China is upset. A day after US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and his colleague, defence secretary Mark Esper met Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and defence minister Rajnath Singh in New Delhi for the 2+2 ministerial dialogue, the Chinese embassy in India issued a "solemn statement" against Pompeo and Esper for "for openly attacking China and the Communist Party of China" during their visit.
Beijing deserves full credit for catalyzing, speeding up and intensifying the India-US strategic and defence partnership and inadvertently pushing both nations in holding the third edition of 2+2 talks in two years.
However, Indian ministers have refrained from naming China and have kept their references to Chinese aggression veiled in diplomatese. The joint statement, for instance, reflected the depth and breadth of cooperation and collaboration between the two sides but skipped mentioning China's name. This doesn't point to a disconnect or suggests India has been found wanting in action or policy, but New Delhi continues to be circumspect in openly criticising China or the CCP.
India, which shares a long border with China and is committed to solving its issues bilaterally, has its own reasons but Washington under the Donald Trump administration sees little reason in pretending that China is the elephant in the room.
As he did at the recent Quad platform in Tokyo, Pompeo launched a scathing attack against China during his opening remarks at the 2+2 dialogue, and then later at the press briefing on Tuesday. "This morning, we visited the National War Memorial to honor the brave men and women of the Indian Armed Forces who have sacrificed for the world's largest democracy, including 20 that were killed by the PLA forces in the Galwan Valley in June. The United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their sovereignty and to their liberty."
The reference to Galwan, calling the CCP "no friend to democracy", announcing that "the challenge of defeating the pandemic that came from Wuhan also fed into our robust discussions about the Chinese Communist Party" and the statement that "the United States and India are taking steps to strengthen our cooperation against all manner of threats and not just those posed by the Chinese Communist Party," must have riled Beijing that anyway suffers from a condition of fragile sensitivities.
Pompeo may or may not have had India's tacit approval in launching the broadside, but the attack provoked China sufficiently to issue a statement where it attempted to sound injured, victimised and sought to differentiate between both sides. In its letter, China did not attack India. Instead, it stressed the bilateral framework in settling the border dispute betraying a sense of unease with the way the closeness in India-US strategic and defence cooperation is being reflected across all domains.
To China, the evolving of India-US is a matter of great concern. It is a subject of intense internal debates as China notes India's increasing alignment with US strategic objectives and deliberates on how a "festering border dispute" has become a "source of resentment that makes India an ideal partner for an American containment strategy towards China".
China would have also noted Esper mentioning during the press briefing that the US plans to sell more fighter planes and armed drones to India right after the announcement that both sides have signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) that completes the three foundational pacts (after LEMOA and COMCASA) for greater military cooperation.
BECA is expected to give India access to a range of geospatial, topographical, nautical and aeronautical data that is considered vital for targeting of missiles and armed drones.
It is hardly a coincidence that on the day Chinese embassy issued a missive, State-sponsored Global Times 'advised' India that by abandoning its "traditional diplomatic principles of non-alignment and moving closer to the US", a choice it described as "unwise", "India's status in the eyes of developing countries" has apparently "greatly diminished and its strategic focus of a traditional geopolitical power gradually lost."
Apart from betraying its geostrategic concern over the trajectory of India-US ties, the Chinese embassy letter is a litany of half-truths, outright lies and a curious effort at misfiring propaganda. For instance, China slammed US meddling in Sino-Indian bilateral affairs, oblivious of the fact that it has been obsessing over India-US bilateral ties and its wolf warrior envoys are busy lecturing host nations on their foreign policy choices. In some cases, China interferes into the domestic politics of nations to ensure favourable outcomes.
In Nepal, for instance, the Chinese ambassador "spent three months playing peacemaker to feuding members of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP)" to ensure the survival of pro-Beijing prime minister KP Sharma Oli, under whose tenure Nepal has turned increasingly hostile towards India.
China's asserts that it "has been advocating that the development of bilateral relations between countries should be conducive to regional peace, stability and development, and not infringe upon the legitimate rights and interests of a third party."
The chutzpah is stunning. China claims almost the entire South China Sea, has maritime and territorial disputes with 17 nations on land and sea, is engaged in a "long-term campaign of bullying, intimidation and paramilitary violence against Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines", "flouts international law at the expense of the rights of Southeast Asian nations" throwing a "serious challenge to the international maritime order and regional stability" and then lectures nations on respecting rights and interests of a third party.
Since March 2020 and the spread of the pandemic " as Kurt M Campbell of The Asia Group and Mira Rapp-Hooper, Stephen A Schwarzman senior fellow for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, write in Foreign Affairs " "China has stepped up its patrols near the Diaoyu Islands (known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands) in the East China Sea and doubled down on its maritime claims in the South China Sea, sending vessels to linger off the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. It has conducted aerial reconnaissance near Taiwan, effectively ended Hong Kong's semiautonomous status and ginned up a new border dispute with Bhutan."
China's "unswerving commitment to peaceful development" and "friendly cooperation with neighbors" can be gauged from the fact that it sought to unilaterally redraw the LAC in line with its 1959 claim line in utter disregard for India's territorial integrity and past border agreements and protocols, and on 15 June launched a murderous attack on Indian soldiers that resulted in 20 deaths on Indian side and an unspecified number on its own.
As far as "mutual respect" is concerned, India's gesture of respecting One China policy remains not only unreciprocated by Beijing, China has sought to undermine Indian sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir, backed terror-sponsoring Pakistan, and used Islamabad as a client State to trample New Delhi's regional interests.
As geostrategist Brahma Chellaney writes: "The plain fact is that, for China, Pakistan is not just a client State, but a valued instrument to help contain India. So, is it any surprise that since the April 2018 Wuhan summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing has actually stepped up its use of Pakistan as an India-containment tool, including by accelerating the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and playing the Kashmir card against New Delhi?"
It is mildly amusing to see China accuse the US of bullying. There is, in fact, mounting evidence that China is ready to accept wholesale damage to its image while pursuing a muscular and assertive foreign policy. It hounded Australian journalists out of the country, kidnapped two Canadian citizens in 2018 and kept them imprisoned " without lawyer or consular access " and without any charges till June when they were finally accused of espionage by a Chinese court that is fully controlled by the Communist Party. Their arrests came within a few days of Canada detaining Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at the extradition request of the US.
Chinese ambassador to Canada in an op-ed in a Canadian newspaper wrote: "Those who accuse China of detaining some person in retaliation for the arrest of Ms Meng should first reflect on the actions of the Canadian side," leaving no space for doubt that this indeed was a case of hostage diplomacy.
China has warned the US it may detain US nationals in China in response to justice department's prosecution of Chinese military-affiliated scholars. As Axios notes, "This marks a potential evolution of China's 'wolf warrior diplomacy' to outright rogue state behaviour, putting it in the company of countries like North Korea and Iran, which have also engaged in hostage diplomacy."
In its protest letter, China says it "always upheld multilateralism and remained committed to maintaining an international system with the United Nations at its core and an international order based on international law."
Here, we should take China at its word. Beijing doesn't want to upset an international system that has worked so effectively in its favour. In fact, through long-term, careful planning it has been slowly extending its influence over the US-led multilateral administrative framework, taking over the institutions one by one and gradually shaping them in its image.
As Wall Street Journal writes, "Beijing is pushing its civil servants, or those of clients and partners, to the helm of UN institutions that set global standards for air travel, telecommunications and agriculture. Gaining influence at the UN permits China to stifle international scrutiny of its behavior at home and abroad. In March, Beijing won a seat on a five-member panel that selects UN rapporteurs on human-rights abuses " officials who used to target Beijing for imprisoning more than a million Uighurs at so-called re-education camps in Xinjiang."
China backs authoritarian regimes, encourages corrupt practices in exchange for their support in United Nations and its specialised agencies. For instance, "prior to the election of the ninth director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2019, China slashed $78 million in debt owed by the Cameroonian government whose nominated candidate coincidentally withdrew his bid afterward," points out The Diplomat.
We should therefore take China seriously when it says that it doesn't want to create a new order. As former Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale writes in The New York Times, "Why would China go to the trouble of capsizing the global order when it can simply take it over, whole and intact? After all, China is the biggest beneficiary of globalisation. It has systematically used Western-led multilateral institutions, such as the World Trade Organisation, to advance its interests and influence."
China's 'protest letter' in effect, is a propaganda effort that seeks to shift the causal relationship between its disruptive behaviour and global backlash to a narrative where it is the perpetual victim, wronged and misunderstood. It fools no one.