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Biden Speaks With Xi: First Impressions
And thoughts on Sino-Indian ”disengagement” and more.
Welcome back to Blunt Reentry. It’s been a busy few weeks and I apologize for the tardiness on updates. I’ve shared some of what I’ve been up to lately at the bottom of this newsletter, but first, a few thoughts on a couple new developments.
Biden and Xi Finally Speak
February 10, 2021, marks the first official conversation between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The readout is unsurprising for anyone that’s paid attention to the administration’s early messaging on China. The White House readout is rather clear-spoken and does not shy away from pressure points in the relationship. “Coercive and unfair economic practices,” “human rights abuses in Xinjiang,” and “assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan”: it’s all there.
In a stark show of U.S. support for Taiwan, Biden’s call with Xi took place just hours after Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Sung Kim met with Bi-Khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States. Readers with long memories might recall that Taiwan cast a shadow over the first Trump-Xi call back in 2017 (incidentally, on February 9, 2017—it’s unclear if the Biden team decided to wait just a little longer than Trump to get in touch with Xi, but the timing is more likely explained by more mundane factors pertaining to the two leaders’ schedules). Trump had spoken with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen as president-elect in December 2016—an unprecedented act. I went back to look at the Trump White House’s read out of that phone call and, my, what a difference. See for yourself:
It was a different time, but the Trump administration had come in with a hawkish tone on China from the get-go. So the sentence “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our 'one China' policy” appeared somewhat dissonant at the time.
Biden’s critics may continue to insist that his administration is weak on China, but nothing in the administration’s approach to Asia and China policy so far suggests that’s actually true. Earlier in the day, we also learned that Ely Ratner (a well-informed national security wonk and trusted Biden advisor) is leading a China task force at the Department of Defense. Unlike some of the reporting on the task force, it’s clear from a fact sheet released by OSD that the Ratner-led effort will focus primarily on DoD matters and not on the broader economic/political components of Asia policy (which one suspects will be coordinated at the NSC under the auspices of Kurt Campbell as Indo-Pacific Coordinator).
Turns out the 9th China-India Corps Commander-Level Meeting wasn’t entirely unproductive—or at least that’s what the Chinese government is suggesting. We have news that a “disengagement” is apparently underway at the north and south banks of Pangong Lake in Eastern Ladakh—one of the hot flashpoints along in the western sector of the disputed Sino-Indian border. (The two sides have been mired in the most serious standoff in decades; see my broader analysis on the factors that led to last year’s standoff.)
Indian media, based on sources as well as a statement from the People’s Liberation Army, reported on February 10 that a plan for military disengagement in the north and south banks of Pangong Lake in eastern Ladakh is under way. The lake has hosted principal friction points in the nine-month long standoff between China and India, the worst such in over half a century.
The Hindu quoted People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Senior Colonel Wu Qian as saying in a statement: “The Chinese and Indian front-line troops at the southern and northern banks of the Pangong Tso Lake start synchronized and organized disengagement from February 10. This move is in accordance with the consensus reached by both sides at the 9th round of China-India Corps Commander Level Meeting.” The ninth round of corps commanders’ talks were held on January 24.
To anyone that remembers the 2017 Doklam standoff, the notion of a “disengagement” will be familiar. In the case of Doklam, both governments simultaneously announced that their troops had disengaged—in an apparent signal that the near-three-month standoff that year had come to a close. Of course, in the aftermath of disengagement, the PLA dug in on Bhutanese territory, even if they didn’t push southward to a mountain ridgeline that the Indian side deemed particularly sensitive. The details of this week’s disengagement will become clear in due time, but Ajai Shukla has already cast doubt on the significance of the latest news:
For any readers bewildered by the mention of “fingers,” here’s a handy guide to the geography at hand. (Thanks to MIT’s Taylor Fravel for getting in touch about a more accurate map than the one I original l shared here.)
It’ll be worth keeping an eye on developments here. It’s been a bitter winter in the heights of Eastern Ladakh. It would be good news if the disengagement isn’t overstated and does lead to a sustained drawdown. Otherwise, as spring and summer approach, we may see another protracted series of altercations between the two sides, with the possibility for a broader conflict.
Speaking of Eastern Ladakh, do listen to my recent podcast with The Diplomat where I spoke to Ajai Shukla about his scoop last month that the Indian Army is reorienting the Mathura-based 1 Corps as a mountain strike corps.
Bits and Pieces
I’ve been doing quite a bit of writing and commentary on the outcomes of North Korea’s 8th Party Congress. For the Carnegie Endowment, I summed up what I see as the major takeaways from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s announcements at that event. Read here.
On the podcast front, I was fortunate to speak with Sebastian Strangio, The Diplomat’s Southeast Asia editor about the coup in Myanmar. Sebastian knows Southeast Asia like few people and offers tremendous insight about the conditions that led to the coup and the implications now for regional geopolitics and internal security in Myanmar. (Thanks also to more than a few Blunt Reentry subscribers who offered good questions to bring up on the podcast.)
That’s all for this issue. Happy Lunar New Year to any readers who celebrate; I hope the coming days are warm and cheerful. As always, I welcome your thoughts, corrections, and suggestions for future topics.