What does the Chinese media coverage of Doklam crisis indicate?

For the last two years, not a week has gone by when the Chinese media, and the Global Times in particular, has not published disparaging articles about India.

 China, media, India-China-Bhutan tri-junction, People's Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, Doklam, Harsh Pant
Kin Mun Lee/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Another day, another salvo fired at India. Not by China per se, but by its relentlessly propagandist media. On 9 July, it was once again the turn of the Global Times newspaperwhich got Long Xingchun, director at the Centre for Indian Studies at China West Normal University, to write that a “third country’s” Army could enter Kashmir at Pakistan’s request, using the “same logic” the Indian Army used to stop the Chinese military from constructing a road in the Doklam area in the Sikkim sector on behalf of Bhutan. No points for guessing the identity of the third country. Doklam is strategically important due to its location close to the Siliguri Corridor, the narrow strip of land connecting India’s seven northeastern states to its mainland.

As the standoff between the militaries of China and India continues in the Doklam region of Bhutan, near the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction, the Chinese media’s bellicosity has gone overboard.

While the People’s Daily and Xinhua can be reliably taken to represent the Chinese government’s official position, the Global Times is seen as the mouthpiece of the more hawkish elements in the Chinese Communist Party, whose proximity to the power centre of the Communist Party ensures that it reflects the undertones of party policies. But because it is seen to have a distinct editorial voice from its mothership, the People’s Daily — the official organ of the Chinese Communist Party which publishes more of the official government view — it allows official China to maintain deniability. Sections of the Indian media can be equally bellicose but there are always divergences that one can discern. In an authoritarian set up like China, dissident voices will never be part of the dominant narrative, but the Global Times manages to put forth the strident nationalist view in China’s Communist Party using outside experts.

The role of the Global Times has been growing in China’s outreach to the world as it is an entertaining read compared to the People’s Daily. Whereas the world used to look at China through its more staid publications, the Global Times is now taking centre-stage in shaping narratives and informing opinion. In so doing it uses a distinctly conspiratorial voice and channels aggression into policy-making, which can often be a recipe for disaster. In foreign policy in particular, to mark external interlocutors as the source of all domestic trouble comes with high risks, especially in the context of an upcoming Communist Party Congress. But it is precisely such a high risk strategy that makes the Global Times popular and influential.

On 9 July, the Global Times did not only threaten India with the spectacle of Chinese forces entering Kashmir, it also criticised a reported move by the Tibetan government in exile to unfurl a flag representing its idea of the “Tibetan national flag” on the shores of Bangong Lake — known as Pangong Lake in India — in Ladakh. Approximately 60% of this lake lies in China. It has suggested that the flag-hoisting has “sparked wide speculation” that Indian authorities instigated the Tibetan separatists to do this in order to exert pressure on China. It goes on to suggest that “New Delhi cannot afford to mess up the China-India bilateral relationship” because of the nation’s large-scale poverty and the need for peace and development.

Beijing irked?

The Chinese media have been upping the ante for some time now. On 3 July, another piece in the Global Times suggested that “China is trying its best to use historical lessons to reason with India and show sincerity in peacefully solving the problem, but if India refuses to listen, then China would have no other choice than to use a military way of solving the problem.”

On 29 June, China’s People’s Liberation Army also delivered a strong warning to India, calling on the Indian Army to “learn from historical lessons and stop clamouring for war.”

For the last two years, not a week has gone by when the Chinese media, and the Global Times in particular, has not published disparaging articles about India. The Modi government’s assertive policy in particular seems to have irked Beijing and this is reflected in the media where often puerile assertions are made about India and its foreign policy. What seems to be happening is that the policy-makers in Beijing are rattled by India’s newfound spine in confronting their shenanigans.

From asserting India’s stance on border issues to courting Taiwan (which China sees as a breakaway province), from developing close ties with Japan, Australia and Vietnam to completely boycotting the One Belt One Road summit in May, New Delhi is one of the few world powers that is challenging China on multiple fronts. This Indian defiance is something which China finds unpalatable. At a time when most nations are acquiescing before China’s assertiveness, standing up to Beijing has its costs.

The Global Times can articulate this in ways that Chinese policy-makers themselves never would. The growing hostility of Global Times towards India, as reflected in its editorials and articles in recent years, is a reflection of the decaying Sino-Indian ties and the contempt with which many, if not all, Chinese policy-makers view India. There was a time when India was hardly mentioned in the Chinese media. It was not a worthy candidate. China’s competition was with the US, after all, not with lesser states like India. New Delhi was more obsessed with Beijing’s every move.

Today it seems India is getting the attention in China it had long desired.

Today it seems India is getting the attention in China it had long desired. At a time when China’s reach in South Asia is at an all time high, it is unnerved that India has come in and stood up for tiny Bhutan. If the role of India as a regional power can be demolished, then the idea of India as a global power would die a natural death. But Beijing underestimated New Delhi’s resolve. Not only is 2017 different from 1962, India is also different compared to the smaller states that Beijing has now got so used to bullying in its backyard.

By all accounts, the Indian Army seems ready for the long haul and is holding on to its position in the Doklam plateau notwithstanding the Chinese media ratcheting up rhetoric against India. In many ways, the more the Chinese media takes a hawkish line, the more difficult it will make the resolution of this crisis. But if the thinking of the policy-makers in Beijing is as reckless as the Global Times makes it out to be, we all should be worried about the future.

This commentary originally appeared in Scroll.

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Harsh V. Pant