The inclusion of Qi Fabao, a regiment commander of the People’s Liberation Army or PLA, in the torch relay at the Winter Olympics is the topic of outrage for the month. The piece of news came amidst a report in an Australian news outlet that China had grossly underreported its total casualties in the Galwan conflict. The media demanded that India react to the earlier incident, which it did, by issuing a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics and even banning official media coverage of the opening and closing ceremonies.
In response, China regretted the ‘politicisation’ of sports, but as the debate continues, some vital questions are being asked by the media. Why didn’t India use the larger Chinese casualties for its own psy-war – or in this case, outing the truth – at the time? Surely it could have done much to not just boost India’s image, but also the morale of its troops? The answer to that lies in understanding a relationship that is far from black and white, and seems innumerable shades of grey.
The raising of legends
Qi Fabao, Colonel of the Xinjiang Military Command, is said to have undergone a serious head injury during the 15 June India-China clash at Galwan Valley. At the relay, he took the torch from a speed skating champion. Others participating at the event included a Captain of the Astronauts Corps, a pioneer of Chinese traditional medicine, and among others, one Memetjan Wumer from a village in Xinjiang, who was earlier awarded the prestigious July 1 medal for ‘embracing the cause’ of the Communist Party. In other words, it’s a showcasing of Chinese cultural, scientific, and military might.
In principle, Beijing is free to choose anyone it likes for its event, including a PLA commander injured in its only ‘war’ (of sorts) in recent memory to fire up a little nationalism. That the whole incident has been used just for that purpose is apparent. The Hindu’s China correspondent, Ananth Krishnan, for instance, reports that there is a renewed interest in the 1962 war, previously almost entirely ignored, with new publications recording memoirs of war veterans by the daughter of the PLA general who had planned the offensive. Though it may well be opportunistic, such histories don’t get going without sanction from the top. Then is China Central Television’s (CCTV) series on the Xinjiang military command, stationed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern parts of Ladakh.
Apart from showing patrols along the border and flag-raising ceremonies, the five-part documentary show included interviews with the relatives of the soldiers who lost their lives in the Galwan Valley clashes. That’s all of four, including one who drowned. And of those four, at least one has been raised into the ranks of a glorious legend. The belongings of Chinese ‘martyrs’ — a cotton jacket “torn into pieces in battle”, an application letter to join the Communist Party of China (CPC), and a working diary, among other things — were put on exhibition for the first time in the Chinese Military Museum in Beijing.
There’s also been a revival of a 1962 history by a PLA’s Hindi translator and an aggressive nationalist social media campaign. All of this is said to be aimed at ‘inspiring’ the people and being ‘brave in fighting against an enemy’; which is India, in this case at least.
The irony is that the ‘hero’ of Galwan should actually have been punished strongly by a State that professes to be as “peace loving” as China’s public doctrine consistently declares itself. A video of the Galwan incident by Chinese sources shows that it was Qi Fabao who went looking aggressively for a fight and got it. In sum, this is China’s ‘chairman of everything’ President Xi Jinping, building his portfolio in an internal situation that is moving towards various shades of grey by the minute.
The casualties ‘thing’
The Klaxon story, put together from diverse sources, including Weibo users and those present at the ceremonies for the dead, reported: “At least 38 PLA troops, along with Wang, were washed away and drowned that night…”. Given the jostling and the pushing that went on during the fight, it’s almost impossible to say who actually fell to the others fists or clubs, or simply fell off.
Larger casualties are actually indicated by Beijing’s own actions, including the arrest of a journalist and expert who went by the name of Qiu Moumou in Nanjing for publicising a figure of 60 deaths from apparently ‘leaked’ sources. The United States intelligence puts the figure at around 35, while Russian media puts it at 45. India’s official count was 40. What was regrettable was that Indian thinkers and strategists failed to appreciate the fact that the Indian Army had stood their ground against a formidable enemy. Even more importantly, in some respects, they also failed to understand that this firm response was because it was far better equipped for that terrain due to the sheer man-hours of experience. This, then, raises the question of New Delhi’s silence.
The answer to this is both simple and complicated. At the simple level, crowing about the fact that India gave the ‘famed’ PLA a black eye doesn’t lessen the reality of a China that is, let’s face it, many times bigger than India in almost every way, with its troops deployed from north to east, and digging in some more. One Ladakh doesn’t make us a tiger pack. Especially not when your economy is still struggling from the effects of the pandemic. Besides, a brave army can only do so much. Earlier reports of India’s Standing Committee on Defence have pointed out severe constraints caused by insufficient budgeting that continue to the present.
Far better then, to adopt Deng Xiaoping’s doctrine of “hiding one’s talents and biding one’s time”. That doesn’t mean concealing one’s capabilities — real or imagined — and remaining silent, but waiting for the right time. The complicated part of the relationship has been discussed extensively; which is that India’s bilateral trade grew a hefty 43.3 per cent last year, with exports also climbing. That’s now passe in terms of analyses.
Look instead, at the recent joint statement between Russia and China, that, apart from playing parsing ‘democracy’ almost unrecognisably, affirms that “the sides intend to develop cooperation within the ‘Russia-India-China’ (RIC) format”. It’s interesting as to why this was specified. It could well be Moscow trying to patch up a trilateral that is meant to diminish the Quad, which it so resents. It’s also ironic. After all, it was at the last RIC meeting that India formally expressed support for China’s hosting of the Winter Olympics, after which it got, what can be construed as, a diplomatic jolt in the ribs.
Then there is the rather elliptical clarification by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on the new Land Border law, where he says, in apparent response to Indian concerns, that “it will not affect China’s compliance with existing treaties related to national land boundary affairs China has already signed or change China’s current model of boundary management and cooperation with countries sharing a land boundary with it. Nor will it alter China’s position and proposition on relevant boundary issues”. That may seem reassuring, but as a brilliant essay by former Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon observes, the dispute has shifted from a historical legacy of colonialism to one of sovereignty. More black than grey, even against another reality. India and China cannot go to war, land border law, or any other law. That’s simply out of the cards for nuclear weapons States.
All told, therefore, it seems that both sides – but New Delhi in particular – have left the door open for a little give and take, with both circling the other warily, and building up infrastructure on their sides. Both know that outright war is not possible, but are readying for border challenges, particularly in the east. Beijing will retain its public aggressive tone, while India has started to increasingly project a firm but realistic position. For instance, in a detailed interview, Army Chief General Naravane observed that China has not ‘abrogated’ any agreement but has not kept to it “in letter and spirit.” That’s some careful hair-splitting, but it’s also a reminder that both sides actually kept to the agreement of not firing upon the other in an extremely explosive situation. At the moment, New Delhi has nothing to lose in keeping its temper and its powder dry. Waving flags and videos are best left to the Chinese with one reservation. If the beating of chests goes up in intensity all the way to Beijing, then look out for trouble. That’s Xi shaking at the knees.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)