrangement and Seoul’s Soul Searching

The strategic maritime security alignment emerging among the democratic states had already created a geopolitical duplexity in the Indo-Pacific region. Here, South Korea found itself standing in opposition to China’s position. South Korea being invited as part of QUAD plus was a trust signal from the fellow QUAD countries towards Seoul in standing with the emerging ‘strategic direction.’ However, there was still hesitancy in Seoul of not upsetting China. This hesitancy germinates from Seoul’s dealing with China and its unreliable experience with the U.S. One such instance was the deployment of THAAD missile in 2016 amidst the growing threat from North Korea, which resulted in a backlash from Beijing, coming harsh on Seoul manifesting in declining relations. The economic cost estimated by Hyundai Research Institute (HRI) by Beijing on THAAD incident was around 7.5 billion dollars in 2017, which amounts to 0.5 percent of South Korea GDP.  Apart from trade, other sectors like tourism, gaming, and entertainment especially took the brunt of Beijing ire. The pressure on Korean companies was such that one particular Lotte group had to finally exit the Chinese market after a decade due to a systematic boycott campaign. China showed South Korea the consequences of upsetting its interests. 

However, with the security situation getting increasingly uncertain in the peninsula with North Korea launching missiles repeatedly, South Korea is trying to re-balance its security with economic costs. This re-balancing strategy comes in the backdrop of not getting any substantial support from Beijing on the North Korea issue, apart from some symbolic act of supporting the signing of a Peace agreement resulting in the end of the Korean war.   

The AUKUS deal between U.S, U.K, and Australia might be the final nail in the coffin that had many experts guessing on Seoul balancing foreign policy with China. In his recent visit to Australia, South Korean President Moon Jae-in supported AUKUS and said AUKUS and QUAD all of these groups adds to the ‘peace and prosperity’ in the Indo-Pacific region. Some experts have called President moon’s visit to Australia a symbol of ‘quiet alignment’ or even  called it ‘an act of subtle resistance’ against China. This visit also comes with its standings with South Korea and Australia signing military equipment deal worth 720 million dollars. Hence, we see a calibrated shift in South Korean foreign policy with China.

Trade and Supply Chain resilience

Even two years after adjusting themselves to pandemic, the issue of supply chain resilience remains intact. The latest case was the urea crisis in South Korea due to restrictions put by China amidst a shortage of coal domestically with the banning of Australian coal imports. South Korea’s dependence on China for 97.6 percent of urea imports shows the enormous nature of the problem it faces. This dependence came as many South Korean companies closed down systems domestically as they found urea cheaper to import from China. The consequences of such decisions, like restricting the flow of critical raw materials, have an enormous impact on the economy of other states. There exist other sectors also where similar issues persist. South Korea is a leader in High-tech electronic products. Still, its reliance on China for raw materials in making semiconductors points to the critical leverage Beijing holds in its tech sector growth.

South Korea is dependent on China for its raw material for 94.7 percent of tungsten oxide and 100 percent of magnesium ingot used for semiconductors and aluminum alloy, respectively. The criticality of ICT products nowadays directly affects the economies of many nations, particularly South Korea, whose exports constitute an amount of 21.5 billion dollars only in November 2021. In 2019, the exports of ICT goods constituted approximately 26 percent of South Korea’s total exports. To avoid this, Seoul is now looking to diversify its partners and the recent visit to Australia, a mineral-rich country, where the two signed an MOU on cooperation and critical mineral supply. This is seen as a critical strategy to address this supply chain issue. ‘Establishing a stable mineral supply chain is important not only for the two countries but also for the global economy,’ said President Moon. 

Such a step may address Seoul’s concern on the issue of supply chain resilience. However, the interdependence on trade exports to China presents another challenge that constrains its policy. As per the latest Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy November figures, the ICT shipments, which includes Semiconductors, Display exports, mobile phones, and computer and peripheral devices to China, grew 30.4 percent, recording a growth with the amount of 10 billion dollars. Contrast this with the ICT product exports to the U.S, which amount to 2.5 billion dollars, approximately five times less. Still, South Korea is taking certain strategic decisions to align its policy with the U.S. Samsung Electronics announcement to set up a semiconductor fab site in Texas. It is an attempt to diversify the supply chain geographically with ‘like-minded’ countries. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo responding to this announcement said that ‘domestic production of semiconductor chips is critical for our national and economic security.’ This points towards the intersection of geopolitics and geoeconomics in high-tech technology and its interaction with trade.

Democratic Solidarity and National Security

Beijing Winter Olympics 2022 is around the corner, and there has been a series of countries boycotting the Olympics. The U.S. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated this move in response to ‘PRC’s egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang.’ The U.S., a formal ally of South Korea, has been supported by Australia, the U.K., Canada, and Lithuania. However, South Korea has chosen to follow a different path. ‘We are not considering a boycott measure,’ said President Moon while responding on the issue of the Beijing Winter Olympics. This is the usual diplomatic maneuvering practiced by Seoul with its relations with China. The manifestation of Seoul’s balancing diplomacy is seen in its signing of the Open Societies Statement at G7 that focuses on protecting human rights on the one hand and rejecting to sign the G7 summit communique that asks China ‘to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.’  Such trickery gets Seoul some leverage with China, where South Korea gets labeled as ‘rational and sober in the face of US pressure’ by the Chinese Communist Party Mouthpiece Global times. Even South Korean Vice-Foreign Minister Choi Jong-moon said that ‘we are responding with consistency when there are discussions about China in the international community.’ All of this points towards a careful balance position with respect to China.

Nonetheless, these steps are just to avoid any tactical friction with Beijing that could attract undue attention like Australia. South Korea accepting the invitation to the G7 meeting, or D10 (short for Democracy 10) with fellow democracies like India and Australia, shows the strategic alignment it wants to pursue going forward. The formulation of such a group by inviting three Indo-Pacific democracies shows that the G7, which represents the western consensus, intends to create a broader structure with a voice from the region. Such steps are taken keeping in mind the evolving geopolitical equations where the delegation of responsibility to uphold the values that democracies represent to those in the region to a liberal democratic country like South Korea. But how this group takes shape remains to be seen. 

South Korea has played cautiously in the game of Truth and Dare with U.S. Seoul neither wants to accept the U.S. dare on China nor to utter the Truth. This comes with reward as well as punishment. Australia has got the reward with the AUKUS deal by Canberra clarity in calling out Chinese hegemony and malpractices in the region. Australian defense minister Peter Dutton remarks that ‘It would be inconceivable that we[Australia] wouldn’t support the U.S. in an action[U.S led defense of Taiwan] if U.S. chooses to take action.’ This statement got an angry response from the Chinese Foreign Ministry instead of President Moon of South Korea. With the AUKUS deal, Seoul has renewed calls to make Nuclear Submarines as North Korea has already stated its intention to create. In the face of the North acquiring second-strike capability, the South would like to build its technology, but many obstacles remain in this process, mainly from the U.S. Although it seems very unlikely South Korea may operate a nuclear submarine soon, as the U.S. sees that may make the peninsula more hostile, triggering a reaction from North Korea. China also called upon both the parties [North and South Korea] ‘to focus on the overall situation, exercise restraint, commit to safeguarding peace and stability on the peninsula.’ What makes South Korea’s position more difficult is to convince Beijing of the true intentions behind such a move going back on its own words. South Korea assuaged China’s concern while visiting Beijing with its three no’s: ‘no additional THAAD deployment, no participation in the U.S. missile defense network and no establishment of a trilateral military alliance with the U.S. and Japan.’ China fears that any development in the Korean Peninsula that involves the sudden change of status quo will accelerate the ‘security dilemma,’ making it harder to maintain its hegemony with increasing U.S. entrenchment. How South Korea deals with this challenge remains to be seen.  

The Way Forward

As geopolitics and geoeconomics interact and converge in the Indo-Pacific region, South Korea will become more challenging to make enough space for itself to maneuver through the shifting tides. The strategy of comprehensive re-balancing that entails balancing trade and supply chain resilience or the democratic principles and solidarity with its national security will continue through new avenues that were seen earlier only in the footnotes of opinion pieces. As a neighbor of China and an ally of the U.S., Seoul’s tactical choices are limited only if it sees the strategic change through the Cold-war lens. An emerging multipolar world where countries practice issue-based multi-alignment strategies may address this short-term problem. Be it a global challenge like climate change, terrorism, and supply chain. Or at regional scales like national security and sanction enforcement, there exist an opportunity to catch. The evolving ways to navigate these obstacles are not accessible. Still, with good diplomacy and flexible foreign policy that keeps South Korea’s national interest at its core, the ship may pass the tide easily. However, it remains to be seen whether Seoul’s strategic shift may influence its foreign policy and diplomatic behavior, forcing it to pick from one option or just pick one’s way. The big question is whether the U.S. and China’s strategic competition will get strong and prove the old Korean proverb true. That is, ‘When caught in a fight between the Whales, a shrimp gets his back broken.’  

Abhishek Sharma holds a Masters degree in International Relations from South Asian University. He is interested in evolving Geopolitics of East Asia and the Indo-Pacific Region, focusing on India-South Korea relations and Indian Foreign Policy. His research interests also include the intersection of Gender and International Politics, particularly in Environmental Peacebuilding, Nuclear Disarmament, and Feminist Foreign Policy.

Balancing ‘East’ and ‘West’: India’s Cyber Diplomacy

Balancing ‘East’ and ‘West’: India’s Cyber Diplomacy

By – Divyanshu Jindal;

Speaking at an online event, India’s National Cyber Security Coordinator Lt. General Rajesh Pant recently remarked that considering the current geopolitical situation where cyberspace is becoming increasingly bipolar, India needs to decide its position. He emphasised on how the East is looking at solutions to break away from the long-standing frameworks dominated by the West, and how the West itself is now focusing on ‘non-China solutions’ to counter a revisionist China.  In this context, building India’s transformation into a successful stalwart in the global cyberspace governance discourse requires immediate focus. 

However, one of the key emerging concerns for India to achieve such a goal is the widening gap between the West (encompassing states like the US and Europe, and ideologically including Japan, South Korea, and Australia), and the East (Russia, China, Central Asian nations, and developing nations from Africa and Southeast Asia due to growing economic dependence on China). The ‘West’ and ‘East’ demarcations in the realm of cyberspace governance have been broadly created based on the fundamental conceptual differences the model rather than geography. 

Considering recent events, India is still far from reaching a decision on taking sides in the growing bipolarity; on the contrary, India has sought to balance each side as per its national interests. India’s approach at the recently concluded ‘Summit for Democracy’ and the ‘Russia-India-China’ Foreign Minister’s meeting provide insights into the dilemma that India is facing in the cyberspace domain.  

Decoding the ‘Global Cyber Divide’

The discourse on global cyberspace governance is divided between the concepts of ‘cyber security’ and ‘information security’. While the US and the western partners propound free speech and global access to information through freely flowing information across the internet, China and Russia have been at the forefront of advocating ‘information security’, which entails ‘content protection’, beyond that of ‘data protection’. 

Through this approach, China and Russia have pushed for a cyberspace governance model which stresses on ‘ ‘state sovereignty’ in cyberspace. The two have also pushed this paradigm through multilateral mechanisms like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the ‘International Code of Conduct for Information Security’ proposal submitted to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2011 with a revision in 2015. Both proposals did not receive global support due to its emphasis on a multilateral system for Internet governance, rather than a multistakeholder one, as desired by the west. 

As India attained SCO’s full membership only in 2017, and was not a signatory to the proposal, it remained unclear whether India supported the two proposals. 

The emphasis towards establishing the state apparatus as the primary actor in cyber space is  visible in China’s ‘Great Firewall’ which allows the government to control the flow of data in Chinese cyberspace by filtering websites deemed unfit, and the  2016 ‘Yarovaya law’ in Russia which mandated the telephone and internet providers to store all communications data for six months and all metadata for three years. 

While this approach is advocated to secure the national cyberspace from foreign influences and security risks, it has also helped governments to crackdown on online anonymity and suppress criticisms directed at governmental functioning and policies, thus threatening the ‘freedom of speech’ held dear by the democratic West. For its part, India has for long stood against the west-led ‘Budapest Convention’, the sole binding legal agreement on cybercrime coordinated by the Council for Europe. India argues that the convention was formulated without India’s participation. Instead, India voted in favour of the Russia-led UN resolution on cybercrime in 2019, (titled ‘Countering the use of Information and communications technologies for criminal purposes’) which aims at creating a new treaty through which nations can coordinate and share data to prevent cybercrime. Ultimately, however, India’s take on the topic remains delicately nuanced. 

India’s Position

India’s approach has witnessed a gradual transition over the past two decades. 

While India had been a supporter for a multilateral approach with primary role of governments and supporting roles of other actors like private organisations and civil society till 2015, India’s stance after 2015 tilted towards a multi-stakeholder approach which envisions active participation by non-governmental actors and civil society. However, this tilt as well has not been definite and remains unclear in absence of a concrete policy. 

But clues from India’s engagement for cyber cooperation provide an insight into India’s evolving policy. 

India has had a longstanding engagement with the west on cyber security. India has cooperated with the US from way back in 2002, when the two formulated the US-India Cyber Security Forum. A decade later in 2011, both signed a Cybersecurity Agreement for a closer cooperation and timely exchange of information between the cyber security related organization of their respective governments. The agreement aimed at establishing the best practices for exchange of critical cybersecurity information and expertise between the two governments. 

The same year, India met for the first time with the EU, for cyber policy consultation. The mechanism was transformed to a strategic Cyber Dialogue in 2015; India and EU held the sixth version of this dialogue in 2020 and focused on identifying convergences in the diplomatic positions on future negotiations, on an open, free and secure cybersapce. The consultations also emphasised on building bridges between multiple stakeholders in European and Indian cyber diplomacy, by including non-governmental voices in the norm-building process.

Similarly, India has engaged with other nations from the west, like Australia. In 2021, India and Australia held the first Joint Working Group on Cyber Security cooperation and a senior officials’ cyber dialogue. The dialogue built upon the already existing Australia-India Framework Arrangement on Cyber and Cyber-Enabled Critical Technology Cooperation, signed an year before in 2020. 

This highlights India’s focus on establishing cyber security cooperation with the western partners, while reserving room for conceptualising a separate governance approach. 

In recent years, there has been an emphasis on India reaching out to various stakeholders in the global cyberspace governance, ranging from the western governments to the eastern heavyweights. India has also formulated interaction mechanisms with developing countries and tried to find consensus over a universally acceptable cyberspace governance model through multilateral institutions, groupings, and organisations like the United Nations (UN), G20, BRICS, and the SCO.

The Indian government introduced a ‘Data protection bill’  in 2019 for ‘data localisation’– requiring data generated in India to be stored on Indian territory (similar to the Russia’s Yarovaya law). However, in light of displeasure attracted from the west, especially the US (where the major tech and social media giants are based), and from India’s own ICT (Information and Communications Technology) sector as well, the proposal was stayed for more scrutiny and recommendations. The proposed bill is now under review, having been reformed by limiting the scope of requirement of data localisation to ‘sensitive data’, and is expected to make in appearance again in the coming weeks.  

In a further attempt to present India’s leadership role towards a universally acceptable cyberspace governance model, India highlighted the increasingly ambiguous nature of jurisdiction of ICT infrastructure during the UN Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG)discussions in 2020 and proposed a new governance model. This model bases sovereignty on ‘ownership of data’ and advocates that the ownership of data would be that of the person who has created the data and the ‘territorial jurisdiction’ by the country which the owner belongs to, irrespective of the place where the data is stored physically. 

But India’s approach does not exist in silo with the global geopolitical developments.

The joint communique of the 18th meeting of the Foreign Ministers of India, Russia and China convened on 26 November 2021 underlined the consensus among the three sides on the central coordinating role of the UN in forging common understandings area of ICTs and security. The ministers reiterated that a multi-polar and rebalanced world based on sovereign equality of nations and respect for international law which reflects the contemporary realities is required to strenghten and reform the multilateral system.  The three sides also agreed that imposition of unilateral sanctions beyond those adopted by the UNSC were inconsistent with the principles of international law. 

This emphasis on UN centrality sheds light on the growing complexity and divergence in consensus over cyberspace between the ‘east’ and ‘west’.   The west has long used non-UN forums for consensus-building and norm formulation. Budapest Convention which stands as the lone binding treaty in cyberspace till now, stands as a glowing example of this fact.  On the other hand, as states remain the primary actors at multilateral platforms like the UN (thus retaining the power to articulate on the global governance models), the ‘east’ led by China and Russia has sought consensus at already existing platform like the UN instead of new non-UN platforms.  

In 2018, Russia and US had put forth their separate resolutions regarding cyberspace. While Russia tabled ‘Development in the field of Information and telecommunications in the context of International Security’ highlighting the Russo-Sino perspective (opposed by the western partners), the US advocated the ‘Advancing Responsible State Behaviour in Cyberspace in the context of International Security’, encapsulating the western perspective (opposed by some South American and the Middle Eastern countries, besides China-Russia). 

India however, voted for both. 

But a similar approach going ahead seems to be increasingly difficult. On one hand where China is pushing its ‘Digital Silk Road’ and vying to build a consensus among the developing nations towards the ‘information security’ approach (aided by infusion of infrastructural investments), the new US’ administration under Joe Biden is planning to re-strengthen the western approach by a reinvigorated push towards attracting others through it democratic values. The US plans to launch a new ‘Alliance for the Future of the Internet’ in a bid to rally the world’s democracies around the western model of free and open cyberspace. The recently concluded ‘Summit for Democracy’ can be seen as an initial step towards this push. 


At the ‘Summit for Democracy’, Indian Prime Minister stated that there is a need to jointly shape global norms for emerging technologies like social media and crypto currencies, so that they are used to ‘empower’ democracy, and not to undermine it. With the cyber domain now capable of deeply impacting politics, society, and economies of any nation, cyber diplomacy has emerged as an absolute necessity to balance the offensive and defensive capabilities across nations in current global geopolitical landscape. 

With concerns around rising authoritarianism and falling democratic standards (quantified by various reports like the Freedom House Index), it is being argued that the core values of the liberal order like human rights and freedom of expression, are now under stress, giving rise to a post-liberal cyber order which emphasizes on cyber sovereignty and state’s dominant position. 

Ultimately, the eastern order is being led by China and Russia who are vying to establish a consensus among developing nations for the ‘information security’ model.  The western order is being led by US and Europe, who now consider their ‘cyber security’ model as a necessity for democratic credentials of any nation. In a manner similar to its non-aligned approach during the Cold War, India is focused on its strategic autonomy. However, as history stands witness, non-alignment is not a permanent solution, and sooner or later, a decision will have to be made. 

This time, India should be the stalwart and come up with an ‘Indian way’ out of this cyberspace dilemma. Although many steps have already been taken in recent years, the need of the hour remains a determinative step. 

Divyanshu Jindal is a Doctoral Student at OP Jindal Global University, India and a Research Intern at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyse, New Delhi, India. He is a postgraduate in International Relations with a specialization in economics and foreign policy. He has worked at Fidelity Investments as an Associate Systems Engineer after completing B. Tech in Computer Science from SRM University, India. His writings have appeared at The Lowy institute, BRICS Information Portal, The Quint, 9Dashline, Eurasian Review, Modern Diplomacy, The Geopolitics, among other online platforms. His areas of interests include India-Russia relations, India’s foreign policy, cyber diplomacy, and cyber politics. 

(The views expressed in the article are personal)

The India factor in China’s Bhutan Outreach

The India factor in China’s Bhutan Outreach

By – Shivam Shekhawat;

Sandwiched between its two bigger and powerful neighbours, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has historically been important for both India and China. For New Delhi, since the signing of the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1949 and its subsequent revision in 2007, the relationship has been one of  ‘close trust and understanding’ but not without its fair share of hiccups. On the other hand, Bhutan doesn’t formally recognise the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with both sides conducting 24 rounds of talks and 10 Expert group meetings from 1984 till 2016 to resolve their boundary dispute. It is in this background that the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the Foreign Minister of Bhutan, Tandi Dorji and the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, Wu Jiangho —in the presence of their respective Indian Ambassadors —on 14th October 2021 should be viewed. 

A ‘three-step roadmap’, the MoU is aimed at “Expediting the Bhutan-China boundary negotiations”. The framework was charted during the 10th expert group meeting in Kunming in April 2021 and sent to the governments for consideration. It was heralded as a deadlock breaker by the Chinese side and a positive development leading to more “systematic discussions” on the boundary question by Bhutan.  Meanwhile, the spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, India refused to divulge more information or answer whether India had any prior knowledge of its signing but acknowledged that it has ‘noted’ the development. Even though the precise details of what entails this ‘roadmap’ were deemed sensitive and not made public, Wang Se, an expert at the Chinese Ministry of State Security affiliated China Institute of Contemporary International Relations explained how it is loosely based on the framework for India-China border agreements, i.e., after formulating and deciding upon some basic principles on the overall question of boundary demarcation, the two sides will engage in resolving one issue at a time, possibly by exchanging maps, ultimately leading to the delineation of the boundary and the signing of a final border agreement. 

Strategic calculus along the Bhutan-China border

The over 400 sq. km border which Bhutan shares with China is fraught with contesting claims from the Chinese side. There are two separate areas of dispute- Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe in West Bhutan near the border with India and Jakarlung and Pasamlung near Tibet. In 2020, China made an additional claim to the Sakteng region in eastern Bhutan, a region which according to Bhutan has always been under its administration. For India, the disputed territories between its two neighbours, especially in the West, are of grave security importance because of their strategic location at the tri-junction between the three countries. China considers Mount Gymochen as the triboundary point, which is a ‘strategic redline’ for New Delhi, descending further into the vital but vulnerable Siliguri corridor. China’s claims and actions on Bhutanese territory then must be viewed within the overall dynamics of the Sino-Indian relationship and the incremental steps that it is taking to get a strategic advantage in India’s neighbourhood. 

After the first round of talks between Bhutan and China began in 1984, Beijing offered a ‘package deal’ in 1990, proposing to abdicate its claims from regions in the north to get control of the strategically important region of Doklam. This manoeuvre was directed at getting an advantage over India, as control over the region would have given it an increased advantage over the chicken neck i.e., the Siliguri corridor, India’s gateway to the Northeast. After Bhutan rejected the offer because of security concerns, the two sides decided to sign a temporary truce in 1998, agreeing to uphold the status quo till a final boundary is finalised. But talks came to a halt after 2016 when news of the People’s Liberation Army(PLA) constructing a road near Doklam led to India’s military involvement in the region. India considered it a security threat and intervened on Bhutan’s behalf. The resulting standoff continued for 73 days before an agreement could finally be reached.

The Importance of Timing

For some time now China has been following a policy of populating the frontier and creating Xiakong (moderately prosperous) villages to increase the physical quality of life and also improve border security. The presence of its own people along the frontier increases the leverage that it has in border negotiations. After the Doklam crisis tapered off, the PRC continued its encroachment on Bhutanese territory, constructing villages and building other military infrastructure. 

In November 2020, a Chinese journalist tweeted pictures of a village named Pangda, 35 km inside the Yadong county which is part of the Tibet Autonomous Region. After speculation became rife of its exact location, a US-based satellite imagery company showed its precise location as being near the trijunction at Doklam. Even though this was corroborated by other sources, the Bhutanese ambassador to India outrightly denied its presence. As the village lies close to the Doklam area, India saw the construction as a part of China’s overall strategy of encircling the small nation and creating a rift between the two long-term allies. The de-facto control that China has tacitly exerted on territories under dispute, disregarding the bilateral agreements has even led some experts to term the MoU a fait accompli, aiding Beijing in a timely dressing up of its aggressive and unilateral actions under the garb of diplomacy but making no efforts at resolving the boundary dispute.

Amidst these considerations, Bhutan’s denial of any construction inside its territory worried New Delhi about a possible tilt towards the PRC. In the absence of diplomatic relations between the PRC and Bhutan, India’s role has been indispensable in the border negotiations. But the signing of the MoU and the possibility of both sides establishing formal diplomatic relations is of concern for New Delhi. Even though India and Bhutan have enjoyed a stable relationship, there have been occasional issues of concern such as claims of Delhi’s growing interference and the discontent of the local population towards India’s big brother attitude especially after the petroleum subsidies to Thimpu were discontinued in 2013, possibly because of its warm-up to the PRC. 

With the coming of the Modi government and the espousal of its Neighbourhood First policy-coupled with the Act East Policy (AEP)–  Bhutan has been regarded as one of India’s topmost priorities. Under its Vaccine Maitri scheme, India supplied 1,50,000 vaccines to its neighbour, reiterating the importance it accrues to this all-weather friendship. Both nations also cooperated in the field of financial technology, with the introduction of the RuPay card and efforts to increase connectivity for the speedy delivery of training and other essentials by inaugurating a trading route between India’s Jaigaon and Bhutan’s Ahllay in July 2020. Concurrently, China too focused on Bhutan via its Health Silk Road, an offshoot of the Belt and Road Initiative to increase its footprint in the region and project itself as a global public health leader, working towards increasing cooperation and solidarity in the fight against the virus.

The signing of the MoU also followed the failure of the thirteenth round of talks between India and China, which ended on 12 October to resolve the dispute at their border. In March 2020 the PLA amassed troops in eastern Ladakh, subsequently leading up to the clash in Galwan Valley which killed 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers. The relationship between the two countries has been tense ever since with both sides occupied in protracted negotiations to disengage from the regions. The news at the beginning of 2021 about the presence of Chinese villages in Long and areas to its east has also exacerbated the situation further. The disengagement was successful in Pangong Tso in February 2021 and Gogra in Patrolling Point 15 in August 2021 but has been difficult in the Hot Springs, which was the subject of the latest talks. The Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar as well as the Army Chief General M.M.  Narvanne, for long keeping the dispute at the border and the bilateral relations in separate silos, stated how bilateral relations can no longer turn normal until China decides to undo the unilateral decisions that it has taken in eastern Ladakh and commits to successfully disengage from the contested points.  The Chinese instead blame India’s demands for the failure of the talks and for the continued stagnation in resolving the dispute. 

Construction of a benign narrative 

In August 2013, Xi Jinping reiterated the need for China to communicate well with the world and ‘strengthen our discourse power internationally’. In keeping with this, the Chinese state media and officials have depicted the signing of the MoU as a strong answer to India’s interference in the internal politics of Bhutan and its efforts at coercively establishing its hegemony in the region. Exhorting China for its ‘constructive neighbourhood policy’, the state media blames New Delhi for preventing Bhutan from exercising its agency. The agreement was also touted as a failure of the Modi dispensation’s Neighbourhood First Policy in the face of ‘respectful, bilateral diplomacy’. Aimed at debunking the imaginary and inaccurate fear of the threat from a rising China which India artificially created to legitimise its role in the Indo-Pacific, the PRC wanted to resume the talks which have been under stagnation since 2017, albeit without Indian interference. It is this narrative that China takes advantage of, with reports in the Chinese state media of India being the thorn that is preventing the demarcation of a legitimate boundary between two ‘friends’ (China and Bhutan) underscoring the Chinese tactic of representing India as the unreasonable power making it difficult to establish peace in the region. 

China has been aggressively repositioning itself in the region. With continued encroachments in Nepal and its burgeoning relationship with Pakistan, India is facing a difficult situation in the neighbourhood. Beijing’s renewed claim on the Tawang area and the brawl at Naku La in January 2021 further aggravated the situation. Bhutan is the only country in the region where China has not been able to make direct headway. In a conversation with the Institute of Chinese Studies, Vijay K. Nambiar, India’s former Ambassador to China argued how the MoU is aimed at coaxing Bhutan for a definitive response. In the background of the intransigence it has shown in the border dispute with India, the MoU can be seen as a preventive tool to rein in Bhutan and dissuade it from taking any action which could aggravate the situation further. 

There is a general tendency in the PRC to view Bhutan’s foreign policy decision making as a function of India’s influence and dominance. This aspect, as mentioned above was evident in the pains it took to paint the MoU as a defeat for India. China’s encroachment in Bhutan poses a security threat to India and as its neighbour and friend, India would also want the speedy resolution of the dispute but not at the cost of Beijing forcefully appropriating strategically important locations. It is to be seen what path the negotiations will take based on this new framework and the bearing it would have on the ongoing border dispute with India.

Shivam Shekhawat is a recent graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science where she was a Commonwealth Scholar. She is interested in studying India’s neighborhood, particularly India’s relationship with China and its response to the situation in Afghanistan and Myanmar. Her interests also lie in analyzing contemporary conflicts through a historical lens and the factors which affect a country’s response to humanitarian crises.