By Shastri Ramachandaran
During my time in Beijing, the days on which India appeared in China’s English dailies or TV were few and far between. Even bilateral exchanges, ministerial visits and official cultural events didn’t make the kind of splash it does in India.
India figures prominently in the Chinese media when the state, party or government wants to send messages without the official stamp. In contrast, there’s much more of China in the Indian media, which is more preoccupied — obsessed even — with China.
Media reports in India give the impression that China is up to some trick every day; that someone, somewhere in China is forever busy doing something to needle, belittle, encircle, overawe, dismember, intimidate, or deceive India; that aggressive designs are at work to step up military pressures.
Readers and viewers may be forgiven for fearing that a military conflict is imminent.
The MEA’s attempts to disabuse the impression of India-China ties being fraught with tension and on the verge of conflict as purveyed by sections of the media have not had the desired impact. The MEA’s effort to set the record straight is frustrated with further negative reporting.
This has led to the perception that the MEA and defence ministry are at odds over China, although the defence minister himself has never struck a jarring note. It is now being put out that it is not the political leadership but a powerful section of the armed forces that is feeding the fear of China being out to provoke a military conflict.
Now a number of security analysts and strategic affairs experts have joined the act and some have gone so far as to predict a 1962-like war and warned against complacency. A number of reports are in circulation, seeking to show how China is working overtime to provoke a conflict and warn that India cannot afford to be caught unprepared.
The most discussed one is the prediction that China would attack when a conflict is least expected and India is most unprepared. Since India is least prepared at present — and would be better equipped some years later — China may choose to strike at this stage.
In 1962, Chinese forces grabbed Aksai Chin and the forces retreated. Similarly, one conflict scenario advanced is that the Chinese may snatch another piece of territory, for example, Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.
The circumstantial evidence marshaled in support of this scenario cannot be disputed. One, that China is building massive infrastructure (airports, roads, and railway networks including in areas bordering India, like Tibet) at a scorching pace where there is no existing need for these. Two, India is as lacking in infrastructure and military hardware today as it was 50 years ago.
There are those who argue that it doesn’t suit China to court conflict at the present stage.The reasons: One, China’s political leadership is on the cusp of a decadal change. With the president, prime minister and five of nine politburo members stepping down next year, the new leadership’s first priority would be assert itself at home and ensure stability and continuity. Two, in a time of transition without a strong, tested and charismatic leadership, getting into a conflict might turn out to be a misadventure.
The ‘pro-war’ ideologues say that any decision to put military pressure on India would be dictated by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and not the political bosses; and, therefore, the political transition is irrelevant to military calculations.
This is a debate that is bound to intensify in the days to come.
As if to feed the frenzy, or amuse themselves, or both, the Chinese are doing their bit. Referring to our military build-up on the border, the People’s Daily says, ‘India has begun to consider China an opponent.’ In a November 10, Beijing-datelined article headlined, ‘India’s border troop surge aimed at rising China?’, the paper looks at India’s ties with others like the US, Japan and Vietnam, and how these are fuelled by fear and suspicion of China. Yet the article’s emphasis is on ‘friendly relations.’
This came two days after Xinhua’s ‘warning’ that India needs to reconsider its Look East policy and ‘pause driving east.’ Towards the end of a Sino-centric analysis of India’s relations with other powers and its actions in the region, Xinhua bluntly states: ‘But if it (India) intended to estrange and antagonise its neighbour by taking it as an imaginary enemy and get unwisely involved in affairs which fall within others’ backyards, it would hold its national strategies as hostage and put at stake its own national interests.’
And, for good measure ends by saying: ‘It is highly advisable for New Delhi to think twice about the pitfalls in making its foreign policies.’
That should provide more grist to the community of security analysts.
The author is a New Delhi-based political and foreign affairs commentator.