“If you want to annoy your neighbor, say the truth about them” says an old proverb. Luckily for India, its neighbor decided to throw elbows around everywhere this time and the global town hall is finally convinced. As the international community seeks to shape Chinese misbehavior, it is an open secret that India has been living with these truths since the 1950s. Chinese patterns of provocation have endured for over five decades and efforts at palliation — mitigating tensions without curing the root of the problem — have remained cosmetic too.
The narrative of the great betrayal in India’s public discourse is a legacy of the 1962 war with China. I have argued before that 1962 cemented an enduring discourse of contested perceptions that persists, independent of the climate of talks between governments.
Today, the mainstreaming of anti-China sentiment in India has driven an articulation of policy options where proverbial red lines are being crossed. It is essential now to have a reset in ties, one that ensures that the strategic narrative on China in India’s public square reinforces cold facts and moves on from the shibboleths of the past.
Patterns of Provocation
First, it is imperative to acknowledge that the Galwan Valley clash in 2020 is tragic and a definite inflection point in Sino-Indian ties, but it certainly did not come as a surprise. According to Parliament records, between 2016 and 2018 over 1,000 incidents of transgressions by Chinese troops have been noted.
Five days before India and China lost soldiers to the bloody clash, a senior military strategist wrote on the Galwan face off: “[S]olace cannot be drawn from the fact that none of these incidents have led to firing due to immense self control and discipline. Events have a life of their own and that the following ones will not spiral out of control and create an international incident, and even limited escalation, cannot be guaranteed.” People had an ear to the ground, even as strategic restraint was a considered policy.
The Parity Paradox
People’s Liberation Army (PLA) observers have often written about the dichotomy in Chinese thinking toward India. There is heightened sensitivity over Indian military modernization and attention to Chinese abilities to deter any Indian advantage, yet at the same time public dismissals of India’s military capability, citing poor quality and time lags, are also regular. This anxiety is par for the course with China, for whom parity with India is unimaginable.
In October 2019, ahead of the summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, China had objected to India conducting “Op Him Vijay,” one of its biggest war games in Arunachal Pradesh. Despite clarifications that the exercise is an annual feature, the Chinese pushed to postpone the meeting. This was ironic given that in 2014, while Xi was being hosted by Modi in his home state of Gujarat, the PLA carried out incursions along the borders.
Arguably, as Doklam proved, China’s forays into South Asia, including adventurism in the Indian Ocean Region or on the disputed borders, are often aimed at imposing reputational costs on India. Beijing’s framing of the Sino-Indian relationship, increasingly seen through the lens of the Sino-U.S. fallout, while tuning out Indian concerns, speaks clearly of this anxiety. The late Cheng Ruisheng, a veteran diplomat and former Chinese ambassador to India who championed a stable Sino-Indian relationship, spoke to this thinking back in 2011. “We don’t feel stress with regard to India, in part because China is militarily stronger,” Cheng said then, before acknowledging, “I think, frankly speaking, we are somewhat concerned about the cooperation between India and the United States, especially in the sphere of security.” Speaking nearly a decade ago, he stressed, “The China-U.S. relationship, the China-India relationship and the India-U.S. relationship are inclusive of each other. Balance is very important.”
Mind Games Matter
As is its custom, China shrilled its pitch during the recent clash. Diplomatic statements pleading for lowering tensions and resolution through dialogue came even as Chinese media populated social media feeds with tailored leaks of huge deployments, PLA exercises in Tibet, and threats of a repeat of 1962.
Managing the China relationship for India has always meant managing the optics, too. “Critical but stable” became the chosen turn of phrase to describe the state of affairs on the ground each time there was a flare up; mitigation was clearly the primary priority for New Delhi.
However, when a nation loses soldiers, the people no longer see the logic of strategic restraint. The clamor to call China out on its unilateralism now guides India’s public posture, even as critics argue it is perhaps too little too late. Perceptions matter — Modis visit to eastern Ladakh to felicitate Indian troops, even as China refused to acknowledge its dead or wounded, was meant to convey a message. Videos of Indian Special Forces parachuting from a U.S.-made C130 Js in Ladakh, updates on key acquisitions made by India to arm the military, and reports quoting government sources admitting that this time, “diplomacy isn’t cutting ice with China” make headlines now. Shaping the information environment has become critical as India prepares for a prolonged conflict in the Himalayas.
Let the Border Regions Lead the Way
Not surprisingly, China opened up another front with its objection to the grant for the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (SWS) in eastern Bhutan, claiming that the location was disputed. The area borders Bhutan and India’s Arunachal Pradesh, claimed by China as “South Tibet.” Bhutan quickly dismissed China’s claim while the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh pressed New Delhi to revive an old proposal to build a road to the same territory. This road would enable New Delhi to quickly access Tawang and respond to any military moves by China, even in Bhutan.
Connectivity remains a sensitive issue in Arunachal Pradesh, with infrastructure development now picking up pace after years of inertia. In 2017, Xi told herdsmen from a Tibetan settlement bordering Arunachal to “set down roots” to safeguard “Chinese territory.” Since 2018, China has put the spotlight on its program of “happy homes for sacred home guardians” or model villages right opposite the Indian border to “alleviate poverty” and encourage grazer settlements that change demographics on the ground. On the Indian side the Border Area Development Program aims to fortify the frontiers, but is still a work in progress. Chinese propaganda efforts are quick to highlight the gap.
Information wars are people-centric. An academic from Arunachal’s premier university told me, “We need to actively fight Chinese propaganda on Arunachal, but for that you will have to mainstream local voices in the national discourse… The narrative on Arunachal Pradesh has to be development driven, not just China driven.” It is time to listen to the frontiers and let them lead the way toward development, and a more stable region.
Shruti Pandalai is a fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, India’s premiere think tank under the aegis of the Ministry of Defence. The views expressed here are her own. Follow her on Twitter @shrutipandalai