As news of the recent India-China border standoff continues to dominate headlines, there is a growing sense of unease which extending beyond the region is being felt across the globe. This holds all the more importance considering that while this unsettled border dispute goes as far back as the 1962 Sino-Indian War, its potential as a major flashpoint remains all the more threatening when taking into account the pervading uncertainty that has come to characterize an evolving world order. Be it as a result of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, the highly polarized yet impending US elections, or the great power rivalries that have unfolded from the much touted ‘Rise of China’; an international system in flux represents perhaps one of the most dangerous contexts against which Chinese and Indian soldiers have come face to face at an unprecedented scale since last month.
Further adding to this complexity is the fact that this faceoff, while unfolding in one of the remotest and least accessible regions in the world, is already fraught with its own difficulties when ascertaining ground realities. With both countries’ militaries exercising strict control over the movement of people and information around their disputed borders, verifying each countries’ claims and counter-claims regarding recent developments has almost been impossible. In the absence of any on ground media reports the standoff is as much a battle over narrative as it is about projecting force over a disputed border. A border which being 14,000 ft above sea level high in the Himalayas, stretches for more than 3,000 kms with areas that have remained undefined for decades.
Hence, the only reports that have come of the violent scuffles that have taken place are from either official statements, or from the grainy videos and stills shot by soldiers currently doing the rounds on social media. In the case of the latter, these videos too are more than likely to have been released only by official military sources after careful consideration of what message such footage is likely to convey both at home and abroad. Thus, communicating one’s resolve and stance as part of a broader war over narrative where the battle-space moving beyond the remoteness of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh extends across already volatile international news cycles and social media platforms.
Especially considering how these (as yet) non-lethal border scuffles have led to a significantly heightened military presence from both countries, the last few days have witnessed a highly targeted level of military posturing from both sides. While the initial response from both countries’ foreign ministries was to downplay tensions whilst highlighting their long-established consultation and dispute resolution mechanisms; last week’s unprecedented meeting between high ranking brass from both sides marks the first time senior military generals at the corps commander level were required to help defuse tensions. A practice that has otherwise usually been carried by local tactical level commanders in the past. Even more worrying is the fact that both sides came out with seemingly different interpretations of the above meeting with Indian officials offering a more conciliatory tone while Beijing appears to be quite publicly aiming to set a new precedent with regard to managing such disputes with India.
This is further evident in the varying ways in which this standoff has been covered by the highly nationalist and tightly controlled media across both India and China. For instance, since the above referred meeting as well as other diplomatic engagements in the last couple of weeks, coverage of the standoff in Indian media reports has since offered a more conciliatory tone. This stands in stark contrast to the way the standoff had been initially covered across India where the same nationalist fervor and jingoism usually reserved for Pakistan was on full display against China. Videos of Indian soldiers pelting Chinese jeeps with rocks, maps outlining disputed boundaries and troop deployments, satellite imagery showing the recent construction of Chinese military infrastructure, as well as footage from past incidents such as from the 2017 Doklam standoff were all used to paint a picture of pre-meditated Chinese aggression that was being righteously challenged by a rising India. The last few days however have seen a greater emphasis being laid on mutual disengagement and the ‘retreat’ of Chinese forces from positions where troops from both sides were eyeball to eyeball for almost an entire month.
On the other side, coverage of the standoff in Chinese media instead continues to emphasize China’s military superiority and technological prowess as the key to its power projection capabilities. At least that is what appears from the latest action movie style footage of the PLA’s high-altitude, night time infiltration exercise that was recently carried out in Tibet. The exercise’s timing, location and choice of tactics and equipment leave little doubt as to who such posturing was being directed towards. Similarly the PLA’s latest ‘mobilization maneuver’ which was conducted just two days after the high level military meeting represents a clear reference to India’s own long known mobilization challenges. An aspect which while long evident in India’s recent confrontations with Pakistan, has been discussed at length in the latest iterations of India’s own military doctrines. In addition, there has also been a concerted effort from Chinese commentators to de-link the dispute from any third-party interests such as those of the US. Thus, not only shunning offers of US mediation but emphasizing the importance of such dispute resolution mechanisms remaining well within India and China’s bilateral relationship.
At the moment, with both countries eager and willing to step back from any risks of further escalation, there is nevertheless a definite trend that has emerged in terms of the increasing frequency and severity of such border standoffs between both powers. It appears that there is still a lingering sense of unease from the 2017 Doklam standoff during which (state sponsored) media from both sides had accused each other of needlessly sensationalizing such incidents. This time however, while Indian media attempts to restrain itself from the jingoistic saber-rattling it almost instinctively resorts to when reporting on its border conflicts (such as those with Pakistan), China seems to be following a carefully calibrated strategy of aggressive military posturing in addition to its long-standing diplomatic engagements with India. Both countries’ approaches thus belie a starkly changed geo-political context which despite all previous attempts to downplay such tensions has increasingly become a matter of preserving one’s prestige and credibility – even if the fight is limited to simply dominating the narrative for the time being.