- Main Developments at the “Two Sessions”
- FM Wang Yi’s response to question on India – China Relations
- China’s Reaction to the Quad Summit
- China – U.S. 2+2 at Anchorage, Alaska
- China’s Economy Performing Well
- U.S. – Japan 2+2 dialogue held at Tokyo
- Japan – Indonesia 2+2 Dialogue
- Japan joins the U.S. in Expressing Dissatisfaction on WHO Report on Covid Origins
- Japan’s Economy Shrinks in 2020
- U.S. – South Korea 2+2 Meeting
- South Korean Defense Minister Visits India
- South Korean economy contracts in 2020
- North Korea tests ballistic missiles
- Beijing makes changes to HK’s Electoral System
II Developments in China
1. Main Developments at the “Two Sessions”
The annual sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) took place on 4 – 11 March 2021. They are considered the equivalent of India’s Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. The NPC Session is marked by the Government Work Report which is delivered each year by the Premier of China currently Li Keqiang. It is a summary of what work the Chinese Government will focus on in the current year as well as a look back at what was achieved in the previous year. Highlights of Li’s Work Report include the following targets for 2021:
- GDP growth of over 6 per cent
- 11 million new urban jobs
- Urban unemployment rate of 5.5%
- Inflation as measured by the CPI of 3%
- Steady growth in personal incomes
- Grain output over 650 million tonnes
- Defence spending increased by 6.8%.
The Premier of China also does a Press Conference during the NPC Session which is looked forward to by journalists and this year Li was asked a wide range of questions from – isn’t 6% GDP growth rate too low, to changes made in the election system in HK, to China – US relations and others. Premier Li performed very well at the Press Conference easily answering the questions with practiced ease.
However, omnipresent through the Two Sessions was supreme leader Xi Jinping as media coverage was more on him than on Premier Li, as has been the case since Xi came to power. The trend of reporting in the Chinese media was that Xi Jinping is the real power in China and it is he who is guiding the work of the Government while others including the Premier are merely performing roles which have been assigned to them. Many of the steps taken were rationalized as being part and parcel of Xi Jinping Thought.
The Two Sessions also approved the 14th Five Year Plan of China as also the longer-term economic goals till 2035.
Many observers of China and its systems are of the opinion that there is much less debate and discussion in the annual meeting of the Two Sessions than in the past. This is true even on economic subjects which are less controversial and can be debated in public as have been done quite vociferously in the past. So, increasingly under Xi Jinping, the Two Sessions have become rubber stamps within the overall Communist system of government.
2. FM Wang Yi’s response to question on India – China Relations
As part of the “Two Sessions” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi too addressed the media and took questions at a press conference on 7 March 2021. The PTI reporter based in Beijing asked “how do you see prospects of peace at the borders between China and India? ……. Future trajectory of the relationship?”
Significant parts of Wang Yi’s reply include the following –
- The China – India relationship is essentially about how the world’s two largest developing countries get along and pursue development and rejuvenation
- China and India have broad common interests and tremendous potential for cooperation
- China and India are each other’s friends and partners, not threats or rivals
- The boundary dispute is left over from history and it is important that the two countries manage the dispute properly and at the same time expand and enhance cooperation
- The rights and wrongs of what happened in the border area last year are clear
- It falls on both sides to jointly safeguard peace and tranquility on the border
In our view the critical part is “the rights and wrongs of what happened in the border area last year are clear”. It implies China feels it was justified in taking the military measures it did in Ladakh. This is diametrically opposite to views in India which are that China has violated every agreement between the two countries for the maintenance of peace and tranquility. China has attempted military coercion and has unilaterally tried to define the LAC. The gap between the two countries is huge and yawning.
3. China’s Reaction to the Quad Summit
In response to a question from Reuters on the Quad Summit held on 13 March 2021, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson made remarks, the main gist of which are –
- Certain countries have been keen to exaggerate and hype up the so-called “China Threat”
- Their actions run counter to the trend of the times which is peace, development and cooperation
- Exchanges and cooperation between countries should help expand mutual understanding and trust, instead of harming the interests of third parties
- Certain countries should shake off their cold war mentality and ideological prejudice, refrain from forming closed and exclusive small circles and do more things conducive to cooperation among regional countries
To us it appears that China is rattled by the rapid development in the Quad process from regular meetings of Foreign Ministers to a Summit meeting, even if virtual. The focus of the Quad leaders on how to work together to help the Indo-Pacific Region recover from the pandemic is a perfect pitch.
4. China – U.S. 2+2 at Anchorage, Alaska
The first major face-to-face interaction between China and the Biden Administration took place at Anchorage, Alaska on 18 March 2021. The U.S. was represented by Secretary of State Blinken and NSA Sullivan, while China was represented by Director of Foreign Affairs of the Central Committee Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Both sides were to give brief opening remarks in front of the media but this turned into a longish slanging match between the two sides. It was obvious that even while each side was playing to the media galleries they were also laying down their positions in public. The verbal spat, which was televised and hence received massive viewership, summarizes the problems that bedevil ties between the two largest economies in the world. The gulf between them does not seem to have reduced even a wee bit after the meeting at Anchorage.
5. China’s Economy Performing Well
Statistics from China’s National Bureau of Statistics on the economy for the January – February 2021 period, show steady progress in economic development. Industrial output rose 35.1% compared with the year before, retail sales increased 33.8%, fixed asset investment increased by 35%, electricity consumption grew 22.2%. It must be recollected that the base period of a year back was very low as China was in the throes of the Covid pandemic in the months of January and February 2020.
III Developments in Japan
1. U.S. – Japan 2+2 dialogue held at Tokyo
The U.S. and Japan held their 2+2 dialogue between Foreign and Defense Ministers at Tokyo on 16 March 2021. This is a fine example of the new Biden Administration reaching out to its allies as promised in the election campaign. The two sides reaffirmed that the U.S.– Japan Alliance remains the cornerstone of peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific Region. The U.S. side reiterated its commitment to the defense of Japan. The Ministers committed themselves and their countries to opposing coercion and destabilizing behavior towards others in the region which undermines the rules-based international system. Their Joint Statement clearly criticized China’s unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea as brought out by the July 2016 arbitral award of the tribunal constituted under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention which is final and legally binding.
China reacted strongly to this Joint Statement calling Japan a strategic appendage of the U.S.
2. Japan – Indonesia 2+2 Dialogue
The Japan – Indonesia 2+2 Dialogue was held at Jakarta on 29 March 2021 allowing the transfer of Japanese defense equipment and technology to Indonesia indicating a strengthening of defense ties between the two nations. The two sides shared grave concern over the escalation of attempts to change the status quo by force in the South China Sea. They expressed serious concern over killings of pro-democracy protestors in Myanmar. There seems to be rising concern in the Indo-Pacific Region of China’s greater assertiveness and aggressiveness.
3. Japan joins the U.S. in Expressing Dissatisfaction on WHO Report on Covid Origins
Japan joined the U.S. and several other countries in a statement which expresses concern over a WHO report on the origins of the Covid virus. Even though the statement issued by these nations has no mention of China, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing hit out at these remarks stating that politicizing the issue would not be conducive to international cooperation.
4. Japan’s Economy Shrinks in 2020
Despite growing by 5.3% in Q3 and 3% in Q4, overall for the calendar year 2020 Japan’s economy shrunk by 4.8% due to the Covid-19 induced recession. This is its first full year contraction since 2009.
IV Developments in South Korea
1. U.S. – South Korea 2+2 Meeting
US Secretary of State Blinken and Defense Secretary Austin visited Seoul on 18 March for a 2+2 meeting with their Korean counterparts Foreign Minister Chung and Defense Minister Suh. The Joint Statement issued after their meeting states that amid growing global threats their Alliance has never been more important. Both sides reaffirmed a mutual commitment to the defense of the ROK. The two countries will continue to closely coordinate on all issues related to the Korean Peninsula. While there is no mention of China in this joint statement (unlike the one with Japan) both sides do share their commitment to unimpeded lawful commerce and respect for international law, clearly aimed at China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea. They also state that the ROK – U.S. Alliance is stronger than ever. As promised by candidate Biden, his Administration has moved quickly to shore up U.S. relations with allies.
2. South Korean Defense Minister Visits India
South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook visited India 25-27 March 2021 held discussions with counterpart Rajnath Singh, travelled to Agra and also inaugurated a India – Korea Friendship Park at Delhi Cantonment. The two governments have agreed to joint production and export of military hardware.
3. South Korean economy contracts in 2020
Like Japan, the South Korean economy too contracted in 2020 due to the Covid-19 induced economic issues the first time to do so since 1998. South Korea’s Central Bank stated that the economy contracted by 1% in 2020 as compared with the year previous. A modest recovery is expected in 2021.
V Developments in North Korea
1. North Korea tests ballistic missiles
On 25 March 2021, North Korea tested two ballistic missiles, the first such test after Biden took over the Presidency of the United States. Both Japan and South Korea have condemned the test. Pyongyang is banned from testing ballistic missiles under UN Security Council resolutions.
VI Developments in Hong Kong
1. Beijing makes changes to HK’s Electoral System
The National People’s Congress of China has approved changes to HK’s electoral system. The Election Committee has been expanded from 1200 to 1500 members and it will nominate and elect the Chief Executive and part of the LegCo, which in turn has been expanded from 70 to 90 seats. A candidate qualification review committee will be established to ensure that only “patriots” will become Chief Executive of HK. These changes ensure that elections in HK will not be based on free and fair universal suffrage.
(The views expressed are personal)