War Talk: Perceptual Gaps in “Chindia” Relations

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 20

Until 2005, Chinese public perceptions of India were generally benign, even bordering on benign neglect. Yet, a radical change in Chinese public attitudes toward India has noticeably taken place since then and it can be attributed in part to an increasing number of Chinese strategic experts, bloggers, retired diplomats, and even officially sanctioned websites and PLA-linked think tanks ratcheting up an “India threat” scenario. Beginning in early 2006, some strategic journals and pro-Beijing Hong Kong media published commentaries discussing the possibilities of a “partial border war” to “teach India a lesson” again. The Tibetan riots of March 2008—which refocused the world’s attention on Tibet as China was preparing for Olympic glory—were a major catalyst [1].

As in the past, Beijing laid the responsibility for the Tibetan unrest on exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and India. The Chinese media and strategic journals raised their anti-India rhetoric, calling New Delhi “arrogant” and warning it not to “misjudge the situation as it did in 1962,” and to “stay away from a path of confrontation” [2]. Accusing the Indian government of “walking today along the old road of resisting China,” the PLA leadership, through an article posted on the website of the China Institute of International Strategic Studies—a think tank set up by the General Staff Department’s 2nd department—cautioned that India should “not requite kindness with ingratitude” [3]. Public reminders from the Communist Party’s media of China’s decisive victory over India in the 1962 war spiked during 2008-09 (C3S Paper, No. 288, June 12). Many of the commentaries and web postings seem to be penned by “insiders” as they display intimate knowledge of military operations, logistics, terrain, ORBAT (order of battle: number, location and strengths of army divisions) and a solid understanding of China-India border talks and history. A common thread found in the assessments is an aim to capture the lost lands and crush India for daring to compete with China [4].

“India threat theory”

Not surprisingly, the 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Pew Global Attitudes Project saw a dramatic increase in the number of Chinese—24 percent—ranking India as an “enemy” (Pew Global Attitudes Project, July 22, 2008). The relentless Chinese print and electronic media campaign against India permitted and therefore sanctioned by the Chinese government censors—unusual in its sarcasm and ridicule of Indian aspirations of becoming a global power—has had a negative impact on large sections of Chinese public opinion and has added to the existing prejudices against India. In June 2009, an online poll conducted by Global Times, an offshoot of People’s Daily, showed that 90 percent of respondents believed India, more than any other country, threatened China’s security (Global Times, June 11). All top four “Most Commented” opinion pieces on People’s Daily Online in 2009 were on India—written mostly in jingoistic tone and highly critical of Indian foreign policy and defense posture (Global Times, June 11; People’s Daily Online, June 19;, August 12; September 15). With most Chinese now perceiving India as their main enemy—nearly 50 years after they fought a border war—India has effectively replaced Japan as Beijing’s new chimera. An article on the PRC’s 60th anniversary in Sunday Times found that “[n]ot everyone in Beijing speaks in the silky language of the foreign ministry. Curiously, the enemy most often spoken of is India. Interestingly, the censors permit alarmingly frank discussion on the Internet of the merits of another war against India to secure the Tibetan plateau” (The Sunday Times, September 27). In June 2009, People’s Daily’s leading strategic expert warned that a fresh border dispute between China and India could “plunge the two neighbors again into a ‘partial military action’” (People’s Daily Online, June 19).

Always wary of China, the Indian media (especially TV channels) did not take long to join the battle of sensationalizing alleged Chinese incursions and in hyping “the China threat” (BBC News, September 16). One reason Beijing’s leaders have long regarded India’s democracy with contempt is because of its media, which is also partly blamed for the 1962 War. An article entitled “Unmasking China,” by an Indian defense analyst who argued that China would launch an attack on India by 2012 to divert the attention of its people from “unprecedented internal dissent, growing unemployment and financial problems” and to achieve multiple strategic objectives vis-à-vis India drew sharp rebuke from the Chinese [5]. Strategic and political analysts voice concern over what they perceive as an aggressive anti-China campaign by the Indian media over disputed borders, Tibet, unfair trade practices, terrorism and nuclear issues. According to Hu Shisheng, an expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, which is affiliated with the Ministry of State Security (the Chinese government’s intelligence arm): “Most Indian elite are hostile to China due to the hype of the ‘China threat theory’ in Indian media, even though senior officials of the two countries have quite a good relationship” (Global Times, August 20). From the Chinese perspective, Indian media’s negative portrayal of China bolsters the credibility of hawkish arguments, which state that China and its allies harbor hostile intent towards India. Media in India is also accused of calibrating to “curry favor with the Western anti-China forces by presenting their readers with biased information and fabricated stories about China” (People’s Daily Online, June 19). This further deepens the perceptual gap, and fuels the national discontent against China among ordinary Indians.

Will history repeat itself?

Is the war talk merely the media’s creation? Longtime China-watchers do not think so. D. S. Rajan opines: “China is speaking in two voices. Beijing’s diplomatic interlocutors have always shown understanding during their dealings with their Indian counterparts, but its selected media is pouring venom on India” (Sify.com, August 10). The Chinese government tolerates and perhaps encourages this nationalistic outpouring to pressure New Delhi to comply with its demands and desist from balancing China by tilting toward Washington and Tokyo.

With the war in “Chindia” media raging on, some commentators have drawn parallels to the situation in 2008-09 and in the pre-1962 period. China-India frictions are growing and the potential for conflict remains high. In a replay of events of 1958 when the PLA launched an “all out war” against the Tibetan rebels following the Lhasa uprising that culminated in the 1962 War, Beijing is now engaged, by its own admission, in a “life and death struggle” over Tibet and launched a vilification campaign against the Dalai Lama. India is again under greater Chinese pressure to proscribe his supporters’ activities. The security clampdown in Tibet since the March 2008 Tibetan uprising parallels the Chinese crackdown in Tibet from 1959-1962. The Chinese media claims that the Dalai Lama and his supporters in India send saboteurs and terrorists into Tibet. Many Chinese see the latest unrest in Tibet as instigated by the Indian government at the behest of the Americans, which uses the Tibetan government-in-exile to destabilize the Chinese hold on Tibet and open the door to Indian expansion (CIIS, March 26, 2008).

In addition, “the present pattern of cross-frontier incursions and other border incidents, as well as new force deployments and mutual recriminations, is redolent of the situation that prevailed before the 1962 war” (Far Eastern Economic Review,  September 2009). India’s plans to bolster its defenses to counter aggressive patrolling and incursions across the LAC by PLA’s border guards are being labeled a “new forward policy” in the Chinese media. The Chinese Ministry of National Defense spokesperson, however, denies carrying out “provocative actions” along the India-China border, saying that Chinese border patrols strictly abide by the relevant agreements on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) (C3S Paper, No. 354, September 10). As they did from 1958-1959, the military forces of both sides are once again pushing into remote and previously (for the most part) unoccupied mountainous frontier regions. Even the rhetoric sounds familiar. One commentary claimed that while accusing the Chinese troops of carrying out incursions into the borders, India was actually trying to change the Sino-Indian border status quo. It said that the ghost of 1962 has not been exorcised from the memories of a small, but influential, category of retired Indian generals and diplomats, who still harbor ambitions of “giving it back to the Chinese.” Refuting the Indian defense analyst’s warning of a Chinese attack by 2012, a noted journalist for a Chinese newspaper, Chen Xiaochen, went on to caution India against “deploy[ing] more troops in the border area, similar to its Forward Policy 50 years ago,” and wondered whether “India’s ‘New Forward Policy,’ as the old one did 50 years ago, [would] trigger a ‘2012 war’?” [6].

According to one China-watcher, the 1962 War, ostensibly fallout from a contentious boundary dispute, was in reality the interim finale of an intense rivalry, with the purpose of cutting India down to size. This is corroborated in an authoritative biography of Nehru with a quote from a Chinese official who explained that the prime objective of the 1962 war was to demolish India’s “arrogance” and “illusions of grandeur” and that China “had taught India a lesson and, if necessary, they would teach her a lesson again and again.” Apparently, according to Gumaste, “the emphasis on ‘again and again’ indicates that China may not be averse to using a military option in the future” [7]. More importantly, just as Nehru insisted on treating the McMahon Line as an “established fact” in the pre-war period, the Singh government is now insisting that “Arunachal Pradesh as an integral part of India” is a truth ("Arunachal can’t be parted with at any cost" (Times of India, September 30).

Militarily, the PLA generals believe that India’s military remains inferior to the Chinese in combat, equipment, logistics and war-fighting capability. Should an action-reaction cycle escalate, the PLA is better-placed to control the levers of escalation. One Hong Kong commentary concluded that “in the short term, India does not have the ability … to launch a war against China … This implies that in a conflict with China, India will be the one to suffer the most” (Zhongguo Tongxun She, August 4).

Last but not least, India is perceived as the weakest link in what Beijing sees as an evolving anti-China coalition of democratic and maritime powers (the U.S.-Japan-Australia-India), which is inimical to China’s growth. Beijing’s general assessment of the United States as being overextended militarily with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and weakened economically following the financial crisis, has imbued Chinese policymakers with the confidence to be more assertive on the international stage in ways that are inconsistent with Indian interests. With the coming to power of “China-friendly” leaders in Tokyo, Canberra and Taipei, the current regional and international environment would seem conducive to coercive diplomacy vis-à-vis India as none of the major players would come to India’s support in the event of a confrontation in the near future. Apparently, some Chinese strategic thinkers feel that a limited war with India would send a resounding message to those who are again courting and counting on India as a balancer or counterweight to China in the 21st century [8]. Historically, rising powers have chosen to attack the most vulnerable or weaker power (“easy prey”) in order to effect a shattering blow to the rival coalition. After all, a coalition is only as strong as its weakest link. As an old Chinese saying goes, “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey” (shaji jinghou)—kill the weaker enemy to scare the stronger enemy.

Having said that, there are several striking dissimilarities as well, the most important being that today’s China and India are nuclear-armed nations with enormous stakes in maintaining peace and responsibilities in building a post-American world order. For Beijing, a hard-line approach to India could backfire and drive India and its other Asian neighbors into stronger opposition to China and into deeper alignment with Washington and Tokyo, culminating in the emergence of an Asian NATO. Moreover, India is no pushover militarily. Unlike the PLA that has not seen combat since the Vietnam War of 1979, India has a battle-hardened and experienced military. If Beijing is determined to gain the lost territory in Arunachal Pradesh, India is equally determined not to see a replay of the 1962 War by losing large chunks of territory. In the near future, the India-China border will continue to be characterized by incursions, tensions and skirmishes, interspersed with endless border talks. As China’s power grows, China might be tempted at some point in the future to give a crushing blow to India’s great power aspirations by occupying Tawang and giving India’s military a bloody nose, as they have done in 1962, so that it need not worry about the “India challenge” for another half of a century. Instead of challenging China, Indian leaders will then be much more deferential in dealing with China. The demonstrative effect of a short and swift victory over India would buttress the need for other countries in Asia, especially U.S. friends and allies, to accommodate China’s growing power by aligning with, rather than against China.

[The views are the author’s own and do not reflect the policy or position of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.]

Notes

1. It was the most significant eruption of the Tibet issue since 1959. Earlier uprisings (e.g. 1988) were not on the same scale and did not have the same international impact.
2. Zhanlue, “Zhenggao Indu zhengfu: Buyao yiyuan baode,”  [“A Warning to the Indian Government: Don’t Return Evil For Good”], CIIS, March 26, 2008, http://str.chinaiiss.org/content/2008-3-26/26211952.shtml.
3. Lai Yuan, “Injun zai zhongyin bianji…,” March 16, 2008, http://www.warchina.com/n53470c41.aspx.; D. S. Rajan, “China: Military Media Attacks on India-A Tibet issue fall out?”  March 28, 2008, Saag.org, Paper no. 2650, http://str.chinaiiss.org/content/2008-3-26/26211952.shtml.
4. On 7 ways to destroy India, see “India wants to compete with China, we have many ways to destroy it” [“Indu xiang he zhongguo dou, women zhengkua ta you duozhong banfa”],
http://www.armsky.com/BbsJunshi/bbsgaojing/200811/11653.html.
5. Bharat Verma, “Unmasking China,” Indian Defence Review, Vol. 24, No. 3, July-September 2009, http://www.indiandefencereview.com/2009/08/unmasking-china.html.
6. Chen Xiaochen, “Illusion of ‘China’s Attack on India Before 2012,” July 17, 2009, http://www.chinastakes.com/2009/7/illusion-of-chinas-attack-on-india-before-2012.html. The Indian media claims that unlike in the 1950s, it is now China that is engaged in a “new forward policy” in order to “provoke India into retaliatory action” which could then be justified to take military action.
7. S. Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 1979) cited in Vivek Gumaste, “India and China: It was a stab from the front,” Rediff.com, August 25, 2009, http://news.rediff.com/slide-show/2009/aug/25/slide-show-1-a-stab-from-the-front.htm.
8. "Zhongguo yi ge xiao dong zuo jiu chai san le suowei ‘da Indu lianbang’” [“China can dismember the so-called ‘Great Indian Federation’ with one small stroke”], www.iiss.cn, August 8, 2009.