Join our Mailing List

"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

War Talk: Perceptual Gaps in "Chindia" Relations

October 22, 2009

Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies
Publication: China Brief
Volume: 9 Issue: 20
October 21, 2009

Until 2005, Chinese public perceptions of India
were generally benign, even bordering on benign
neglect. Yet, a radical change in Chinese public
attitudes toward India has noticeably taken place
since then and it can be attributed in part to an
increasing number of Chinese strategic experts,
bloggers, retired diplomats, and even officially
sanctioned websites and PLA-linked think tanks
ratcheting up an "India threat" scenario.
Beginning in early 2006, some strategic journals
and pro-Beijing Hong Kong media published
commentaries discussing the possibilities of a
"partial border war" to "teach India a lesson"
again. The Tibetan riots of March 2008--which
refocused the world’s attention on Tibet as China
was preparing for Olympic glory--were a major catalyst [1].

As in the past, Beijing laid the responsibility
for the Tibetan unrest on exiled Tibetan
spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and India. The
Chinese media and strategic journals raised their
anti-India rhetoric, calling New Delhi "arrogant"
and warning it not to "misjudge the situation as
it did in 1962," and to "stay away from a path of
confrontation" [2]. Accusing the Indian
government of "walking today along the old road
of resisting China," the PLA leadership, through
an article posted on the website of the China
Institute of International Strategic Studies--a
think tank set up by the General Staff
Department's 2nd department--cautioned that India
should "not requite kindness with ingratitude"
[3]. Public reminders from the Communist Party’s
media of China’s decisive victory over India in
the 1962 war spiked during 2008-09 (C3S Paper,
No. 288, June 12). Many of the commentaries and
web postings seem to be penned by "insiders" as
they display intimate knowledge of military
operations, logistics, terrain, ORBAT (order of
battle: number, location and strengths of army
divisions) and a solid understanding of
China-India border talks and history. A common
thread found in the assessments is an aim to
capture the lost lands and crush India for daring to compete with China [4].

"India threat theory"

Not surprisingly, the 2008 survey by the Pew
Research Center’s Pew Global Attitudes Project
saw a dramatic increase in the number of Chinese
-- 24 percent -- ranking India as an "enemy" (Pew
Global Attitudes Project, July 22, 2008). The
relentless Chinese print and electronic media
campaign against India permitted and therefore
sanctioned by the Chinese government
censors--unusual in its sarcasm and ridicule of
Indian aspirations of becoming a global
power--has had a negative impact on large
sections of Chinese public opinion and has added
to the existing prejudices against India. In June
2009, an online poll conducted by Global Times,
an offshoot of People's Daily, showed that 90
percent of respondents believed India, more than
any other country, threatened China’s security
(Global Times, June 11). All top four "Most
Commented" opinion pieces on People’s Daily
Online in 2009 were on India--written mostly in
jingoistic tone and highly critical of Indian
foreign policy and defense posture (Global Times,
June 11; People’s Daily Online, June 19;, August
12; September 15). With most Chinese now
perceiving India as their main enemy--nearly 50
years after they fought a border war--India has
effectively replaced Japan as Beijing’s new
chimera. An article on the PRC’s 60th anniversary
in Sunday Times found that "[n]ot everyone in
Beijing speaks in the silky language of the
foreign ministry. Curiously, the enemy most often
spoken of is India. Interestingly, the censors
permit alarmingly frank discussion on the
Internet of the merits of another war against
India to secure the Tibetan plateau" (The Sunday
Times, September 27). In June 2009, People’s
Daily’s leading strategic expert warned that a
fresh border dispute between China and India
could "plunge the two neighbors again into a
‘partial military action’" (People’s Daily Online, June 19).

Always wary of China, the Indian media
(especially TV channels) did not take long to
join the battle of sensationalizing alleged
Chinese incursions and in hyping "the China
threat" (BBC News, September 16). One reason
Beijing's leaders have long regarded India’s
democracy with contempt is because of its media,
which is also partly blamed for the 1962 War. An
article entitled "Unmasking China," by an Indian
defense analyst who argued that China would
launch an attack on India by 2012 to divert the
attention of its people from "unprecedented
internal dissent, growing unemployment and
financial problems" and to achieve multiple
strategic objectives vis-à-vis India drew sharp
rebuke from the Chinese [5]. Strategic and
political analysts voice concern over what they
perceive as an aggressive anti-China campaign by
the Indian media over disputed borders, Tibet,
unfair trade practices, terrorism and nuclear
issues. According to Hu Shisheng, an expert at
the China Institutes of Contemporary
International Relations, which is affiliated with
the Ministry of State Security (the Chinese
government's intelligence arm): "Most Indian
elite are hostile to China due to the hype of the
‘China threat theory’ in Indian media, even
though senior officials of the two countries have
quite a good relationship" (Global Times, August
20). From the Chinese perspective, Indian media’s
negative portrayal of China bolsters the
credibility of hawkish arguments, which state
that China and its allies harbor hostile intent
towards India. Media in India is also accused of
calibrating to "curry favor with the Western
anti-China forces by presenting their readers
with biased information and fabricated stories
about China" (People’s Daily Online, June 19).
This further deepens the perceptual gap, and
fuels the national discontent against China among ordinary Indians.

Will history repeat itself?

Is the war talk merely the media’s creation?
Longtime China-watchers do not think so. D.S.
Rajan opines: "China is speaking in two voices.
Beijing’s diplomatic interlocutors have always
shown understanding during their dealings with
their Indian counterparts, but its selected media
is pouring venom on India" (Sify.com, August 10).
The Chinese government tolerates and perhaps
encourages this nationalistic outpouring to
pressure New Delhi to comply with its demands and
desist from balancing China by tilting toward Washington and Tokyo.

With the war in "Chindia" media raging on, some
commentators have drawn parallels to the
situation in 2008-09 and in the pre-1962 period.
China-India frictions are growing and the
potential for conflict remains high. In a replay
of events of 1958 when the PLA launched an "all
out war" against the Tibetan rebels following the
Lhasa uprising that culminated in the 1962 War,
Beijing is now engaged, by its own admission, in
a "life and death struggle" over Tibet and
launched a vilification campaign against the
Dalai Lama. India is again under greater Chinese
pressure to proscribe his supporters’ activities.
The security clampdown in Tibet since the March
2008 Tibetan uprising parallels the Chinese
crackdown in Tibet from 1959-1962. The Chinese
media claims that the Dalai Lama and his
supporters in India send saboteurs and terrorists
into Tibet. Many Chinese see the latest unrest in
Tibet as instigated by the Indian government at
the behest of the Americans, which uses the
Tibetan government-in-exile to destabilize the
Chinese hold on Tibet and open the door to Indian
expansion (CIIS, March 26, 2008).

In addition, "the present pattern of
cross-frontier incursions and other border
incidents, as well as new force deployments and
mutual recriminations, is redolent of the
situation that prevailed before the 1962 war"
(Far Eastern Economic Review, September 2009).
India’s plans to bolster its defenses to counter
aggressive patrolling and incursions across the
LAC by PLA’s border guards are being labeled a
"new forward policy" in the Chinese media. The
Chinese Ministry of National Defense
spokesperson, however, denies carrying out
"provocative actions" along the India-China
border, saying that Chinese border patrols
strictly abide by the relevant agreements on the
Line of Actual Control (LAC) (C3S Paper, No. 354,
September 10). As they did from 1958-1959, the
military forces of both sides are once again
pushing into remote and previously (for the most
part) unoccupied mountainous frontier regions.
Even the rhetoric sounds familiar. One commentary
claimed that while accusing the Chinese troops of
carrying out incursions into the borders, India
was actually trying to change the Sino-Indian
border status quo. It said that the ghost of 1962
has not been exorcised from the memories of a
small, but influential, category of retired
Indian generals and diplomats, who still harbor
ambitions of "giving it back to the Chinese."
Refuting the Indian defense analyst’s warning of
a Chinese attack by 2012, a noted journalist for
a Chinese newspaper, Chen Xiaochen, went on to
caution India against "deploy[ing] more troops in
the border area, similar to its Forward Policy 50
years ago," and wondered whether "India’s ‘New
Forward Policy,’ as the old one did 50 years ago,
[would] trigger a ‘2012 war’?" [6].

According to one China-watcher, the 1962 War,
ostensibly fallout from a contentious boundary
dispute, was in reality the interim finale of an
intense rivalry, with the purpose of cutting
India down to size. This is corroborated in an
authoritative biography of Nehru with a quote
from a Chinese official who explained that the
prime objective of the 1962 war was to demolish
India’s "arrogance" and "illusions of grandeur"
and that China "had taught India a lesson and, if
necessary, they would teach her a lesson again
and again." Apparently, according to Gumaste,
"the emphasis on ‘again and again’ indicates that
China may not be averse to using a military
option in the future" [7]. More importantly, just
as Nehru insisted on treating the McMahon Line as
an "established fact" in the pre-war period, the
Singh government is now insisting that "Arunachal
Pradesh as an integral part of India" is a truth
("Arunachal can't be parted with at any cost" (Times of India, September 30).

Militarily, the PLA generals believe that India’s
military remains inferior to the Chinese in
combat, equipment, logistics and war-fighting
capability. Should an action-reaction cycle
escalate, the PLA is better-placed to control the
levers of escalation. One Hong Kong commentary
concluded that "in the short term, India does not
have the ability -- to launch a war against China
-- This implies that in a conflict with China,
India will be the one to suffer the most" (Zhongguo Tongxun She, August 4).

Last but not least, India is perceived as the
weakest link in what Beijing sees as an evolving
anti-China coalition of democratic and maritime
powers (the U.S.-Japan-Australia-India), which is
inimical to China’s growth. Beijing’s general
assessment of the United States as being
overextended militarily with wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, and weakened economically following
the financial crisis, has imbued Chinese
policymakers with the confidence to be more
assertive on the international stage in ways that
are inconsistent with Indian interests. With the
coming to power of "China-friendly" leaders in
Tokyo, Canberra and Taipei, the current regional
and international environment would seem
conducive to coercive diplomacy vis-à-vis India
as none of the major players would come to
India’s support in the event of a confrontation
in the near future. Apparently, some Chinese
strategic thinkers feel that a limited war with
India would send a resounding message to those
who are again courting and counting on India as a
balancer or counterweight to China in the 21st
century [8]. Historically, rising powers have
chosen to attack the most vulnerable or weaker
power ("easy prey") in order to effect a
shattering blow to the rival coalition. After
all, a coalition is only as strong as its weakest
link. As an old Chinese saying goes, "Kill the
chicken to scare the monkey" (shaji jinghou) --
kill the weaker enemy to scare the stronger enemy.

Having said that, there are several striking
dissimilarities as well, the most important being
that today’s China and India are nuclear-armed
nations with enormous stakes in maintaining peace
and responsibilities in building a post-American
world order. For Beijing, a hard-line approach to
India could backfire and drive India and its
other Asian neighbors into stronger opposition to
China and into deeper alignment with Washington
and Tokyo, culminating in the emergence of an
Asian NATO. Moreover, India is no pushover
militarily. Unlike the PLA that has not seen
combat since the Vietnam War of 1979, India has a
battle-hardened and experienced military. If
Beijing is determined to gain the lost territory
in Arunachal Pradesh, India is equally determined
not to see a replay of the 1962 War by losing
large chunks of territory. In the near future,
the India-China border will continue to be
characterized by incursions, tensions and
skirmishes, interspersed with endless border
talks. As China’s power grows, China might be
tempted at some point in the future to give a
crushing blow to India’s great power aspirations
by occupying Tawang and giving India’s military a
bloody nose, as they have done in 1962, so that
it need not worry about the "India challenge" for
another half of a century. Instead of challenging
China, Indian leaders will then be much more
deferential in dealing with China. The
demonstrative effect of a short and swift victory
over India would buttress the need for other
countries in Asia, especially U.S. friends and
allies, to accommodate China’s growing power by
aligning with, rather than against China.

[The views are the author’s own and do not
reflect the policy or position of the
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies or phayul.com.]

Notes:

1. It was the most significant eruption of the
Tibet issue since 1959. Earlier uprisings (e.g.
1988) were not on the same scale and did not have
the same international impact.

2. Zhanlue, "Zhenggao Indu zhengfu: Buyao yiyuan
baode," ["A Warning to the Indian Government:
Don’t Return Evil For Good”], CIIS, March 26,
2008, http://str.chinaiiss.org/content/2008-3-26/26211952.shtml.

3. Lai Yuan, "Injun zai zhongyin bianji," March
16, 2008, www.warchina.com/n53470c41.aspx.; D. S.
Rajan, "China: Military Media Attacks on India-A
Tibet issue fall out?" March 28, 2008, Saag.org,
Paper no. 2650, str.chinaiiss.org/content/2008-3-26/26211952.shtml.

4. On 7 ways to destroy India, see "India wants
to compete with China, we have many ways to
destroy it" ["Indu xiang he zhongguo dou, women
zhengkua ta you duozhong banfa"],
www.armsky.com/BbsJunshi/bbsgaojing/200811/11653.html.

5. Bharat Verma, "Unmasking China," Indian
Defence Review, Vol. 24, No. 3, July-September
2009, www.indiandefencereview.com/2009/08/unmasking-china.html.

6. Chen Xiaochen, "Illusion of ‘China’s Attack on
India Before 2012," July 17, 2009,
www.chinastakes.com/2009/7/illusion-of-chinas-attack-on-india-before-2012.html.
The Indian media claims that unlike in the 1950s,
it is now China that is engaged in a "new forward
policy" in order to "provoke India into
retaliatory action" which could then be justified to take military action.

7. S. Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography
(Oxford University Press, 1979) cited in Vivek
Gumaste, "India and China: It was a stab from the
front," Rediff.com, August 25, 2009,
http://news.rediff.com/slide-show/2009/aug/25/slide-show-1-a-stab-from-the-front.htm.

8. "Zhongguo yi ge xiao dong zuo jiu chai san le
suowei ‘da Indu lianbang’" ["China can dismember
the so-called ‘Great Indian Federation’ with one
small stroke”], http://www.iiss.cn, August 8, 2009.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank