Rakhari Chaterji, Sino-India, Raisina Debates, Editorials, Rising Power, Assam Tribune

Chinese and Indian Daily Newspapers

This is the fifty-second article in The China Chronicles series

Read all the articles here.


The lack sufficient understanding has remained a major issue affecting India-China relations for a long time. The Observer Research Foundation’s project on ‘Understanding China’ is directed towards exploring the issue. The project in its first phase examined the perception of China that the national print media in India usually promotes. In its second phase the study focused on two newspapers from the region bordering China, namely, The Assam Tribune and The Arunachal Times, for exploring a Northeast Indian view of China. The following analysis enables the Indian regional media’s perception with that of national newspapers. The analysis is based on data collected from 2012 through 2014. For The Arunachal Times the source was the web editions while for the former we had to consult only hard copies.

A total number of 89 editorials in these two newspapers deal with China in some way (The Arunachal Times-31; The Assam Tribune-58). Taking the main thrust of the editorials as the criterion, the authors categorized their contents as: ‘China as a Rising Power’, ‘India-China Border’, ‘Ecology’, ‘Economy’, ‘Connectivity’ and ‘China Domestic’.

 If The Arunachal Times published the highest number of editorials in 2014, keeping itself in line with the national press, The Assam Tribune chose the year 2013 for doing the same. The Assam Tribune chose ‘China as a Rising Power’ as its dominant theme (in 33 out of 58 editorials) publishing most such editorials  in 2013, whereas The Arunachal Times  felt 'India China Border' to be of greatest importance (22 out of 31) having  the highest number of published editorials in 2014.

The  Assam Tribune’s overwhelming concern with 'China as a Rising Power’ was perhaps a reflection of its sensitivity towards China’s growing economic and military might  and its probable  impact on the Brahmaputra water sharing dispute.

 

Unlike Assam, Arunachal Pradesh shares a border with China, which remains disputed by the Chinese. It is no wonder that The Arunachal Times would be more inclined to project this issue to its readers more frequently than any other issue. Quite in tune with the national press, the regional media under scrutiny expressed greater, and more negative views towards China in 2013 and 2014 frequently reporting Chinese border incursions in the Eastern and the Western sectors.

Both The Arunachal Times and The Assam Tribune published overwhelmingly negative editorials on China during the three-year period of study.  The Arunachal Times published only 9 out of 31 editorials (29.03 per cent) with a positive perception of China as against 22 editorials (70.96 per cent) that were negative. The Assam Tribune was even less charitable: its positive editorials constituted only 25.86 per cent (15 out of 58) as against 74.13 per cent (43 out of 58) editorials with a negative view. In contrast, ORF's earlier study of five national newspapers found the gap between negative and positive projections of China to be much narrower.

The authors wanted to know if both positive and negative perceptions could be more finely categorised into ‘strong’, ‘moderate’, and ‘weak’ versions. When applied to the data under examination we found The Arunachal Times wrote negative editorials with a lot more assertion than when it was making a positive point about China. On the other hand, The Assam Tribune’s perception, both positive and negative, veered more towards moderation even though the negative ones were tilted somewhat towards strong and the positive ones tending towards the weaker end of the spectrum.  The noticeable difference in perception between the two newspapers from these two Northeastern states could well be because of the differential context in which the supposed threat posed by China appears to them.

To Arunachal Pradesh the threat is more existential as China challenges its very Indian identity, and therefore, it is persistent and ever present; for Assam, Chinese muscle flexing is uncomfortable for historical reasons, for the memory of the 1962 war that it still carries.

 

Accordingly, these two newspapers coming from two different states of India’s Northeast with contextual differences vis-a-vis China have chosen to emphasize two different themes about China.  The Arunachal Times considers the border issue as the most important one between India and China and hence it has mostly written about repeated border incursions at Chaglam and Anjaw districts, argued for improvement in border infrastructure on India’s part and better handling of border trade. Though most of the editorials under the theme of 'India-China Border' focussing on border incursions described China's conduct by using words like "incursion" or "China's expansionist mindset," the editorials also sounded hopeful regarding improvement in relations between the two neighbours. An important feature in many of the editorials was the recommendation of border trade through Arunachal Pradesh.

The Assam Tribune, on the other hand, has paid more attention to China’s rising power, her increasing muscle flexing in the South Asian region and its possible consequences for India. It is interesting to note that The Assam Tribune chose to dwell on incursions primarily in the Ladakh sector. In The Assam Tribune China's rising power is palpable by usage of phrases like "unquestioned trouble shooter of the region"; or "increased influence around the globe" or "incredible economic and international stature". There were two important sub-themes under the segment of 'China as a rising power': India-China geostrategic competition and  China's expanding influence in India's neighbourhood. It is worth mentioning in this context that the Brahmaputra water sharing emerged as the most important sub-theme under the theme of 'Ecology' in this newspaper.

To come to a better understanding of the newspapers' concern with China-related matters, the authors constructed an ‘attention score' while studying the regional media following the same method used in case of understanding the 'attention score' of the national media.

 

The attention score for each newspaper is computed by taking the number of editorials it has published every 365 days for these three years, multiplied by 100, to get a standardised score. Our study shows that over the period of three years, The Arunachal Times has consistently increased its attention over China-related issues, with the highest score in 2014 (4.93). However, the attention score for The Assam Tribune—while increasing from 2012(2.46) to 2013 (7.39)—it registered a slight fall in 2014 (6.02) but still remained higher than The Arunachal Times. Apart from The Assam Tribune's jump in attention between 2012 and 2013, both the newspapers show consistent interest in China related matters. The editorials in the regional newspapers certainly convey the idea that even though they represent two states from the border region of India with historical and contemporary problems with China, they are not overwhelmed by the presence of a global muscle flexing China. Thus the degree of attention paid to China by The Assam Tribune and The Arunachal Times is in the neighbourhood of what the national newspapers have done. The former exceed the degree of attention paid by The Indian Express (4.84 being the highest mean score among the national ones) by a small margin while the latter equals the score of The Hindu. The regional press does not think that they need to be overly concerned with China even though they happen to be published from the bordering regions.

Let us conclude with some comparative remarks. The regional media’s view of China is distinctly more negative compared to that of the newspapers published from the National Capital Region (NCR). In terms of themes emphasized by the national media showed greater sensitivity to the need for improving India-China relations through stronger connectivity and collaboration on economic and ecological issues. This has not found any echo in the editorial themes of the regional media under study. Second, it is noteworthy that not only the national and the regional media’s perceptions of China differ; even regional perceptions are fragmented. The two newspapers belonging to two different Northeastern states differ in terms of importance given to different themes as well as in terms of intensity with which they project China negatively or positively. Third, the editorials in the regional newspapers certainly convey the idea that even though they represent two border states with historical and contemporary problems with China, they are not overwhelmed by the presence of a globally muscle flexing China. That the regional press is not overly concerned with China despite their physical proximity is evident in the fact that the degree of attention they paid to China related themes over these three years does not exceed the national press.

Finally, it is necessary to point out that broadly the regional media’s views overlap with the national media. Thus, both the national and regional media think it is appropriate to pay more attention to themes such as 'China as a rising power' and 'border issue' among all the other themes we identified.

 

The study reveals that regional newspapers are prone to assess India-China relations though the lens of regional issues going beyond the common concerns about national security. In the selected regional dailies, the India-China border is treated both as a zone of conflict but as a as well as opportunity. Against this backdrop, it is important to understand the differences in perception from the peripheries while making future policy decisions. Accordingly, the central government needs to be more sensitive to this and needs to promote border trade without jeopardising either security or identity. The sense of marginalisation and insecurity in the bordering regions needs to be addressed by the Indian government. Development of infrastructure and improved connectivity in the bordering regions demand more attention than has been paid so far.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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