Hutong Cat | The India standoff is now a part of China’s nationalist toolkit


Beijing: The 13th round of Sino-India military talks held earlier this month to continue disengaging troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh ended in detachment instead.

Unexpectedly, it seems.

The acrimonious meeting, and the statements that followed, indicate that the differences between India and China in eastern Ladakh are congealing, not dissolving. A bitter winter of heightened military deployment and even more heightened rhetoric possibly lie ahead.

Instead of hastening the process of troop disengagement from the remaining friction points of Hot Springs, Depsang and Demchok, the meeting brought out the differences.

First, China and then India followed it up with strong statements: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) said India had made “unreasonable” and “unrealistic” demands during the talks; New Delhi said the Chinese side wasn’t “agreeable” and “…could not provide any forward-looking proposals”.

The failure of the meeting was highlighted in Chinese official media and the blame was put on India’s attitude and aggression in the heated meeting room and along the LAC.

At least partly, the falling out could be blamed on China’s efforts to gradually construct an anti-India nationalistic narrative on the border standoff, sharply aimed at the domestic audience.

Even as leaders, diplomats and military officers from both sides were meeting – eight rounds of diplomatic talks since June 24, 2020 have been held as well — to reverse the worst chill in bilateral ties in decades, Beijing slowly turned right the patriotism switch — first in February this year by releasing the Galwan Valley PLA casualty figures while the seemingly hard-earned first round of disengagement was going on. It released the PLA casualty figures – four dead, one injured – on February 19, a day ahead of the 10th round of military talks, amid the then ongoing disengagement of border troops from the icy Pangong Tso (Lake) area.

Expectedly, official Chinese media wrote reams on the “PLA martyrs”; their humble beginnings and simple lives; their love for their family, motherland and, of course, the Communist Party of China (CPC); and how they laid down their lives against an aggressive and trespassing Indian army – a claim dismissed repeatedly by New Delhi.

While the Pangong Tso disengagement was noted in Chinese media, only in passing, little was written about the speed with which PLA troops withdrew themselves and their arsenal from the banks of the lake. Local Chinese media deliberately played down the disengagement, achieved after months of negotiations between the two sides at political, diplomatic and military levels.

Even more telling was that China did not release any statement when their troops pulled back, six months later, from another friction point, Gogra, in August.

The Indian army announced on August 6 that border troops from both sides had disengaged from Gogra. “As per the agreement, both sides have ceased forward deployments in this area in a phased, coordinated and verified manner. The disengagement process was carried out over two days ie, August 4 and 5. The troops of both sides are now in their respective permanent bases,” the Indian army said, adding that “With this, one more sensitive area of face-off has been resolved.”

We waited for the Chinese statement.

It didn’t come.

There was no acknowledgement of the withdrawal from China – a decision that surprised India.

In fact, days ahead of the Gogra-focussed talks, China’s official English channel, CGTN, uploaded a video on one of the four PLA soldiers killed in Galwan Valley in June, 2020, on social media and its website to mark the armed forces’ founding day on August 1.

Quite clearly, the uploading of the video, and the many that followed, was part of Beijing’s narrative-building. It is being buttressed further by stories like how school children from different parts of China are interacting with border troops via video link and learning how to be patriotic from them.

The change of tone in Chinese propaganda has intensified since August.

Numerous videos and photos of the Galwan Valley clash and detained Indian soldiers were uploaded on Chinese social media, and liberally shared on Twitter – blocked in China – by unverified handles. Many of the videos were sourced from China’s Twitter-like Weibo where, in turn, they were uploaded by Chinese military bloggers – the source of the visuals could only have been the PLA.

The resurrection of the phrase “forward policy (FP)” by Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, in late September to describe India’s movements along the LAC further indicated China’s hardening of narrative on the military impasse. India’s so-called FP during the late 1950s is often used by Beijing to blame New Delhi for the 1962 war.

“The Indian side has long pursued the “forward policy” and illegally crossed the LAC to encroach on China’s territory, which is the root cause of tension in the China-India border situation,” Hua said, reiterating a claim that has consistently been dismissed by New Delhi.

Obfuscation has also been a willing aid, when required, in this firming up of China’s narrative.

For one, the Chinese government is yet to explain what it meant by “unreasonable and unrealistic demands” made by India in the last round of military talks. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian had nothing to offer in terms of explanation except dismissing the Indian army statement.

Indian interlocutors are puzzled.

Three aspects have defined New Delhi’s engagement with Beijing on the ongoing military standoff – disengagement, de-escalation and peace and tranquillity at the border.

These three points have been the basis of the talks as well as of the disengagement that’s been carried out so far.

The pull back of troops from the remaining friction points were supposed to be carried out under similar “standard operating procedures”, calibrated and tweaked according to the terrain in the remaining areas.

Instead, the failed 13th round of military talks has injected uncertainty into the process of “complete disengagement” as envisaged by New Delhi.

Why is China not ready to pull its troops back?

The evidence of China’s increasing deployment along the LAC and hardening narrative is available. Not so much the reasons behind it.

Sutirtho Patranobis, HT’s experienced China hand, writes a weekly column from Beijing exclusively for HT Premium readers

The views expressed are personal

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