Playing the long game with China

The news of the terrible tragedy in the Galwan Valley on June 15, expectedly, evoked anger, sadness, and loathing in all of us. Within hours, however, the tragedy of the moment was sullied by a tragic-comedy of errors. In one instance, television anchors struggled to read an imagined list of Chinese casualties circulating on WhatsApp; in another, an apparently made-in-China television set was attacked with sticks — all for the benefit of a phone camera, that was, most likely, made in China. Before you boycott your weekly made-in-India Chinese meal, take a few minutes to read between the lines.

This incident has changed the India-China relationship forever. This is the most serious engagement that the Indian military has had on the boundary with China since 1967. All guidelines and rules of engagement that were put in place since 1993 that dictated behaviour at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) now stand questioned.

In this environment, what role do we play as citizens and consumers of information, especially at a time when operational and political reasons have dictated that information is sparingly made public? Here are a set of four questions we should examine to try and make sense of the developments.

One, do we know what China will do? We do not. That is what makes the situation so complex and serious. Till last week, we proudly talked about how LAC is a disputed border where no bullets have been fired since 1975. The confirmed loss of 20 Indian lives makes the claim moot now.

However, what we can bank on is the fact that States act rationally, in their own interest, to achieve their own goals. And, with almost no exception, they aim to spend the least amount of resources to achieve them. So, the question we need to ask is — what are China’s goals? Is it to merely occupy the Galwan Valley? Or is it to put India in its place and establish its superiority? The answers to this and more lie in the patterns of behaviour.

Two, how, then, do we look for patterns? Contrary to how they are represented in popular culture, Chinese leaders are not inscrutable. Their actions are quite predictable, as long as one knows how to look for patterns in them. As journalist Shekhar Gupta has argued, there were signs since last year that an intrusion was likely.

Many of these patterns exist in the pages of history. For instance, before believing that WhatsApp forward that lists names, purportedly of dead People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers, it would help to know that releasing casualty details is a sensitive affair in PLA that often takes years. For instance, there is still no definitive number of the total number of casualties in the Nathu La-Chola La standoff in 1967. How likely is it that the names of those dead in Galwan would be available?

More such patterns exist, waiting to be read. The PLA’s statement on June 16 mentions causalities but neglects to claim that they were only Indian. This is as close as we are going to get for a confirmation, at least for now, that some of the dead were indeed Chinese. Similarly, read-outs of the conversation between the two foreign ministers use terms such as “peace and tranquility,” a nod to an earlier agreement for behaviour along LAC. This indicates that while the frameworks are under question, they are still allowing the two sides to converse.

Three, where can we find factually accurate information? As Dhruva Jaishankar of the Observer Research Foundation has pointed out, information about developments at LAC are most trustworthy when they come from the government or military, in both countries, or through analysis of geospatial imagery. But when news comes from social media, it is prudent to verify it.

Take the Chinese news outlet Global Times. The organisation and its reporters are very active on Twitter. However, Twitter cannot be legally accessed in the Chinese mainland, which suggests that their aim is to engage with readers abroad, in this case, India. This is most likely a part of State-sponsored psyops meant to misdirect, browbeat, or troll people while vigorously defending Chinese claims.

As readers, instead of depending on publications such as the Global Times, we should look at news sources that are read within China. For instance, news about India in The People’s Daily is a far better indicator of how the government wants the news to reach its citizens. Even after the Galwan skirmish, the news did not make it beyond the back pages — indicating that China wants to keep this incident, as well as the issue at LAC, away from public scrutiny.

And finally, what are India’s options? What can the government do? Are surgical strikes like in Pakistan a possibility? Or, will there be war? These are critical questions doing the rounds, and correctly so. However, as we deliberate on this, we must be aware of two points. First, China is not Pakistan, and to believe that India’s approach to China can be similar will be a folly. Second, and more important, there are very real costs for war, whether with Pakistan or China. There are other punitive measures, from external balancing by aligning with other countries, to re-looking at the economic relationship with China, to building up domestic capacity. The government’s response will be predicated on the long game, and as we wait for these patterns to emerge, a good place to start would be to look for indications that the element of competition in the relationship is dominating the element of cooperation.

The article was published in the Hindustan Times on June 22, 2020.

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