Playing the long game with China: analysis
The news of the terrible tragedy in the Galwan Valley on June 15, supposedly caused anger, sadness and hatred in all of us. Within hours, however, the tragedy of the moment was tainted by a tragic comedy of errors. In one case, television presenters struggled to read an imagined list of Chinese casualties circulating on WhatsApp; in another, a television set apparently made in China was attacked with sticks, all for the benefit of a phone camera, which was probably made in China. Before boycotting your weekly Indian-made Chinese food, take a few minutes to read between the lines.
This incident has changed the India-China relationship forever. This is the most serious commitment the Indian military has had on the border with China since 1967. All the guidelines and rules of engagement that were established since 1993 that dictated behavior in the Current Line of Control (LAC) are now 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 be made public in moderation? Here is a set of four questions that we must examine to try to 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. Until last week, we spoke with pride about how LAC is a disputed border where no bullets have been fired since 1975. The confirmed loss of 20 lives of Indians makes the claim moot now.
However, we can rely on the fact that States act rationally, in their own interest, to achieve their own objectives. And, almost without exception, they intend to spend the least amount of resources to achieve them. So the question we must ask ourselves is: what are China’s goals? Is it simply occupying the Galwan Valley? Or is it to put India in its place and establish its superiority? The answers to this and more are found in behavioral patterns.
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, since last year there have been signs that an intrusion was likely.
Many of these patterns exist on the pages of history. For example, before believing that the WhatsApp forwarding listing names, allegedly of dead People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers, it would be helpful to know that the disclosure of victim details is a sensitive issue in the PLA that often takes years. . For example, there is still no definitive number of the total number of victims in the 1967 Nathu La-Chola La confrontation. What are the chances that the names of those killed in Galwan will be available?
There are more patterns of this type, waiting to be read. The EPL statement of June 16 mentions the causalities, but refuses to claim that they were only Indians. This is the closest we are going to get confirmation, at least for now, that some of the dead were Chinese. Similarly, readings of the conversation between the two foreign ministers use terms like “peace and quiet,” a nod to an earlier agreement on behavior throughout LAC. This indicates that while the frames are in question, they still allow the two sides to converse.
Three, where can we find objectively accurate information? As Dhruva Jaishankar of the Observer Research Foundation has pointed out, information on developments in LAC is more reliable when it comes from the government or the military, in both countries, or through geospatial image analysis. But when the news comes from social media, it’s wise to check it out.
Take the Chinese news outlet Global times. The organization and its reporters are very active on Twitter. However, Twitter cannot be legally accessed in mainland China, suggesting that its goal is to engage with readers abroad, in this case, India. This is most likely a part of the state sponsored psychopaths destined to mislead, intimidate, or trolling people while vigorously defending Chinese claims.
As readers, instead of relying on publications like the Global timesWe must look at the news sources that are read in China. For example, news about India in The people’s newspaper it is a much better indicator of how the government wants the news to reach its citizens. Even after the Galwan skirmish, the news did not reach beyond the subsequent pages, indicating that China wants to keep this incident, as well as the problem in LAC, away from public scrutiny.
And finally, what are India’s options? What can the government do? Are surgical strikes possible like in Pakistan? Or will there be war? These are critical questions that rounds ask, and correctly. However, when deliberating on this, we must be aware of two points. First, China is not Pakistan, and to believe that India’s approach to China may be similar will be folly. Second, and most importantly, there are very real costs to the war, whether with Pakistan or China. There are other punitive measures, from external balance through alignment with other countries, to the revision of the economic relationship with China and the increase of internal capacity. The government’s response will be based on the long game, and while we wait for these patterns to emerge, a good place to start would be to look for signs that the element of competition in the relationship is dominating the element of cooperation.
Deep Pal is a non-resident fellow of the Asian National Bureau of Investigation. He tweets @DeepPal_
The opinions expressed are personal.