The Tawang Clash: Chinese Media, Scholars say it is an “advantage to Beijing” both on the ground and in the propaganda war

The world’s failure to “transform” China into a liberal polity following the communist nation’s “economic miracle” during the past four decades, is attributed to many people wrongly assuming that political freedoms would follow new economic freedoms in China. In other words, where the world [aka the West] failed to understand China is that “at every point since 1949 the Chinese Communist Party has stressed the importance of Chinese history and of Marxist-Leninist doctrine.” The recent clashes in Tawang are testimony to the fact that in India we haven’t learned from the mistake of sincerely believing in Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai. 

The Chinese PLA incursion on the Tawang border on December 9, as expected, has resulted in a tsunami of media commentaries and scholarly analyses in India. However, what is disappointing is, despite there being as many interpretations of why did the Chinese indulge in an unprovoked “belligerent” action along the eastern section of the Himalayan frontier as there are interlocutors, no one convincing explanation has been offered to us. Largely, the different and mostly mutually exclusive interpretations range from speculative to ever-mystifying puzzles. India’s growing engagement and military exercises with the US, the issue of the succession of an aging Dalai Lama is increasingly pushing Beijing to bring into focus China’s claims on Arunachal Pradesh, the dreadfully aggressive “dragon” attempting to unilaterally change the status quo along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – are barely a few among a whole range of cited causes for the Chinese action.

While India’s foremost political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta may be right in expecting the Indian government to be more forthcoming on China, he himself too is guilty of believing there is “a sense of the fundamental opacity of Chinese intentions and thinking on India.” Perhaps inadvertently, Mehta chose to subscribe to an erroneous framework that was recently advocated by a former Indian ambassador that “as against the Indian bilateral frame, for China, it is India’s relationship with other countries that is the test of where India stands.” Recall here a commentary from a few years ago in The Diplomat, just a couple of months before the much-hyped Modi-Xi Wuhan friendly summit that claimed China was beginning to see India as a major threat.  

The commentary underscored a fundamental shift in the Chinese strategic thinking toward India following the 73-day-long Doklam standoff in June 2017. Citing Yin Guoming, a Chinese foreign affairs analyst, The Diplomat commentary stated, “China-India standoff has compelled us to regard India as a serious rival. During the Dong Lang [or Doklam] confrontation, it became very clear to everyone – from ordinary Chinese to foreign policy experts – China must reckon India to be its second biggest rival. And that China needs to re-assess, re-examine, and reformulate its India strategy.” What is significant is that the commentary was exceptionally contradictory to an earlier claim two years ago by a Chinese scholar that “China doesn’t see India as a threat.” The author, Dingding Chen, was then an IR professor at Jinan University, Guangzhou, China, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), Berlin, Germany.

Huayuquan = Who Rules the Words Rules the World

If Professor Dingding Chen must be correct in dismissing India as a threat to China, then both Mehta and the former Indian ambassador have been proved dismissively incorrect in holding on to the belief that the “Chinese thinking and intentions on India have been miserably obscure” (Emphasis added). On the contrary, more than the opacity on the part of the Chinese, it sounds more like a case of Indian ignorance or unfamiliarity with the Chinese “huayuquan.” In all likelihood, the phrase huayuquan, or “speaking right” and/or “discourse power” has not yet captured the Indian imagination. The CPC foreign policy jargon huayuquan, described by the US academic Perry Link as “ritualized language,” has long been deliberately developed as a means to control discourse within China itself.  

In short, the so-called escalating Chinese aggressive foreign policy behavior – especially since President Xi earned his 3rd Mandate of Heaven at the 20th party congress in October, is neither new nor a merely heightened nationalism. According to Nadège Rolland, Senior Fellow for Politics and Security Affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), “though [New] China was long isolated from the international system, yet even in times of material weakness, especially during the 1950s, China attempted to enhance its discourse power and consolidate its international influence.” Mao Zedong’s three-world theory, Zhou Enlai’s five principles of peaceful coexistence, and (during his discussions with the visiting Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988) Deng Xiaoping’s call for “new policies to establish a new international order as an alternative to both Soviet and American hegemonism” were all integral components of the CPC huayuquan.

Later, at the 16th CPC National Congress in 2002, General Secretary Jiang Zemin emphatically lamented the existing world order in his work report speech. “The old international political and economic order, which is unfair, has to be changed fundamentally,” Jiang said. As noted by Rolland, in Xi Jinping’s “new era,” the Chinese leadership’s ambitions to have a greater impact on the course of international affairs have become clearer and more purposeful. In his remarks at the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Xi indicated his eagerness to build China into a “global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.” Surprisingly, very little or literally no Indian analysis is available to date on Xi’s worldview on China’s foreign policy in the New Era. The current Chinese narrative being constructed in the media and in academia, which describes the Tawang clashes as an advantage to Beijing, is very much part of the CPC huayuquan.

All about Chinese Tawang Clash Huayuquan

It is worth noting until the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson made a statement about the Dongzhang clashes – Chinese media consistently maintains the exact location of the latest clash is near Dongzhang Fall and not Yangtse, as reported in the Indian and Western media – the issue was treated as a rather low-key affair in China. However, following the official statements released both by the foreign ministry and the spokesperson of the Western Theatre Command on December 12-13 respectively, the Chinese huayuquan started building up on social media, digital media platforms, and in the mainstream press. Just like on any other key foreign policy issue, the emerging discourse on the Tawang clashes too, is aimed at achieving the CPC goal of creating a greater impact on the course of international affairs in the Xi Jinping “new era.”

The following are the key features of the Chinese huayuquan: 1) it is for the first time that the Chinese media has openly named the Indian army instead of foreign troops, which shows that China has responded to provocations with a clearer and proactive attitude instead of avoiding them; 2) a section of the Chinese media has cited the Russian news agency Sputnik and quoted Ram Madhav, the RSS leader, saying India and China will continue to rely on the bilateral relationship in order to seek a suitable solution to resolve the conflict. This has been interpreted as meaning the solid relationship between the two countries must not be ignored; 3) according to the leading Chinese expert on China-India relations, Professor Liu Zongyi of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SIIS), who is also the secretary-general of the China and South Asia Studies, has stated: even according to the illegal “McMahon Line,” the Dongzhang area belongs to the Chinese side. There is a specific context to the conflict that has occurred this time, i.e. the Indian side took full advantage of the recent epidemic resurgence in China; 4) the specific location of the conflict, Dongzhang, is a crucial frontline area in the struggle against the Indian encroachment along the LAC, especially the Indian encroachment in South Tibet (this is how the Chinese refer to Arunachal Pradesh). During the past two years, the PLA has gradually launched counterattacks and successfully removed the sentries and fortifications near and around the Dongzhang Waterfall set up by the Indian army; 5) not surprisingly, following the clashes, the Indian side has kept a low profile and immediately issued a statement saying both sides are currently disengaged and hope to resolve the situation through diplomatic channels; 6) the specific location of the conflict is 25 kilometers east of Xiaocun and Bangshankou Pass, where the two sides clashed last year in October also. This was also the main battlefield area in Tawang during the 1962 Sino-Indian border war; 7) The Dongzhang area refers to the virgin forest valley area in the south of Langpo Township (Lampu Township) in Cuona County, Shannan City. The rushing Cuona River (also known as Langbo River, Dongzhang River, printed as Tsona Chu) falls from north to south from Cuona County; 8) the news of the clashes on December 9 was first reported by the Russian news agency, Sputnik. Though Sputnik erred in its reporting when it said the latest border clash witnessed an exchange of fire from the two sides. However, the Russian report correctly mentioned the involvement of over 1,000 troops – 600 Indian forces and over 400 PLA troops; 9) the Chinese Western Theatre Command spokesperson Col Long Shaohua’s claim that the Chinese forces dealt with the interception from the Indian army “professionally,” “effectively,” and “strongly” has been interpreted in the Chinese media as victory to the Chinese side; 10) some Chinese strategic affairs analysts have tried to stitch together various neighborhood conflicts or controversies involving China in the Western Pacific, Southeast Asia, and South Asia with the upcoming visit to China by the US secretary of state Anthony Blinken, sometime early next year. These experts say the recent joint Indo-US military exercise near the LAC, the Philippines-US joint military exercise, and the Tawang border clash with India are all aimed at creating an atmosphere in which China will be besieged on all sides and the US will have an upper hand during the Blinken visit.

Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.