India-China tensions flare up again over border issues and Tibet

Foreign Affairs

Indian domestic politics erupted in controversy over China last week. The fallout is limiting the government’s room to maneuver to resolve a border crisis.

india china border flag
Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

Editor’s note: This piece has been adapted and republished, with permission, from Ananth Krishnan’s India China Newsletter.

I try to not pay too much attention to the political debates on the India-China border — where there has been a military standoff since 2020 along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) — because a lot of it is noise and fleeting, and doesn’t necessarily have a substantive impact on the relationship.

Last week, however, four different issues regarding China all came up around the same time and became embroiled in a quite heated political debate: a flag raising ceremony held by the PLA in Galwan Valley; the issuing of ‘standardized’ names for 15 places in Arunachal Pradesh by the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs; the construction of a bridge across Pangong Lake by China; and a letter from the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi to MPs protesting their attendance at a Tibet event.

All of these ended up in an all-out political slanging match. The opposition accused the government of bowing to China and of obfuscation. The government, meanwhile, accused the opposition of playing politics with national security and not backing it when it should. In this newsletter, I’ll try and break down what those issues are and ask if the ‘noise’ is merited, and will look at how domestic politics is impacting the government’s options in dealing with the border crisis.

In the previous issue, I mentioned the somewhat strange start to the New Year with an exchange of sweets along the LAC in 10 posts, including in some of the sites of recent tensions, even as China issued “standardized names” for 15 places in Arunachal. There was also this tweet on New Year’s Day by a reporter with Chinese state broadcaster China Global Television Network sharing a video that was widely shared in the Chinese media:

This tweet led to a storm on social media, and the opposition Congress party’s spokesperson had this to say:

“Mr Prime Minister, the entire country and the world want to know as to how the Chinese unfurled the Chinese flag in Galwan Valley and wrote in the Chinese language that they will not give an inch of land back. Why is the Prime Minister quiet and silent? Why is the Defence Minister not uttering a word? It is a bounden duty of our government and Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi to ensure that Chinese transgression into India’s territories is defeated decisively.”

Then followed the news of the construction of the bridge across Pangong Lake. My colleague Dinakar Peri explained the significance in The Hindu (partial paywall):

China is constructing a bridge in Eastern Ladakh connecting the North and South Banks of Pangong Tso which would significantly bring down the time for People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to move troops and equipment between the two sectors, two official sources independently confirmed on Monday. “On the North Bank there is a PLA garrison at Kurnak fort and on the South Bank at Moldo and the distance between the two is around 200 kms. The new bridge between the closest points on two banks which is around 500m will bring down movement time between the two sectors from around 12 hours to 3-4 hours,” one of the sources said. The bridge is located around 25 kms ahead of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the source stated.

NOTE: “25 km ahead of the LAC” means 25 km on the Chinese side of the LAC.

This led Rahul Gandhi of the Congress to tweet:

Then we had the development of a political counselor in the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi ill-advisedly warn Indian Members of Parliament to not attend a Tibetan event. From The Hindu (partial paywall):

The Embassy of China has written to a group of parliamentarians asking them to “refrain” from supporting the cause of Tibetan independence. The move, which is being interpreted as a rare and undiplomatic interference, came after six MPs from the All-Party Indian Parliamentary Forum for Tibet attended a meeting at a Delhi hotel.

I’ve seen the message sent to the MPs. It began saying the Chinese Embassy “noticed” they had attended an event and said they “would like to express our concern” before going on to say it hoped they “could understand the sensitivity of the issue and refrain from providing support to Tibetan independence forces”.

All of this led to a chorus of accusations of China’s muscle-flexing and the Indian government’s reticence in calling it out. The Ministry of External Affairs reacted somewhat belatedly, and had this to say at its weekly press conference on January 6 (excerpts):

On the Galwan video:

I think the media reports that you are referring to or have been by all these journalists are not factually correct. And various Indian media outlets have released photographs contradicting the claims. So I really don’t have much to say on that anymore.

On the renaming of places (which the MEA had immediately reacted to earlier on the same day it was done, but this was a stronger response):

Calling Tuting as “DouDeng” or River Siyom as “XiYueMu” or even Kibithu as “Daba” does not alter the fact that Arunachal Pradesh has always been and will always remain an inalienable part of India. We hope that instead of engaging in such antics, China will work constructively with us to resolve the outstanding friction points in areas along the Western Sector of the Line of Actual Control in India-China border areas.

On the Pangong Lake bridge construction:

Regarding reports about a bridge being made by the Chinese side on Pangong lake, government has been monitoring this activity closely. This bridge is being constructed in areas that have been under the illegal occupation by China for around 60 years now. As you’re well aware, India has never accepted such illegal occupation.

On the letter to the MPs:

We have seen reports about the political counselor at the Chinese Embassy, writing letters to Honorable Members of Parliament on their participation at an event. The substance, tone and tenor of the letter are inappropriate. The Chinese side should note that India is a vibrant democracy and Honorable Members of Parliament as representatives of the people undertake activities as per their views and beliefs. We expect the Chinese side to refrain from hyping normal activities by Honorable Members of Parliament and complicate further the situation in our bilateral relations.

So what do we make of the four issues and the subsequent debate about them?

  1. I would view these four issues separately. Make no mistake, I think they all are important insofar as reminding us that, for China, the border issue is front and center again as its actions on the LAC have already shown since the summer of 2020. The border has also become important in terms of the PLA’s domestic propaganda, which is another new development. At the same time, as I’ll explain, the Galwan video and the renaming are mostly signaling with no real tangible impact on the ground.
  2. The bridge across Pangong Lake will, however, have a tangible impact even if it’s across the LAC on the Chinese side, and is part of a number of recent moves to upgrade infrastructure in forward areas, as the previous issue of this newsletter discussed, and is hence worth noting.
  3. The lecturing of Indian MPs, to me, is a snapshot of China’s current mood at the moment, even if it was, in my view, entirely counterproductive. It may have pleased the higher-ups in the MFA in Beijing (something that guides diplomats’ behavior more than we realize) but at the end of the day, I would say the net result is it will all but guarantee that the MPs attend the event next year (and only further worsen perceptions of China as far as the Indian public opinion is concerned).
  4. Both the Galwan video and Pangong construction are, as far as we know, on China’s side of the LAC, so in my view, it is somewhat unreasonable to demand action being taken on something happening on the other side of the LAC. That detail seems to have gotten lost in the noise. In that sense, this is very different from the LAC transgressions (more of that later in this issue).
  5. In my perhaps unpopular view, the response to the Galwan flag video was, for this reason, an overreaction. The flag video, I understand, was not in or near the buffer zone and somewhere on the Chinese side of the LAC in Galwan. People have probably forgotten that even well before the LAC crisis, there were such videos routinely shot, for instance, on the Chinese side of the LAC on Pangong Lake, designed to show the Chinese audience that the lake belonged to China (leaving aside the fact that it was only a part of the lake that was under Chinese control). I wonder how many people were aware that even prior to 2020, most of the Galwan Valley lay on the Chinese side of the LAC, except the area up to 1 km east of the bend of the river, marked by the pin below:

india china LAC

The LAC in India’s view ran around 1 km east of the pin. Since April 2020, China has been contesting that LAC and claiming it lies on the bend, which is what Chinese maps show as China’s border, pushing the LAC around 1 km westward (so the entire dispute is over this stretch, which is now a buffer zone). The Chinese could have pretty much carried out the flag raising anywhere in this image above from the pin to the far bottom right hand of the map and still claim they were in Galwan Valley, although this entire stretch has largely been under Chinese control since at least 1962. I’m not sure how many people would have gotten this distinction.

In any case, given the attention of last week, I’m sure the Chinese military and media are only going to put out more stuff that not only serves the domestic agenda at home but riles up people in India and puts the Modi government under pressure. I’m guessing even they were probably surprised by the furore caused by the Galwan video, no doubt for them pleasantly so. So I was not in the least bit surprised to see this in the Global Times over the weekend, right on cue:

The Western Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army debuted on Chinese social media on Friday, drawing applause from netizens hoping to be a lucky winner of a special gift sent by the command – a stone taken from the Galwan Valley. Such a move happened to be the latest episode of recent stories centered on the Galwan Valley following Indian media’s hyping of Chinese soldiers’ oath-taking video in the place.

So they could pretty much take a pebble from anywhere in that map deep into the Chinese side and still crow about it being “in Galwan Valley”. Expect to see a lot more of this given how much consideration is being put towards “winning the narrative”, both domestically and abroad.

The larger problem is nothing of all in what I’ve said above has been conveyed by anyone in government. It took seven days for a response to the Galwan video, and when it came, it was hardly ideal. Rather than explain the geography of the valley — you can hardly expect people to know where the LAC runs, and it leaves even folks who follow this issue scratching their heads from time to time — you had more reticence. We also had the Indian Army putting out its own photographs from the valley that were tweeted by Government ministers (a new year celebration four days late, and an obvious response to the Chinese flag video.)

You also had a somewhat bizarre effort at trying to claim that the Chinese flag raising was, pardon the pun, a false flag drama staged by actors. Here’s one such article, from the website Opindia — it was one of several articles making this claim (and these links were, I am reliably told, shared with Indian reporters by people close to the government):

The communist government in China have been left red-faced after some users on the Chinese social media platform Weibo revealed that the Xi Jinping government used Chinese actors to shoot the entire propaganda video on Galwan Valley. It may be recalled that the video was shared by journalist Shen Shiwei and CCP mouthpiece Global Times wherein PLA personnel were seen unfurling the China flag at what they claimed to be the Galwan Valley. The Weibo users have pointed out that that the CCP staged the dramatic flag-raising event on the first day of 2022 with Chinese actor Wu Jung and his wife Xie Nan.

This was, safe to say, not the best rebuttal. Leave aside the fact that the actor Wu Jing is misspelled “Wu Jung”, that the CCTV reporter looks nothing like his wife, and that using a widely popular household name such as Wu Jing to stage a video — it would be like India using Salman Khan or the U.S. using The Rock for a comparable exercise — defies all logic, the articles were then picked up by Chinese media and social media, and amplified to show the incompetence of the Indian media. The ‘actors’ story, incidentally, made it to the most watched English language prime time news show:

Some thoughts on the government’s response

As I said, the furore on the flag was an overreaction, and the opposition doesn’t come out looking very good in all of this. But I’m less concerned by opposition behavior, as misinformed as it is, as they aren’t running the government and this is an opposition doing what an opposition always does. Accusing them of being anti-national or not supporting the government won’t solve the problem. Rewinding to what Prime Minister Modi had to say when in opposition in 2013 during the Depsang stand-off:

“China comes into our border and occupies land. What do we do? We make deals with China by withdrawing from our own land. I ask the PM what is happening in this country? Why are we so soft?’’”

He said “it is shameful that the external affairs minister, despite the repeated incursions by China, went to Beijing and praised the city, going to the extent of saying that he wished he could stay there.”

If there’s silence, noise will always fill a vacuum. If the general practice of wanting to say as little as possible wasn’t being followed, the fallout of the controversies of the last week could have been easily avoided or at least mitigated. Not doing so creates more space for more Chinese propaganda — Galwan Valley stones now, Pangong Lake water next? — which in turn, if not responded to credibly, will only lead to more pressure in a vicious cycle. And there’s a larger problem here which explains to some extent the reason behind the silence and which is more troubling, which is that right from the beginning, the concern has been as much (if not more) about protecting the image of the government than being fully transparent.

All of this, incidentally, has been taking place in the lead-up to the 14th round of military-level talks on the LAC, which are taking place on Wednesday, January 12, after quite a long gap. The last round in October ended with both sides accusing the other (India of China stalling and not offering any forward looking proposals, China of India making ‘unreasonable’ demands).

Based on reporting from Krishn Kaushik at the Indian Express and Rajat Pandit at the Times of India, the prospects for progress in this next round of talks are very modest — but the stakes are higher than ever. “India and China have over 50,000 troops each in the eastern Ladakh theater, along with additional missiles, air defense assets, tanks and artillery guns,” Kaushik notes.

All this is happening while the domestic politics on the LAC is getting increasingly heated, reducing the room for Indian political leaders to navigate.

Finally, I will leave you with two reading recommendations on the LAC issue:

Praveen Swami writes in The Print on the dilemma Delhi faces and it’s worth reading in full:

The worst-case scenario, then, would be for New Delhi to be drawn into a Line of Control-like commitment to defend each centimeter of its territory against a logistically superior adversary. Instead of seeking to match each PLA bridge, road or battalion, it needs to focus on long-term military capacity development and modernisation, even at the cost of territorial concessions.

For developing such a policy, though, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will need to transparently communicate his dilemma to the public, and build a consensus on next steps—no small ask for a leader whose public image is built on machismo.

Sushant Singh writes in The Hindu (partial paywall):

Delhi has run out of proactive options against Beijing that will force the Chinese leadership to change course on its India policy. Tibet and the Dalai Lama were often projected as a trump card but evidently are not. Beijing does not care for its declining popularity among the Indian populace….The best Delhi can do is to prevent any further loss of territory to China with extensive military deployment on the LAC, while hoping that Beijing, either with Moscow’s urging or otherwise, will give Mr. Modi an honorable diplomatic exit out of this crisis.

Ananth Krishnan’s full original post can be found here.