Here’s what the Chinese government is telling its people regarding Doklam
The border stand-off between India and China in the Doklam tri-junction area has entered its second month. It has quickly snowballed into a geopolitical stalemate that has the potential to escalate into a full drawn conflict. While armies on both sides are waiting for the other to 'blink' first, China has mounted a concerted media-led psychological warfare on India through its various state and social media outlets.
In this media-led war, Indian journalists and citizens have placed high focus on the English language press of China, excessively relying on cacophonous editorials from the semi-official Global Times or reportage from the official Xinhua or People’s Daily. Language limitations prevent readers from understanding how China is actually framing the stand-off in Doklam. What is the Chinese version of the story? How is history omitted or represented and relayed to its domestic audience? How does the state and social media respond to the firm Indian stance and what geopolitical factors beyond Doklam are assessed by Chinese experts while trying to understand India’s assertive posture? These are some of the questions that would be explored in this article.
To present the Chinese perspective on the Doklam issue, a number of official state media reports and opinion articles, and some phone and television interviews with Chinese scholars in the Chinese media have been translated and analysed. Social media plays a very influential role in China, the most influential being Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter that has over 313 million monthly active users and WeChat, a cross between WhatsApp, Facebook and India’s Paytm having around 938 million active users. Chinese users rely majorly on posts and articles from these social media portals and thus they have been included in this analysis.
The Chinese stand on Doklam:
On 24 July, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang reiterated that there was “no territorial dispute in Doklam”. Since the Sikkim section of the China-India boundary is long-defined, recognised and maintained by the two sides for 127 years, there was no question of a dispute, according to the official statement issued by the ministry. In mid-June, "Indian troops crossed the Sikkim section of the China-India border and attempted to interrupt a road construction in the Doklam area in Yadong county of Southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region".
Xinhua, the official press agency of China, thundered that the Indian military’s trespass into Chinese territory was a “blatant infringement on China’s sovereignty” and immediately asked India to take corrective measures and pull back its troops. Reiterating that China will take all necessary measures to ensure its territorial sovereignty, it unleashed a veiled attack on India by pointing out that “borderline is bottom line” that must be respected.
Additionally, while maintaining its unshakable position on the issue, Xinhua’s Weibo account came up with a detailed article to 'educate' its readers titled, “India illegally crosses the border and engages in sophistry. These are the real facts and crucial points to know”. The article claimed that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had decided to tell the 'truth' about Indian incursion in Chinese territory, since the Indian side was engaging in “sophistry” (use of reasoning that sound correct but are actually false). It came up with five points and maps to counter the Indian claims and presented it in an interesting format. To understand the official position more clearly, the Chinese text has been reproduced verbatim with minor modifications.
Crucial point 1: Understanding the violation of law
False reasoning: The Chinese army "crossed the border line of Sikkim to invade India”
The truth: Indian border forces crossed the defined Sino-Indian border
The treaty must be observed under the basic principle of international law. According to the provisions of the first article in the Sino-British Treaty of Tibet, 1890, Tibet and Sikkim are divided by the watershed between the Teesta River as well as its tributaries that flow into Sikkim and the MoZhu River as well as other northward rivers that flow into Tibet. This border starts from Jim Ma Zhen Mountain bordering Bhutan and goes long the watershed mentioned above until the Nepal border.
Crucial point 2: To go back on one’s words
False reasoning: China-India border at Sikkim section “to be delineated”
The truth: Sino-Indian border at Sikkim is recognised by both countries
Indian leaders, their government documents and the Indian side during Sino-India special representative meetings confirmed that two sides signed in 1890, accepting the consensus on the Sikkim section of the Sino-Indian border. Now, India cannot shirk these international obligations and Indian military cannot violate this treaty.
Crucial point 3: Create problem where none exists
False reasoning: Donglang is part of “disputed territory”
The truth: Donglang belongs to Chinese territory. There is no dispute
Firstly, from a historic perspective, Donglang has been the traditional pastoral area of the Tibetan people in the Chinese side of the border. Before 1960s, Bhutanese in order to enter Donglang had to take the consent of Chinese and pay grass tax. The Tibetan archives still retain some tax receipts. The Ch’ing Chancellor of the Qing dynasty established a landmark as a traditional custom of the border in the south of Donglang.
Secondly, legal records show from 1890 onwards that Jim Ma Zhen mountain is the border between India and China, and Donglang region within border of China.
Third, China has full jurisdiction of Donglang area and the Chinese border guards patrol and herdsmen graze livestock. There has also been repair of a number of production and housing facilities here.
Crucial point 4: The more one tries to hide, the more one is exposed
False reasoning: China wants to “invade Bhutan”; India wants to “protect Bhutan”
The truth: India, under the guise of "protecting Bhutan", calls for the rectification of cross-border Chinese territory
China's construction of roads in Donglang is a sovereign act in its own territory. It is entirely legitimate and lawful and India has no right to interfere in other areas. The Indian side in order to cover up the act of illegal boundary crossing, distorts the facts, and uses “safeguarding interests of Bhutan” as an excuse to create controversy in Donglang area and prevent China and Bhutan from negotiating their borders.
Bhutan is an independent sovereign state within the international community. While China and Bhutan have not yet established formal diplomatic relations, the two countries have always maintained traditional friendly ties and there has never been bullying of Bhutan by China. Although the borders of both countries have not yet been formally demarcated, both sides have maintained basic consensus on the border line. There is no disagreement between the two sides.
Crucial point 5: Confuse the right with the wrong
False reasoning: Chinese road construction poses “serious security risks for India”
The truth: It is proper, lawful and reasonable for the Chinese side to build roads in their territory
Over the past few decades, the Indian side in the Sino-Indian border along the Sikkim section has been constructing large number of facilities; deployed huge number of troops and in some cases has changed the status quo of the border areas. India’s provocation is clear and “so-called” security concerns and “protection of Bhutan” is just an excuse. By manufacturing Donglang as disputed territory, it wants to prevent and contain the two sovereign countries (Bhutan and China) in its border negotiation process.
It’s hard to go around in circles about this. We have reasonable evidence. The Indian army still remains within Chinese territory and we have repeatedly made solemn representations to the Indian side through diplomatic and border defence channels, requiring them to immediately withdraw. We hope that India will correct its mistakes as soon as possible and create necessary conditions for the normal development of bilateral relations.
In a phone interview, Sichuan University's Institute of South Asian Studies research secretary Leo Haifeng, reiterated the above stance and concluded that since the Indian Army has entered Chinese territory, China obviously opposes this behaviour. He also found it very funny that India projects its intervention based on Bhutan’s invitation and to protect their “interests”, while Bhutan has not even invited the Indian Army to enter the dispute. The Bhutanese government, according to Leo has told the public that there is no border dispute there. He was strongly convinced that 'each' Chinese person maintained a similar opinion on this issue and that from historical times till now there has been no border dispute in this area.
Huanqiu Shibao (环求时报), Chinese version of the rabble rousing Global Times, published an article, which has now been read multiple numbers of times with around 17, 835 reader comments. Thundering with rage, it announced that “even one inch of China’s land cannot be lost and this is the sacred desire and request of the Chinese people. The Chinese government will never violate China’s basic public opinion. China cherishes peace, but peace cannot be achieved at the expense of its lost territory. Nearly 1.4 billion Chinese people do not accept this kind of peace”. As a parting shot, it threatened that if India intends to stretch the situation, it must be prepared for an escalation by the People's Liberation Army (PLA), whose mobility and logistical support capacity is far superior to the Indian Army. China will utilise the Sino-Indian border as test-bed for its long-term military construction and latest stage of military reform.
A lone sane voice buried under heaps of hyper nationalistic rhetoric, a WeChat account named Global Military Focus penned an article titled, “Important inside story. How many people know the truth about China-India Doklam conflict?” published on 14 July. It sought to “clarify many facts” about the ongoing stand-off. The article stated that China has held Doklam area no longer than since 2007 and before that it was under Bhutan’s control. This is an objective fact, the article noted. It also questioned, if China claims that the disputed land always belonged to it, then why does it not clarify when it established control in the region? Further, it noted that the 1890 Tibet-Bhutan Border Treaty was not clear and that the watershed principles and ownership of mountain ridges was open to interpretation.
Chinese Scholars Discuss Factors Driving India’s New-Found 'aggression'
Various Chinese intellectuals weighed in on the reasons for an assertive tone from the Indian side.
Nationalism – economic and Hindu – under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration was widely discussed as one of the prime reasons for India’s 'aggressive' posture on the Doklam issue.
India’s growing assertiveness was also adduced to global factors and international partnerships at play. While domestic politics was influencing India’s approach towards China, reshaping of its relations with the US, emerging closeness with Japan, 'Act East' policy and India’s 'misconceptions' about China’s rise did not escape scrutiny from the Chinese press and intelligentsia. Analysis on these issues reflected China’s deep discomfort regarding India’s emerging strategic partnership with countries within the perceived 'anti-China camp', relating it to New Delhi's resultant aggression on contentious border issues.
Domestic Factors At Play
China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) researcher Ma Jiali assessed that in the two decades before 2015, India and China had managed to keep their border disputes and trade imbalances at controllable levels while maintaining open dialogue. This seems to have changed since the time economic reforms have started picking up pace under Modi. It is this economic resurgence that has fuelled nationalist sentiments among Indians, leading to New Delhi being assertive in dealing with countries it has disputes with.
Analysing the wave of nationalist sentiment in India, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies (RIIO) scholar Zhu Cuiping related recent Indian actions to “transfer of domestic contradictions”. Accordig to him, Modi has been in power since 2014 and has implemented a spate of high-risk reforms and these initiatives are a 'double-edged sword'. While trying to solve the problem of growth and development, it has also intensified and accumulated a lot of contradictions. Thus the Doklam issue, according to Cuiping, has also become an “opportunity” to pass through these domestic contradictions. Modi’s intention is to turn these growing nationalistic sentiments into positive public support and as sign of national strength, according to Zhu Cuiping. Obviously, the 'China factor' beginning from the 1962 War has always managed to easily tap into this nationalist sentiment, he said.
Secondly, he notes that the Modi government is also worried that Indian market’s greater dependence on Chinese goods would cause greater trade deficit with China and impact domestic industries. Hence, Modi is using the nationalist sentiment to help protect the Indian industry and reduce the market’s dependence on Chinese goods.
During an interview with the Public Policy Institute (PPI), South China University Professor Zheng Yongnian distinguished between the ideology of the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party, noting that the Congress party was considered a secular party. Post Independence, India’s planned economic model, democracy and the rule of law and later transitioning to market-oriented policies reflected similarity with China’s ideology. People, during the rule of Congress could be called secular nationalists. But in Modi’s time, the shift is towards culture, religion, an amalgamation of cultural and religious nationalism.
International Factors Influencing India’s 'Aggressive' Stance
India has been moving closer to the US and Japan in recent years, with the aim of balancing China’s influence in the region, said Tsinghua University postdoctoral researcher Lu Yang. This sentiment is shared by several other scholars including, Sun Shihai of the Kunming South and Southeast Asian Research Institute and Fu Xiaoqiang, a research fellow and director of the Institute of Security and Arms Control, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations(CICIR). He pointed out that with the advancement of globalisation and the development of international trade, an increasing number of big countries in the Indian Ocean have obviously large demands. But India, unable to maintain its assumed dominant position, is now moving closer towards US’ anti-China strategy.
Assuming an obvious 'US hand' behind India’s firm position on the Doklam issue, Zhanhao, penname of a WeChat public account that is followed by 2.41million people quipped that if China directly intensifies the confrontation with India, war would follow, which will bring in negative opinion against China. Moreover, he claims that Modi has plotted this Doklam issue since several months in collusion with America. Thus in case of Chinese force, America would jump in to clamour that China is resorting to bully India. In this way US will win the battle against China. Thus the government must be careful at this point in time, he advises.
Competition for resources and influence in Southeast Asia and South Asia has also brought both China and India into indirect conflict with each other. While China considers Southeast Asia as its traditional backyard, India considers South Asia as its backyard. Although in South Asia, India does not have enough economic and military strength to provide public goods for the development of the region, it still has an important competitive advantage for maintaining its regional strategic advantage and always sees China as its main competitor in this region.
In an article by the People’s Daily Overseas Edition Military Circle titled, “India is very busy and impatient to promote its “Great Dream”, Fu Xiaoqiang, argued that behind a series of actions, lies India’s pursuit of “great power status”. Reiterating India’s “Act East” policy, he noted that New Delhi has intensified its cooperation with Southeast Asian countries and is actively seeking a breakthrough in the status of Asia-Pacific countries with Association of South East Asian Nations and this has increased contentions and overlaps between China and India.
Zhu Cuiping (RIIO) maintained that India’s aggression on the Donglang/Doklam region is based on a 'misreading' of China’s road construction and infrastructure building. India has made an 'irrational' choice leading to 'miscarriage of justice' on this issue. He related the Indian aggression as rooted in misperceptions of China’s strategy of the Belt-Road Initiative and larger global tensions articulated above in light of global geopolitics. India’s deep-rooted geopolitical imagination and its erroneous perception of threat from China will make China-India relations challenging and complex. He rued the lack of understanding between the two countries that was the root cause of lack of mutual trust.
Zhu Cuiping maintained that although there is a lack of clarity as to whether the most important bilateral relationship between China and India will be second only to Sino-American relations, however India’s importance to China is 'unquestionable' in the long run. He stressed the need for China to deepen its understanding of India and also figure out how India perceives China and Sino-Indian relations, and hoped that economic cooperation will become the dominant way to cooperate with each other in the long run.
In light of the above analysis, the Chinese position on Doklam becomes quite clear. What is also clear is the way Chinese state and social media shapes citizens’ perceptions by engaging in selective information bias. A thorough analysis of Chinese media and intellectual establishment reveals the keenness with which India’s internal issues, reforms, religious clashes and growing international partnerships are being observed and woven into a pattern to justify India’s competitive attitude towards China, leading to belligerence in the Doklam issue.
The Indian establishment must take serious note of the Chinese perspective, their highlights and omissions, to prepare a holistic narrative involving facts and acknowledging differences of perception where they arise. This acknowledgement of differences could be a starting point in solving the current Doklam stand-off.