Play­ing the long game with China

We must ask the right ques­tions, as­sess China’s be­hav­iour pat­terns and pos­si­ble ac­tions

Hindustan Times (Jalandhar) - - COMMENT - DEEP PAL Deep Pal is a non-res­i­dent fel­low at the Na­tional Bu­reau of Asian Re­search. The views ex­pressed are per­sonal

T he news of the ter­ri­ble tragedy in the Gal­wan Val­ley on June 15, ex­pect­edly, evoked anger, sad­ness, and loathing in all of us. Within hours, how­ever, the tragedy of the mo­ment was sul­lied by a tragic-com­edy of er­rors. In one in­stance, tele­vi­sion an­chors strug­gled to read an imag­ined list of Chi­nese ca­su­al­ties cir­cu­lat­ing on What­sApp; in an­other, an ap­par­ently madein-China tele­vi­sion set was at­tacked with sticks — all for the ben­e­fit of a phone cam­era, that was, most likely, made in China. Be­fore you boy­cott your weekly made-in-In­dia Chi­nese meal, take a few min­utes to read be­tween the lines.

This in­ci­dent has changed the In­dia-China re­la­tion­ship for­ever. This is the most se­ri­ous en­gage­ment that the In­dian mil­i­tary has had on the bound­ary with China since 1967. All guide­lines and rules of en­gage­ment that were put in place since 1993 that dic­tated be­hav­iour at the Line of Ac­tual Con­trol (LAC) now stand ques­tioned.

In this en­vi­ron­ment, what role do we play as cit­i­zens and con­sumers of in­for­ma­tion, es­pe­cially at a time when op­er­a­tional and political rea­sons have dic­tated that in­for­ma­tion is spar­ingly made pub­lic? Here are a set of four ques­tions we should ex­am­ine to try and make sense of the de­vel­op­ments.

One, do we know what China will do? We do not. That is what makes the sit­u­a­tion so com­plex and se­ri­ous. Till last week, we proudly talked about how LAC is a dis­puted border where no bul­lets have been fired since 1975. The con­firmed loss of 20 In­dian lives makes the claim moot now.

How­ever, what we can bank on is the fact that States act ra­tio­nally, in their own in­ter­est, to achieve their own goals. And, with al­most no ex­cep­tion, they aim to spend the least amount of re­sources to achieve them. So, the ques­tion we need to ask is — what are China’s goals? Is it to merely oc­cupy the Gal­wan Val­ley? Or is it to put In­dia in its place and es­tab­lish its su­pe­ri­or­ity? The an­swers to this and more lie in the pat­terns of be­hav­iour.

Two, how, then, do we look for pat­terns? Con­trary to how they are rep­re­sented in pop­u­lar cul­ture, Chi­nese lead­ers are not in­scrutable. Their ac­tions are quite pre­dictable, as long as one knows how to look for pat­terns in them. As jour­nal­ist Shekhar Gupta has ar­gued, there were signs since last year that an in­tru­sion was likely.

Many of th­ese pat­terns ex­ist in the pages of his­tory. For in­stance, be­fore be­liev­ing that What­sApp for­ward that lists names, pur­port­edly of dead Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army (PLA) sol­diers, it would help to know that re­leas­ing ca­su­alty de­tails is a sen­si­tive af­fair in PLA that of­ten takes years. For in­stance, there is still no de­fin­i­tive num­ber of the to­tal num­ber of ca­su­al­ties in the Nathu La-Chola La stand­off in 1967. How likely is it that the names of those dead in Gal­wan would be avail­able?

More such pat­terns ex­ist, wait­ing to be read. The PLA’s state­ment on June 16 men­tions causal­i­ties but ne­glects to claim that they were only In­dian. This is as close as we are go­ing to get for a con­fir­ma­tion, at least for now, that some of the dead were in­deed Chi­nese. Sim­i­larly, read-outs of the con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the two for­eign min­is­ters use terms such as “peace and tran­quil­ity,” a nod to an ear­lier agree­ment for be­hav­iour along LAC. This indi­cates that while the frame­works are un­der ques­tion, they are still al­low­ing the two sides to con­verse.

Three, where can we find fac­tu­ally ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion? As Dhruva Jais­hankar of the Observer Re­search Foun­da­tion has pointed out, in­for­ma­tion about de­vel­op­ments at LAC are most trustworth­y when they come from the gov­ern­ment or mil­i­tary, in both coun­tries, or through anal­y­sis of geospa­tial im­agery. But when news comes from so­cial me­dia, it is pru­dent to ver­ify it. Take the Chi­nese news out­let Global

The or­gan­i­sa­tion and its re­porters are very ac­tive on Twit­ter. How­ever, Twit­ter can­not be legally ac­cessed in the Chi­nese main­land, which sug­gests that their aim is to en­gage with read­ers abroad, in this case, In­dia. This is most likely a part of State-spon­sored psy­ops meant to mis­di­rect, brow­beat, or troll peo­ple while vig­or­ously de­fend­ing Chi­nese claims.

As read­ers, in­stead of de­pend­ing on pub­li­ca­tions such as the Global Times, we should look at news sources that are read within China. For in­stance, news about In­dia in The Peo­ple’s Daily is a far bet­ter in­di­ca­tor of how the gov­ern­ment wants the news to reach its cit­i­zens. Even af­ter the Gal­wan skir­mish, the news did not make it be­yond the back pages — in­di­cat­ing that China wants to keep this in­ci­dent, as well as the is­sue at LAC, away from pub­lic scru­tiny.

And fi­nally, what are In­dia’s op­tions? What can the gov­ern­ment do? Are sur­gi­cal strikes like in Pak­istan a pos­si­bil­ity? Or, will there be war? Th­ese are crit­i­cal ques­tions do­ing the rounds, and cor­rectly so. How­ever, as we de­lib­er­ate on this, we must be aware of two points. First, China is not Pak­istan, and to be­lieve that In­dia’s ap­proach to China can be sim­i­lar will be a folly. Sec­ond, and more im­por­tant, there are very real costs for war, whether with Pak­istan or China. There are other puni­tive mea­sures, from ex­ter­nal bal­anc­ing by align­ing with other coun­tries, to re-look­ing at the eco­nomic re­la­tion­ship with China, to build­ing up do­mes­tic ca­pac­ity. The gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse will be pred­i­cated on the long game, and as we wait for th­ese pat­terns to emerge, a good place to start would be to look for in­di­ca­tions that the ele­ment of com­pe­ti­tion in the re­la­tion­ship is dom­i­nat­ing the ele­ment of co­op­er­a­tion.

PTI

China is not Pak­istan, and to be­lieve that In­dia’s ap­proach to China can be sim­i­lar would be a folly

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