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Being unreasonable with China

We must counter China's ability to use media dynamics and public psychology so easily against us

Nitin Pai 

Nitin Pai

If you were to purchase from the popular public discourse about developments along India's unresolved frontiers with China, you would end up gnashing your teeth at the brazenness with which our northern neighbour is nibbling away at disputed territory while an effete political class in New Delhi doesn't retaliate even to gross provocations.

In this narrative, China is a strategic genius that keeps securing gains through bold tactical moves ranging from littering the Himalayas with cigarette cartons to sending platoon strength detachments of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) on excursions into India. India, as you might recall, lacks a strategic culture, so we just match the PLA's aggressive moves by firing long-range ballistic outrage nightly from launching pads located in television studios.


There are, no doubt, shades of truth in the dominant public perception about what is going on at the Beijing assumed a hard-line posture on the boundary dispute a few years ago. New Delhi's response has been more restrained than it ought to have been. This, combined with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government's abysmal communication skills and total abandonment of the use of rhetoric to manage public opinion, has scored a self-goal in the psychological domain.

The net result, as far as the boundary situation is concerned, is to hand the PLA an inexpensive tool to counter the Indian Army's tactical moves. All that the PLA needs to do to get its Indian counterpart to pipe down a bit is to do something that the Indian media will find brazen and outrageous. Since there are fairly robust bilateral mechanisms to prevent a shooting war, the New Delhi establishment will choose to localise the matter and say, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did on Saturday, that "we do not want to accentuate the situation". Behind the scenes, India's political leadership will probably tell the military commanders to cool it a bit.

While there is some merit in exercising caution to prevent tactical manoeuvres from escalating into a war, we must counter China's ability to use media dynamics and public psychology so easily against us.

In doing so, we must not forget that the boundary dispute is just one facet of a multidimensional and increasingly global contest. India is in a position to be a swing power between the United States and China. For this to work, India must first enjoy better relations with each of them than they have with each other. Second, India must show that it has the ability to benefit and hurt their interests.

So how should India respond?

The PLA's tactic of creating outrage to check the Indian Army works because the Chinese side expects the Indian political leadership to act rationally. If, instead, New Delhi were to allow the situation "to accentuate", to use the prime minister's phrase, then it would be for Beijing to choose whether it wants to escalate matters, especially at this time when China finds itself poised on the verge of conflict with almost all of its neighbours.

This is, of course, a risky thing to do. However, this is also a good time to take a calculated risk. After this month's incursion, PLA commanders have proposed that the Indian Army back away from its positions in return for the PLA vacating its campsite in the Depsang valley in Ladakh. New Delhi should reject such a compromise; instead, it should visibly reinforce the Indian military presence around the vicinity. New Delhi should signal to Beijing - and, lest we forget, to our television studios - that this would be our default response to anything that we consider an incursion.

While New Delhi has sought to respond to China's use of roads, railways and demographic change along the frontier with its own effort to improve infrastructure, these measures suffer from a combination of political blinkers, bureaucratic ineffectiveness and rampant corruption. As P Stobdan wrote in The Indian Express last week, we must "build infrastructure, populate the area, reactivate nomadic herding, and provide them [the frontier population] with the wherewithal to fight the vagaries of nature".

Beyond the Himalayan boundary theatre, New Delhi should calibrate its attention to the numerous maritime disputes involving China and its East Asian neighbours to the temperature of the overall India-China relationship. China cannot expect New Delhi to be insensitive to Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian states if Beijing is insensitive to India's interests.

With a new leadership assuming office in China and a flurry of bilateral diplomatic exchanges in the offing, it is timely for the pragmatic men in Beijing to consider the merits of an approach that antagonises a giant civilisational neighbour to their south. Do they really want the PLA to score tactical points at the cost of strengthening the relationship between the US and India?

The lessons of 1962 are routinely invoked in India to warn us of being underprepared for a conflict with an expansionist neighbour. While that war was a military and political victory for the Chinese, it has, so far, antagonised three generations of Indians. Do China's leaders think that antagonising more generations of Indians makes strategic sense at all?

The writer is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent public policy think tank

First Published: Sun, April 28 2013. 22:29 IST
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