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The Battle for Narrative over the Recent India – China Border Standoff

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As news of the recent India-China border standoff continues to dominate headlines, there is a growing sense of unease which extending beyond the region is being felt across the globe. This holds all the more importance considering that while this unsettled border dispute goes as far back as the 1962 Sino-Indian War, its potential as a major flashpoint remains all the more threatening when taking into account the pervading uncertainty that has come to characterize an evolving world order. Be it as a result of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, the highly polarized yet impending US elections, or the great power rivalries that have unfolded from the much touted ‘Rise of China’; an international system in flux represents perhaps one of the most dangerous contexts against which Chinese and Indian soldiers have come face to face at an unprecedented scale since last month.

Further adding to this complexity is the fact that this faceoff, while unfolding in one of the remotest and least accessible regions in the world, is already fraught with its own difficulties when ascertaining ground realities. With both countries’ militaries exercising strict control over the movement of people and information around their disputed borders, verifying each countries’ claims and counter-claims regarding recent developments has almost been impossible. In the absence of any on ground media reports the standoff is as much a battle over narrative as it is about projecting force over a disputed border. A border which being 14,000 ft above sea level high in the Himalayas, stretches for more than 3,000 kms with areas that have remained undefined for decades.

Hence, the only reports that have come of the violent scuffles that have taken place are from either official statements, or from the grainy videos and stills shot by soldiers currently doing the rounds on social media. In the case of the latter, these videos too are more than likely to have been released only by official military sources after careful consideration of what message such footage is likely to convey both at home and abroad. Thus, communicating one’s resolve and stance as part of a broader war over narrative where the battle-space moving beyond the remoteness of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh extends across already volatile international news cycles and social media platforms.

Especially considering how these(as yet) non-lethal border scuffles have led to a significantly heightened military presence from both countries, the last few days have witnessed a highly targeted level of military posturing from both sides. While the initial response from both countries’ foreign ministries was to downplay tensions whilst highlighting their long-established consultation and dispute resolution mechanisms; last week’s unprecedented meeting between high ranking brass from both sides marks the first time senior military generals at the corps commander level were required to help defuse tensions. A practice that has otherwise usually been carried by local tactical level commanders in the past. Even more worrying is the fact that both sides came out with seemingly different interpretations of the above meeting with Indian officials offering a more conciliatory tone while Beijing appears to be quite publicly aiming to set a new precedent with regard to managing such disputes with India.

This is further evident in the varying ways in which this standoff has been covered by the highly nationalist and tightly controlled media across both India and China. For instance, since the above referred meeting as well as other diplomatic engagements in the last couple of weeks, coverage of the standoff in Indian media reports has since offered amore conciliatory tone. This stands in stark contrast to the way the standoff had been initially covered across India where the same nationalist fervor and jingoism usually reserved for Pakistan was on full display against China. Videos of Indian soldiers pelting Chinese jeeps with rocks, maps outlining disputed boundaries and troop deployments, satellite imagery showing the recent construction of Chinese military infrastructure, as well as footage from past incidents such as from the 2017 Doklam standoff were all used to paint a picture of pre-meditated Chinese aggression that was being righteously challenged by a rising India. The last few days however have seen a greater emphasis being laid on mutual disengagement and the ‘retreat’ of Chinese forces from positions where troops from both sides were eyeball to eyeball for almost an entire month. 

On the other side, coverage of the standoff in Chinese media instead continues to emphasize China’s military superiority and technological prowess as the key to its power projection capabilities. At least that is what appears from the latest action movie style footage of the PLA’s high-altitude, night time infiltration exercise that was recently carried out in Tibet. The exercise’s timing, location and choice of tactics and equipment leave little doubt as to who such posturing was being directed towards.  Similarly the PLA’s latest ‘mobilization maneuver’ which was conducted just two days after the high level military meeting represents a clear reference to India’s own long known mobilization challenges. An aspect which while long evident in India’s recent confrontations with Pakistan, has been discussed at length in the latest iterations of India’s own military doctrines. In addition, there has also been a concerted effort from Chinese commentators to de-link the dispute from any third-party interests such as those of the US. Thus, not only shunning offers of US mediation but emphasizing the importance of such dispute resolution mechanisms remaining well within India and China’s bilateral relationship.

At the moment, with both countries eager and willing to step back from any risks of further escalation, there is nevertheless a definite trend that has emerged in terms of the increasing frequency and severity of such border standoffs between both powers.It appears that there is still a lingering sense of unease from the 2017 Doklam standoff during which (state sponsored) media from both sides had accused each other of needlessly sensationalizing such incidents. This time however, while Indian media attempts to restrain itself from the jingoistic saber-rattling it almost instinctively resorts to when reporting on its border conflicts (such as those with Pakistan), China seems to be following a carefully calibrated strategy of aggressive military posturing in addition to its long-standing diplomatic engagements withIndia. Both countries’ approaches thus belie a starkly changed geo-political context which despite all previous attempts to downplay such tensions has increasingly become a matter of preserving one’s prestige and credibility -even if the fight is limited to simply dominating the narrative for the time being.

Research Associate and Program Coordinator for the China Study & Information Centre (CS & IC) at the Strategic Vision Institute, a non-partisan think tank based out of Islamabad. He can be reached at waqas[at]thesvi.org

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East Asia

Centenary of the Chinese Communist Party: 100 years of Prosperity and Greatness

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Since its establishment, the Communist Party of China has made many national contributions and has become the main engine of Chinese progress since the revolution led by Chairman Mao Zedong and the policy of reform and opening up pursued by Deng Xiaoping up to the era of achievements laid down by current President Xi Jinping. In conjunction with the upcoming centenary of the Communist Party of China on July 1, China will launch the Shenzhou-12 manned spacecraft with three astronauts on board to the Chinese space station, whose construction is expected to be completed by the end of 2022, thus becoming the third country in the world to send humans into space with its own potential. Some political scholars from different backgrounds unanimously agree that the Communist Party is behind modern China, through the wise policy of governance and administration and the modern ideas presented by the philosophers of the Chinese Communist Party in economic and political structures and laying foundations for rational competition with countries and blocs opponents of China.

Within a hundred years, China has the second largest economy and is likely to rank first in the coming years, according to World Bank reports, a strong army that possesses advanced weapons capable of harming the enemy and achieving inevitable victories, a society in continuous prosperity through wise policy in poverty eradication and social welfare strategy, a fair and impartial political leadership. These and other elements of power were enough to transform China into a country that preoccupied the West and slew the most powerful countries. Some consider, out of ignorance, that communism is synonymous with backwardness and oppression, but the reality is otherwise. In communist China, human dignity is preserved and a person has value regardless of whether he/ she is poor or rich, and everyone shares the same rights and duties, in addition to freedom of belief and the practice of religious and social rituals. In some countries, cases of racial discrimination based on skin colour appear, the most recent of which was the George Floyd incident, which stirred the conscience of peoples, and cases of permanent indiscriminate killing and disrespect for public morals, which indicates a loophole in holding national security while claiming to maintain global security and spread the ideas of democracy.

The Communist Party of China has 91 million members from all over China, according to a report by the Xinhua News Agency. This number indicates satisfaction with the party’s performance and the great public turnout to contribute to the promotion of its ideas and principles. But according to my humble Chinese experience, it is not necessary to be a member of the Chinese Communist Party to believe in and defend its principles. This party is linked to national identity and constant struggle, so it is enough for you to be Chinese to be represented by this party. The Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921 as a political and revolutionary movement by some revolutionaries who laid its foundations and general principles, including Li Dazhou 李大钊 and Chen Duxiu 陳獨秀. These two revolutionary men emerged from the May Fourth Movement of 1919 and joined Marxism after the victory of the Bolsheviks in 1917. During the turmoil across China in the twentieth century, some cadres of the Chinese Communist Party, including Mao Zedong 毛泽东, Liu Shaoqi 刘少奇 and Li Lisan 刘少奇, began organizing trade unions and founding the Chinese Revolution.

The Communist Party of China supervises the organs of government throughout China according to unified organizational rules and a centralized system of government. When this party was established in 1921, China was dominated by cases of political dependency and rampant extreme poverty. The Republic of China was established in 1912, but it was a weak and crushed country with no influence on the international community, and many groups at that time sought secession and independence. On May 4, 1919, the first public protest against the government was attended by more than three thousand students from 13 colleges in Beijing, denouncing the decision of the Versailles Peace Conference, which transferred concessions in Shandong Province from Germany to Japan. Under the banner of the Communist Party, the Chinese people have waged a long struggle to achieve national sovereignty and enhance China’s international standing at all levels. National dignity is not bestowed but gained. Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party has made great sacrifices in order to achieve national dignity and elevate China to the highest ranks.

Currently, all the streets of China are decorated with red banners that read “100”, the 100th anniversary of the founding, with the sickle and hammer emblem representing the Communist Party, and  posters of Lei Feng 雷锋, who became a Chinese national hero and symbol no less important than the founding cadres of the Communist Party. Also, giant pictures of Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers shouting to go to fight. All these pictures and advertisements raise the national spirit and patriotism of the Chinese people and increase their attachment to the Communist Party, which has become an inseparable part of history, present and future. China has the second largest budget allocated to the military after the United States, which indicates the Chinese leadership’s awareness of the great risks that China can be exposed to in parallel with economic and technological progress. A strong military is an essential part of preserving national sovereignty.

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East Asia

High time for India to Reconsider the One-China Policy

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Sino-Indian bilateral relations have seen major challenges in the recent years, beginning with the Doklam crisis to the current pandemic situation. The sugar-coated rhetoric of Beijing proved to be mere duplicity after tensions erupted along the Line of Actual Control where soldiers of both the states clashed in mid-2020, resulting in the martyrdom of several Indian jawans including a commanding officer. The other side also saw several casualties, though Beijing has kept the actual count under wraps. More recently, China suspended the state-run Sichuan Airlines cargo planes carrying medical supplies to India for 15 days citing the deteriorating situation in India due to COVID-19. This was after the Chinese government promised all the necessary help for India to battle the pandemic. 

The People’s Republic of China under the leadership of Xi Jinping has been maintaining an aggressive posture with India even while making calls for ‘maintaining peace’. Its support for all-weather friend Pakistan has attained new peaks when it proclaimed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor under the Belt and Road Initiative passing through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, a territory claimed by India, despite New Delhi’s staunch opposition. It is in the light of all these events that the calls of the strategic community in India to review the recognition of One China policy has gained some attention. 

India’s Sensitivity versus China’s Duplicity  

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the Communist Party of China (CPC) claims itself as the only representative of the Chinese nation including the territories of Tibet and Taiwan among others. Any country having formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, also known as Republic of China shall be seen by China as challenging its sovereignty. The same parameter applies to any country recognizing Tibet or similar ‘autonomous regions’ under the Chinese control. This is known as the ‘One China Principle’ or ‘One China Policy’. India was one of the first countries to recognize the PRC in 1949 after the civil war as well as to accord recognition to its occupation of Tibet. However, China claims the whole of India’s Arunachal Pradesh as ‘South Tibet’, a claim that India has always rebuffed. Moreover, it occupies Aksai Chin which it captured during the 1962 war as well as the Shaksgam valley, ceded illegally to it by Pakistan in 1963.

Even after the war and the re-establishment of cordial bilateral relations, China has continued to repeat its illegitimate claims and nibble into India’s territory.  India’s protests fell on deaf ears and this is despite India recognizing the One China Policy. India stopped mentioning the policy since 2010 in its public announcements and publications, however, without repealing it. Taking undue advantage of this China pays little concern to Indian sentiments. This view in India, to challenge China’s One China Policy, has been strengthened by aggressive diplomatic postures of China as well as its regular incursions along the disputed border while continuing to support Islamabad on all fronts – overtly and covertly, encircling India. 

The government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi refused to give in to the bullying attempts by China by allowing the Army to go ahead with offensive countermeasures against Chinese incursions in 2017 as well as in 2020, in addition to taking measures including banning dozens of Chinese mobile applications. It has also started actively taking part in initiatives like Quadrilateral Dialogue as well as strengthening relations with ASEAN states. However, a dominant section within the strategic community in India feel that these measures are not enough to knock China into its senses. 

Challenging the One China Policy 

The most significant among the measures suggested in this regard has been to review India’s adherence to the One China policy. In an atmosphere where China does not recognize the One India policy comprising of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh as Indian territories, experts argue the need of reciprocity. Initiatives such as providing greater global visibility and access for Tibetans including the 14th Dalai Lama, using Buddhist history and traditions as a trump card since New Delhi has the advantage of having the Dalai Lama on its side, provides legitimacy for India unlike China. India can facilitate the appointment of the next Dalai Lama and extend protection for the existing and the next Dalai Lama. The repeal of the recognition for Chinese occupation of Tibet can also send major tremors in Beijing but that seems to be a distant dream. The new democratic Tibetan government under President Penpa Tsering should be given greater official acknowledgment and publicity. India has already taken small steps in this regard by acknowledging the involvement of the elite Special Frontier Force (SFF), majorly comprising of exiled Tibetans, in a game changing operation to shift the balance against China during the recent border crisis. The funeral of an SFF commando attended by a Member of Parliament and leader from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Ram Madhav was an overt signaling to China that Indians are not refraining from openly recognizing Tibetan contributions to the state of India. Another sensitive issue for China is the Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslims being allegedly tortured and deprived of their basic human rights in the ‘re-education camps’ by the CPC and a state sponsored genocide being carried out against them. India can take up the issue vigorously at international forums with like-minded countries, increasing the pressure on China. Similarly, the pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong, pro-Mongol movements such as the protest against Mandarin imposition in the school curriculum of Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, can also be encouraged or given moral support. India, a country which upholds its virtue of unity in diversity must take a strong stand against the ‘cultural assimilation’ or ‘liberation’ as the Chinese say. This is nothing but cultural destruction imposed by China using the rhetoric of ‘not being civilised’ and branding the non-Han population as barbaric in China and the regions it illegally occupies.

India can also stir the hornet’s nest by engaging more formally with the Taiwanese leadership. Taipei has always been approached by New Delhi keeping in mind the sensitivities of China in mind. However, it does not have to do so for a power that bullies both the nations with constant threats and provocations by its action. It is a well-known fact that Taiwan is a center of excellence in terms of the semi-conductor industry and high-end technology. Engaging more with Taiwan will not only hurt Beijing, but also will help India counter the strategic advantage possessed by China in terms of being the major exporters of electronic goods and telecommunication hardware to India. India can also attain more self-sufficiency by boosting its own electronics industry using the Taiwanese semiconductor bases. India can use this leverage to shed its overdependence on China in critical sectors, balance the trade deficit to some extent, while also securing its networks from Chinese intelligence. India must also focus on working with the states having stake in the South China Sea such as Philippines and Malaysia who regularly face aggression in their airspace and Exclusive Economic Zones from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces and China’s maritime militia, questioning their territorial sovereignty, imposing the One China Policy. New Delhi must pressurize China by working with the western nations, whose legislators have openly declared support for the Tibetan President in exile, to question China’s occupation of Tibet and attempts at homogenizing the population. Long term measures and strategies will have to be sought to end the dependence on China while seeking alternatives and becoming self-reliant over time. 

However, India will face several serious challenges to implement the above-mentioned measures. There is a deep lack of mutual trust among major powers like USA, UK, France and Russia through whom India can build a coalition. The American President Joe Biden is seemingly interested in partly co-operating with China and has a softer stance unlike the former President Trump. Nevertheless, the QUAD is a welcome step in this regard and India must undertake a greater role in pressurizing China through such forums, albeit not openly. India also has a serious issue of possibly having to incur heavy economic losses on having to limit Chinese goods and investments and finding similarly cheap and easy alternatives. These fault lines are exactly what is being exploited by China to its advantage. Thus, the Indian state and its diplomacy has the heavy task of working between all these hurdles and taking China to task. However, since China seems remotely interested in settling the border disputes like it did with its post-Soviet neighbours in the previous decades and instead gauge pressure against India. So, New Delhi will have to pull up its sleeves to pay back China in the same coin.  

The views expressed are solely of the author.

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East Asia

Who would bell the China cat?

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If the G-7 and NATO china-bashing statements are any guide, the world is in for another long interregnum of the Cold War (since demise of the Soviet Union). The G-7 leaders called upon China to “respect human rights in its Xinjiang region” and “allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy” and “refrain from any unilateral action that could destabilize the East and South China Seas”, besides maintaining “peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits”.

China’s tit-for-tat response

The Chinese mission to the European Union called upon the NATO not to exaggerate the “China threat theory”

Bitter truths

Amid the pandemic, still raging, the world is weary of resuscitating Cold War era entente. Even the G-7 members, Canada and the UK appear to be lukewarm in supporting the US wish to plunge the world into another Cold War. Even the American mothers themselves are in no mood to welcome more coffins in future wars. Importance of the G-7 has been whittled down by G-20. 

Presumptions about the China’s cataclysmic rise are unfounded. Still, China is nowhere the US gross National Product. China’s military budget is still the second largest after the US. It is still less than a third of Washington’s budget to be increased by 6.8 per cent in 2021.

India’s role

India claims to be a natural ally of the G-7 in terms of democratic “values”. But the US based Freedom House has rated India “partly free because of its dismal record in persecution of minorities. Weakened by electoral setbacks in West Bengal, the Modi government has given a free hand to religious extremists. For instance, two bigots, Suraj Pal Amu and Narsinghanand Saraswati have been making blasphemous statements against Islam at press conferences and public gatherings.

India’s main problem

Modi government’s mismanagement resulted in shortage of vaccine and retroviral drugs. The healthcare system collapsed under the mounting burden of fatalities.  

Media and research institutions are skeptical of the accuracy of the death toll reported by Indian government.

The New York Times dated June 13, 2021 reported (Tracking Corona virus in India: Latest Map and case Count) “The official COVID-19 figures in India grossly under-estimate the true scale of the pandemic in the country”. The Frontline dated June 4, 2021 reported “What is clear in all these desperate attempts is the reality that the official numbers have utterly lost their credibility in the face of the biggest human disaster in independent India (V. Sridhar, India’s gigantic death toll due to COVID-19 is  thrice  the official numbers”, The frontline, June 4, 2021). It adds “More than 6.5 lakh Indians, not the 2.25 lakh reported officially are estimated to have died so far and at best a million more are expected to die by September 2021. The Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that actual Indian casualties may be 0.654 million (6.54 lakh), not the official count of 0.221 million (2.21 lakh as on May 6 when the report was released. That is a whopping three times the official numbers, an indicator of the extent of under-reporting”.

Epidemiologist Dr. Feigl-ding told India Today TV on April, 16, 2021 that “actual number of COVID-19 cases in India can be five or six times higher than the tally right now” (“Actual COVID-19 cases in India may be 5 to 10 times higher, says epidemiologist. India Today TV April 16, 2021).

Concluding remarks

India’s animosity against China is actuated by expediency. There is no chance of a full-blown war between China and India as the two countries have agreed not to use firepower in border skirmishes, if any. Modi himself told the All-party conference that not an inch of Indian territory has been ceded to China. In May this year, the Army Chief General M M. Naravane noted in an interview: “There has been no transgression of any kind and the process of talks is continuing.”

It is not China but the Quad that is disturbing unrest in China’s waters.

History tells the USA can sacrifice interests of its allies at the altar of self interest. India sank billions of dollars in developing the Chabahar Port. But, India had to abandon it as the US has imposed sanctions on Iran.

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