Asia in Review Archive 2021 (May-August)

China (People’s Republic)

Date of AiR edition

News summary

8 June 2021

Cambodia and Switzerland cooperate on Mekong Region Cooperation Programme

(ad) Last week, the Cambodian-Swiss Governmental Consultation was organized to oversee the Swiss Mekong Region Cooperation Programme 2022-2025, where representatives from Cambodia and Switzerland met to discuss progress on preserving the Mekong River.

The discussion was predominantly focused on governance and economic development. They also exchanged inputs on climate change impacts and better natural resource management. The Swiss government is set to grant $13 million per year between 2022 and 2025. Since 2002, Swiss government has given grants worth $142 million to Cambodia for its development. [Agence Kampuchea Presse]

8 June 2021

US Deputy of State visits Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, amidst Chinese push

(pr/ad/lm) United States Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman last week concluded an 11-day diplomatic tour that included stopovers in Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand, signaling that Washington is finally turning its diplomatic focus to Southeast Asia to counter a rising Chinese clout in the region. [Nikkei Asia] [The Diplomat] [U.S. Department of State]

Sherman was the first senior State Department official in the administration of US President Biden to visit member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Both sides were scheduled to hold their first foreign ministers’ encounter via videoconference on May 25. But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was touring the Middle East at the time, canceled over technical difficulties after keeping his counterparts waiting. Many ASEAN officials viewed the technical glitch as a political slight, a sign Washington had not invested sufficient effort in planning for the meeting and was once again putting off the pivot to Asia by prioritizing other regions in the world—in this case, the Middle East. [Foreign Policy]

Against this backdrop, commencing her three-nation tour, Sherman visited Indonesia on May 31 for talks with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. While in Jakarta, the US top diplomat also met with officials from the ASEAN Secretariat and the ASEAN Committee of Permanent Representatives to discuss expanding and deepening the US-ASEAN strategic partnership. 

On June 1, then, Sherman travelled to Cambodia where she promised Prime Minister Hun Sen $11 million in COVID-19 aid. There were also discussions on future opportunities in the oil and gas sector for bilateral cooperation and investment in water and green energy. Another key topic was Cambodia’s debt settlement to the US. Prime Minister Hun Sen proposed a gradual repayment scheme as well as converting 70 percent of the debt into aid towards education and mine removal throughout Cambodia. [Agence Kampuchea Presse]

Importantly, Sherman’s visit – the first by a US official of her rank or above in years – came against the larger backdrop of concerns by Washington about rapid construction of two buildings at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, just north of where United States-funded facilities were demolished by Phnom Penh last year. [see article in this edition]

On June 2, then, Sherman met with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha in Bangkok, where she announced $30 million in coronavirus assistance to Thailand. The two also exchanged opinions on the situation in neighboring Myanmar, with Sherman saying she believed Bangkok and the ASEAN are taking constructive approaches to achieve peaceful solutions. [Thai News Agency]

8 June 2021

United States flags ‘serious concerns’ over Cambodia’s China-backed navy base

(lm) In a meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on June 1, United States Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman expressed concerns about the presence of the Chinese military in the Southeast Asian nation, urging Cambodia’s leadership to “maintain an independent and balanced foreign policy”. [Reuters]

Sherman’s visit – the first by a senior US official to Phnom Penh in years – coincided with a column from Cambodia’s state-owned news agency highlighted on social media by Prime Minister Hun Sen. Indicating a desire by Phnom Penh to shift out of the shadow of Chinese patronage and pursue a closer relationship with Washington, it said it was “time for the US and Cambodia, in China’s shadow, to reset ties”. [The Sydney Morning Herald]

During the meeting, Sherman specifically sought clarification about rapid construction of two buildings at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, just north of where United States-funded facilities were demolished by Phnom Penh last year. At the time, Cambodia said it had razed the building to allow for further expansion and would relocate the demolished facility, denying reports of Chinese involvement [see No. 45, November/2020, 2].

Ream faces the Gulf of Thailand that lies adjacent to the South China Sea, where China has aggressively asserted its claim to virtually the entire strategic waterway. Washington has refused to recognize Beijing’s sweeping claims, and the Navy’s 7th Fleet routinely sails past Chinese-held islands in what it terms freedom of navigation operations.

After the meeting, Cambodia authorized the visit of US military attaches to the naval base, as requested by Sherman. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who agreed to the visit, also suggested that the officials should be accompanied by journalists to clear the doubt of alleged government plans for hosting Chinese military assets and personnel. [Khmer Times]

The inspection may also provide an opportunity for Cambodia to verify that the Ream Naval Base maintains its neutrality, if it wants to benefit from US assistance under a $2.3 trillion COVID-19 stimulus relief and omnibus spending bill, which then US President Donald Trump signed into law last December. [AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5].

However, the US embassy in Phnom Penh has not confirmed when its officials would visit the naval base.

On June 2, then, Cambodia’s Defense Minister Tea Banh said that his country had reached out to China to request help with modernizing and expanding Ream Naval Base, adding that China would not be the only country given access to the facility. [Channel NewsAsia]

 

8 June 2021

Pakistan seeks closer ties with China, Afghanistan to promote peace

(ra) Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi expressed his desire for increased cooperation with Afghanistan and China in order to achieve stability in Afghanistan and the region. Qureshi raised this during a meeting held as part of the fourth iteration of the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan foreign ministers’ dialogue mechanism. [Dawn]

The forum was formed four years ago and has since emerged as the primary channel for Beijing to advance strategic dialogue, counter-terrorism security consultations, and cooperation dialogues among the three sides. The latest session was also attended by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the Foreign Minister of Afghanistan, Muhammad Haneef Atmar.

The meeting comes against the backdrop of US President Joe Biden’s announcement to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and Beijing’s offer to host peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The latter is widely seen as an attempt of China to put itself in a more active role in the region to prevent that the US withdrawal will lead to chaos in the country and the creation of a sanctuary for Islamist militants bordering to Xinjiang. [VoA] [The New Humanitarian] [The Print]

For a comprehensive analysis of China’s views on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, please consider Yun Sun’s commentary on [War on The Rocks].

8 June 2021

China hosts ASEAN foreign ministers 

(dql) As part of the 30th anniversary of the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations, China hosted this week a special China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Chongqing.

High on the agenda was the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, with Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia expressing disappointment over Myanmar failure to keep the “five-point consensus” agreed by ASEAN leaders at a special summit in April with de-facto leader Min Aung Hlaing.

Other issues discussed during the meeting included the reopening of borders, even as several South-east Asian nations deal with a surge in Covid-19 infections, and the tensions in the South China Sea. [Straits Times]

With reference to the South China Sea, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged to “reach the COC at an early date,” and reassured that China stands ready “to work with directly concerned parties of the South China Sea to increase dialogue and consultation, properly manage differences, and continuously enhance mutual trust.” According to the readout of the meeting released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Foreign ministers of ASEAN countries attributed peace in the region to “important and fruitful relations,” between China and ASEAN, and suggested to “maintain the momentum of COC consultations, and jointly maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.” [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China]

 

8 June 2021

China-Indonesia relations: Joint Covid-19 vaccine production plan 

(dql) During a meeting on Saturday with the Indonesian president’s special envoy Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that Beijing plans to jointly produce Covid-19 vaccines with Jakarta, as part of a deepened Covid-19 cooperation between the two countries. The announcement comes as Indonesia seeks to step up its vaccination drive after a slow roll-out. 

The bulk of Indonesia’s 92.2 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines has so far come from China, while Indonesia was the first country outside China to authorize the Sinovac jab. 

During their meeting, Wang and Luhut also vowed to strengthen their cooperation on Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, in particular getting the Jakarta-Bandung high speed rail completed on schedule. [South China Morning Post]

For a discussion of the latest developments of Indonesia “quietly warming up to China”, see Derek Grossman in [Foreign Policy] who argues that the US “will have to live with significantly improved Chinese-Indonesian ties since the Natuna Sea standoff,” complicating Washington’s efforts to counter Beijing in the Indo-Pacific.

8 June 2021

China-Russia relations: Sharp anti-US rhetoric in phone call between foreign ministers

(dql) During a phone conversation with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on both countries to close ranks to fend off “perverse” US actions, including “form[ing] small groups under the guise of democracy, us[ing] human rights as an excuse to interfere in countries’ domestic politics, and exercise[ing] unilateralism under the banner of multilateralism.” Lavrov, for his part, reassured Russia’s commitment to “close strategic coordination with China on international and regional issues,” while “firmly support[ing] each other on issues concerning their core interests,” and “resolutely oppos[ing] hegemonism.” [South China Morning Post] [CCTV]

The exchange between Wang and Lavrov comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled visit the US later his month for difficult talks with US President Joe Biden amid frosty US-Russian relations.

For a discussion on the current status of the China-Russia-US triangle, see in Vu Le Thai Hoang and Huy Nguyen [The Diplomat] who argue that “[s]hould countries in the triangle manage to compete with restraint, to clash while accepting each other’s legitimate interests, and to fight for influence yet also facilitating cooperation for the common good, a new concert of powers might be in the works.”

8 June 2021

Chinese illegal fishing in Argentina’s waters

(dql) According to recent findings of Oceana, a Washington, DC.-based nonprofit ocean conservation organization, hundreds of boats have hidden their movements close to Argentinian waters in the past three years, raising speculations over illegal fishing in one of the world’s most lucrative fishing grounds.

About 800 vessels, more than half of them Chinese, logged almost 900.000 hours of visible fishing activity via the Automatic Identification System (AIS) within 20 nautical miles of Argentina’s waters between January 2018 and April 2021.  Over half of those boats “went dark” more than 6,200 times when their AIS was turned off for at least 24 hours. [Republic World]

 

8 June 2021

China-Canada relations: Trudeau calls on global community to press Beijing over human rights at Olympic games

(dql) Amid already frosty relations between China and Canada, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called on the global community to come together and use the 2022 Olympics in Beijing as occasion to address human rights abuses China is accused of. [Reuters]

A harder stance was suggested by Canada’s largest opposition party which urged Trudeau to call for the 2022 Winter Olympics to be moved from Beijing at the G7 Summit this week. [CTV News]]

Meanwhile, a group of politicians, spanning 11 countries and parliaments from countries across Europe and North America launched coordinated legislative actions, calling for a diplomatic boycott of the games on grounds of “gross violations of human rights” by the Chinese government and aiming to mount pressure on governments, elected officials and heads of state to decline Beijing’s invitation to the games. [South China Morning Post]

8 June 2021

US vows to tackle “unhealthy parts” of trade relationship with China

(dql) US Trade Representative Katherine Tai expressed her dissatisfaction with the current US-China trade relationship, citing ‘unhealthy parts’ of it, which “have over time been damaging in some very important ways to the US economy,” adding that the US is committed to “bring balance back to the US-China trade relationship,” in terms of performance, opportunity and openness of both countries’ markets to each other. [South China Morning Post]

Her remark comes shortly after China’s Vice Premier Liu He and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen spoke for the first time since President Joe Biden took office, with both confirming to have “frankly” discussed issues of concern. Neither side, however, disclosed further details on the conversation. [CNBC]

In a latest development, Biden administration announced to set up a new “strike force” to combat China’s unfair trade practices and strengthen US supply chains. Led by the US trade representative, the “supply chain trade strike force” will identify specific violations that have contributed to a “hollowing out” of supply chains that could be addressed with trade remedies. Furthermore, the Department of Commerce is reportedly considering launching an investigation into the national security impact of neodymium magnet imports used in motors and other industrial applications, which the US largely sources from China. [Reuters]

8 June 2021

China’s dominance in rare earths to be broken, think tanks says

(dql) According to a report of the London-based think tank Overseas Development Institute (ODI) China’s dominance in the rare earths sector “is likely to erode in the near term,” due to efforts in “the US and the European Union to expand their processing capacity and reduce their rare earth elements reliance on China,” which could lead to an intensified competition for access to the resources. 

China presently dominates the extraction and processing of rare earths, holding world’s largest share of rare earth element (36.7%), and a national production quota of 140,000 tons marking nearly 60% of the global production in 2020, way ahead of next two largest producers in the US (15.8%) and Myanmar (12.5%). [ODI] [South China Morning Post]

For insights into recent US efforts to strengthen its rare earths supply, reflected in Presidential Executive Orders in late 2017 and in late 2020, see Ariel Cohen in [Forbes], who argues that in order to make up leeway on China “American policy makers must treat the security of rare earth supply chains in the same way that we once treated our crude oil and natural gas imports in the pre-shale era: a matter of vital national security.”

8 June 2021

China: Uyghur “people’s tribunal” set to investigate allegations of genocide, rights abuses

(dql) A “people’s tribunal” established to assess whether China’s alleged rights abuses against the Uyghur people constitute genocide has opened in London, with witnesses claiming inmates at detention camps are routinely exposed to humiliation, torture and abuse. 

Consisting of lawyers, academics and businesspeople, the tribunal lacks the backing of the UK government backing and does not have powers to sanction or punish China. Organizers, however, believe that laying out evidence publicly will lead to international action against the human rights abuses against the Uyghurs China is accused of. [ABC News]

8 June 2021

China: 40 million in digital currency handed out to Beijing residents as part of trials

(dx) China will hand out 40 million renminbi (RMB) of its digital currency to citizens in Beijing in a lottery. Citizens can use two banking apps to win one of 200,000 so-called red packets containing 200 yuan each. China has been developing digital currency since 2014 but has yet to do a national rollout. The trials in the form of lotteries were conducted in different cities around the country, such as Shenzhen last year and Chengdu in February 2021. [CNBC]

For a brief overview of the Chinese government’s steps to introduce the digital yuan since 2014, see Karen Yeung and Andrew Mullen in [South China Morning Post]. 

Meanwhile, US lawmakers seeing China’s digital currency as a long-term attempt to challenge US dollar as the world’s dominant reserve currency, have introduced in the House of Representatives the 21st Century Dollar Act which aims to enshrine the dollar as the “primary global reserve currency,” and would require within six months a report of the Treasury on efforts to develop a digital US dollar. [Barron’s].

8 June 2021

China: Human rights activist barred from leaving China to attend sick daughter

(dx) Tang Jitian, a prominent human rights activist, was barred from leaving China to take care of his daughter, who is ill with tuberculosis meningitis in a Japanese hospital. Law enforcement authorities cited national security concerns as reason. 

Tang worked as a human rights lawyer and represented vulnerable and persecuted clients before he was permanently disbarred in 2010. [South China Morning Post]

8 June 2021

China: Hongkongers arrested for commemorating the Tiananmen crackdown

(dx) Though police banned the annual mass gathering “Tiananmen Vigil” at Victoria Park citing Covid-19 restrictions, Hongkongers still staged small protests by lighting candles or flashing their mobile phones on June 4th, groups of black-clad demonstrators also shouted pro-independence slogans.

According to the police, as of 10 p.m., at least 6 people were arrested on suspicion of inciting others to participate in an unauthorised assembly, ordinary assault, disorderly conduct in a public place and obstruction of police, the force said. Twelve people were fined for flouting the coronavirus-related ban on public gatherings of more than four people. [South China Morning Post 1] [South China Morning Post 2]

In a related case, Chow Hang-tung, vice-chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China and a food delivery person were arrested for allegedly promoting the “Tiananmen Vigil” on social media. [Hong Kong Free Press

 

8 June 2021

China: High-level leading group steers toward carbon-neutral goal

(dx) China has set up a high-level leading group on tackling peak emissions and carbon neutrality, underscoring Beijing’s determination on climate issues. The first plenary meeting was held on May 26th and was chaired by Han Zheng, China’s first vice-premier and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee. Though the members of the leading group haven’t been announced, Xi Jinping’s trusted aides and at least 17 ministry chiefs attended the meeting, suggesting the top leadership’s seriousness about achieving the goals “carbon neutrality by 2060 ” and their hopes of coordinating central and regional policies as well as addressing international concerns. [State Council, China, in Chinese] [South China Morning Post]

In September 2020, Xi announced at the UN General Assembly in New York that China will aim to hit peak emissions before 2030 and for carbon neutrality by 2060. [BBC]

1 June 2021

Myanmar: Tribunal orders 20-year jail term for torching Chinese-financed factories

(lf) A military tribunal has sentenced 28 people to 20 years in jail with hard labour for torching two factories during unrest in the city of Yangon in March. During the unrest in the city’s suburb area, a total of 32 Chinese-invested factories were vandalised, with property losses reaching $36.9 million. [Reuters]

1 June 2021

Sri Lanka: Lankans express fears of Chinese cultural hegemony, as mandarin replaces Tamil on sign boards

(lm) Sri Lankans have begun expressing fears of China silently imposing its cultural hegemony on the island nation, after two back-to-back incidents in which Mandarin replaced Tamil on signs related to government projects. [Swarajya]

Sri Lanka’s Attorney General’s Department on Saturday removed a plaque at a recently opened library on its premises following a social media uproar over the omission of Tamil, an official language, while including Mandarin in the text. The incident came a week after a Sri Lankan lawmaker shared on Twitter an image a sign board of the “Central Park” project coming up at the China-backed Colombo Port City, with text in Sinhala, English and Mandarin. [The Hindu]

1 June 2021

Philippines increases protests, patrols against China’s presence in the South China Sea

(lp) During President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, the Philippines has already lodged one hundred diplomatic protests against China for the latter’s repeated, continuous incursion into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea. Despite their numbers, these protests have hardly kept Chinese vessels in line. On the other hand, the Philippines has recently boosted patrols in the area, thereby, at least, increasing the country’s monitoring capacity. [The Star] [South China Morning Post]

Despite these protests and patrols, the income of Filipino fisherfolks has dramatically plummeted due to, at least partially, the continued presence of Chinese vessels in fishing grounds in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Senator Risa Hontiveros warned that amendments to the Public Service Act (PSA), which would permit complete foreign ownership of public utilities, could facilitate China’s control over critical infrastructure in the Philippines. [Manila Bulletin] [ABS-CBN]

1 June 2021

China is gradually invading Bhutanese territory to gain military advantage over India, says report

(lm) A new report, published by Foreign Policy, has claimed that China has built a village eight kilometers within territory belonging to its Himalayan neighbor, Bhutan, as part of its move to expand and develop its infrastructure in the border regions of Tibet.

The new village is located in Bhutan’s northern district of Lhuntse but has been marked as being part of Lhodrak in the Tibetan Administrative Region (TAR) by China. The report says that Beijing has been gradually and stealthily seizing chunks of lands from Bhutan for years, following a 2017 drive flagged off by Chinese President Xi Jinping to fortify the Tibetan borderlands. Thus, the researchers argue that China is following the same piecemeal, step-by-step approach in Bhutan it previously used in the South China Sea, that is, shifting the status quo without triggering a major conflict with its neighbors or the United States. [Foreign Policy]

China reportedly claims roughly 12 percent of Bhutan’s territory – four areas in the west of Bhutan, three in the north, and one in the east – with no mutual understanding between the two nations on what constitutes the border. In July of last year Beijing for the first time publicly put on record that is has a border dispute with Bhutan over the country`s eastern sector, and – in a tangential reference to India – said that “a third party should not point fingers” in the Sino-Bhutan border dispute [see AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2]. During a four-day meeting of experts between China and Bhutan this April, then, the two sides agreed to resume long-delayed talks on their disputed boundary [see AiR No. 16, April/2021, 3].

Importantly, the report suggests does not actually need the land it is settling in Bhutan but rather is planning to use it as a security to force the Bhutanese government to cede other territory that may give it a military advantage in its struggle with India. [Bloomberg] [The EurAsian Times]

For China has tried building roads into Bhutan before—but mainly in its western areas and with limited success. In 2017, China’s attempt to build a road across the Doklam plateau in southwestern Bhutan, next to the trijunction with India, resulted in a 73-day military standoff between India and China. Consequently, China had to put its road construction through Doklam on hold. Back then, New Delhi – which has historically close ties and considerable influence over Bhutan – supported Thimphu’s claims, in part because the area is close to the Siliguri corridor, a narrow stretch of land also known as the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ that connects India’s north-east with the mainland. [The Week]

In November of last year, then, an Indian media outlet reported that Beijing had set up a village more than two kilometers within Bhutanese territory and built a road in the same area. China denied the claim, but it is possible, as some analysts have speculated, that Bhutan had quietly ceded that territory to China but not announced it to the outside world. [AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]

It is also possible that Beijing wants to use the territory as leverage to pressure Bhutan to open full relations with China, which would allow Beijing to have a diplomatic presence in Thimphu. This would offset India’s influence in Bhutan, an aim that China has largely achieved in Nepal.

 

1 June 2021

China-India border dispute: As snow thaws, could conflict reignite?

(ad/lm) As the snow melts in the Himalayan heights, analysts and military officials warn that the warmer weather could lead to renewed conflict between India and China, as both sides have resumed patrols into forward areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), while also strengthening logistics and adding infrastructure along the de facto border. [South China Morning Post]

After several rounds of talks, both sides in February began withdrawing troops and artillery from their positions on the southern and northern banks of Pangong Lake. But China has shown no inclination to withdraw from the other newly occupied areas from Hot Springs, Gogra Post and the Depsang Plains in eastern Ladakh, which did not feature in the piecemeal disengagement process [see AiR No. 45, November/2020, 2]. The situation was best summarized by Indian Army chief General M.M. Naravane, who earlier this month said there had been “disengagement but no de-escalation” [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4].

India, on its part is poised to approve the construction of a new tunnel, which will allow all-weather access connecting the states of Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4]. The army has also reportedly accelerated construction of all-weather outposts for additional troops to be deployed along the border.

China, in turn, has been seeking to strengthen its deterrent measures against India. Specifically, the Xinjiang Military District, which is part of the Western Theater Command, is receiving greater attention in terms of upgrades with new equipment, including combat vehicles and self-propelled rapid-fire mortars. According to observers, there is a good case to believe that China would prefer to maintain the status quo as it is currently dealing with a range of geopolitical challenges, and thus does not want to open multiple battlefronts. [Asia Times] [The Diplomat]

1 June 2021

Japan-US relations: Strengthening security alliance against China

(dql) Adm. John Aquilino met with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Tokyo on his first overseas trip in his new capacity of the new commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command. During the meeting both affirmed their countries’ strong opposition to China’s unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the Indo-Pacific region. Aquilino and Suga further agreed to strengthen the Japan-US security alliance and pursue a free and open Indo-Pacific together.

In a separate conversation with Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, he affirmed the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. [Kyodo News]

1 June 2021

Cross-strait relations: Taiwan accuses China of obstructing purchase of German vaccine 

(dql) Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has accused China of being instrumental in preventing Taiwan signing a deal to purchase Covid-19 vaccines from German firm BioNTech. Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group signed a deal with BioNTech last year to supply its vaccines to mainland China, and in March offered to supply some of those doses to Taiwan. Under the deal, Fosun was given the exclusive rights to develop and commercialize the vaccines in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. [The Guardian]

 

1 June 2021

China-Russia relations continue to deepen

(dql) During the latest round of the Sino-Russia strategic security consultations last week, held in Moscow and attended by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, both countries reaffirmed their commitment to strengthen their strategic relations, with Russian President Vladimir Putin reassuring that relations between the two countries are “the best in history”. [South China Morning Post 2]

In an earlier development, Russian state-run space agency Roscosmos announced that it will incorporate a Chinese superheavy launcher into its home-grown manned spacecraft for future moon-landing missions. Along the with the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the joint construction of an autonomous lunar permanent research base, signed in March between the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and Roscosmos, the announcement reflects the growing Sino-Russian space cooperation. [South China Morning Post 2] [The Diplomat]

1 June 2021

China-Europe relations: Foreign Minister Wang Yi holds talks with counterparts from Serbia, Hungary, Ireland and Poland

(dql) Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi past weekend met with his Serbian, Hungarian, Irish and Polish counterparts Nikola Selakovic, Peter Szijjarto, Zbigniew Rau and Simon Coveney to discuss bilateral relations. The meetings signal China’s efforts to push for a stabilization Sino-European relations after tensions between Beijing and the European Union over tit-for-tat sanctions over accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the European Parliament’s suspension of debates on the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) as well as Lithuania’s withdrawal from the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries.

Wrapping up the talks, Wang confirmed that all ministers agreed to “pay attention to and calmly reflect on the current difficulties in China-Europe relations,” adding that the China’s successful cooperation with these four countries serves a “real models” to make policymakers in Europe review their own policies on China. [Global Times]

Echoing this, Serbian Foreign Minister Nikola Selakovic in a separate interview with Chinese state media, reassured that his country won’t impose any sanctions against China arguing that “Serbia is a militarily neutral country. Serbia unlike some other states, which are on the European path, won’t ruin its relations and has great relations with China […].” Rejecting accusations of China using vaccine diplomacy to expand its international influence, Selakovic described China’s distribution of vaccines as “an issue of humanity and an issue of saving people’s lives.” [South China Morning Post 1]

Serbia, which is expected to finalize negotiations on its accession to the European Union in 2024, so far has vaccinated 45.3% of its adult population with Sinopharm vaccines and received last week the final batch COVID-19 vaccines from China. [Xinhua]

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, meanwhile, announced after speaking with Wang that Hungary would open a planned vaccine plant in Debrecen. His statement came at the heels of the Hungarian government’s announcement of plans to produce the Chinese-developed Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine locally. [Deutsche Welle]

Hungary is the only EU member state that has authorized and deployed Russian and Chinese shots before approval by the EU drugs regulator. In April, Chinese shipments to Hungary surpassed 2 million vaccine doses as part of a contract under which Hungary will import 5 million doses from China. [Reuters]

For Poland, Zbigniew Rau confirmed that his country would make active efforts to support the development of healthy EU-China relations, adding that Warsaw welcomes Chinese investment and would not adopt discriminatory measures against its companies. [Bloomberg]

Coveney, finally, agreed with Wang to deepen economic and social relations in various fields including technological innovation, high-quality agriculture, higher education and cultural industries. Ireland is one of the few member states of the EU which has been able to maintain a trade surplus with China. On the EU-China investment deal, Coveney expressed his conviction that it “serves the common interests,” and urged both sides to “overcome the current difficulties through candid dialogues.” [South China Morning Post 2] [Foreign Ministry, China]

In a separate conversation with French Minister Delegate for foreign trade Franck Riester, Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentai called on France to help reinstate discussions on the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) after the European Parliament voted last week to freeze talks until Chinese sanctions on European lawmakers were dropped. [South China Morning Post 2]

 

1 June 2021

China-UK relations: Phone talk between foreign ministers hardens differences on human rights issues

(dql) In a phone call with his British counterpart Dominic Raab, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reaffirmed that China stands ready to discuss with Britain “sensitive issues”, but also called on the British government to “respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Wang defended Beijing’s Hong Kong and Xinjiang policies as necessary to safeguard the city’s stability and its “one country, two systems” model of semi-autonomy, and to combat separatism and violence, respectively.

He urged both sides to cooperate in addressing global challenges, adding that trade ties between the countries demonstrated their “potential and resilience”, with China replacing Germany the UK’s largest goods trading partner in the first quarter of the year.

Raab, on his side, reiterated Britain’s concerns over the situation in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, demanding that Beijing provides UN human rights experts with “unfettered access” to Xinjiang.  [South China Morning Post]

 

1 June 2021

Confucius Institutes at Australian universities the next casualties in strained China-Australia relations?

(dql) The Australian government is considering whether the Confucius Institutes are compatible with a foreign policy increasingly wary of Beijing. As part of a system enabling Canberra to vet agreements between foreign governments and subnational bodies, 13 Australian universities are given time until June 10 to submit their contracts to host the Confucius Institutes. Under a law passed last year, Australia’s foreign minister is authorized to terminate those agreements in case they are deemed undermine the federal government’s policy towards China. [Sydney Morning Herald]

Confucius Institutes have been a source of international controversy in recent years, with critics claiming the institutes are used by the Chinese Communist Party as Trojan horses to spread propaganda across the world.

1 June 2021

China-Australia relations: Chinese Defense Ministry accuses Canberra of fomenting confrontation over Taiwan

(dql) Already strained Sino-Australian relations have been further complicated after China’s Defense Ministry has labelled the Australian government’s warnings on the threat of war over Taiwan as irresponsible and accused it of inciting confrontation over the island.

The comment comes in response to a flurry of warnings from Australian leaders in April and May, including Home Affairs Secretary Michael Pezzullo whose remark that “the drums of war” are beating have been widely interpreted as referring to the situation in the Taiwan Strait. They were followed by Defense Minister Peter Dutton who warned not to discount the possibility of conflict. [Sydney Morning Herald]

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, meanwhile, called on countries to unite against China’s growing economic and geopolitical coercion. Otherwise, they could risk being singled out and punished by Beijing. [BBC]

1 June 2021

China-US relations: Biden orders new inquiry into Covid-19 origin

(dql) In a move likely to further heighten Sino-US tensions, US President Joe Biden last week ordered US intelligence agencies to follow up with an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus after receiving a report, requested in March, earlier this month. In the related statement, Biden said that the US Intelligence Community has not reached a definitive conclusion whether virus was accidentally leaked from a lab or transmitted by an animal to humans outside a lab. [White House, USA]

It also follows criticism of a report delivered by an international team of experts of the World Health Organization that largely dismissed the possibility that the virus had accidentally escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. [New York Times]

In response to the order, China’s Foreign Ministry accused the US of “us[ing] the pandemic to pursue stigmatisation, political manipulation and blame shifting,” and of being “disrespectful to science, irresponsible to people’s lives and counter-productive to the concerted efforts to fight the virus.” [BBC]

1 June 2021

China: Xi Jinping pushes for massive investments in science and technology to prepare for global power rivalry

(dql) In a speech on the occasion of China’s national day for science and research on Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on the country’s scientists to be prepared for “unprecedented” scientific and technological competition, which he described as “the main battleground” of global power rivalry. Xi added that the country needed to speed up its efforts to eliminate technological barriers to breakthroughs in core areas including artificial intelligence, semiconductors, quantum technology, life science and energy. He also pledged to increase investment in science and innovation and to reduce red tape for scientists and grant them greater autonomy. [South China Morning Post]

Xi call comes shortly after the US Senate voted to advance a massive package of legislation aimed at boosting the country’s ability to compete with Chinese technology. The US Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 would authorize some 190 billion US to strengthen U.S. technology in general, and 54 billion USD specifically to increase production of semiconductors, microchips and telecommunication equipment. [Reuters]

1 June 2021

China-US trade relations: First trade talk under Biden administration, ban on seafood of an entire Chinese fishing fleet 

(dql) Amid tense Sino-US relations, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, the two countries’ top trade negotiators, held their first telephone talk since US President Joe Biden assumed office. Statements, published after the conversation, confirm that the exchange was “candid and constructive”, with both sides stressing the importance of improving Sino-US trade relations. In a separate remark, Tai, however, confirmed that the US still is confronted with “very large challenges” in its trade and economic relationship with China that require the Biden administration’s attention across the board.

The previous time the two sides’ top trade negotiators talked was in August during Donald Trump’s presidency after the US and China signed a partial trade deal in January 2020.

The Biden administration is currently reviewing all available options for enforcing the trade agreement when Washington vowed to cut some tariffs in exchange for China committing to buy an additional 200 billion USD worth of American goods and services over the following two years, compared with 2017 levels. [South China Morning Post]

In a separate development, the US Customs and Border Protection has imposed a new import ban on seafood from an entire Chinese fishing vessels fleet. The ban against Dalian Ocean Fishing Co., Ltd., a fishing company based in Dalian, a port city near China’s border with North Korea, comes after a year-long investigation revealed what US officials described as signs of forced labor within the fleet’s operations, “including physical violence, withholding of wages, and abusive working and living conditions.” [NPR]

1 June 2021

China allows citizens to have three children

(dql) In a major policy shift to address the challenges of China’s ageing society, the Chinese Communist Party has announced that it will allow parents to have three children. 

In October 2015, China replaced its one-child policy with a two-child policy, but the change proved to have only a marginal effect on the greying of the country’s population. According to the national census conducted at the end of last year and released in May, China’s overall population rose to 1.412 billion in 2020, from 1.4 billion a year earlier. However, annual births have continued to plummet to 12 million in 2020, down from 14.65 million in 2019, marking an 18% year on year and continuing the descent to a near six-decade low. The fertility rate in 2020 was at 1.3 children per woman, which is below the replacement level of 2.1 needed for a stable population. [South China Morning Post] [AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3]

For skeptical voices on the prospects of success of the new policy, see [New York Times] and [Reuters].

1 June 2021

China: Hong Kong’s June 4 vigil banned

(dql) For the second straight year, Hong Kong’s police have banned the city’s June 4 vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, citing Covid-19 related restrictions on public gatherings. [Deutsche Welle]

The ban has been criticized by the organizers of the annual vigil, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which accuses the government of using the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse for suppressing political assemblies. [South China Morning Post]

1 June 2021

China: Hong Kong’s new election law approved

(dql) Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo), the city’s legislature, has approved a bill to revise the city’s electoral system. The revision includes changes viewed by critics as a Beijing-masterminded move to rein in chances of the pro-democracy camp to form a strong opposition in the city’s parliament.

One major change is the establishment of a vetting committee to review candidates for elected offices to ensure that they are sufficiently “patriotic”. Candidates will be approved by national security agents selected from the Hong Kong police force. 

Furthermore, the number of seats in the LegCo, directly elected by Hong Kong voters, will be reduced from currently 40 to 20, which means a drastic decrease in influence in the legislature from 57% to 22%. Of the remaining 70 seats 30 will be assigned to the functional constituency consisting of professionals and industry leaders, and 40 to the pro-Beijing Election Committee, which is also to select the Hong Kong Chief Executive.

The amendment was passed in a near-absence of opposition lawmakers, with 40 lawmakers voting for the bill and only two against. In November last year, pro-democracy legislators had resigned en masse to protest against the ousting of four colleagues deemed insufficiently loyal to Beijing.  [The Diplomat] [Reuters] [AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3]

 

25 May 2021

Nepal: Army forges deal with Chinese companies on expressway, ignores parliamentary committee

(lm) The Nepalese Army (NA) has awarded contracts to build sections of an expressway scheme to two Chinese companies despite a ruling from a parliamentary committee that the project should be halted over irregularities in the procurement process. [The Kathmandu Post]

The deal was to build tunnels and bridges for the Kathmandu-to-Terai Fast Track motorway, a $1 billion highway that will link the Nepalese capital Kathmandu with Nijgadh in the southern plains and cut travel time by about a third.

Last month, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee directed the scrapping of the entire process after it had found the deal violated the competitive bidding process set out in the country’s 2015 Public Procurement Act. Some 22 companies expressed interest in bidding for the project, but the army considered only Poly Changda for the second package of work. The first package, which also involves tunnels and bridges, was awarded to China State Construction Engineering Corporation. The company bid unsuccessfully for the second package. [Global Construction Review]

25 May 2021

Philippines, China to ease tensions in South China Sea

(lp) During the sixth meeting of the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM) on the South China Sea, the Philippines and China committed to ease tensions in the South China Sea through dialogue, to increase cooperation in fisheries, marine research and protection. However, it is highly unlikely that China will respect the Philippines’ maritime claims, especially because multiple investigations have confirmed the continuous expansion of Chinese maritime militia in the area. Moreover, talks regarding the payment to Filipino fishers whose boat was sunk by a Chinese vessel in 2019 are scheduled for June 2. [Philippine Star 1] [Radio Free Asia] [ABS-CBN 1]

Though avoiding direct confrontation, the Philippines has been signaling its intent to protect the country’s waters. The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) installed lighted ocean buoys to assert sovereignty over the Philippine Rise area, which might be a site for oil exploration. Moreover, the PCG said it has intensified its training exercises in the South China Sea. Furthermore, the National Security Council (NSC) signed an agreement with the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) to implement satellite technology which will provide continuous, detailed monitoring of the country’s exclusive economic zones. The Philippines is also to acquire Israeli missile-capable patrol boats. [Business Mirror] [Manila Bulletin 1] [Inquirer 1] [The Defense Post]

Meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte considered meeting with the country’s ex-presidents to discuss issues pertaining to the South China Sea, as an alternative to a National Security Council (NSC) meeting, which he deemed inconsequential. However, Duterte might drop both meetings because he prefers not to antagonize China that explicitly. Duterte is also still undecided whether to renew the Visit Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States this year. [Manila Standard] [Philippine Star 2]

25 May 2021

Malaysia and China to strengthen cooperation in multiple areas

(tcy) After a video conference with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin affirmed the close bilateral ties between Malaysia and China and announced that the two countries are exploring new areas of common interest to strengthen bilateral collaboration, after seeing the need for closer and more proactive cooperation to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and drive the recovery process. [Bernama 1]

Following this, the Malaysian government announced that it would be acquiring a total of 8.2 million doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine by the end of June. [Bernama 2] The Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce (MCCC) also recommended the setting up of a joint special committee with the People’s Republic of China to strengthen the interaction and exchanges between official agencies and pandemic experts in both countries. [Malay Mail] In addition, the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) also signed two memorandums of understanding with China’s International Medical Exchange and Cooperation Committee (IMECC) and Hangzhou Rende Maternity Hospital respectively with the aim of collaboratively improving patient experience for healthcare travelers from China. [Bernama 3]

Apart from healthcare, other areas of bilateral cooperation discussed include collaboration in the fields of electronic commerce, high technology and digital economy, agriculture and agrofood, as well as the development of food security and poverty eradication programs. The two leaders also touched on international issues involving the situation in Palestine and Myanmar, with both agreeing on the need for international pressure to settle the conflicts.

 

25 May 2021

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen defends close ties with China, points at Beijing’s financial lifeline

(ad) Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has defended his close relationship with China after facing criticisms of being too dependent on Beijing. While attending the “The Future of Asia” conference through video channel, the premier on May 20 called concerns that Phnom Penh has become over-reliant on, and a proxy for, Beijing “unjust.”[Nikkei Asia]

The following day, the Chinese Foreign Ministry also stated that China reciprocated Cambodia’s relations and perceptions, saying that Beijing’s help was to facilitate Cambodia’s development in a “win-win” cooperation. [Agence Presse Kampuchea]

The Cambodian prime minister also remained defiant about European Union (EU) trade sanctions imposed on the country last August, saying that EU’s assessment “did not conform with reality” and that his government would not seek to overturn the decision.

Back then, Brussels partially suspended the “Everything But Arms” trade privileges granted to the EU bloc for 20 percent of Cambodia’s exports, over what it called persistent human rights abuses and anti-democratic repression in the country [see AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3]. The move was a blow for the country’s $10 billion garment manufacturing sector, which relies on the European market.

25 May 2021

Pakistan, China celebrate 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations

(lm) Top leaders of Pakistan and China last week exchanged a series of letters on 70 years of diplomatic ties, highlighting mutual trust and pledging to further strengthen bilateral ties. Both sides also agreed to accelerate the completion of projects under the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) agreement. [Dawn] [Global Times]

In related news, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan on May 23 approved the establishment of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Karachi, the country’s largest city and capital of Sindh province. At present, a total of nine SEZs are planned under the CPEC, including three priority SEZs in the provinces of Sindh, Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Since being officially launched in April of 2015, the CPEC has been one of the most watched set of projects under the aegis of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s international infrastructure strategy known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For an in-depth analysis of into the mechanics of how the BRI is unfolding on the ground in Pakistan, please consider a newly launched research project at the [Carnegie Endowment For International Peace]

 

25 May 2021

India, China yet to de-escalate simmering border tensions along LAC

(ad/lm) Indian Army Chief General Naravane said on May 19 that his country would continue to maintain an enhanced troop presence along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh, as de-escalation with China is yet to take place. 

After almost a year of skirmishes along the disputed Himalayan border, both countries in February began withdrawing from their positions on the southern and northern banks of Pangong Lake as part of a phased, synchronized military disengagement [see AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4]. According to the Indian army chief, no transgression has taken place since.

But Beijing and New Delhi are yet to resolve other “friction points”, including Gogra, Hot Springs and the Depsang Plains in eastern Ladakh, which did not feature in the purported disengagement plan [see AiR No. 45, November/2020, 2]. As of now, India, still has between 50,000 and 60,000 troops in Eastern Ladakh near the LAC. [The Indian Express 1]

Two days after delivering the remarks, General Naravane commenced a two-day visit to India’s northeastern region to review the army’s operational readiness along the northern border of the state of Arunachal Pradesh, a major part of which is claimed by both China and Taiwan as part of the region of South Tibet.

The visit assumes added significance, coming as it does just days after China completed the construction of a strategic highway through a canyon along the Yarlung Tsangbo (Brahmaputra River) in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Construction on the highway, which began back in 2014, sparked concerns in India, partly because the highway is believed to accelerate Chinese efforts to construct dams and a hydropower plant on the lower reaches of the River, which would significantly affect water supplies downstream in the Indian states. Against this backdrop, in December of last year, New Delhi announced it was considering to build a 10-gigawatt (GW) hydropower project in its remote Arunachal Pradesh state [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]. [The EurAsian Times] [The New Indian Express 2]

Furthermore, India’s Ministry of Defense last week cleared a proposal to allow its Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to build a tunnel under a mountain pass on the border between the states of Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh. [Hindustan Times] [The Times of India]

 

25 May 2021

South Korea-US relations: Moon and Biden hold summit 

(nm) South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Joe Biden met for their first bilateral summit in Washington last Friday, concluding a five-day visit by Moon to the US. Both sides reaffirmed their commitment to cooperate on issues including North Korea, Covid-19 vaccination efforts, semiconductor manufacturing, and regional peace and security. They further agreed to terminate guidelines restricting Seoul’s missile development. However, no stance was taken on how to deal with China and the related issue of South Korea’s cooperation with the Quad alliance. 

Biden and Moon secured partnerships in their Covid-19 vaccination efforts and in the semiconductor industry. South Korea agreed to produce US-developed vaccines, while the US will help to vaccinate about 500,000 South Korean service members. South Korea has recently struggled to obtain enough vaccine doses for its population and had first been left out as the US sought cooperation with other allies, including the Quad forum. In the business realm, they further agreed to cooperate in the electric battery and semiconductor industry “through the promotion of increased mutual investments as well as research and development cooperation.” Four major South Korean companies, including Samsung, simultaneously announced plans to invest about 39 billion USD in the US. Biden is currently seeking to strengthen US domestic chip production amid growing technological challenges from China and a global chip shortage during the pandemic, which turned the widely-used technology into a topic of geopolitical salience. [Korea Times 1] [Nikkei Asia 1]

On China, both sides avoided any direct remarks, but the joint statement made references to peace in the Taiwan Strait, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and beyond, as well as a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” 

China reacted to the statement on Monday with Chinese Ambassador Xing Haiming claiming Beijing was aware it was targeting China, while China’s Foreign Ministry condemned it for interfering in domestic affairs and violating basic norms governing international relations. 

Seoul is facing the sensitive task of balancing US and Chinese interests due to their strategic and economic importance to Korea, respectively. Although some observers believe the statement indicates a tip in Washington’s favour, others believe it shows that Washington and Seoul have yet to agree on how to deal with China. [Korea Times 2] [Korea Herald] [Nikkei Asia 2]

Alongside the summit, Moon also visited a White House Medal of Honor ceremony, honoring a Korean War veteran and highlighting the countries’ longstanding military alliance. On Thursday, Moon further held talks with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on how to promote bilateral relations. After a meeting with US Vice President Kamala Harris, Moon reaffirmed his country will be standing with the US in “defending liberal democratic order,” strengthening the alliance while avoiding a tough stance on China. [Korea Times 3] [Korea Times 4] [Nikkei Asia 3]

The full text of the Moon-Biden joint statement is available at [Korea Times 4]. 

For commentaries on the importance of the US-South Korea alliance, please visit [Carnegie Endowment] and [The Diplomat].

25 May 2021

Japan to drop 1% GDP limit of annual defense spending to cope with China

(dql) Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi has signaled a shift in the country’s defense spending saying in an interview that Tokyo is ready to “allocate the funding we need to protect our nation,” indicating to give up Japan’s longstanding 1% GDP cap on annual defense spending in response to a security environment that he described as “changing rapidly with heightened uncertainty.” Citing advancements of China’s military in new areas of warfare such as space, cyber and electromagnetics, he acknowledged the need to boost the country’s defense capabilities “at a radically different pace than in the past.” [Japan Today]

Since the 1990s, Japan’s defense budget has consistently not exceeded 1% of the country’s GDP, with the only exception in 2010 due the impact of the financial crisis. The 2020 defense spending stood at 49.1 billion USD, equaling 1.0 % of the country’s GDP. [Sputnik News] [SIPRI]

Meanwhile, four Chinese coast guard ships entered on Monday Japanese territorial waters off the Senkaku Islands, which controlled by Japan and claimed by China and Taiwan. It was 16th intrusion in this year, coming on the heels of last week’s live-fire drills conducted by Navy fleets of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attached to the Eastern, Northern and Southern Theatre Commands. [NHK] [South China Morning Post]

For an account of the current status of efforts of the Japanese Defense Ministry to build new “Aegis Equipped Ships”, see Yoshihiro Inaba in [Naval News].

 

25 May 2021

China-Vietnam relations: President Nguyen calls on President Xi to handle maritime issues according to international law

(dql) In a phone with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for greater bilateral cooperation, suggesting to expand trade and promote high-level infrastructure connectivity through the Belt and Road Initiative. Xi, furthermore, assured that China was ready to provide Vietnam help in combatting the pandemic. [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China]

Nguyen, meanwhile, proposed to strengthen the two countries’ cooperation against Covid-19 and to increase the quality of trade and investment ties. At the same, he also suggested that both sides “handle maritime issues “in accordance with the law and based on international rules such as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and continue to coordinate at multilateral forums.” [VN Express]

25 May 2021

Cross-strait relations: Possibility of China-Taiwan war at “all-time-high”, Chinese research institute says

(dql) According to a report of the Hong Kong-based China Cross-Strait Academy, the possibility of a full-scale war between China and Taiwan has reached an ‘all-time high’, identifying the risk level at 7.21 for 2021 on a scale of 10, compared with 6.7 in the early 1950s, when the Nationalist forces escaped from the mainland to Taiwan, above 6.5 for much of the 1970s, 4.55 in 1978 when the US established diplomatic ties with Beijing, and again over 6 during the Trump administration. The report cites for its assessment of the two sides being “on the brink of war” two “destructive factors”: a shifting political dynamic across the Taiwan Strait and closer ties between the US and Taiwan.

The academy’s head Lei Xiying, who is also a committee member of the Communist Party-backed All-China Youth Federation, added that ‘[i]f the current trend continues … China’s unification of Taiwan by force will only be a matter of time.” [Express] [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) the Taiwan Strait last week. It was the fifth time a US warship has navigated the waterway since US President Joe Biden assumed office in January. [Taipei Times]

In another move, equally angering Beijing, the US mission in Taipei together with the Australian and the Japanese mission issued a joint statement in support for the participation of Taiwan as an observer in the World Health Assembly (WHA). The statement came a day after the opening of the virtually held annual meeting of the WHA, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO). Taiwan, excluded for the fifth consecutive year, criticized the WHO for its “continued indifference to the health rights of Taiwan’s 23.5 million people,” and urged it to “maintain a professional and neutral stance,” and to “reject China’s political interference.” [Focus Taiwan] [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Taiwan]

 

25 May 2021

China-Iran relations: Xi pledges support for Tehran’s demands concerning reviving nuclear deal

(dql) During a phone call on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping assured his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani of Beijing’s support for Theran’s demands in efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal as well as its commitment to safeguarding both countries’ common interests. [CGTN]

Xi’s assurance comes amid uncertainties about the future of the nuclear deal from which the US withdrew in 2018. Subsequent US sanctions imposed on Iran have since then deepened the rift between Tehran and Washington and its allies.

In a latest development, Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global nuclear watchdog, have agreed to extend a technical agreement reached in February for one month until June 24, providing an important window for the ongoing negotiations in Vienna aimed at reinstating the nuclear. Under the agreement the IAEA is allowed to maintain its monitoring equipment at Iranian nuclear sites, while Iran will keep the tapes until the nuclear deal is restored and the US sanctions are lifted. [Aljazeera]

 

25 May 2021

China-Russia relations: Agreement on deepening nuclear cooperation 

(dql) In a latest sign of increasingly close relations between China and Russia, both countries have agreed to deepen cooperation on nuclear energy and pledged to play a bigger role to combat climate change. The pledge was made during the launch of the construction of four new reactors at two nuclear plants in China, witnessed via video link by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. 

Using Russian technology, the reactors along with the plants – Tianwan in Jiangsu and Xudapu in Liaoning – are part of a 2.9 billion USD nuclear energy deal concluded in 2018. The reactors are expected to produce 37.6 billion kilowatt-hours annually in full capacity by 2026, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 30.7 million tonnes per year. [South China Morning Post] [Asia Times]

25 May 2021

China-EU relations: EU Parliament freezes investment deal, Lithuania withdraws from China+17 

(dql) With overwhelming majority, the European Parliament has The European parliament has voted suspend any further consideration of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). With 599 votes for, 30 votes against and with 58 abstentions, the lawmakers passed a resolution to demand “that China lift the sanctions before parliament can deal with the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI),” referring to sanctions Beijing imposed in March on EU politicians, think-tanks and diplomatic bodies, in response to the EU’s sanctions against Chinese officials accused of being implicit in mass detentions of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. [The Guardian] [Reuters] [AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]

The decision is a setback for Sino-EU relations in general and for the investment deal in particular, agreed on in principle between leaders of the EU and China in December after seven years of negotiations and since then awaiting its ratification by the assembly.  

In another blow for China’s ambitions in Europe, Lithuania has decided to withdrawn from the 17+1 cooperation mechanism between China and Central and Eastern Europe Countries (China-CEECs). Commenting on this decision, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis sharply said: “”There is no such thing as 17+1 anymore, as for practical purposes Lithuania is out,” adding a call on the EU to urgently “move from a dividing 16+1 format to a more uniting and therefore much more efficient 27+1.” [Politico]

 

25 May 2021

China-UK relations: Boris John sends warning towards Beijing ahead of aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth’s historic maiden deployment to Asia

(dql) Ahead of the maiden deployment of the Britain’s flagship aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to Asia, Prime Minister Boris Johnson sent a warning towards China saying that the aircraft carrier’s deployment signals the UK’s believe in the international law of the sea, adding: “One of the things we’ll be doing clearly is showing to our friends in China that we believe in the international law of the sea, and in a confident but not a confrontational way, we will be vindicating that point.” 

The UK will be sailing its largest and most powerful aircraft carrier, along with a fleet of warships, in what the Royal Navy calls its “most significant deployment” for the past 25 years. The 65,000-ton warship will carry eight British F-35B fighter jets and 10 US Marine Corps F-35s, with a 1.700-strong crew including 250 US Marines. On its journey over the next seven months, it will lead the flotilla alongside two destroyers, two frigates, a submarine and two support ships, to be joined later by a US Navy destroyer and a Dutch frigate. 

The group will sail through the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, on its way to the Philippine Sea, visiting and interacting with 40 nations, with stops in India and Singapore. [Reuters] [CNN]

25 May 2021

China-US relations: US lawmakers hit out against Beijing Olympics 

(dql) US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for a US diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, citing an “a genocide that is ongoing” in China, while warning that global leaders who attend would lose their moral authority. [Reuters]

Echoing Pelosi’s stance, Massachusetts Democrat Representative Jim McGovern suggested: “If we can postpone an Olympics by a year for a pandemic, we can surely postpone an Olympics for a year for a genocide,” adding that this “would give the IOC time to relocate to a country whose government is not committing atrocities.” [South China Morning Post]

 

25 May 2021

China-US relations: Biden administration extends deadline of ban on Chinese-military linked securities

(dql) The US Treasury Department has announced that it has extended the deadline to ban American investors from certain Chinese companies by two weeks allowing them to trade securities in subsidiaries of blacklisted Chinese companies until June 11.

In November last year, former president Donald Trump signed an executive order which prohibited US investment in companies the US Defence Department claimed were linked to the Chinese military. More than 40 Chinese firms have been put on the list. [South China Morning Post]

 

25 May 2021

China: Xi promises to support Covid-response of developing countries with 3 billion USD 

(dql) Underscoring China’s claim to leadership in global health governance, Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged 3 billion USD in aid over the next three years to help developing countries recover from the coronavirus pandemic at last week’s G20 Global Health Summit, co-hosted by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. Xi also proposed to establish an international forum on vaccine cooperation. [South China Morning Post]

The pledge comes only days after US President Biden announced plans to distribute some 80 million doses of the vaccine overseas by the end of June. Earlier in February Biden announced at G7 virtual summit that the US would provide up to 4 billion USD to COVAX, the World Health Organization-backed initiative aimed at ensuring equitable access to vaccines around the world. [AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3] [US Today]

25 May 2021

China: Institutional expansion of Hong Kong Office

(dql) Beijing is reported set to expand the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), China’s top office overseeing Hong Kong affairs, and create two new departments to be charged with national security and propaganda. The move is seen by observers as signal of the central government’s determination to prevail in the “ideological battle” in the former British colony.

Currently, the HKMAO is overseeing seven departments including secretary and administration, general affairs, policy and research, liaison, exchange and cooperation, law, and institutional party committee (personnel). [South China Morning Post]

25 May 2021

China: Advancing ‘sinicization’ and deepening CCP’s leadership in Tibet

(dql) The secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Tibet has called for continued efforts to further ‘sinicize’ Buddhism and to crack down on separatism in the region. 

The call comes as China marks the 70th anniversary its seizure of control in Tibet in 1951 and shortly of the State Council, the country’s government, released its latest white paper on the region which concludes that after seven decades of CCP-led “peaceful liberation”, a “thousand years of darkness have dissipated,” and “Tibet has broken free from its backward, autocratic, isolated past to embrace prosperity, democracy, and an open future.” 

Criticizing foreign interference in Tibetan affairs and calling Tibetan independence a “product of imperialist aggression against China in modern times,” the report added that “only by following the Party’s guidelines for governing Tibet in a new era can the region transform into a modern and beautiful new socialist Tibet characterized by unity, prosperity, civility, and harmony.” [South China Morning Post] [State Council, China]

For a sharp criticism of the white paper decrying it as an “attempt to whitewash [China’s] colonial crimes like genocide, cultural annihilation, loot of natural resources, and blatant denial of human rights to the Tibetan people,” see [The Tibet Post]. Echoing this, recently elected leader of the Central Tibetan Administration, Tibet’s government in exile, Penpa Tsering warned of an “urgent threat” of “cultural genocide” in Tibet, while at the same time confirming that he will seek to resume talks with China. [Business Live] [Big News Network]

Led by the US, international support for the Tibetan community has grown over the past year, including rights groups and international governments accusing China of increased restrictions on Tibetan religious practice and language education. The US Congress in December approved the Tibet Policy and Support Act, which calls for the selection the next Dalai Lama by Tibetans, as well as for the establishment of a consulate in Lhasa. [Reuters]

18 May 2021

Mekong River Commission receives French grant to improve river monitoring network

(ad) The French government has donated $1.82 million to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to improve and expand its monitoring program along the mainstream and key tributaries of the Mekong river. The funding, made available through the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), will span four years from 2021 to 2025. [Mekong River Commission]

The MRC is a regional/intergovernmental organization, consisting of member states Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Since 2007, MRC has established 60 hydro-meteorological stations along the river to improve recording and forecasting the river dynamics.

The new funding is a follow-up to two other grants of EUR 4 million France had donated for the first two phases from 2007 to 2022. Since 2006, France has granted the MRC over 10 million euros to support river monitoring, flood and drought management, climate change, and environmental management. [Agence Kampuchea Presse]

18 May 2021

Vietnam expands fishing militia in South China Sea, according to Chinese research organization

(lm) Vietnam is building up its maritime militia in the South China Sea in an apparent response to Chinese efforts to dominate the disputed waterway, according to research by the China-based National Institute for South China Sea Studies. [Voice of America]

While the European Union has estimated that about 8,000 fishing boats and 46,000 fishermen are part of Vietnam’s maritime militia, the Chinese research organization numbers the militia between 46,000 to 70,000 personnel. It says 13 platoons with a combined 3,000 people operate near the sea’s contested Paracel Islands and another 10,000 people operate armed fishing boats off southern Vietnam.

When not catching fish, these trained fishermen participate in a broad range of paramilitary work, sometimes in cooperation with the Vietnamese navy. In fact, in 2009, Vietnam had passed a law that authorizes its maritime militia to conduct sea patrols and surveillance and confront and expel ining foreign vessels in defense of Vietnamese-controlled islands and reefs.

Both Beijing and Hanoi have a long history of maritime militia and proficiency in mobilizing fishermen and their boats as part of a “gray-zone” strategy —coercive force short of war— to occupy reefs in the South China Sea. Analysts say China maintains the sea’s most obvious maritime militia, although Beijing had in recent years reduced the involvement of civilians in its maritime disputes, in favor of enhancing its coastguard and other official law enforcement forces.

18 May 2021

The Philippines pushes the US away as Chinese vessels tighten control

(lp) Even though President Rodrigo Duterte has at times expressed a defeatist stance against China’s continuous intrusion into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zones, he emphasized that he will not withdraw the country’s patrol ships from the South China Sea. There are almost 300 Chinese Maritime Militia ships scattered across the area, some of which have obstructed Filipino fishers and coastguard patrols away from resource-rich Scarborough Shoal and other traditional fishing grounds. The Philippine government encouraged Filipino fishers to defy this fishing ban imposed by China. [Kyodo News] [Radio Free Asia] [ABS-CBN 1] [South China Morning Post 1] [Taipei Times]

Duterte emphasized that he will not allow any foreign intrusion into the Philippine Rise area, days after former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile and Senate President Vicente Sotto III suggested allowing China to conduct oil exploration in the area. Last month, Duterte said he would confront China if the latter extracted oil from the Philippines’ exclusive economic zones. On the other end, Chinese President Xi Jinping had warned Duterte years ago against exploring for oil in the contested area. [Cebu Daily News] [Manila Bulletin 1]

Meanwhile, the Philippines and the US have finished a month-long training to strengthen maritime law enforcement. This comes just days after Duterte asked the US to leave the Philippines out of any armed conflict, reiterating his disapproving stance that it was the US who arranged a deal in 2012 to pull out from Scarborough Shoal and allowed China to take possession of this disputed territory. [Philippine Information Agency] [Philippine News Agency]

The Philippines attempts to increase its arms capacity to defend itself from China. For instance, officials are planning to procure attack submarines. However, Duterte also said that it would be ‘fine’ if the US does not provide arms to the Philippines. The US, though, recently approved Turkey to sell a military helicopter to the Philippines. Still, if no new Visiting Forces Agreement is signed, the US would have to pull out troops involved in counter-terrorism missions, which the Philippine government has been intensifying as the end of Duterte’s administration approaches. [Business Mirror] [ABS-CBN 2] [Manila Bulletin 2] [Middle East Eye] [South China Morning Post 2]

Duterte also expressed reluctance to seek help from the United Nations because China could veto any action to validate the Philippines’ claims to their exclusive economic zones. Most recently, Duterte instructed his Cabinet members to refrain from talking about the South China Sea issue in public. [Philippine Star] [Reuters]

 

18 May 2021

Comments from Chinese envoy illustrate Beijing’s concerns on possible expansion of Quad

(lm) A recent statement by China’s Ambassador to Bangladesh, Li Jimming, and subsequent remarks from the Chinese Foreign Ministry have again shed light on Beijing’s trepidation over a possible expansion of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a loose strategic coalition comprising of France, the United States, India and Australia. [The Diplomat]

The Chinese envoy on May 10 had told Bangladeshi and Chinese reporters that Bangladesh participating in the Quad – which Li called a “narrow-purposed” grouping – would “substantially damage” ties between Dhaka and Beijing. To observers, the remarks came as a surprise, for Dhaka’s navy can hardly be considered consequential player in Indo-Pacific security. The comments of the Chinese ambassador were thus considered a pre-emptive move to caution Bangladesh from drawing too close to the US. [South China Morning Post]

Li’s comments prompted a rebuke from Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen, who said Li’s message was “regrettable” and “aggressive”. Momen also said that Bangladesh, as a sovereign nation, would decide whether to join any alliance.

Li, in turn, later clarified that he had been expressing his personal views in response to a question asked by a journalist, and he was not making any suggestion to the Bangladeshi government. The Chinese Foreign Ministry, however, on May 12 defended the envoy’s remarks, calling the Quad an “exclusive clique” against Beijing and saying Li had made Beijing’s position “clear” on the issue. [The New Indian Express]

18 May 2021

China a conflict mediator in Iran and the Middle East?

(dql) Signaling its claim to become a conflict mediator on global stage, China has offered to host talks between the parties in Afghanistan and pledged to support its anti-terrorism effort during a call between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Afghan national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib on Monday.

The call came one day after Wang made a similar offer to the Israelis and Palestinians at a virtual UN Security Council meeting convened to discuss the ongoing deadly hostilities in the Middle East. [Newseek] [VoA]

18 May 2021

China-US relations: Senate pushes anti-China tech bill, Blinken reiterates genocide allegations

(dql) The US Senate has voted with overwhelming majority to move forward on a bill – the Endless Frontier Act –, aimed at countering China’s economic pressure. Centerpiece of the bill is a fund of 100 billion USD to be invested over five years in basic and advanced tech research, including artificial intelligence, semiconductors, quantum computing, advanced communications, biotechnology and advanced energy. In addition, 10 billion USD would be authorized to develop tech hubs across the country. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reiterated harsh criticism of China’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs, saying that Beijing “broadly criminalizes religious expression and continues to commit crimes against humanity and genocide against Muslim Uyghurs and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups.” [US Department of State 1]

Blinken made this statement in his introduction to the release of the US Department of State’s 2020 International Religious Freedom Report, in which cites “reports of deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, subjected to forced indoctrination in CCP ideology, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices.” [US Department of State 2]

The US was among a group of more than 15 mostly Western United Nations member states that has demanded that China provide “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to Xinjiang to the UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet in order to inspect alleged abuses of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities there. [Canberra Times]

18 May 2021

China: WHO approves Sinopharm’s vaccine

(dql) In a boost for China’s role and standing in the global combat against the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) approved for emergency use a COVID-19 vaccine developed by state-owned drugmaker Sinopharm, confirming that the vaccine is “easy to store, making it suitable for locations with limited resources, and proved 79 per cent effective in clinical trials.” [UN News]

One of two main Chinese coronavirus vaccines and already given to hundreds of millions of people in China and elsewhere, Sinopharm’s vaccine is the first developed by a non-Western country to obtain the WHO’s backing. Vaccines, previously approved for emergency use, include those developed by AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. [Reuters]

The WHO’s approval comes as China has offered the Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to deepen regional cooperation on Covid-19 vaccines and the development of Chinese-funded infrastructure projects during a meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his counterparts last week in China’s northwestern Shaanxi province. Wang Yi also offered cooperation on security, in the face of potential resurgence of terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US troops from the country in September. [South China Morning Post 1] [South China Morning Post 2]

US President Joe Biden, meanwhile, announced plans to distribute some 80 million doses of the vaccine overseas by the end of June, assuring that the US “is going to be the arsenal of vaccines for the world. [NPR]

 

18 May 2021

China lands on Mars

(dql) China landed a spacecraft on the Mars for the first time on Saturday, making it the third country after the US and Russia to accomplish such a feat and marking a further major advancement in China’s ambitious goals in space exploration. [Space.com]

 For insights into China’s plans to challenge US dominance in outer space, see Steven Lee Myers in [New York Times] who argues that China’s space station Tiangong could be the only game in town for some time, given the possibility of a decommissioning of the International Space Station (ISS), jointly developed by the United States, Russia and others China’s, after 2024 and Russia’s announcement that it intends to withdraw from the ISS by 2025.

18 May 2021

China: 90 Apps ordered to be removed from app stores

(dql) China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has ordered domestic app stores to remove 90 apps over allegations of “irregular collection of personal information.” Popular apps among the affected apps include Damai, China’s largest entertainment ticketing website, online travel booking app Tuniu, and Maimai, the country’s biggest rival to LinkedIn. 

The move comes two weeks after a new regulation that defines what types of user data apps can collect and what is off limits entered into force on May 1, reflecting the government’s determination to scrutinize the data management of the tech companies. [South China Morning Post] [AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]

18 May 2021

China: Hong Kong introduces anti-doxxing bill

(dql) Hong Kong’s government has proposed legal amendments to the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance under which anyone engaged in doxxing – the practice of leaking others’ personal information “with the intent to threaten, intimidate, harass or cause psychological harm” – can be punished with up to five years in prison and a fine of as much as nearly 130.000 USD. The proposal also suggests the Office of the Privacy Commissioner with investigative powers allowing it to compel people to assist in inquiries and request the removal of offending content.

The legislative push comes against the broader backdrop of the common practice of doxxing during the during the 2019 anti-government protests which targeted especially police officers and their supporters, with more than 5,700 doxxing-related incidents reported or uncovered between June 2019, the month in which the first big protests begun, and April 2021. [South China Morning Post] [Variety]

 

18 May 2021

China: Outspoken Beijing critic, activists archiving censored pandemic articles plead guilty 

(dql) Hong Kong media tycoon and outspoken critic of Beijing – along with nine other former lawmakers and veteran activists – on Monday pleaded guilty to organizing an unauthorized assembly in October 2019 in the former British colony that descended into a violent clash between protesters and police. The semtencing is expected for next week. [Bloomberg Quint]  

In earlier move last week, the Hong Kong Security Bureau froze Lai’s shares in his media company Next Digital as well as his other bank assets, marking the first time that the Hong Kong police froze personal property under the national security law for Hong Kong [Global Times]

Observers raised concerns over the chilling effect the decision to block Lai’s assets will further have on the already pressurized press and media freedom in Hong Kong. [South China Morning Post]

In a related development, the Taiwan arm of Apple Daily – founded by Lai and part of Next Digital – announced it would stop publishing its print version, citing declining revenues in advertising and more difficult business conditions in Hong Kong linked to politics. [Reuters]

Two Chinese activists, meanwhile, pleaded guilty of archiving censored articles about Covid-19 and running an online discussion forum. They were arrested in April last year over charges of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” The two are among at least a dozen people known to have been prosecuted, detained or fined for defying the official narrative on the outbreak. [Channel News Asia

18 May 2021

China: Tightening control over private schools

(dql) China announced new laws to reform its private education system for compulsory education. Among others, they ban the teaching of foreign curriculums in schools from kindergarten to grade nine (K-9) and prohibit foreign entities from owning or controlling any private K-9 schools by foreign entities. Furthermore, the supervisory body of private schools are required include representatives of grassroots organizations of the Chines Communist Party, with more than one-third being faculty members, while public schools for compulsory education are prohibited from participating in the running of private schools and from converting to private schools.

To come into effect on September 1, the laws are part of the government’s efforts to tighten control of the country’s fast-growing education sector. [Council of State, China] [Channel News Asia]

18 May 2021

China: Latest census reveals dropping birthrate and continued ageing 

(dql) China’s National Bureau of Statistics has published the results of the latest once-a-decade census, conducted at the end of last year, with some seven million census collecting information door-to-door Accordingly, the average annual growth rate was 0.53% over the past 10 years, down from a rate of 0.57% between 2000 and 2010, marking a total population at 1.412 billion, an increase of about 72 million compare with 2010.

12 million Chinese babies were born in China in 2020, down from 14.65 million in 2019, marking an 18% drop. This is a fertility rate at 1.3 children per woman, which is below the replacement level of 2.1 at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next.

The number of Chinese children 14 years or younger increased to 253.38 million or 17.95% of the population. However, the country’s working-age population – people aged between 16 and 59 – has also declined. 894.38 million people were recorded in this group making up for 63.35%of the population. Compared with 2010, it is a drop of 6.79%.

Meanwhile, the share of Chinese senior citizens, aged 60 and older, rose to 264.02 million, equivalent to 18.70% of the he population, 5.44 percentage points higher than in 2010. Of the latter group, there were 190.64 million people aged 65 or older, 13.50 per cent of the population, the NBS said, without giving a comparison to 2010. [National Bureau of Statistics, China

The data are reinforcing concerns over the country’s ageing and shrinking labor force, along with critical questions on their impact on economic growth and pension system. [South China Morning Post] [Sydney Morning Herald] [CNBC] [New York Times]

In a related development, the Chinese leadership is reportedly working out plans to cope with demographic challenges, including offering social and financial support to encourage childbearing while removing birth restrictions only over the next 3-5 years for fear of unleashing imbalanced population developments in rural areas. [Reuters]

11 May 2021

China-Indonesia relations: Joint naval exercise

(dql) Part of the PLA Navy’s annual training program, China and Indonesia held a joint naval exercise in waters off Jakarta, involving guided-missile frigates from both countries and including communication drills, search and rescue operations and formation maneuvers. [CGTN]           

The exercise comes on the heels of Beijing’s announcement that it was sending three rescue ships to assist Jakarta in recovering the Indonesian submarine which sank in late April. It comes also amid tensions over fishing rights near the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea. Indonesia regards the waters off the Natunas as part its exclusive economic zone, while Beijing claims it has historical rights to fish there. [South China Morning Post]

11 May 2021

EU and India to boost trade, Indo-Pacific partnership

(lm) The European Union and India have agreed to resume long-stalled talks on a free trade deal, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on May 8. Brussel and New Delhi will also launch negotiations on reciprocal investments and on the protection of so-called geographical indications. [South China Morning Post]

Earlier on May 8, the first EU-Indian Leaders’ Meeting brought together all 27 heads of the EU member states and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Considering that previous EU-India summits have involved only the Indian prime minister and the heads of the European Commission and the European Council, the recent summit signals the bloc’s renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific region. [Reuters]

Last month, the EU Council asked the European Commission and high representatives to draw up the bloc’s Indo-Pacific strategy by September this year. In doing so, the Council unveiled the strategy’s main thrust, which included exploring closer economic ties with India and pledging to foster a rules-based order with “free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law”, without naming China.

Earlier last week, the EU also said that efforts to ratify the proposed EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China had been suspended after Beijing imposed sanctions on several high-profile members of the European Parliament, three members of national parliaments, two EU committees, and several China-focused European academics.

For a comprehensive examination of the decision, please consider Chris Devonshire-Ellis’ comment for [China Briefing].

11 May 2021

India attends G-7 foreign ministers meet in London as Russia, China top agenda

(lm) Foreign ministers of the Group of Seven (G-7) industrialized nations met in London last week, with climate change, Russia and China among the challenges topping the agenda. It was the first face-to-face G-7 meeting in two years, following a coronavirus-extended pause. [Voice of America]

The United Kingdom, which holds the G7 rotating presidency, has been hosting representatives from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States. Representatives of the European Union were in attendance, as were delegates from Australia, India, South Korea, South Africa and the chairman of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

London’s intention to increase its presence in the Pacific was illustrated in December of last year, when the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson invited Australia, India and South Korea to attend the summit as guests – a move that had caused raised eyebrows among some of the other attendees [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4].

 

11 May 2021

Japan-UK relations: Foreign Ministers share concerns over China

(dql) In a meeting on the sidelines of last week’s gathering of the Group of Seven, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and his British counterpart Dominic Raab affirmed security cooperation to promotie a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and shared “grave concerns” about China’s unilateral attempts to change the status quo in regional waters and the human rights situation in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Both Ministers also agreed on deepening cooperation in battling climate change.

Motegi, furthermore, welcomed Britain’s scheduled dispatch of the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth and its strike group to Japan and the Indo-Pacific later in the year. [Japan Times]

11 May 2021

China-EU relations: European lawmakers to put investment agreement ‘on ice’

(dql) In a setback for the China-EU investment agreement, members of European Parliament (MEPs) plan to introduce a motion this month to freeze the deal by banning debate on it, until Beijing removes sanctions it has imposed against EU entities and individuals, in response to EU sanctions against China over human rights abuses in Xinjiang. [Deutsche Welle]

The deal, concluded in December between Brussel and Beijing and aimed at ensuring a stable framework of conditions for trade and investment in each other’s markets, must be ratified by the European Parliament to enter into force.

Meanwhile, the EU commission has proposed new rules to provides EU competition authorities to more power to vet foreign companies seeking to snap up EU businesses or assets or biding for public contracts should they be recipients of state subsidies. While the proposed rules don’t mention any country, they are seen as targeting China.  [Naharnet] [South China Morning Post]

For insights into China’s struggle to revive its weakening influence in eastern Europe, see Nickolay Kapitonenko in [International Politics and Society].

11 May 2021

New Zealand’s parliament motion on human rights abuses in Xinjiang

(dql) New Zealand’s parliament unanimously passed a motion which recognizes severe human rights abuses against Uyghur people in China’s Xinjiang region. The passage came after the word “genocide” was removed from the revised version of motion which was submitted by a minor opposition party. [Reuters]

11 May 2021

China-Australia relations: Beijing suspends economic dialogue with Canberra

(dql) Further worsening already strained Sino-Australian relations, China’s National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s macroeconomic management agency, has announced to “indefinitely” suspend all economic dialogue between the two countries.  The agency cited Canberra’s launch of a series of measures to disrupt the normal exchanges and cooperation between China and Australia out of Cold War mindset and ideological discrimination.” [Reuters]

 

11 May 2021

China, US trade mutual allegations of undermining multilateralism

(dql) At the latest virtually held meeting of the UN Security Council, China and US accused each other of undermining multilateralism, without naming the rival. While Chinese Foreign Minister warned that “[s]plitting the world along the ideological line conflicts with a spirit of multilateralism, and is a regression in history,” US Secretary of Anthony Blinken emphasized the need to uphold international rules, arguing: “When U.N. member states – particularly permanent members of the Security Council – flout these rules and block attempts to hold accountable those who violate international law, it sends the message that others can break those rules with impunity.” [South China Morning Post] [Reuters]

In another remark, Blinken has called on the World Health Organization (WHO) to allow Taiwan to participate as an observer in the annual meeting of the World Health Assemble (WHA), the WHO’s decision-making body, later this month, citing Taiwan’s “valuable contributions and lessons learned from its approach” to global health and global health security challenges. He added the warning that “excluding the interests of 24 million people at the WHA serves only to imperil, not advance, our shared global health objectives.” [The Hill]

In a latest development, China’s Foreign Ministry has blamed the Biden administration’s announcement to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by September 11 for bomb attacks at a girl’s school in Afghanistan which killed at least 60 people, accusing the US of “worsening the security situation and threatening peace and stability as well as people’s lives and safety.”

11 May 2021

G7 pull no punches on China at latest meeting

(dql) The Group of Seven (G7) has expressed a hardened stance towards China on multiple fronts at their first face-to-face meeting in two years in London last week. In their joint statement after the meeting, the foreign Ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US, along with the High Representative of the European Union, called on China to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” in accordance with the country’s obligations under international and national law, adding continued deep concerns over human rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang and in Tibet.

Furthermore, the group criticized the erosion of democratic elements in Hong Kong’s recently adopted electoral reform as well as over “practices that undermine […] free and fair economic systems, including on trade, investment and development finance.”

With regards to Taiwan, the group expressed its support for “Taiwan’s meaningful participation in World Health Organisation forums and the World Health Assembly,” as well as its “serious concerns about reports of militarisation, coercion, and intimidation,” in the South China Sea, stressing “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.” [EEAS]

It was the first time that the EU and its leading member states aligned with the US over the highly sensitive issue of Taiwan, and comes amid warnings of high-ranking US military officials of a takeover of the island by China by force by 2027 or sooner. [Politico] [The Guardian]

Grant Newsham in [Center for Security Policy], raises the question whether China – in an assault on Taiwan – could follow Russian President Vladimir Putin’s example of the seizure of “large swaths of Ukraine with a hybrid technique utilizing both local insurgents and military forces,” in 2014.

Taiwan, meanwhile, has not been invited to participate in the World Health Assembly (WHA) later this month May 24 to June 1. It is the fifth straight year in which the country has been excluded from the forum. [Focus Taiwan]

The decision over an invitation lies with 194 member states of the World Health Organization.

11 May 2021

China: Shenzhen set to massively invest in R&D

(dql) Shenzhen, China’s technology and innovation hub hosting more than 14.000 hi-tech firms – among them Tencent and Huawei – will invest over 100 billion USD in hi-tech research and development over the next five years, with focus on the areas of artificial intelligence, 6G, quantum technology, driverless vehicles, and intelligent networks. [South China Morning Post]

 

11 May 2021

China: Joshua Wong sentenced to three years in jail

(dql) Prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong was among four activists who were sentenced last week to jail for taking part in in an unauthorized candlelit vigil last to commemorate the crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen protest. Wong was handed down a 10-month jail term, adding to already 13 and a half months for organizing and inciting another unauthorized assembly in 2019. [Hong Kong Free Press]

Meanwhile, Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), Hong Kong’s prominent opposition group known for organizing mass protests, announced to refuse to cooperate with government authorities in an investigation into its legality and financial activities. The decision risks the ban of the organization.  [South China Morning Post]

 

11 May 2021

China to prevail and become invincible, Xi says

(dql) With China’s development facing “unprecedentedly rising domestic and international risks,” Chinese President Xi Jinping is convinced that the country will persevere through the current times of “turmoil,” as “times and circumstances” are on the country’s side. According to Xi, to be able to weather the storm of “profound and unprecedented changes” requires two conditions. First, a strong and performing Chinese Communist Party, which continues to be “modest, prudent and hardworking,” “mobilize[s] all positive factors that can be mobilized, unite[s] all forces that can be united, do[es] its best to do its own thing, and persevere[s] in achieving our stated goals.” The second factor is the country’s self-reliance, as Xi made clear: “As long as we can stand on our own and be self-reliant, and maintain a vibrant flow of goods and services domestically, then we will be invincible no matter how the storm changes internationally. We will survive and continue to develop, and nobody can beat us or choke us to death.” [Qiushi, in Chinese]

Xi made these remarks in a lengthy speech at the beginning of the year at the Central Party School, the party’s elite training center. The speech has been now published in the party’s major theoretical periodical Qiushi.

The publication of Xi’s speech comes ahead of the celebrations for the Communist Party centenary in July, and is also widely seen as embedded in recently accelerated efforts of the party to promote the narrative on China’s rise and the West’s decline, with particular reference to the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. [South China Morning Post 1] [New York Times] [The Economist]

In a related development, the Cybersecurity Administration of China (CAC), the country’s internet regulator, confirmed that it has overseen the deletion of over 2 million posts containing “harmful information with historical nihilism.” “Historical nihilism” in the terminology of the Chinese government refers to discussions or research questioning its official version of history. [South China Morning Post 2]

Earlier last month, the CAC launched a hotline allowing people to report those spreading unapproved sentiment about history. [Reuters]

4 May 2021

Japan, India, Australia, formally launch Supply Chain Resilience Initiative

(lm/dql) Against the larger backdrop of simmering trade and political tensions, the trade minister of Japan, India and Australia on April 27 formally launched the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) in the region. [South China Morning Post]

During the first phase, the three nations will share best practices on supply chain resilience, hold investment promotion and buyer-seller matching events for diversification of their supply chains. To quickly take forward the trilateral effort, the ministers explored convening the Trilateral Ministerial Meeting, once in four months.

After the coronavirus pandemic had brought to the fore the importance of diversification away from trade and supply chain dependence, informal talks had been ongoing since Japan first broached the idea with India in July of last year [see AiR No. 34, August/2020, 4]. In September, then, the three nations initiated high-level consultations [see AiR No. 36, September/2020, 2].

The proposal centers around a two-stage plan, which aims at attracting foreign direct investment to turn the Indo-Pacific into an “economic powerhouse” by linking up all the separate existing bilateral relationships, such as the recently established Indo-Japan Industrial Competitiveness Partnership. Moreover, the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) may be brought into the loop to establish new “China+1” strategies for supply chains outside China and build momentum towards a new trade-based quadrilateral alliance.

See in this regard, John Blaxland and Ashok Sharma in [East Asia Forum], who argue that a strategy of the Quad focusing solely on security “is not going to be enough to significantly alter the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific or deter further abrasive assertiveness” on China’s side,” and suggest that the Quad has to  “venture into the realm of trade and investment with a focus on environmental issues to address the needs of states buffeted by growing great power competition.”

China’s Foreign Ministry was quick to criticize the initiative warning that “[a]rtificial industrial ‘transfer’ is an unrealistic approach that goes against the economic laws and can neither solve domestic problems nor do anything good to the stability of the global industrial and supply chains, or to the stable recovery of the world economy.” [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China]

 

4 May 2021

Cross-strait relations: Taiwan accuses China of stealing technology

(dql) Taiwan’s government has made allegations against China of waging economic warfare against Taiwan’s tech sector by stealing technology and poaching away engineers, adding that the theft was not only about economic interests, but also aimed to “make Taiwan poorer and weaker.”

At the same time, lawmakers of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) are stepping up efforts to revise Taiwan’s commercial secrets law to widen the scope of what is considered a secret and to sharpen penalties.

The allegations of technology theft refers especially to the semiconductor industry, in which Taiwan is world-leading, with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) controlling 84% of the market for chips with the smallest, most efficient circuits on which the world’s biggest technology brands rely for their products and services. [South China Morning Post][Aljazeera] [The Economist]

In a related development, Taiwan’s Labor Ministry has urged local recruiters to remove all listings for jobs in China, in particular those in critical industries such as semiconductors. The Ministry defended the drastic measure as a necessary protective move against China: “Due to geopolitical tension between the U.S. and China, China’s semiconductor development has suffered some setbacks, and as a result China has become more aggressive in poaching and targeting top Taiwanese chip talent to help build a self-sufficient supply chain.” [Newsweek]

On the transformation of the semiconductor industry into a high-stakes geopolitical issue and a source of tension between the US and China and the specific role of Taiwan therein, see the report “Geopolitics of Semiconductors” in [Eurasia Group].

For the impact of Taiwan’s worst draught in more than 50 years on the Taiwanese semiconductor industry and the global electronics sector, see [BBC].

 

4 May 2021

China, Germany hold sixth round of government consultations

(dql) Co-chaired by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, China and Germany held government consultations on April 28 via video link. It was the sixth round of the consultations since their establishment in 2011 with the aim to deepen Sino-German cooperation. Last week’s talks focused on “political and economic bilateral cooperation, as well as on overcoming global challenges – especially with regard to the fight against the COVID‑19 pandemic and climate policy,” with work reports of from 25 departments of the two countries exchanged. “Letters of intent” were also signed for increased cooperation in various areas, including climate research and environment, health policy, food safety, development policy and transport. [Federal Foreign Office, Germany] [Foreign Ministry, China]

In their respective opening statements, Li and Merkel reaffirmed areas of cooperation and addressed differences.

Against the background of recent tensions between the European Union and China over accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Li remarked “that China and Germany have differences of opinion on some issues,” but insisted that Sino-German communication needs to be based on “equality and non-interference principles.” He highlighted trade as example of fruitful “win-win cooperation,” from which “people in both countries benefit directly.”

Merkel, meanwhile, called the EU-China investment agreement, agreed in principle in December, a “cornerstone” of economic relations but also addressed the need to abide to by International Labour Organization norms on forced labor, while avoiding making any reference to Xinjiang. She addressed the human rights situation in Hong Kong, speaking of “differences of opinion” about this issue, but expressing hope to see the Sino-German “human rights dialogue back on track as soon as possible.” [Global Times] [Politico]

For a critical account on the consultations and current Sino-German relations between “profitable economic relations” and “systemic rivalry,” see [Deutsche Welle].

Shannon Tiezzi in [The Diplomat], similarly, highlights mounting frictions in relations between Berlin and Beijing, including human rights in Xinjiang, market access in China, and 5G networks in Germany. She also draws attention to uncertainties in Sino-German ties in the wake of the end of Merkel’s 16-year long chancellorship in September and a possible victory in the general election by the Greens whose newly elected candidate for chancellorship has recently been very outspoken about China’s rights abuses and national security threats. [VoA]

 

4 May 2021

China-Australia relations: Canberra reviews Chinese ownership of Port Darwin

(dql) A blow to already frosty relations between China and Australia, the Australian Defense Ministry is reviewing a Chinese company’s ownership of the strategically important Port of Darwin in proximity of which US Marines are stationed. Australian Prime Minister made clear that he would take action, should he “receive from the Department of Defence or intelligence agencies that suggest there are national security risks there.”

Under a deal in 2015, the Northern Territory government sold a 99-year lease to the Port of Darwin to Landbridge Group, a Shandong-based private multinational company with business interests in port and logistics, oil and gas, real estate and tourism, and manufacturing and trade. The deal was concluded four years after then President Barack Obama secured an agreement to base about 2,500 Marines in Darwin, which is on the doorstep of the Indo-Pacific. [Aljazeera]

The Defense Ministry’s review comes at the heels of Canberra’s decision to scrap Victoria’s Belt and Road (BRI) infrastructure agreement with China. [ABC]

Adding fuel to the fire, Australian newspaper Sydney Morning Herald reports on a secret briefing by Major-General Adam Findlay to Australia’s special forces soldiers last year, in which the then Special Operations Commander warned of the “high likelihood” of a conflict with China and called on them to prepare for the possibility of war with China, while describing China as the biggest threat to the region. [Sydney Morning Herald]

 

4 May 2021

China and Russia dominate vaccine diplomacy, reject EU-sponsored WHO reform resolution

(dql) According to a report of the Economist Intelligence Unit, the research and analysis division of London-based media company Economist Group, the West is losing the COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy battle in key developing regions of the world to Russia and China and will suffer long-term strategic consequences. 

For China, the report concludes that the Chinese government has been able to keep new daily cases under 200 since April 2020, allowing China to pursue domestic and overseas vaccination drives in parallel, with so far 115m doses worth 1.8 billion USD administered on each track. The EU, the US and the UK, meanwhile, have so far mostly been absent from the vaccine diplomacy scene, due intense political pressure in these countries to vaccinate their own population first. 

Against this background, the report concludes: “Overall, the vaccine diplomacy efforts of Western states are likely to begin too late to catch up with those of Russia and China, which are so far winning the public relations battle,” and warns that “damage to the reputation of Western countries has already been done and will be hard to repair.”

This will, in further consequence, boost the global standing and leverage of Beijing and Moscow in emerging countries in the near future, helping both to gain influence and pursue their interests around the world. [9 News] [EIU]

For a similarly critical assessment of the EU’s performance in vaccine diplomacy with focus on the Balkans, see Michael Leigh in [Bruegel] who argues that “EU should reinforce its position in the region with more inclusive policies, clearer signaling and robust measures to counter disinformation.”

The European Union, meanwhile, has accused China and Russia of systematically seeking to sow mistrust in Western COVID-19 vaccines in their latest disinformation campaigns over the past months, with the intention to divide the West. In a latest special report, released last week, the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic service and combined Foreign and Defence Ministry, concludes that Chinese and Russian vaccine diplomacy comes along with “disinformation and manipulation efforts to undermine trust in Western-made vaccines, EU institutions and Western/European vaccination strategies,” with state-controlled media outlets, channels and social media being used to achieve these goals. [EU vs Disinfo] [Reuters]

Furthermore, China and Russia are reportedly joining hands in pushing back an EU-led resolution which calls for increased cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO) during public health crises and for which both countries are demanding changes to the text of the resolution. Among those is the inclusion of the formulation “in accordance with national and international laws and regulations” to a paragraph in the resolution on sharing samples and genetic sequences of pathogens with pandemic potential. In another paragraph referring to member countries strengthening their public health surveillance, China and Russia (and Syria) seek to replace a reference to “investigation” of public health events with “assessment.” [Politico]

The move comes as China continues to face accusations of withholding data from the WHO’s investigation into the origins of the pandemic.

4 May 2021

China-Africa trade continue to rise 

(dql) Trade between China and Africa rose by 26.9% in the first quarter of this year compared with 2020, with two-way China-Africa trade totaling 52.1 billion USD in the first three months of the year after most countries eased trade and travel restrictions that had been imposed to curb the spread of the virus. China exported goods worth 29.8 billion USD to Africa in the quarter, up 39.2% from last year. African countries sold China goods worth 22.3 billion USD during the period, a 13.6% increase. [South China Morning Post

A special role is played by Congo in China’s trade with Africa. While China is still the world’s largest oil importer, the availability of crude from the Middle East – whose shipments would traditionally have gone to the US but no longer do because of sanctions – means it is no longer heavily reliant on African suppliers. However, Beijing still needs from Africa copper, cobalt and other rare minerals. This has led to China’s engagement in Africa shift towards Congo, the world’s leading producer of cobalt and Africa’s biggest copper producer. Latest numbers of the China Africa Research Institute demonstrate this development: while the country received only 2.7 billion USD worth of Chinese loans between 2000 and 2019, the total value of Chinese foreign direct investments was 5.6 billion USD as of 2019. [South China Morning Post 2]

In January, China announced that it would scrap Congo’s debts which were due end of last year, as part of its extended debt relief worth over 2 billion USD to developing countries under a G20 framework aimed at giving those hammered by the COVID-19 crisis some financial breathing space. [Reuters]

Meanwhile, according to a recent of report of law firm Baker McKenzie, China remains the top international investor in infrastructure in Africa, with China’s lending to Sub-Saharan Africa energy and infrastructure projects totaling 3.3 billion USD in 2020, a slight increase from 2.8 billion USD in 2019, but well below its 2017 peak with 11 billion USD. [Baker McKenzie]

4 May 2021

China-US relations: Blinken’s warning against Chinese widening influence in Africa 

(dql) In a virtual meeting with alumni of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has cautioned Africa to beware of China’s growing influence, saying that “[w]e’re not asking anyone to choose between the United States or China, but I would encourage you to ask those tough questions, to dig beneath the surface, to demand transparency and to make informed choices about what is best for you and your countries.”

YALI is a US Department of State program aimed at educating and networking young African leaders with activities including the Mandela Washington Fellowship which provides study trips to the US for six weeks. 

In subsequent talks with the Presidents of Nigeria and Kenya, Blinken promised greater US commitment to Africa, while iterating that “China is a global competitor and competition is a good thing as long as it’s basically fair and the playing field is level,” adding that “[b]ut as we look at it, we have different approaches to governance, we have different approaches to business, we have different approaches to security, and the fundamentals sometimes of our partnerships are quite different.” [Channel News Asia] [VoA 1]

In earlier remarks in April before the US Senate Armed Services Committee, US Army General Stephen Townsend, leader of US Africa Command, said that China over the past two years has “completed a very large and capable naval pier that adjoins their base,” with the capacity to “dock their largest ships, to include the Chinese aircraft carrier as well as nuclear submarines,” and to “rearm [them] with munitions and repair naval vessels.” [VoA 2]

 

4 May 2021

China: Shrinking press freedom in Hong Kong

(dql) In this year’s survey of the Hong Kong Journalist Association (HKJA), participated by almost all representatives of Hong Kong’s press, press freedom in 2020 in the former British colony was rated at 32.1 out of 100 points, marking a decrease of 4.1 points compared to 2019 and the lowest rating since the survey was first introduced eight years ago. 99% of respondents attributed the decline to the national security law imposed by Beijing in summer last year. [The Standard

This survey result echoes the 2021 world press freedom index of Reporters without Borders (RSF) which concludes for Hong Kong that the “national security law that the Chinese government adopted in June 2020, […] is especially dangerous for journalists.” [AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4]

Interestingly, Hong Kong’s public saw a slight increase of 0.7 points to 42.6 in press freedom. More than 1000 Hong Kong residents were surveyed, with only 69% of them believing that the national security law was harming the work of the press and media in their city. [South China Morning Post]

Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), the city’s public broadcaster, meanwhile, announced that it will begin to remove shows older than one year from its YouTube channel and Facebook page. [Kong Hong Free Press]

While RTHK assured that the measure is taken in order to align its social media platforms with its website, where only programs not older than one year are viewable, critics view it as a latest sign of the erosion of media independence in Hong Kong, as material reporting on Hong Kong’s protests in 2019 will no longer be viewable. Thus far, the broadcaster’s archival content has been freely accessible on the two platforms. [Radio Free Asia] [China Digital Times]

In a separate move, RTHK has fired outspoken journalist Nabela Qoser who has become known for her sharp questioning of the city’s officials, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam, during the anti-government protests in 2019. [Apple Daily]

4 May 2021

China: Life-time ban for Hong Kong teachers over teaching material and involvement in 2019 protests 

(dql) Two Hong Kong teachers have been punished with a life-time ban, one for being involved in the 2019 anti-government protests and one for “using a large amount of one-sided and biased teaching materials,” deemed by the city’s Education Bureau as amounting to “defaming the nation and undermining students’ sense of national identity.” [South China Morning Post]

The teachers’ de-registration is to be seen against the broader backdrop of increased efforts of the Hong Kong government to reform education in the former British colony in line with the national security law for Hong Kong. In February, the Education Bureau issued new guidelines for curriculum arrangements, requiring, among others, primary school pupils to be taught the basic concepts of national security, including subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, key offenses stipulated in the national security law. Higher classes in secondary schools would receive more in-depth teaching on national security-related offenses. [AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]

In April, Hong Kong held its first “National Security Education Day” to promote the national security law among the city’s youth. [Aljazeera]

4 May 2021

China: Joshua Wong pleads guilty over June 4 assembly

(dql) Leading Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong has pleaded guilty of taking part in an un-authorized vigil on June 4 last year to commemorate the crackdown on the1989 Tiananmen Square protests. 

Last year’s vigil struck an especially sensitive nerve as it came amid Beijing’s preparation to introduce the new national security law for the former British colony. Police banned the event, citing concerns over public health risks due to the pandemic. [Channel News Asia]

4 May 2021

China: Another major internet company probed 

(dql) China’s anti-trust authorities announced that they are investigating Meituan, the country’s leading online food-delivery services provider, for alleged anti-competitive practices. The accusations revolve around so-called exclusivity requirements which e-commerce leaders have imposed on their merchants to prevent them from offering and selling their products or services on other platforms.

The probe comes amid increased state scrutiny of internet companies suspected of anti-competitive practices. It follows the 2.8 billion USD fine against Alibaba Group Holding for similar violations of anti-trust rules, and the summoning of more than 30 leading online platforms to regulators’ offices, where the firms were warned not to abuse their market position. [New York Times][AiR No. 15, April/2021, 2]

In November last year, China’s State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) released new anti-monopoly guidelines targeting internet platforms and tightening existing restrictions faced by the country’s tech giants. Shortly after the release of the guidelines the investigation of Alibaba begun.  [AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5

4 May 2021

Vietnam opposes Chinese annual fishing moratorium

(lm) The Vietnamese government has again rejected a recent Chinese fishing ban imposed on waters in the South China Sea and called on Beijing to comply with international laws. [The Star]

China on April 27 announced an annual fishing moratorium in the waters Beijing has claimed in the South China sea. The ban, which came into effect on May 1 runs until September 16 and covers parts of the Gulf of Tonkin and waters surrounding the Paracel Islands, both of which are claimed by Vietnam. Imposed since 1999, Beijing claims the restrictions a part of the country’s efforts to promote sustainable marine fishery development and improve marine ecology [see also AiR No. 19, May/2020, 2].

4 May 2021

Philippines to remain patrolling South China Sea

(lp) Chinese ships still remain in parts of the South China Sea over which the Philippines has territorial claims. What is more, China urged the Philippines to “respect China’s sovereignty and rights” through a cease of maritime exercises in the area. Moreover, the Chinese Ambassador to Manila named the territorial conflict as mere “differences”, despite being summoned some weeks ago in request to remove the Chinese vessels from Philippine territory. [Manila Bulletin 1]

In turn, the Philippines continue to patrol the South China Sea with military and non-military ships, rejecting China’s plea to back off. According to a maritime expert, the diplomatic protests recently issued might have resulted in the decreasing presence of Chinese vessels in the area. Moreover, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) distributed relief supplies to fishermen to alleviate the negative impacts that Chinese incursion and continued patrols they might be incurring. [South China Morning Post 1] [Benar News] [ABS-CBN 1]

Meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte communicated his lack of confidence that the US or the UN will assist the Philippines if conflict escalates. Duterte also claimed he considers China a “good friend” to which he owes a debt of gratitude for their vaccine donations. [Manila Bulletin 2] [ABS-CBN 2]

Via social media platform Twitter, the war of words got ugly, with Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr calling China an “ugly oaf” and demanding it “get the f*** out” of Philippine maritime waters. It prompted analysts to warn of an actual war respectively further tensions as Chinese reaction. [South China Morning Post 2]

4 May 2021

Chinese-Indonesian copper mine deal to be cancelled

(nd) A deal which foresaw the construction of a US$2.5 billion copper smelter on the eastern Indonesian island of Halmahera in a joint project of Freeport McMoran Copper & Gold (FCX) and China’s Tsingshan Steel have collapsed. Following the end of the deadline of 31 March, the government has acknowledged the project will return to its original site at a Gresik, East Java. Global copper prices have mounted to a record price of US$10,000 per ton on the London Metal Exchange, driven by global demand for electric vehicles. [Asia Times]

4 May 2021

China to donate vaccines to Myanmar

(nd) China has donated 500,000 doses of its Covid-19 vaccine to the Myanmar junta, amid an ongoing boycott of millions of civilians and health workers of the regime’s vaccine program. China commented the donation was to show “Paukphaw” [fraternal] friendship between China and Myanmar. The vaccines were promised to ousted State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in January by foreign minister Wang Yi, which also led to the signature of agreements on the economy, trade and technical cooperation and the faster implementation of infrastructure projects with respect to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which forms part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Social media users posted skeptical content about the vaccines. Anti-China sentiment grew since the coup, following China’s repeated veto against UN Security Council sanctions. [Irrawaddy]

Meanwhile, the junta opened a private hospital, whose nightly room rates are much below what an average Burmese can afford to pay. It is yet unclear how involved coup leader Min Aung Hlaing and his family are. [Irrawaddy 1

Over the weekend, security forces arrested HIV/AIDS patients at a HIV care center in Yangon, which was founded and run by elected lawmaker and National League for Democracy (NLD) member Daw Phyu Phyu Thin. [Irrawaddy 2]

4 May 2021

Russia’s plans in Myanmar

(nd) Russia never denounced the military coup in Myanmar but expressed hope for a “a peaceful settlement of the situation through the resumption of political dialogue”, calling the military the only viable guarantor of the multi-ethnic country’s unity and peace. Together with China and India, they blocked harsher actions by the UN Security Council. Deputy Minister of Defence, Alexander Fomin, was the highest-ranking foreign official to attend Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day parade in the capital Naypyidaw, and his speech emphasized the strategic partnership of the two countries.

Since the 1950s, Russia has maintained a close relationship with the military, proving military training. Following China, Russia is the second largest arms provider to Myanmar, and is currently awaiting the delivery of fighter jets and an air defense system, including surveillance drones. Due to its already strained relation with the West, Russia’s support for Myanmar comes at no diplomatic costs.

Still, it is unclear whether and how Russia will coordinate with China on this issue. China’s relation to the military is complicated due to supporting ethnic Chinese insurgency groups in Myanmar’s Western border with China. Additionally, while Russia maintains one-dimensional military ties, eyeing access to the Indian Ocean, neighboring China has to consider social and economic interaction as well. [East Asia Forum]

4 May 2021

Pakistan to seek debt restructuring from Chinese power producers

(lm) In a bid to preempt a possible raise of power tariffs, Pakistan will seek debt restructuring of $3 billion in principial repayments to Chinese power producers. The initiative is part of a Circular Debt Management Plan (CDMP), which aims to reduce the amount of unpaid government subsidies within the next 3 years. [Dawn]

In recent years, China has financed two dozen power plants as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of Beijing’s international infrastructure strategy known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Because repayment of the debt is included in the electricity tariff, Islamabad will request Beijing to consider restructuring of the repayments for 10 to 12 years, which in turn will reduce the tariff increase requirements. [The Express Tribune]

4 May 2021

Chinese defense minister visits Sri Lanka, Bangladesh

(lm) China’s Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe on April 28 arrived in Sri Lanka on a two-day visit for bilateral talks with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and other top officials. Earlier the day, Wei visited Bangladesh to meet with President Abdul Hamid and Chief of Bangladesh Army Staff General Aziz Ahmed. [South China Morning Post] [The Daily Star] [The Hindu]

General Wei is the second high-ranking Chinese official to visit the strategically located island nation within months. A Chinese seven-member delegation led by Yang Jiechi, a Communist Party Politburo member and top foreign policy official, had visited Sri Lanka on October of last year, preceding the four-nation tour by then US Secretary of State Pompeo, which aimed to bolster allies against Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the region. [AiR No. 44, November/2020, 1]

Wei’s visit assumes added significance, for it is likely to coincide with a ruling by Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court on a bill related to the contentious Colombo Port City (CPC), a Chinese-funded $1.4 billion development project to be built on reclaimed land. Several petitions have been lodged against the proposed piece of legislation since it was tabled in parliament earlier this month, with opponents saying it violates the country’s sovereignty, constitution and labor laws. [see AiR No. 16, April/2021, 3AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4].

4 May 2021

Cross-strait relations: Taiwan to toughen punishments for army servicemen leaking confidential information to China

(dql) Taiwan’s Cabinet approved a draft amendment to the island’s Criminal Code of the Armed Forces that provides punishments for serving members of the armed forces who pass on confidential information to a newly defined category of people, to include now “foreign governments and nationals, citizens of Mainland China, residents of Hong Kong and Macau and or any middlemen sent on their behalf.” The current law identifies the country’s enemies as “any country or organization that engages in or whose forces confront the Republic of China.” 

Under current law, leaking confidential information is punishable with a jail term of 3-10 years in peacetime and 7 years to life during war. Furthermore, anyone who discloses or delivers materials of a secret nature related to Taiwan’s defense to anyone in the new category faces 5-12 years in prison during peacetime and 10 years to life during war. However, individuals who disclose more confidential information can be sentenced to a maximum of 18 years. 

The draft amendment also expands the definition of enemies from “any country or organization that engages in or whose forces confront the Republic of China,” to any country, organization, or “political entity,” that does so. [Focus Taiwan]

The draft bill comes after China’s Ministry of State Security, the country’s civilian intelligence, security and secret police agency, in April issued new anti-espionage regulations, the first counter-espionage working regulations at a national level and across different sectors, including government departments, social groups and companies. They allow the agency to draw up lists of companies and organizations suspected of foreign infiltration and to require them to adopt security measures to prevent foreign infiltration. [AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4]

The legislative move comes also at a time of heightened cross-strait relations amid Chinese military activities of unprecedented frequency close to Taiwan on the one side and US warnings of a Chinese takeover of Taiwan by force in the near future on the other. [AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4] [AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3] [The Guardian]

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s High Court upheld a guilty ruling against two former guards of President Tsai Ing-wen charged with breaching the National Security Act and spying for China, trying to obtain the itinerary of President Tsai, as well as US and Japanese politicians who visited and met with her in 2018. [Taipei Times]

4 May 2021

North Korea-China relations: “Export processing zone” near Chinese border announced 

(nm) North Korea last week announced it would build a “Musan Export Processing Zone” near its border with China, apparently seeking to recover trade after a year of strict border closure which in addition to international sanctions due to missile and nuclear tests let the nation’s trade contract to almost zero.  

Although the North’s official state media did neither specify the goods to be dealt with nor details on its opening, experts believe the zone might be used to manufacture products using materials imported from China before then exporting them back. 

The announcement comes about a month after Chinese president Xi Jinping vowed to “provide the peoples of the two countries with better lives,” while North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for stronger bilateral cooperation in defiance of “hostile forces.” Trade between the two allies fell by 75% during the first ten months of 2020, according to South Korea’s spy agency, leading to a shortage of raw materials in the isolated North. In a low-level party meeting last month Kim had surprisingly acknowledged that his country is facing its “worst-ever situation,” comparing it to the devastating 1990 famine. [Korea Herald] [SCMP] [The Guardia n]