January 22, 2021 – Stealth War Newsletter 21

By: Jamestown Foundation

Fri January, 2021, Age: 2 years



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January 22, 2020

Strategic Indicator
This issue’s number to watch


The number of new COVID-19 cases reported in China on Wednesday, which marked a high unseen since March 1. Although the state appears to have controlled new outbreaks, it has implemented harsh lockdown measures and quarantine restrictions to do so, particularly in rural areas. Ahead of the Lunar New Year travel season, the stringent precautions have drawn widespread online criticism.

Top Stories

On the last full day of the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued the strongest-yet condemnation of China’s persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, declaring that China was committing “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.” Genocide is a serious crime under international law, and the U.S.’s adoption of the formal label will mark a significant shift in the international community’s efforts to hold China accountable. Last year, a Canadian parliamentary subcommittee reached the same conclusion. China has consistently denied accusations against its Xinjiang policy, and a foreign ministry spokesperson on Wednesday was quick to respond, saying “Genocide never happened, is not happening, and will not happen on China’s soil.” In related news, Bloomberg has reported that on January 8 Twitter had temporarily locked the account of the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. for a tweet defending Chinese policies in Xinjiang that said Uighur women were no longer “baby-making machines.” The Chinese embassy has refused to delete its tweet, and the @ChineseEmbinUS account remains locked as of Friday.

The State Department designation follows the passage of legislation in late December requiring the U.S. to determine within 90 days whether China’s practices in Xinjiang constitute crimes against humanity or genocide. While exiled Uighur activists have welcomed the announcement, other human rights advocates have criticized the designation as being long-delayed and tainted by the outgoing Trump administration’s reduced credibility.

The Biden administration has indicated its general agreement with Pompeo’s designation, and this past summer also referred to China’s persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang as a “genocide.” During his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken agreed with Pompeo’s assessment, saying “That would be my judgement as well.” If the Biden administration keeps the State Department designation, one next step would be to lobby allies to support efforts to confront China more directly.

China appeared to send mixed messages to the incoming Biden administration on Wednesday, issuing sanctions on 28 outgoing U.S. officials and “their immediate family members” for “seriously violat[ing] China’s sovereignty.” Ten of these officials have been named, and include Mike Pompeo, Peter K. Navarro, Robert C. O’Brien, David R. Stilwell, Matthew Pottinger, Alex M. Azar II, Keith J. Krach, Kelly D. K. Craft, John Bolton, and Steve Bannon. The announcement was released just minutes after President Joseph R. Biden took office, and a spokesperson for the new White House called them an “unproductive and cynical move.” Analysts have also noted that by including “immediate family members” for the first time, the Chinese sanctions appear to represent an escalation in the diplomatic war with the U.S. Longtime China watcher Bill Bishop noted that this move could be seen as “disrespectful” and a “warning to the new team.”

During a regular press conference on Inauguration Day, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying defended the new sanctions and also expressed hopes that both sides could, “bring China-U.S. relations back onto the track of sound and stable development.” On Thursday, Hua doubled down on the optimism, saying, “I believe if both countries put in the effort, the kind angels can triumph over evil forces.” Chinese state media also published cautiously optimistic analyses of “red lines and green opportunities” in the U.S.-China relationship. In short, Chinese words and actions appear to be testing the new administration from the start, while overtly signaling a willingness to mend the relationship. While uncertainty over the post-Trump era of U.S.-China relations remains high, Biden has previously said that he will not move to immediately roll back Trump era tariffs, and orders to remove technology bans or Chinese sanctions have also been conspicuously absent from his first days in office.

On January 14, the Swedish Supreme Administrative Court dismissed an appeal filed by Huawei to reverse its exclusion from the country’s 5G spectrum auction. The Swedish telecommunications regulator PTS announced in October 2020 that Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese telecom company, would be excluded from the auction due to security risks. In addition, PTS gave Swedish companies until January 1, 2025 to remove those companies’ hardware from existing infrastructure. The decision by PTS and the subsequent court ruling follows sustained pressure from the United States on allied countries to exclude Huawei from contributing to the building of 5G networks due to concerns that Beijing would use it for spying.

Meanwhile, news that the Brazilian government would allow Huawei to participate in the country’s 5G network auction, slated to begin in June of this year, emerged on January 16. Local news in Brazil had reported last month that the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro had been looking for legal ways to exclude Huawei from the auction. The Brazilian president has opposed Huawei in the past, echoing the views of the prior U.S. administration under President Donald Trump that the Chinese telecom company shares information with the Chinese government. However, President Bolsonaro now appears to be bending to stiff opposition from industry and his own government, including from Vice President Hamilton Mourao, who is in favor of letting Huawei participate in the auction.

A newly-published white paper by Beijing’s State Council Information Office offers a look into shifting strategies of China’s financial aid to developing countries. The paper, titled “China’s International Development Cooperation in the New Era,” is the first to be released since 2014 and details China’s aid spending from 2013–2018. It is also the first white paper to be published since the establishment of the International Development Cooperation Agency in 2018. Currently, China is the seventh-largest distributor of foreign aid, averaging at $7 billion annually. By region, Africa continues to receive the most investment at 45 percent of China’s spending, while 37 percent of aid went to Asia and 7 percent went to Latin America and the Caribbean. Beijing’s international aid is composed of interest-free loans, concessional loans and grants. Since its 2014 report, this breakdown of China’s giving has shifted. The proportion of concessional loans has grown to 49 percent and grants to 47 percent since 2014, while interest-free loans have dropped to 4 percent. The adjustment may serve as a sign that China is increasingly worried about debt repayment.

The report is the first time the Chinese government has linked its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with its foreign aid scheme, emphasizing its South-South Cooperation Assistance Fund launched in 2015. The South-South Cooperation Fund is intended to allow China to develop partner relationships with its aid recipients, rather than a vertical donor-recipient relationship. While China has traditionally delivered foreign aid in complete projects, technical cooperations and debt relief, the white paper also highlights its expansion into gender equality and governance improvement. In particular, China’s historic distribution of aid in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic is emphasized. Development experts have previously criticized China’s foreign aid with concerns of its debt sustainability and lack of adherence to international standards. The white paper champions China’s global cooperation for humanitarian aid, particularly its support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Nonetheless, it excludes key details of its spending breakdown or bureaucratic system.

Last week, this newsletter reported that there were modest yet auspicious signs of de-escalation along the disputed Indian-Chinese border high in the Himalayas. These signs included the successful handover by the Indian military of a wayward Chinese soldier who had strayed across the border; the withdrawal of 10,000 Chinese soldiers from their station along the border which high level Indian military officials hope signaled Chinese willingness to turn down the temperature at the border.

However, it was also noted that a ninth round of Corps Commander-level meetings between the two sides had yet to be held (the eighth was held back in December). This newsletter posited that this could be merely a result of a change of high command at the PLA in their Western theater and not that the two sides had reached an insurmountable impasse. No talks were held this week either.

Furthermore, Indian military sources quoted in the Hindustan Times claim that there have been no significant Chinese troop withdrawals from strategic locations along the Ladakh region of the contested border where there was bitter fighting between the two sides last spring. In the meantime, evidence suggests that China is “build(ing) advanced landing grounds across the Daulet Beg Oldi sector in Tianwendian, humongous shelters to house personnel and a shorter link from Hotan airbase to Karakoram pass.” Indian military sources inferred from this activity that there could be a threat of Chinese military incursion at the “Depsang bulge” in the spring.

Two other signs point to continued Chinese military pressure at the border. China’s Tibet military region, which abuts the disputed boundary with India, conducted combined air and ground military exercises in January according to China’s official military media. The PLA also began use of a new all terrain vehicle capable of supplying its forces at high altitude in rugged terrain thereby improving its logistical disposition at the border.

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