The latest edition of The World This Week covers: India-China Border Standoff, Second Wave in South Korea, and Russia-Europe tensions over Navalny poisoning| Contributors to this edition are: Rashmi Ramesh, Harini Madhusudan and Sourina Bej
India- China border standoff at LAC: No consensus at sight
During 29-30 August, the Indian Army, in a ‘pre-emptive’ move, occupied heights in the Chushul sector. According to the defence sources, this move was to thwart the Chinese attempts to occupy and dominate the heights that fall under the Indian side. China, however, stated that the onus of maintaining peace at the LAC lies on India, and demanded the withdrawal of troops from the heights.
During 3-4 September, Chief of Army Staff visited Ladakh and took stock of the situation at the ground level. The Chief of Indian Air Force visited frontline airbases in the Eastern Command and reviewed the level of operational preparedness.
On 4 September 2020, the Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh met his counterpart Wei Fenghe on the sidelines of the SCO meet at Moscow. Ministers of External Affairs of both countries are expected to meet on 10 September at Moscow.
On 2 September, India banned 118 Chinese applications, stating national security as a reason.
What is the background?
First, the inconclusive military talks and the inability to reach an agreement. Multiple rounds of talks at the military level (Commander and Brigadier-levels) have failed to reduce tensions between India and China. The five rounds at Brigadier-level meetings have ended inconclusively. China demanded troop reduction from heights in the Chushul sector, to which India disagreed.
Second, the failure to implement, what has been agreed. At the initial military-level talks, both reached agreement on disengagement in areas apart from Pangong Tso, one of the main contentious areas. The first phase of disengagement remains incomplete, despite more than ten rounds of talks and negotiations. The PLA continues to occupy areas between Finger 4 and Finger 8 near Pangong Tso. Additionally, intelligence inputs suggest that they now control approximately 1000 square kilometres along the LAC in different sectors. Disengagement failed to restart even after the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on India-China border affairs facilitated talks at the ground level.
Third, the strong political rhetoric. India and China exchanged barbs in the backdrop of the standoff at LAC. Beijing accused New Delhi of towing the US line and falling for the western agenda when the latter banned 118 Chinese apps. India, on the other hand, maintained that it emphasizes peace at the border, but will not allow any country to unilaterally dominate it and encroach upon its sovereignty. Prime Minister Modi also made strong statements when 20 Indian soldiers were martyred in the Galwan Valley.
Fourth, the economic fallout. Since the beginning of the standoff at LAC in May, India has been heavily scrutinizing the products that are manufactured in China and enter India either directly, or via South-East Asia. It hopes to reduce dependence on China and build stronger economic linkages with Australia and Japan through Supply Chain Resilience Initiative. India has also been keenly observing the activities of institutions that teach Mandarin. On the virtual front, it has banned several Chinese apps on the grounds of national security.
What does it mean?
First, military talks have failed; diplomacy is the only way forward. The Ministry of External Affairs emphasized the need for negotiations to break the impasse. The talk at the Defence Ministers’ and Foreign Ministers’ level at Moscow is a welcome step in this regard. Both countries cannot afford to use military options at a time when the pandemic has destroyed economies.
Second, is India considering pre-emption as an option unlike before? The force deployment at Chushul sector indicates this. It is also firm on not withdrawing from the places at which it had negligible presence earlier. India probably considers this as a strong message to be sent out to China for attempting to change the status quo.
Third, the emphasis on the Quadrilateral Initiative. Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat said that the Quad should become a system to “ensure freedom of navigation and freedom of navigation operations in the Indian Ocean and around… without the fear of any other nation singularly trying to dominate the oceans.” It indicated that he targeted China. However, if this signals a change in India’s perception of Indo-Pacific and Quad in particular, it needs more clarity from the political leadership. The Indian PM had stressed earlier that “Quad is not a strategy or a club of limited members” against one country.
South Korea: The return of COVID and a Church controversy
On 30 August, South Korea announced a nationwide lockdown this week and once again, the non-compliance of protocols by a Church has led to the spread. Earlier, on 15 August 2020, a major rally in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square contributed to a nationwide resurgence of COVID-19, after which the number of cases steadily increased in triple digits for 20 days. Despite showing concerns over the economic fallouts of a lockdown, the government announced tighter social distancing rules and announced the lockdown stricter than the first one from March 2020.
On 2 September 2020, Pastor Jun Kwang-Hoon of the Sarang Jaeil Church made a public apology for the concerns he and the church have caused.
On 4 September the doctors returned to work; earlier, they went on a strike against the government’s decision to introduce reforms given the inappropriate timing and the government’s flawed plan for its doctors.
What is the background?
First, South Korea, as an initial success story. South Korea has been considered as a global success model of COVID management. It had shown outstanding abilities in containing the spread in the early months and also has been consistent with management in terms of new cases and tracing.
Second, the spike in cases, in the second wave. This is the second time South Korea faces a spike in cases, and both times, a significant number of cases were traced to specific churches. To contain this spread, South Korea announced restrictions on social gatherings, the operation of restaurants, churches, nightclubs, most public schools and multiple other institutions. The decision came after earlier restrictions on movement failed to prevent a wave of coronavirus clusters erupting at churches, offices, nursing homes and medical facilities and the struggle to trace the spread. A lot of industries and educational systems that did not go on lockdown the first time have been forced to close down.
Third, the Church controversy. Conservative Pastors who hail from large churches, in 2004 had established the Korean Christian Party. Pastors are known to try and expand their political influences through religious gatherings. Pastor Jun Kwang Hoon of the Sarang Jaeil Church is also the President of the Christian Council of Korea, one of the leading groups of conservative protestants in South Korea. Anti- scientism attitudes are at the core of these groups, and when the rally took place on 15 August 2020, it was a large gathering organized by these far-right groups. Jun Kwang Hoon was hospitalized after contracting the virus and returned on 2 September 2020.
What does it mean?
South Korea was one of the first countries to see a sudden surge in the number of cases during Feb-Mar 2020. Now South Korea joins China, New Zealand, some parts of Europe, who have all begun to observe the second wave of the coronavirus. Though the doctors have joined back to work now, the shortage of workforce and the shortage of beds indicate that no one foresaw the spike in cases. There is also a sense of an underlying domestic political issue between the ruling government and the church leadership.
South Korea, like China, is an export-based economy and a pause in its functions could have an impact on the supply chains. The lockdown in South Korea comes at a time when globally, for fear of economic failures, countries have chosen to open their economies.
Poisoning of Kremlin critic: EU, Germany talks tough against Russia
On 3 September, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that the EU, along with NATO, would act against Russia over the poisoning of the Kremlin opposition politician Alexei Navalny. Merkel has called the poisoning as “attempted murder” of Navalny after the lab tests at Berlin’s Charite Hospital found that nerve agent Novichok had been used to poison. The EU and NATO later joined Merkel in critiquing Russia and demanded an explanation from Moscow.
In response, Kremlin has not accepted the diagnosis in Germany and Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for President Putin, said that Germany and other EU nations should not “hurry with their assessments.”
Apart from Germany and the EU, the other European countries like France and Italy have generally restricted themselves from a strong critique. Similarly, the US President Donald Trump has said the case was “tragic” and the focus should instead be on China which, according to the President was a bigger threat to the world than Russia.
What is the background?
First, Germany-Russia relations reach a pressure point: The condemnation from Merkel could have a lateral impact on Germany’s energy cooperation with Russia. The Nord Stream 2 has come under strong critique and seen as an example of selective cooperation by Germany with Russia despite concerns about Moscow’s approach in human rights in Ukraine or Georgia or arrests of journalists domestically. The Nord Stream 2 project, which is more than 90 per cent complete, aims to double Russia’s supply of direct natural gas to Germany. The German daily Deutsche Welle observed that the Navalny poisoning, which draws strong parallels to the 2018 Novichok attack on a former Russian double agent that the UK has accused the Kremlin of orchestrating, further ‘complicates Germany’s efforts to keep politics out of Nord Stream 2.’
Second, worsening EU-Russia diplomatic relations but positive energy cooperation: The EU has limited ability to pressurize Russia for accountability and more than sanctions, stopping energy imports from Russia will be one way. “But that’s unrealistic because it would be extremely expensive and would demand a large logistical reorganization especially for Western Europe,” observed Hans-Henning Schröder at the Frei Universität in Berlin. According to the European Commission, oil and gas exports from Russia to the EU have increased in recent years despite heightened tensions between them over Belarus and the Middle East.
Third, a test for the West to preserve the integrity of the Chemical Weapons Convention: The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) called the alleged attack “a matter of grave concern.” However, it stops short of calling for strong accountability from Russia. One thing to remember is the chemicals used to make the nerve agent Novichok (used to poison Nalvany) are far less hazardous than the agent themselves; therefore, it could also circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997 of which both Europe and the US are signatories.
What does it mean?
The EU’s condemnation of Russia with sanctions will be an inadequate response. With the occupation of parts of Georgia and Ukraine, shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, and the numerous attacks on opposition politicians, Moscow had shown in the past, that it is not interested in communicating with the West.
Over 150 Russian diplomats were expelled from the United States and the European Union, as well as other NATO states and Ukraine, after the 2018 poisoning of the former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK. However, the impact of these actions on Russia could hardly be ascertained.
Domestically the poisoning of Navalny has been seen as West’s attempt at building conspiracy theories against Russia. With no strong response from the US, France, and Italy, it is only Germany, the EU and the NATO chiefs responding against Russia.
Also in the news…
Southeast and East Asia This Week
Hong Kong: The mass tests and the protests against it
As part of a free voluntary exercise, Hong Kong has set up 114 testing centres to mass test for coronavirus after two new cases were found. With more than 917,000 people registered since the free voluntary exercise began. The pro-democracy activists believe that the presence of mainland staff could be a compromise of the data of the Hong Kongers.
China: Australian journalist detained
An Australian news anchor, Cheng Lei working for CGTN, is detained amid the growing tensions between Australia and China. Cheng is the second high-profile Australian citizen to be detained in Beijing after writer Yang Hengjun was arrested in January 2019 on suspicion of espionage. The reason for detainment is said to be a social media post by the anchor.
Japan: Search for a new Prime Minister
Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has set 14 September 2020 as the date to vote for Shinzo Abe’s successor. Taro Aso, the Deputy Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, Shigeru Ishiba, a hawkish former defence minister, and Fumio Kishida, the Police Chief are considered to be the leading contenders. The successor is unlikely a disruptor.
South Asia This Week
India: Gen Rawat emphasizes on Quad
India’s Chief of Defence Staff said that the Quad should become a system to “ensure freedom of navigation and freedom of navigation operations in the Indian Ocean and around… without the fear of any other nation singularly trying to dominate the oceans.” The statement comes in the backdrop of two developments- first, the new standoff between India and China at LAC; and second, India’s willingness to include Australia in the Malabar exercise.
India-Russia: Indra exercise conducted at the Andaman Sea
The 11th edition of ‘Indra’, a naval exercise between India and Russia concluded on 4-5 September, in the Andaman Sea. The exercise is aimed at improving the interoperability and understanding between the two Navies.
India: Staggering downfall of the economy
The GDP contracted by a record 23.9 per cent in the first quarter (April-June), the worst in decades for India. The data released by the National Statistical Office reveals the impact of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown on the economy. This will affect the annual GDP, which is expected to shrink by 5-7 per cent. Agriculture was the only sector which recorded a growth rate of 3.4 per cent while the secondary and tertiary sectors plunged extremely low.
India: COVID-19 numbers cross Brazil
India overtook Brazil to become the second most affected country in terms of the number of COVID-19 cases. On Saturday, 84,385 cases were reported, taking the total tally to 41,04,497. Brazil’s death toll, however is 1.7 times more than that of India’s.
Sri Lanka: A committee for the new constitution
The cabinet appointed an experts’ panel to draft a new constitution for Sri Lanka. The government said that the process would be completed in two steps. First, bringing the 20th Amendment that will reverse some of the provisions of the 19th Amendment. And second, drafting the constitution itself. Bringing a new constitution was a poll promise made by the SLPP during the campaign.
Afghanistan: Government frees 400 Taliban prisoners
The Afghanistan government released 400 Taliban prisoners ahead of the Doha talks that are expected to start soon. Some of them have not been released yet, as it was opposed by Australia and France. Those particular militants have links with the murders of French and Australian civilians and defence personnel in Afghanistan.
The Middle East and Africa This Week
Iraq: French President Macron visits Baghdad and promises to continue support
As the first head of state to visit Iraq since Prime Minister Mustafa al- Kadhimi formed a new government, French President Macron “pledged” support for Iraq. “We are here for, and we will continue to support Iraq,” Macron said at a news conference in Baghdad with his Iraqi counterpart Barham Salih.
Lebanon: French President Macron gives an ultimatum on political reforms
During the Lebanese centennial, President Macron paid a visit to Lebanon and gave the leaders an ultimatum to bring reforms by the end of October saying that the targeted sanctions would be placed and bailout funds would be blocked in cases of proven corruption. Macron is the first leader to visit Lebanon after the Beirut explosion. Macron said he wanted to usher in a “new political chapter” and warned that financial assistance to the country was not a “blank cheque”, saying: “If your political class fails, then we will not come to Lebanon’s aid.”
The US suspends aid to Ethiopia over the Blue Nile dam dispute
Due to the lack of progress in talks between Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt, the US announced that it would suspend a portion of its financial aid to Ethiopia. A US Department of State spokesperson told, that the decision to “temporarily pause” some aid to a key regional security ally “reflects our concern about Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to begin to fill the dam before an agreement and all necessary dam safety measures were in place.”
Europe and the Americas This Week
France: 14 suspects on trial over the Charlie Hebdo massacre
Fourteen people are on trial in France over the deadly attack in 2015 on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The alleged accomplices are in court with three being tried in absentia. The suspects are accused of aiding the attackers who shot dead 12 people in and around Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office in January 2015. The magazine has marked the start of the trial by reprinting the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that sparked protests in several Muslim countries and became the ground for the attack. President Emmanuel Macron has defended the freedom of expression and the right to satire, even religion, and called it an essential part of “being French.”
NATO: The Secretary-General calls for Greece and Turkey to sit for technical talks. Athens disagrees
On 3 September, Greece denied a statement by NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that Greece and Turkey had agreed to technical talks to de-escalate tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. In turn, Greece has added that the only way forward is when Turkey withdraws its warships from Greek waters. Greece’s statement comes after Stoltenberg tweeted that following his discussions with the two leaders, the two NATO countries have agreed to sit for talks.
Europe: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visits five countries
On 5 September, Foreign Minister Wang Yi completed his Europe tour during which he visited the following: Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, France, and Germany. However, little came from the visit, which was overshadowed by the comments he made on the visit of Czech Senate President to Taiwan, calling it a provocation and saying that he would “pay a heavy price.” The statement drew criticisms by French and German officials, indicating that ‘threats’ would not be encouraged.
The US: Biden visits Kenosha, and Trump holds rally in Pennsylvania
After meeting the relatives of Jacob Blake at the Airport, Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden held a community meeting in Kenosha. It is believed that Blake joined the conversation by phone. In another critical battleground state, Pennsylvania, President Trump held a rally speaking to a crowd at an airport hangar in Latrobe.
About the authors
Sourina Bej is a Project Associate at NIAS. Harini Madhusudan and Rashmi BR are PhD scholars at School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS.