Even as China-India tensions in Ladakh show limited but concrete signs of easing, recent public point-scoring efforts by both countries present an apparent puzzle (with no easy solution). First, as both sides disengaged militarily in the north and south bank of the Pangong Lake, India Army’s Northern Command chief Lieutenant General Y.K. Joshi launched a media blitz, describing the standoff with a level of detail uncharacteristic of the Indian government’s oblique public framing of the crisis.
Following Joshi’s interview, China in turn not only announced gallantry awards for five of its soldiers involved in the Galwan Valley clash last June (including four who were killed in action), but its media too went into overdrive, releasing videos of the clash. Soon after China’s heavily controlled social media was awash with nationalist hyperventilation.
Given that the banks of the Pangong Lake mark only two of several areas of friction in the current standoff – and both sides are yet to even commit to disengagement in two of the remaining areas – both China and India’s state-sanctioned media offensives could very well scuttle future progress on comprehensively ending the standoff, either by letting public opinion get in its way or by inadvertently signaling to the other side that negotiating concessions are tactical at best, or are not in good faith, at worse.
While official New Delhi had been coy about the late August military operation to seize unoccupied peaks in the Kailash range near the south bank of the Pangong Lake – the official statement was opaque, to say the least – Joshi in an interview to India Today on February 17 explicitly described it as “quid pro quo actions,” after the Indian Army chief asked him to “create some leverage so that we can exert pressure on the PLA and get the negotiations into a favorable position.”
“Ideally, he [the Chinese PLA] should not attempt any such misadventure again. He has understood that this was a strategic miscalculation on his part,” Joshi also told the outlet. In another interview, to The Print, Joshi explicitly described the importance of the Rechin La and Rezang La peaks, in terms of the fact that they overlooked the PLA’s vital Moldo garrison, noting that seizing them “forced [the PLA] to negotiate according to our terms.”
Again, to be sure, analysts had already figured this line of thinking out even without official confirmation — which begs the question why Joshi, widely recognized as a cerebral military officer, said what he did.
In all certainty, Joshi’s statements led the PLA, in turn, to officially celebrate its gallantry during the Galwan clash of June 15, by awarding five soldiers (including four posthumously) military honors. A PLA spokesperson, commenting on China’s decision to make these details public, said:
History cannot be tampered with, and heroes cannot be forgotten. Public coverage of the heroic deeds of Chinese border troops by the Chinese media is the responsibility of the media to objectively tell the facts. It is conducive to clarifying the truth and letting the world see the rights and wrongs.
However, the ensuing state-supported social media campaign in China around the Galwan clashes proved to be capable of backfiring, with some in the country questioning why China had not made the details of its fatalities public before. (The Hindu reported on February 21 that Chinese authorities had arrested three social media users for “insulting” PLA personnel killed in the Galwan clash.) That said, China’s draconian internet controls allow the government to shape public narratives to an extent that the Modi government – despite its own inclinations – will be unable to match.
While political scientists puzzle on Twitter why China (and India) would seek to up the rhetorical ante at this stage – when chances of the standoff being resolved peacefully are higher than ever – one preliminary answer is that, such rhetoric, strangely enough, could indeed signal its end. As both sides make concessions on the ground, a jubilant narrative is precisely what allows for a face-saving exit, as both sides try to sell their “victory” to the public.