Sino-Indian relations had an inauspicious start to the New Year. Media in India reported that both troops have exchanged sweets and greetings in the New Year along the LAC, including even at friction points. If that created an air of goodwill, it was immediately belied by a more patronizing tone undertaken by China’s state-sponsored media.
In truth, more than sweets and greetings, the tone of sourness reflects better the state of bilateral ties. While Indian media was reporting on sweets, Global Times released a video on 1 January that quickly became a top trend in Chinese social media. It shows the PLA unfurling a Chinese flag at Galwan Valley and sending a New Year “message” to India — “never yield an inch of land”.
There was no official word from Beijing, but the video was subsequently shared on Twitter by various state media outlets, reporters and even Xinhua, the official news agency. We shall presently come to the truth behind the post, but it did succeed in creating a political ruckus in India.
First January is also the date when China’s contentious land border law comes into effect that may further drive a wedge between the two sides. The law may make it easier for Beijing to formalise claims over the disputed territories along the LAC that remain under its control, and we may see more ‘dual use’ (Xiaokong) civilian settlements along China’s border with India and Bhutan.
Alongside, on 30 December, China’s civil affairs ministry issued “official names” in Mandarin for 15 locations inside Arunachal Pradesh and claimed that the Indian state has been “China’s territory since ancient times.”
There were more provocations. China’s embassy in Delhi, in a show of impudence, sent a letter to Indian lawmakers and ministers castigating them for attending a dinner reception hosted by the Tibetan Parliament-In-Exile on December 22. It expectedly triggered a strong reaction in India. That the letter of ‘protest’ was sent directly to Indian MPs and ministers bypassing official channels in India’s ministry of external affairs added to the outrage.
Satellite imagery has also emerged of China building a bridge over Pangong Tso on its territory in the Kurnak Fort area, linking both banks of the lake that will make it easier for the PLA to move from its garrison at Kurnak Fort on the north bank to Moldo in the south, cutting the travel time from 12 to around 3-4 hours, reports The Hindu.
This has wider implications considering that Indian troops had occupied the Kailash Range heights on the south bank at the peak of the standoff in August 2020. This bridge may make such maneuvers more difficult.
Meanwhile, Nitin Gokhale of Stratnews reports that the PLA is undertaking a special recruitment drive in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) to induct Tibetan youth into its various units, and the first batch of recruits has already been deployed along the LAC at different points across the Chumbi Valley.
While Indian intelligence agencies and the Army are aware of this development, induction of Tibetans into PLA forces complicates further the equations of the Sino-Indian conflict.
This year, 2022, evidently, will be another difficult year for Sino-Indian ties. The full implications of China’s newly minted land border law and renaming of 15 locations in Arunachal Pradesh are still unfolding. Prima facie it appears that the new law and the renaming of locations inside Arunachal Pradesh are calibrated pincer moves by Beijing to cement, formalise and legitimise its land grab along the LAC. At this stage, these moves might be largely symbolic of the ongoing standoff and the larger border wrangle, but they constitute a definite change in China’s posture to territorial disputes.
Through unilateral definition, delineation and demarcation, China is trying to change the status of the land along the LAC under its control — that it has come to occupy over decades through revanchist salami-slicing — from ‘disputed’ to ‘sovereign’. The effort is to shift the fulcrum of all future negotiations between India and China on the border dispute that may henceforth be centred on the land that is on India’s side. Territory under China’s illegal control will be deemed beyond the purview of dispute in a Cold War-era manouvre of ‘what is mine is mine, what is yours is negotiable’.
Alongside, the law, that was proposed in March last year and ratified in October, calls China’s territory “sacred and non-violable”, and in Article 22 calls for the PLA to “resolutely prevent, stop and combat” what it calls “invasions, encroachments, and provocations”. This will affect the various agreements and protocols between India and China concerning the patrolling of troops on each other’s perceived territories. The law provides China with a “coercive framework” at the cost of weakening existing frameworks and may create even more flashpoints between both sides.
Some analysts are of the view that the new law points to China’s shift from a negotiated settlement to a military solution to the border dispute. Recently retired Army Major General Ashok Kumar in an issue brief for Delhi-based think tank Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), writes, “by bringing in such a law, and in conjunction with accelerated construction of 624 “Xiaokong” villages along and inside the disputed land boundaries with India, the Chinese Communist Party has created conditions for a ‘militarised solution’ to the boundary issue.”
The land border law, as has been observed, may also facilitate the building of more ‘dual-use’ villages along the border as it may cite these settlements during negotiations as a way of imposing its version of the LAC, employing its maritime dispute playbook in the South China Sea. Alongside the ‘first and second line Xiaokong villages’ for herders, satellite images in November last year showed a “second Chinese cluster of 60 newly built dwellings on what India sees as its territory in Arunachal Pradesh, around 100 km east of another village built in late 2020. The territory in question has been under Chinese control since 1959,” reports The Hindu.
If we consider these developments in conjunction with the searing pace of infrastructure building in Aksai Chin and along the LAC, it points to a hardening of China’s overall strategy to the border dispute.
It is also worth noting that India is more than matching the pace of China’s infrastructure-building. Union defence minister Rajnath Singh recently inaugurated 24 new bridges and roads along the LAC built by the Border Roads Organization across four states and Union Territories. These include the Chisumle-Demchok road at Umling La Pass, constructed at a height of over 19,000 feet in Ladakh, that holds the Guinness World Record of the world’s highest motorable road. The road holds immense strategic significance for movement of troops.
Last year the BRO completed more than 100 projects, the majority of which are close to the border with China. New Delhi is also improving its surveillance capabilities and building new airstrips and landing areas along the entire 3488-km boundary, according to reports.
It has to be understood that India does not have a veto on what China does on the territory that it illegally controls — in some cases for decades. For instance, the new bridge on Pangong Tso is situated at Khurnak Fort area that China has been controlling since 1958. India also cannot expect China to sit idle and silently admire the infrastructure being built on Indian side, as New Delhi surely wouldn’t. The best way for India to respond to the building of Chinese infrastructure-building is to respond in kind and that is being done.
It must also be pointed out that not all of the Chinese manoeuvres are 64D chess moves aimed at browbeating India into submission. A lot of signaling and messaging around issues that may further fuel nationalist sentiment in China have domestic political motives. It reveals the insecurity inherent within the authoritarian system helmed by the CCP that Xi Jinping needs to relentlessly create situations that may rally the public on his side as Xi looks set to continue ruling for at least another term.
As Shigesaburo Okumura, chief editor of Nikkei Asia, writes, “every single political event in China this year will be staged with a view toward granting more power to Xi Jinping at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in autumn, most likely in October.”
Take, for instance, the Galwan Valley video clip where the PLA were seen unfurling a Chinese flag and sending “messages” to India. Though it was released on January 1 and was made to appear as if it was shot on that day, the lack of snow in the surrounding areas indicated it was shot earlier. This became clearer when the Indian Army posted a video from Galwan Valley with the Tricolour with snow clearly visible on the mountains.
Indian Army soldiers in Galwan Valley on #NewYear
(Photo credit: Sources in security establishment) pic.twitter.com/GJxK0QOW48
— ANI (@ANI) January 4, 2022
It was also clear that the Chinese clip wasn’t shot in the area where the fatal clash had taken place in June 2020. Satellite images and terrain mapping indicate, as India Today reports, that the location of China’s propaganda clip “appears to be at a distance of more than 1.2 km from Patrol Point 14 (PP 14). PP 14 is the spot where hand-to-hand combat took place. The bend of the river, not shown in the Chinese clip, is under India’s control. It was, however, made to appear as if the Chinese flag had been unfurled at that very point.
What, therefore, was the point of this exercise? There are two.
It was primarily meant for domestic consumption, as Aadil Brar points out in The Print. No sooner was the video released by Global Times on 1 January, “the search trend ‘Heroes of Galwan valley send New Year’s greetings’ was the second top trend on search engine Baidu. A hashtag ‘Galwan valley heroes send congratulations on New Year’ started trending on Weibo when the video was shared. It was viewed 2.24 million times and continued to grow.” Brar also points out that “the messaging used in the video suggests that the video was intended for the domestic audience. Beijing wanted to let New Delhi know that the border stand-off is far from over. The PLA has used the exact location in the past for similar types of symbolic ceremonies.”
The second reason is more insidious. The clip is part of China’s information warfare aimed at exploring the faultlines of India’s democratic political system. China’s aim is to reduce the trust of Indian public’s faith in its government and create political instability. And Beijing would be encouraged by the reaction across the border.
In the Galwan Valley near the border with #India, under the characters “Never yield an inch of land,” PLA soldiers send new year greetings to Chinese people on January 1, 2022. pic.twitter.com/NxHwcarWes
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) January 1, 2022
No sooner was the propaganda clip released by Chinese media and its handles, the Opposition targeted the Centre. Rahul Gandhi demanded answers from the Narendra Modi government while a section of Indian media jumped to instant conclusions and sweeping assumptions.
गलवान पर हमारा तिरंगा ही अच्छा लगता है।
चीन को जवाब देना होगा।
मोदी जी, चुप्पी तोड़ो!
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) January 2, 2022
With the release of the Indian Army’s photo from Galwan, Congress MP Gandhi appeared to change tack and so did the discourse. A case can be made against a more proactive posture from India’s security establishment to battle the information warfare adopted by Beijing but the political atmosphere in India is making it easier for China to achieve its target.
The propensity of the Opposition to hype up every article, imagery, or video clip that appears in the Chinese state-controlled media space and fire at the Modi government from the shoulders of Chinese propagandist material is a chink in India’s armour that Beijing will happily exploit. No less dubious is the alarmism in media discourse from a section of veterans and commentators that seem inherently political in nature, driven by partisan politics.
It is equally preposterous to suggest that “religious polarization” or other such factors are setting India up for a failure against China. This argument, or some variations of it, are regularly made to suggest as if the Sino-Indian border dispute — that has a historical legacy and is driven primarily by China’s revanchism and aggressive rise — are tied to the value system of India’s democracy. Did the 1962 conflict take place because a ‘Hindu nationalist government’ was at the Centre?