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This week’s Asia Review looks at China’s continental troubles and traditional and non-traditional threats from land, and its new land border law which came into effect on January 1. We look at what a leading Chinese Communist Party organ has to say about China’s “democracy,” as the country prepares for a crucial Congress later this year. Plus: Chinese domestic R&D spending, a sneak peek into an upcoming DRI report on demography’s long shadow over China, India, and Japan, and the pitfalls of spytainment.
DRI Asia Review
January 11,
Year of Tiger, Eye of Storm?
China’s new land border law comes into effect amid brewing trouble
Party organ praises Chinese “democracy” ahead of 20th Congress
Chinese R&D spending
Demography as destiny?
Spytainment as miseducation

Welcome to the newsletter of Diplomat Risk Intelligence, the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, your go-to outlet for definitive analyses from and about the Asia-Pacific.

This week’s Asia Review looks at China’s continental troubles and traditional and non-traditional threats from land, and its new land border law which came into effect on January 1. We look at what a leading Chinese Communist Party organ has to say about China’s “democracy,” as the country prepares for a crucial Congress later this year. Plus: Chinese domestic R&D spending, a sneak peek into an upcoming DRI report on demography’s long shadow over China, India, and Japan, and the pitfalls of spytainment.


Continental Threats—Traditional and Otherwise—Keep Beijing Occupied
Xinjiang, 2014
— Flickr, Giggs Huang

On January 1, the Land Boundary Law of the People’s Republic of China came into effect. The law will govern all Chinese state activities in border areas and related issues, including the management and defense of frontier areas. Beijing adopted the law on October 23 last year amid heightened tensions with neighboring India, which led to speculation that the law was directed at securing Chinese gains along the China-India Line of Actual Control in Ladakh. However, as pointed out by Brookings Institution’s Shuxian Luo, the Chinese legal action was not motivated by this specific dispute. Rather, it was driven by an attempt by China to secure its land borders in face of growing and across-the-board security strategic uncertainty.

The novel coronavirus, which itself did not respect international borders, reminded the world of the significance of borders, as countries rushed to shut them down in a desperate attempt to contain its spread. New mutations to the virus are the latest cause of global concern, as they leave open the possibility of indefinite closure of borders, affecting both formal and informal cross-border trade, and leading to, once again, potential disruptions in supply and distribution channels. China, where the virus was first detected in December 2019, has adopted a "zero tolerance" COVID-19 policy, pursuant to which it tightened  border controls with neighboring countries in order to minimize imported cases.

Sharing a 1,306 kilometer-long land border with China, Vietnam is heavily dependent on China for imports and exports, and has been hit badly by stricter Chinese border controls imposed ahead of the upcoming Winter Olympics. According to local news reports from January 10, about 1,200 trucks remain stuck at a border crossing with China, even after Vietnamese officials asked Chinese authorities to urgently resolve the congestion, which has been in place for over a week.

Reports from December 25 indicated that exporters could lose up to $131 to 175 million if the congestion did not clear up soon, a huge setback for Vietnam’s COVID-19 hit economy. Beijing’s stricter border measures have seriously affected Myanmar and Laos as well, as similar images of long lines of trucks waiting to cross the border emerge. Notably, China’s new border law clearly states that borders can be sealed due to “natural disasters, public health incidents…” or “other circumstances that seriously affect the security and stability” of the county’s land borders.

Over the recent past, cross-border threats have emerged as an important strategic consideration in Chinese security thinking, and prevention and redressal of such threats are addressed in the new border law. China’s restive Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which accounts for one quarter of China’s international boundary, shares borders with eight countries, including Afghanistan to the west and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to the northwest. To say that it is especially vulnerable to both traditional and non-traditional cross-border threats is an understatement. Fears of spillover of terrorism from Afghanistan and the operation of the Uyghur separatist group East Turkistan Islamic Movement from Afghan soil is reflected in Beijing’s move to strengthen border security with the new law.

The new law gives both the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Armed Police Force the power to deal with “major emergencies and terrorist activities” on land borders and lays down detailed procedures on how to address illegal cross border movement. China is now faced with yet another political crisis along its western border—unrest in Kazakhstan which began with protests over surging fuel prices and soon turned violent.

On January 7, President Xi Jinping sent a “verbal message” to Kazak President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and expressed Beijing’s opposition to what it described was an attempt to incite a “color revolution” in Kazakhstan. Beijing has also offered to increase “law enforcement and security cooperation” with Kazakhstan, likely motivated by concerns that radical elements in Xinjiang may be encouraged by protests in the neighborhood.

While it is China’s spectacular stride in the maritime sphere that often draws the attention of most analysts and observers, Beijing remains cognizant that its land borders present considerable challenges, both familiar and unfamiliar, of their own. That sensitivity, in turn, will present deep dilemmas for China’s neighbors.


Ahead of Party Congress, Chinese State Media Strikes Predictable Note

2022 marks an important year for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which will host its 20th National Party Congress. The Congress is expected to, once and for all, settle the question of whether President Xi Jinping will seek a third term, as many expect him to.

In the run-up to the new year, on December 30, Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily), the CCP Central Committee’s official mouthpiece, published an article which outlined the Party’s agenda for 2022, namely “stabilizing the economy” and “keeping growth within reasonable range.” It highlighted the party’s achievement in successfully handling the outbreak of COVID-19, while continuing to advance reform and development, but also noted the need to remain committed to improving party conduct. It observed:

An important reason why the Party remains so vital and vibrant despite having undergone so many trials and tribulations is that it practices effective self-supervision and full and rigorous self-governance.

On December 21, 2021, the newspaper published an article titled “China’s Democracy Is an Extensive and True Democracy That Works,” which elaborated on the Chinese conception of “a true democracy.” Contrasting it with the Western conceptions of democracy, which is often associated with electoral and procedural rights for people, the article claims a true democracy is one which not only ensures “full expression” but also “effective fulfilment” of people’s wishes through institutional frameworks that enable people’s participation. It noted:

Expanding the people’s orderly political participation, we can definitely ensure that the people’s wishes are reflected and their voices heard in all aspects of the work of the Party and state organs at all levels, enabling whole-process people’s democracy to better improve the people’s lives and meet their expectations for a better life.

Expect a drumbeat of anodyne pronouncements like these ahead of the 20th Congress.


Chinese Domestic Spending on Research and Development
Chinese domestic spending on R&D as percentage of GDP, 2000-2019
— OECD (2022), Gross domestic spending on R&D (indicator). doi: 10.1787/d8b068b4-en (Accessed on 11 January 2022). Graphics: DRI


Demography’s Long Shadow
— Flickr, thepismire

Asia-Pacific makes for more than half of the world’s population. As the mega-region firmly emerges as centers of global geopolitical and economic gravity, its demographic trends are vital in deciphering whether the region can continue to path to prosperity, while key regional powers maintain an equilibrating balance of power. As one analyst wrote in 2019, “demographics may not be destiny, but for students of geopolitics, they come close.”

A granular survey of key demographic and related variables for China, India, and Japan—Asia-Pacific’s three major powers—paint a complicated and, in large parts, pessimistic picture. Projected trends show an overall decline in population late in the century and a rising fraction of old-age population complicating social and economic landscapes in all three countries. At the same time, gains in healthcare in all three could—ironically enough—led to problems of its own in terms of burden on national resources and shifting savings and consumption patterns. Even when demography in itself could be a dividend, as in the case of India, persistent structural stickiness could very well prevent the country from fully utilizing it.

In an upcoming edition of DRI Trendlines, we present a comprehensive and holistic view of demographic trends in China, India, and Japan and zero in on those variables that are likely to fundamentally affect comprehensive national power of all three countries.

Stay tuned.


The Pitfalls of Spytainment
— Flickr, Vince Pooley

Over at the Atlantic, Stanford scholar of intelligence and national security affairs Amy Zegart has an entertaining and insightful essay on the two-way street between spycraft as practiced in real life, and fictional depiction of spies and their profession, in movies and television in particular. The latter, “spytainment,” has molded how the American public views intelligence services and what they do, Zegart argues, in absence of better public understanding of how espionage is actually practiced.

“Spy-themed entertainment is standing in for adult education on the subject, and although the idea might seem far-fetched, fictional spies are actually shaping public opinion and real intelligence policy,” she writes.

As an example, Zegart argues that Jack Bauer—the fictional hero of hit television series 24 known for his relentless take-no-prisoners attitude—loomed large over the public’s understanding of what it took to successfully prosecute counterterror operations following 9/11, with the pernicious effect that devotees of the show, including those training to join to the U.S. military, seemed to be swayed by the supposed effectiveness of torture, a singularly important part of a harried Bauer’s toolkit.

But the United States is far from alone when it comes to its public drawing its understanding of spycraft from entertainment.

Stringent official secrecy rules in India have meant that little is known—authoritatively—about the activities of the country’s many intelligence and security services. Admittedly, over the years, a handful of scholarly accounts and memoirs have cast light on pivotal historical moments for Indian intelligence services, such as the 1971 India-Pakistan war that led to the creation of an independent Bangladesh. A few well-connected national security journalists writing in the Indian English-language press have often helped the public understand the role of New Delhi’s spies in key foreign policy and security developments, even though such reporting can often be hard to corroborate independently.

All this said, the Indian public’s understanding of spycraft continues to be largely based on over-the-top high-budget movies—and increasingly, shows on streaming platforms—which often project aspiration and a robust sense of national pride, seasoned with ample Bollywood masala.

Just like in the United States, spytainment in India too serves as adult (mis)education.

DRI’s Research Analyst Rushali Saha and Director of Research Abhijnan Rej contributed to this edition of DRI Asia Review. Translation of Chinese media articles were provided by an in-house linguist.

Diplomat Risk Intelligence (DRI) is the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, the Asia-Pacific’s leading current affairs magazine.

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