Chinese President Xi Jinping meets three visiting leaders in one day. Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering stirs debate with his controversial remarks on the Doklam trijunction territorial dispute. A new report highlights the US’ role in India-China border tensions in Ladakh. Chinascope weaves together the events that shaped our world this week.
China over the week
If you thought Xi would sit idly after his recent trip to Moscow, think again. On 31 March, he met with three visiting world leaders—Spanish President Pedro Sanchez, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim— affirming Beijing’s interest in presenting itself as the new force in international relations. All three leaders were in China for the Boao Forum for Asia, held annually in Hainan and dubbed the World Economic Forum conference of Asia.
Xi met Sanchez as China and Spain marked 50 years of their diplomatic relations. Sanchez discussed the ongoing war in Ukraine with Xi, who reaffirmed Beijing’s position by citing the peace plan for Kyiv.
Later, Xi met Lee, who was also on an official visit to Beijing. President Xi and Prime Minister Lee held a bilateral exchange. Both decided to elevate their ties to an ‘All-Round High-Quality Future-Oriented Partnership’.
Finally, Xi met Anwar, discussing cooperation on Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects and security.
“China is ready to work with Malaysia to promote Asian civilizations, uphold strategic independence and the original aspiration of East Asia cooperation, support the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) centrality, firmly reject the Cold War mentality and camp confrontation, and jointly build a common home,” said Xi during his meeting with Anwar.
While Xi met world leaders, Premier Li Qiang was busy at the Boao Forum.
“To achieve greater success in Asia, chaos and conflicts must not happen in Asia. Otherwise, the future will be lost,” Li said while addressing the Boao Forum.
Li tried to send a message to the world that China’s economic growth remains robust and that the country remains open for business.
Meanwhile, Alibaba founder Jack Ma was seen in the Chinese mainland for the first time in months, signalling that Beijing’s crackdown against tech entrepreneurs might be coming to a halt – for now.
Taiwan was in the international news this week because of two high-profile visits. President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to New York and former President Ma Ying-joeu’s trip to the Chinese mainland has divided opinion on future tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
After a short stay in New York, Tsai landed in Guatemala – one of Taiwan’s only 13 official diplomatic allies.
Tsai will likely meet US House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California on her way back from South America – which will escalate some military tension in the Taiwan Strait.
Meanwhile, Ma Ying-joeu’s visit started as a personal trip but turned into a political event as he held meetings with Song Tao, head of the Taiwan Work Office of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Also read: China’s position on Russia-Ukraine war could bring US sanctions into play
China in world news
As the snow melts on the Himalayan peaks in Eastern Ladakh, the repositioning of troops has slowly started to pick up. US officials have brought the focus back to the India-China border stand-off as a new report underlines the US’ stake in Ladakh military tensions.
“Some of the steps that China has taken along this vast 5,000-mile border had been provocative and deeply concerning to Indian partners and friends,” said Kurt Campbell, deputy assistant to the US President and coordinator for the Indo-Pacific.
Besides suggesting that US officials are concerned about escalating tensions at the India-China border, a new report has highlighted the support the US has offered to India since the Ladakh stand-off started in April 2020.
“The United States provided information and intelligence and expedited delivery of equipment, including two MQ-9B surveillance drones and specialized gear for extremely cold weather conditions,” said the report by the Centre for New American Security.
The chatter about border disputes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) wasn’t restricted to the Ladakh area over the week.
Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering has made remarks in an interview with Belgian newspaper La Libre Belgique, which have started a stormy debate about China’s claim on the Doklam area.
“Doklam is on the trijunction between India, China and Bhutan. It isn’t up to Bhutan alone to solve the problem,” Tshering told La Libre Belgique. Certain media outlets interpreted the comment as a change in Bhutan’s position by making China a party of the trijunction area dispute.
India maintains that the dispute over the trijunction area is between New Delhi and Thimphu, to which Beijing isn’t a party.
Tshering has also said Bhutan can draw a line in the non-Doklam areas where Thimphu has disputes with Beijing.
“After one or two more meetings, we will probably be able to draw a line,” said Tshering in the interview.
In a Twitter thread, Tibetologist Robert Barnett tried to make sense of Tshering’s remarks by examining Bhutan’s previously stated position on territorial disputes.
In a 2020 article, this author used archival material to argue that the dispute over the trijunction area, popularly known as the ‘Doklam bowl’, was between the Kingdom of Sikkim and the Kingdom of Bhutan. A document in the Sikkim Palace archives shows a discussion between the King of Sikkim and the King of Bhutan on the rights to access Gipmochi hill, where the Doklam bowl sits.
Chinese experts have hailed Tshering’s remarks as a victory for Beijing.
“Bhutan has realized that India’s hegemony in South Asia is not conducive to the development of Bhutan,” said Zhang Yongpan, Tibet Research Office of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Frontier Affairs.
The controversy surrounding the Bhutanese Prime Minister’s remarks has started a discussion on Chinese social media.
The hashtag “The prime minister of Bhutan said that he is ready for the signing of the border treaty between China and Bhutan” was viewed over 860, 000 times on Weibo.
Commentators on Chinese social media have also hailed Tshering’s remarks as a breakthrough for Beijing’s territorial dispute.
Now, the PM has attempted to clarify his position by saying there has been no change in Bhutan’s official position. Bhutan might be trying to control the fallout from Tshering’s remarks, but the damage may have already been done.
High-level diplomatic engagements between India and China have become rare over the last three years.
China’s new defence minister Li Shangfu will likely visit New Delhi for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Defence Minister’s meeting in April.
Also read: China cracks down on fake news, foreign media as Wang Yi calls US balloon saga ‘hysterical’
Must read this week
How to Out-Deter China – Joel Wuthnow
China truce with business — for now – Joe Leahy, Ryan McCorrow, Thomas Hale and Ed White
India-China Border Tensions and U.S. Strategy in the Indo-Pacific – Lisa Curtis and Derek Grossman
The China-Pakistan military relationship has been under intense public discussion in India and worldwide. The bilateral relationship transforming into a military alliance remains an open question. In an episode of the ChinaPower Podcast, Bonny Lin of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies spoke to Sameer P. Lalwani, senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace, on the evolution of the China-Pakistan partnership. Chinascope recommends listening to the conversation.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He is currently a MOFA Taiwan Fellow based in Taipei and tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)