June 10, 2020

IntelBrief: Tensions between China and India Have Asia—and the World—on Edge

FILE - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping  (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)
  • China and India—two nuclear-armed powers with the largest populations in the world—have recently been engaged in a tense standoff along one of the world’s longest shared land borders.
  • While this is not the first time China and India have clashed over territorial demarcation, what is different is the scale and scope of both countries’ information operations in a battle to control the narrative.
  • Many Chinese military strategists view the current Sino-Indian standoff as directly related to what Beijing perceives as India’s pro-U.S. posture, rather than ongoing territorial disputes.
  • Chinese national media has framed the border skirmish as instigated by U.S. support for India, without which China believes India would be less resolute in pushing back against Chinese encroachment.

For the past several weeks, China and India—two nuclear-armed powers and the countries with the two largest populations in the world—have been engaged in an increasingly tense standoff along their shared border in the Himalaya Mountains. And while a recent statement from India’s Foreign Ministry pledged to resolve the dispute through diplomacy, an op-ed by a former high-ranking Indian naval officer speculated that a ‘shooting war’ could lead to one side or the other contemplating nuclear ‘first use,’ a nightmare scenario. A slickly edited video released by Global Times, state-owned Chinese media, showed a Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force airborne brigade conducting maneuvers in high-altitude terrain in a not-so-subtle message to India. There are over a dozen areas, both in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, where China and India differ over the so-called Line of Actual Control (LAC). Many see the present situation as a follow-on to a dispute near Doklam in 2017, when India deployed troops on the Bhutan- Chinese border, in the area under Chinese control. China is increasing its troop presence in the Galwan Valley and the Pagong Lake area in the Ladakh region and at the Naku La pass near the Bhutan-China border as a result of the current crisis. The simultaneous face off at three different places along the LAC not only appears well-coordinated but also part of a strategic plan that required significant planning and preparation to execute.     

China and India have a longhistory of clashes on the LAC, the de facto border between the two countries since the end of the 1962 Sino-Indian War. What is different now, however, is that both countries have ramped up information operations to control the narrative, relying on various forms of media and aggressive swarms of online activity to promote their version of events while discrediting the other side. The risk of disinformation, ‘deep fakes,’ and altered videos have the potential to lead to miscommunication and confusion, increasing the chances of further escalation that goes well beyond mere saber-rattling. Both China’s Xi Jinping and India’s Narendra Modi frequently appeal to nationalist sentiments, presenting an opportune moment for these leaders to deflect attention from domestic issues related to unrest, economic turbulence, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chinese state media has commented on the border standoff between Beijing and New Delhi by strongly encouraging its South Asian neighbor to avoid picking sides in the ongoing U.S.-China dispute. Inherent in the warning was that siding with the United States in a ‘New Cold War’ could be disastrous for the Indian economy. What this border skirmish has revealed is that many Chinese military strategists view the current Sino-Indian standoff as directly related to India's pro-U.S. posture, rather than one of many historical border disputes that have taken place over the years. More importantly, it reiterates Chinese rhetoric of the advent of a ‘New Cold War’ era between the United States and China. Implicit in this assertion is an attempt to present the world with a fait accompli—China’s official arrival at superpower status and an adversarial second pole in the international system. This narrative has another immediate implication. While the current standoff between China and India may ultimately be resolved through diplomatic efforts, in Beijing’s view, the future of Sino-Indian relations is predicated upon New Delhi’s willingness to shape its approach to China separately from a growing U.S.-India alliance. 

Xi Jinping’s ‘Third Revolution’ seeks to upend the Deng Xiaoping-era adage of 'hide your strength and bide your time.’ For Xi, China must act aggressively to cement its position not as a world power that is emerging, but rather one which has already arrived. Accordingly, Chinese national media has framed the current border standoff as instigated by U.S. support for India, without which China believes India would be less resolute in pushing back against Chinese encroachment. For its part, India is less likely to see the current border standoff through the lens of broader geopolitical competition that involves other world powers. And while the United States considers India a natural ally and a bulwark against Chinese power projection throughout Asia, New Delhi seems more inclined to tread carefully, recognizing that Washington’s status as the leader of the liberal international order is more precarious, and its alliances more tenuous, than at any time in recent memory. 


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