Tag Archives | geopolitics

Pax Indica: Playing the energy game with China

Why India must promote democracy abroad & private enterprise at home

An interesting conversation with Rajeev Mantri & Yogesh Mokashi last week led to the writing of this piece: how might India compete against China in the global quest for energy (and other) resources:

Moreover, the “game” is not one-off. It is a continuous ongoing game that will be played for generations. Nor is it entirely “zero-sum”. It is possible to envision a world where both China and India have access to the energy resources they need. Such a world is possible even when, perhaps only when, the two countries are competing (in a free market) for those resources. Such a world, however, will cer-tainly not come into being merely by wishing for it. It has to evolve, under the tender loving care of nuclear weapons.

The Indian government is trying to improve its score. It has set overseas acquisition targets for state-owned corporations and permitted them to spend $1.1 billion ‘without government approval’. This might yet produce some results—especially if it is backed by political support. It is unlikely, though, that bidding wars with companies that have parents with the world’s deepest pockets are winnable. That’s not all. As India found out in Kazakhstan in August 2005, the kid whose dad drives a Merc can get the goalposts shifted after the game begins.

Clearly, India’s strategy must be different. It must be one that plays to India’s strong points. It must also be one that undermines China’s advantages. The greatest asymmetries that are in India’s favour are democracy and private enterprise.

Consider. It would be much harder for China to move goalposts by coddling the dictator if there were no dictator to coddle. It would be much easier for Indian companies to compete against Chinese ones if the former didn’t have the Government of India as the single largest shareholder. In other words, in the long term, it is in India’s interests for resource-rich countries to be democracies. It is also in India’s interests to facilitate its private sector to expand globally. [Yahoo! India]

Read the whole thing at Yahoo!

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Pax Indica: Why India must swing

Strategy in a triangular predicament

In today’s Pax Indica column, I argue “that despite an alignment of interests, (India) must not always side with the United States. It must swing.”

To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, India’s options toward the United States and China must always be greater than their options toward each other. It serves “our purposes best if we maintained closer relations with each side than they did with each other.” Isn’t this—by design or by default—what we’re already doing? Not really. That’s because until New Delhi demonstrates that it can deliver pain for one and pleasure for the other, it won’t be seen as swinging. It will be mistaken for sleep-walking. [Yahoo! India]

Read the whole thing. Coincidentally, this piece has the answer to the question that Dan Drezner poses on his blog today, though the question itself is posed from a quintessentially American frame of reference.

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The Filter Coffee – a new blog on The Indian National Interest

Perspectives on foreign policy, defence, strategic affairs and governance

Rohan Joshi joins us on INI with The Filter Coffee, a blog “dedicated to raising awareness of issues relating to foreign policy, defense, strategic affairs and governance so that India’s citizens can demand the accountability they deserve from their elected representatives on the pursuit of India’s national interests.”

Smell the coffee. Better still, sip it every day.

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Crossette & cliché

A fisking of Barbara Crossette’s piece in Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy‘s online editors invited me to rebut Barbara Crossette’s piece on India being the baddest boy of global governance. You can see the published version on their website. This is the original draft.

Making room for India
Contrary to Barbara Crossette, India does the global governance thing

According to Financial Times’ Lucy Kellaway, “Elephant in the Room” was the most popular cliché to appear in major newspapers and journals in 2009. It is perhaps appropriate then, that Barbara Crossette’s latest diatribe against India appeared in Foreign Policy under that headline. While it claims to show that it is India that causes the most “the most global consternation” and “gives global governance the biggest headache” it is merely a series of rants and newsroom clichés selected entirely arbitrarily in order to support the author’s prejudice.

It is unfathomable how Ms Crossette can declare that it is India that causes the most consternation and the biggest headache—among Afghanistan, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Pakistan and China—merely by listing its alleged failings. Without an attempt to compare the failings across countries—and why only these countries, why leave out the West and the rest?—it is logically impossible to arrive at a conclusion that one of them is the biggest culprit. But once you trade logic for hyperbole, you can fit just about any animal you like into that room. For Ms Crossette’s, it is the pachyderm.
Continue Reading →

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The New Himalayas

Nuclear weapons are doing what high mountains once did

As K M Panikkar noted, while India developed a sophisticated framework of inter-state relations within the natural frontiers of the subcontinent it “lacked interest in the balance of power outside its own national frontiers”. Arrian, the ancient Greek writer, contended that Indian kings refrained from expanding their kingdoms beyond the subcontinent because it might have even been seen as morally incorrect. Thus, while the classical Indian tradition of realist statecraft leaves us with the assessment that in the raja-mandala the immediate neighbour is an adversary and the state beyond it an ally, in practice, this is tempered by the fact that this applied to subcontinental affairs only.

China, on the other hand, sees the world divided between the civilised world centred around itself, the Middle Kingdom, on the one hand and the world of uncivilised barbarians on the other. At the periphery of the Middle Kingdom (and still within the civilised world) lay the states who paid tribute to the Chinese emperor and professed to be in awe of its great civilisation. What this meant in practice was that the Han Chinese Middle Kingdom expected its neighbours to be tributaries—the concept of a sovereign equal simply didn’t exist.

These two disparate frameworks of international relations co-existed next to each other for the most part of human history because of the unique geography—the Himalayas acted as the strategic barrier between India and China and made large scale movement of people and goods impossible. Armies couldn’t cross the mountains and the disparity in their international relations frameworks didn’t actually clash. The Himalayas kept the peace between the two civilisations.

Until the twentieth century, when the advances in technology made it possible, for the first time in human history, to breach the Himalayan barrier (in a strict sense, the Himalayas had been breached once before in 649 CE). And when in 1950 Communist China annexed Tibet—as opposed to treating it as a tributary—India and China became neighbours. For India, this meant, in the Kautilyan sense, that China was now the ‘enemy’. For China, India was now a state on the periphery of the Middle Kingdom, and therefore a ‘tributary’. The Himalayan barrier fell, and placed two conflicting worldviews in direct confrontation. It is no coincidence that this led to military conflict in 1962 and 1967.

But if technology broke one strategic barrier it also helped raise a new one. Starting from 1974 and especially after 1998 nuclear weapons replaced the Himalayan mountain range as the factor that deterred war. The new strategic barrier will improve as India’s missile capability improves and brings key Chinese cities within range making a direct military conflict between the two very unlikely.

However, this does not mean that the underlying conflict has gone away. It has, on the contrary, intensified as today both China and India have regional and global strategic imprints. The Middle Kingdom is much bigger, forced to work within a system of sovereign states that is alien to it, even as its tradition would cause it to expect ‘tribute’ from its much larger strategic periphery. India is more comfortable among sovereign states and is beginning to work off a global raja-mandala.

The New Himalayas might keep the peace along the old ones, but they won’t stop the wider geopolitical contest that will take place in the coming decades. It is therefore important for the Indian mindset move beyond the five decades of the second half of the twentieth-century when the old barriers were down and the new ones hadn’t come up yet. The game has changed (See what the astute admiral said). To bring the global raja-mandala into balance, India must seek allies that lie beyond China.

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K M Panikkar on India’s strategic omphaloskepsis

The costly refusal to see beyond itself and the subcontinent

An extract from Sardar K M Panikkar’s Annual Day address to the Indian School of International Studies on 13 February 1961:

The study of international relations is fundamentally a study of power relationships. This, of course, has to be interpreted in terms not only of military power but also of political stability and leadership, industrial strength, and all the factors which contribute to the power of nations. The power relationships between nations are constantly changing, and unless a country understands and adjusts itself to the changes that are taking place around it, its own security will be seriously endangered. In our own time we have witnessed such changes, cataclysmic in character and revolutionary in effect, that the picture of international relations may be said to have been completely transformed in the course of two decades.

It is only by a continuous and vigilant study of power relationships in the world that even the mightiest nations can maintain their position. Without a knowledge of the changes and dynamics of social life taking place elsewhere in the world no country can build up its own life. This is the primary object of international relations. Diplomatic relationships which every country now establishes with the ther independent nations of the world has this knowledge as its primary object. Earlier, since political interests were limited to one’s own neighborhood, diplomatic relations never extended beyond countries which were closely connected with one another either by geography or by interests. As everyone knows, modern diplomacy developed in Italy and spread from there to the rest of Europe. Till the second half of the nineteenth century, even the independent countries of Asia did not consider it necessary to set up permanent diplomatic missions in other countries or to study the dynamics of power so far as other countries were concerned.

Neither the Moghuls nor the Marathas had any notion of the sources of strength of the European nations with whom they had to deal. The Chinese Admiral who challenged the might of Britain during the First Anglo-Chinese War knew nothing about the naval strength of Britain and firmly believed that he could defeat the British Navy with his fleet of junks. The result of this ignorance of the sources of power of other nations was that India had, for a long time, to remain subject to a foreign power while China was, for over a hundred years, the whipping-boy of European nations.

From the earliest times, India lacked interest in the balance of power outside its own national frontiers. While China was continuously watchful of developments across its land frontiers and had developed a very efficient system of diplomatic relationship on a continental basis, the Indian idea of diplomacy was confined to states within the geographical limits of India. Within this area, at different times, India developed a system of international relations and diplomatic usage. But so far as areas outside the physical boundaries of India were concerned, we were content to live with the attitude of complacent ignorance. It is a well-known fact of history that the changes in the dynamics of power in the Hindu Kush Valley profoundly influence the politics of the Indo-Gangetic Valley. From the time of the first Aryan invasions this has been one of the determining factors of Indian political evolution. The emergence of a powerful state in the Kabul area, whether in the time of Kanishka, Mahmud of Ghazni or Ahmed Shah Durrani, profoundly influenced events within India; and yet, so far as the great states of the India-Gangetic Valley were concerned, they continued to remain ignorant of these developments and, therefore, were unable to take the necessary steps to safeguard their independence. In the time of Mahmud of Ghazni, every effort was made by that king to collect and evaluate information about the political situation in India and to estimate the sources of strength of the various Indian states. We know with what thoroughness this was done from Alberuni’s great work. In contrast, we may note that the great monarchies—rich, powerful, and well organized according to the standards of the time—of King Bhoja of Dhar and the Gurjara Pratiharas of Gujarat knew little or nothing of the revolutionary transformation which had taken place in the Kabul Valley and of the strength of the great state which Sabaktajin had established and Mahmud had inherited and enlarged.

This may be compared with the policy which the policy which the British pursued from the beginning of the last century, when they established themselves as one of the imperial powers in India. The invasion of Egypt by Bonaparte was viewed as an event affecting the security of India. When Napoleon and Tsar Alexander reached an agreement at Tilsit, the British authorities in India immediately took steps to send a mission to Persia, the object of which was to find out the extent of that country’s defensive strength and to explore possibilities of entering into an alliance with its government. Sir John Malcolm’s report on Persia is still a classic. Similarly, the advance of Tsarist Russia towards Central Asia led to the British neutralization of Afghanistan. The British did not wait for enemies to penetrate as far as Panipat before taking countermeasures as the Indian rulers of the Gangetic Valley had been accustomed to do. They carefully studied the conditions across the borders, developed a large body of experts who studied the geography, language, political conditions, and economic structure of the areas which bordered on India or which were considered to be of vital importance to the defense of India. No area was left uncovered. The British Government in India had at its disposal men who had devoted most of their active life to the study of sensitive areas: the North-Western Frontier and adjacent areas, the Persian Gulf and the Trucial Coast, Tibet and the Himalayan regions, Sinkiang, Alma Ata, and other areas of Central Asia. It was sufficient for them to cover the areas of special interest to India because the British Empire, as world power whose interests were spread over five continents, was able to take care of the rest.

Our case today is different. We have to keep ourselves informed of developments in all parts of the world, not because we have vital interests everywhere, but because conditions in the world have so changed that events in the most distant parts may affect us in a manner which few of use realize. Undoubtedly for us the vital areas continue to be those immediately bordering India; and consequently the study of conditions in these areas is of permanent importance to us. But with changed economic, political and military conditions, other areas also emerge as vital and sensitive. At no time in India’s long history had Tibet and the North-Eastern Frontier become areas of vital concern to India’s defense. The geographical, political and social conditions of Tibet were sufficient guarantees for our safety from that quarter: while the North-Easter Frontier covered by dense forests and high mountains was also a dead frontier. Besides the Himalayas provided us with an almost impenetrable wall across which no invading force had ever approached India. Today, the emergence of a great military power on the other side of the Himalayas, which stretches from the Karakoram to the borders of Burma, has totally transformed the situation. This is only one example of the frequent changes in areas of international sensitivity, without a knowledge of which it is not possible at any time to formulate national policies. This has been the weakness of India in the past, this sense of isolation and refusal to see itself in relation to the states outside the geographical limits of the subcontinent. [International Studies 22:2 (1985) pp192-195, emphasis added]

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K Subrahmanyam on Admiral Mehta’s speech

Admiral Mehta’s speech signifies “the arrival of senior service officers at the top rung of national grand strategy formulation”

Coping with China

By K Subrahmanyam

Admiral Sureesh Mehta, Chief of Naval Staff and Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee who is due to retire at the end of this month delivered an address on national security under the aegis of the National Maritime Foundation on the 10th of August. It was a fairly comprehensive overview of our national security perspective. Though delivered by the senior most Service Officer, the lecture was remarkable as it went beyond the military realm and focused on a broad strategic and political vision in the currently evolving international situation.

In a sense this address by Admiral Mehta signified the arrival of senior service officers at the top rung of national grand strategy formulation. His eminently pragmatic, strategic vision has been misinterpreted in certain sections of the media as a cry of despair that India will not be able to catch up with China militarily. He has made it clear that India has no intention to do so. At the same time he has formulated the most viable strategy to cope with this situation. Whether India—with a population likely to exceed China’s in the next two decades; the advantage of a much younger age profile of that population; its post September 2008 integration with the rest of the world; and being a democracy along with the all other
major powers as also English-speaking—will ultimately catch up with China it is too early to predict. China today has the advantage of a decade and half of head start in economic reforms and globalisation and very close industrial cooperation with US and other multinational firms. Admiral Mehta has detailed the lead China has gained on this account over India. That is an inexorable reality which Indian strategists have to accept and factor in coping with China. The word Admiral Mehta has chosen to use is ‘coping with China’, not confronting or competing with it.

While China by switching sides in the Cold War and repudiating the Maoist legacy broke out of its isolation in the seventies, India could do so only in 2008 with the waiver of NSG guidelines. While China was a tacit but active strategic partner of the US and NATO during the Cold War and an established permanent member of the Security Council and an accepted nuclear power of the Nonproliferation Treaty, India’s recognition as one of the rising powers and a balancer in the international system began less than a decade ago.

India presently has strategic partnerships with all great powers including China. Today India’s largest trading partner is China. Yet as Admiral Mehta pointed out, in China’s case India has a trust deficit because of the long standing territorial dispute and among other issues, the China-Pakistan connection. Unlike in India’s case where its emergence as a power does not cause concern in the world, that is not the case with China. Its propensity for intervention in space, both on earth and in outer space and cyber warfare have been cited as causing concern to other nations.

Addressing those who entertain expectations that 1962 can be repeated, Admiral Mehta highlighted that the economic penalties resulting from a potential Sino-Indian military conflict would have grave consequences for both sides. Unlike in 1962, China has today multiple vulnerabilities and has to consider seriously the effect of a war on its energy supply lines. In such circumstances mutual cooperation is to the benefit of both countries. Therefore Admiral Mehta’s advocacy is for India reducing its military gap with China and countering the growing Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean region.

He does not favor the traditional bean-counting or division-for-division approach in closing the gap. Instead, he wants to rely on harnessing modern technology for developing high situational awareness and creating a reliable standoff deterrent. The recent launch of the nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, is a step in that direction. Admiral Mehta further adds, that in order to minimise the chances of conflict, India should proactively engage China diplomatically, economically, culturally and in people-to-people contacts. At the same time India should nurture its relations with US, Russia, Japan and other East Asian countries to leverage towards this end. In his view our growing relations with South East and East Asian countries would increase opportunities for cooperative engagement with China as well.

What Admiral Mehta does not say in his speech is as important as what he has said. China is looking forward to emerging as the foremost power of the world. Its GDP is expected to overtake the US in the next two decades. The recent economic recession has narrowed the gap between the two and made China the second largest economy of the world. While US and China have some mutuality of interest in ensuring the stability of the dollar, as otherwise China will lose heavily on its large dollar holdings, in the period beyond the recovery the US will be keen to sustain its preeminence as the foremost military, economic and technological power of the world. There will be radical changes in the US-China economic relationship so far anchored on China selling enormous quantities of consumer goods to US and running huge balance of payments surpluses. Those were saved and lent back to the US to enable American consumers to spend more.

This world order is unsustainable and is bound to change. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, India is seen as one of the key partners for the US to reshape the 21st century. The US has agreed to sell high technology defense equipment to India while it is not likely to sell them to China, its main rival in the coming decades. Therefore Admiral Mehta’s reference to the innovative use of technology by India to close the military gap with China.

Besides focusing on this core subject, the lecture also dealt with non-state actors, shaping our immediate neighborhood, securing our maritime borders, internal security, intelligence, cyber-warfare, higher defence integration and jointness among the three services, nuclear issues, reducing dependence on other countries for equipment, trends in defence expenditure and adequacy of our defense outlays, delays in our procurement procedures, governance and culture of strategic thinking. His ideas are thought-provoking and deserve to be objectively debated by the Indian strategic community.

In a sense this address breaks new ground. A service chief has put on record his views on a whole host of national security issues just a few weeks before demitting office. Many of these issues have been under consideration for ages without solutions. In today’s security environment these need to be debated openly in the country—to generate public pressure for early decision-making in the Government. Regrettably, in our Parliament national security issues do not receive the attention they merit and therefore greater the need for informed public debate.

A Hindi version of this op-ed was published in Dainik Jagran yesterday. This piece appears here thanks to Commodore C Uday Bhaskar.

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Three thoughts on Independence Day

On keeping the republic, getting incentives right and projecting power

For contemplation on Independence Day—the Absent Indian Voter Syndrome; All poor, all backward and the wages of Lax Indica.

From the archive: Three thoughts on on Republic Day 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 and Independence Day 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

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What the admiral said about China

Beyond a realistic appreciation of the situation

“Common sense” according to Admiral Sureesh Mehta, “that cooperation with China would be preferable to competition or conflict, as it would be foolhardy to compare India and China as equals. China’s GDP is more than thrice that of ours and its per capita GDP is 2.2 times our own.” (linkthanks Commodore C Uday Bhaskar)

The economic penalties resulting from a military conflict would have grave consequences for both nations. It would therefore, undoubtedly be in both our interests, to cooperate with each other in mutually beneficial endeavours, and ensure that the potential for conflict is minimised…

On the military front, our strategy to deal with China must include reducing the military gap and countering the growing Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean Region. The traditional or ‘attritionist’ approach of matching ‘Division for Division’ must give way to harnessing modern technology for developing high situational awareness and creating a reliable stand-off deterrent. [Adm Mehta/NMF]

Those looking for a hawkish tone would understandably be disappointed at these words, but the outgoing navy chief’s understanding of the geopolitical context is infused with realism. There is a wide gap between India and China in terms of aggregate national power—not least because China opened its economy earlier, did it more purposefully—and the gap may be widening despite India’s own growth take-off. A military confrontation, therefore, is not desirable. In Kautilya’s metaphor “attacking a stronger king will meet the same fate as that of a foot-soldier opposing an elephant.”

While Admiral Mehta’s reading of the situation is astute, his policy prescription summarily rejects the possibility that competition and conflict might be in India’s interests, should such competition hurt China more than it hurts India. That’s in Kautilya’s Arthashastra too, actually. Galrahn over at Information Dissemination has a valid point when he argues that “military asymmetry in interstate relations does not mean the weaker side must bend to the dictates of the stronger, nor should the weaker state seek to propitiate it.” Perhaps Admiral Mehta’s office constrained what he could say openly, but his point about countering the growing Chinese maritime footprint in the region suggests that he has left some things unsaid.

B Raman reads in Admiral Mehta’s speech the UPA government’s re-orientation of grand strategy “from power projection” to “deterrence and self-defence.” If this is a conscious choice, it is a bad one. It should be obvious for anyone to see—no one can reasonably argue that the extended neighbourhood is any more stable after the UPA government’s strategic myopia allowed China literally unbridled room to encircle and contain India. The question is whether this situation came about due to neglect or design. The former is perhaps excusable. The latter is not.

This blog has consistently argued that “projection of power is necessary to create the conditions for human development”. Because there are Maoris out there.

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Raging in Beijing

Rio Tinto is the latest of a series of mistakes that China has made recently. Why, and why now?

“Drawing that direct link” the Wall Street Journal says “between the fortunes of (Chinese) steel mills and the interests of the Chinese state has alarmed foreign officials and businesspeople.” It refers to the arrest—on espionage charges—of four employees of Rio Tinto, a British-Australian mining company, amid tense negotiations over the price of iron ore. Coming as it does a few weeks after Australian shareholders rebuffed an attempt by China’s state-owned aluminium company to acquire a bigger stake in Rio Tinto, the possibility exists that China’s move was in part motivated by a sense of retribution.

It is not uncommon for big commercial negotiations to involve an element of trying to find out what the other side’s positions are. Sometimes, the methods used can cross the line of legality and become criminal acts. But to term such acts as stealing “state secrets” and assert that they harmed China’s “economic interests and economic security”, while being technically correct, are clearly the use of state power in the service of the commercial interests. By implication, the commercial interests of China’s state-owned firms are in the service of state power.

One key risk for Beijing is that its actions will set back years of efforts to persuade the world that Chinese state-owned enterprises are independent, commercially run entities, lawyers say. Cash-rich Chinese state companies, scouring the world for deals, must present themselves as profit-driven independent entities to overcome suspicions that they are fronts for the Chinese government.

But the Chinese government’s argument that these companies’ interests are identical with that of the state could now be undermining that effort. [WSJ]

That’s bad news for those who took that argument at face value, and there certainly were many of those. But the reality is, as fellow INI blogger V Anantha Nageswaran has argued, “right now, China has neither a command economy nor a market economy. It has a political economy.” Or Greg Sheridan, one of the most perspicacious Australian commentators, puts it baldly: “One of the most important lessons to come out of this mess is the absolute shattering of the myth that Chinese government-owned commercial entities are not part of China Inc.”

The Rio Tinto case should sensitise the Australian government to the folly of a natural resource exporting economy depending on one big buyer.

But the more important question is: why has China shed the pretence now? It is unlikely that China’s leaders would want the “peaceful rise” theory to be shattered over relatively trivial matters as the price of iron ore. Or for that matter, over an ADB loan programme to India. China cannot aspire to topple the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency unless it has the support of countries such as India and Australia.

One explanation is that it’s gone into their head and the Chinese leadership is flexing its muscles ignoring Deng Xiaoping’s advice to “keep your head down” (of course, his aphorisms were a lot less prosaic).

The other is that the balance of power within the ruling Communist party has become unstable—the factional intrigues within the leadership have resulted in several embarrassing or self-defeating incidents in recent months: making the ADB a platform to push a bilateral dispute ended in China’s total isolation; a poorly-conceived, poorly executed internet monitoring policy that ultimately ended up sparking a trade dispute with the United States; Pyongyang’s belligerence has killed the six-party talks, and undermined China’s regional standing; ethnic rioting in Urumqi and Hu Jintao’s absence at the G-8 summit prompted renewed concern over China’s political stability; and, of course, haggling over the price of iron-ore has successfully alienated the most China-friendly Australian government in more than a decade.

So much bungling in such a short period of time—from a regime that is seen as a deliberate, strategic player—rules out mere incompetence. While an outright leadership struggle is be unlikely, it could well be that a fratricidal war of succession is raging in Beijing.

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