Three months after the Galwan standoff, it’s apparent that China remains in strength at different points along the Line of Actual Control, a situation that is entirely unacceptable to India. Even as talks continued at military and diplomatic levels, the Ministry of Defence quickly removed the first official version recording of Chinese ‘transgressions’, leaving Indians wondering why the Narendra Modi government was so anxious about revealing the extent of Chinese perfidy.
Beijing, however, let loose a barrage of official statements explicitly blaming India for the whole mess. Its media had a near-continuous reportage on the prowess of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in what was clearly strong psychological warfare against India designed to confuse and affect decision making in a boisterous democracy.
As the Chinese continue to remain in strength across the Indian border, it is vital that this targeted psy-war is recognised and countered with effective strategic communication – which means statements and directives from the top – and a tactical playback by our own psy-war departments.
The age of psy-war
Psychological warfare is a tricky thing to define. One definition refers to the planned use of propaganda and ‘other psychological operations’ to influence opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behaviour of opposition groups. Most know something about the use of propaganda. What’s interesting is the ‘other’.
Back in the 1940s, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) defined psy-war as part of wartime measures ‘exclusive of armed conflict’ and including ‘black’ measures such as sabotage and guerrilla warfare. By 2010, psy-ops or psychological operations had shaken itself away from a wartime requirement. Now it was part of ‘information warfare’ as brought out in the Joint Publication 3-13.2 by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. It defined psy-ops as “the key capability that supports Strategic Communication” by influencing foreign audiences in support of US objectives. It included the role of Special Operations Command, and an array of weapons for commanders and political heads, designed to win the war without fighting.
That precept lies at the heart of strategists such as Carl von Clausewitz and his work On War, our own Kautilya, who had an entire chapter on winning a fort without entering it, and China’s Sun Tzu, skilled in the art of subversion.
Psy-ops is, therefore, as old as war itself, although with one constant rule. An effective distortion campaign has to remain close to the truth. You can’t, for instance, manufacture an insurgency. You can, however, use psy-war tools to whip up existing grievances. That rule is likely to be upended in the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI). One example is a survey of Americans who overwhelmingly agreed that the government was hiding information on an air crash. The truth? There was no crash. It had been created by the research team.
Chinese media messaging
The ongoing Chinese psy-war effort used strong media messaging, including CCTV footage of the swift mobilisation of troops by air and train from Hubei province to the Indian borders, in a “few hours”. That claim was aired on world media, and believed entirely, given the Chinese road and rail networks to the border.
No one pointed out that the troops were from the Wuhan area where the novel coronavirus originated, raising the possibility of the troops being infected, and that the move from sea level to several thousand feet would have made heads spin, and that India on the other hand, had troops already accustomed to high altitudes at the location. All this could have been part of India’s psy-war ops. It wasn’t.
Another set of reports were on the deployment of an array of high-altitude advanced weapons, including the Z-10 attack helicopter, and videos of exercises. The devil, however, lies in the details. The Z-10 was inducted into the Pakistani Air Force in 2015. Its underpowered engines made it unsuitable for high altitudes, in particular, which led Islamabad to lobby for Turkish helicopters powered by American engines just two years later. A new variant of the Z-10 has emerged, but recent reports indicate that Pakistan preferred to again match India’s new Apaches with the Turkish aircraft.
Simply put, even Islamabad would far rather have high-tech US weapons than unreliable Chinese ones. Therefore, Chinese ‘power’ at the border, while being considerable, is somewhat hollow. Little of this reality was apparent in the Indian media coverage.
Other psy-war tools included reports of karate fighters being deployed in Galwan, which was lapped up on WhatsApp. A separate set of claims related to naval capabilities aimed at the three US aircraft carriers in the South China Sea were also floated. That didn’t work much, and the powerful fleet continues to be in the area. It didn’t work because it was quite contrary to reality. The US – and China – know that the Stars and Stripes prevails at sea.
The second level is ‘strategic’ messaging that portrays President Xi Jinping as China’s deliverance rather than the power grabber that he is. It includes ‘power messaging’, like his directive to the PLA to prepare for war, and the strong imagery evident in the ‘wolf warrior’ terminology. This originates in a highly successful action film, where Chinese troops rescue citizens in Africa. The tag line was: “Even a thousand miles away, who affronts China will pay.”
Predictably, one of the first ‘wolf’ diplomats was Zhao Lijian, the former Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan, whose tweets alleging racism in the US raised a furore last year. Later, he was ‘promoted’ to his present post of foreign ministry spokesperson. Another ‘wolf warrior’ is Chinese Ambassador to Nepal — Hou Yanqi.
Then there was the most subtle psy-war of all. Recently, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a rather staggering statement that “freedom, democracy and rule of law are codified in the Chinese constitution”. There’s more of this kind of talk from other Chinese sources, all aimed at convincing ‘friendlies’ in the West – especially those with business interests – of the benefits of working with China rather than ‘de-coupling’ from it.
India’s advantage is that China has little idea of how this boisterous democracy works with Indians enraged by its threats and claims rather than believing it. Its infowar is, therefore, hindered by lack of cultural understanding, not by technology. But that will change as its Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities grow. Here’s a fact. In 2017, Beijing won more than 900 patents in facial recognition, compared to 150 by the US.
New Delhi has to work very hard to catch up in this field. But for the immediate term, it needs to evolve a clear strategic communication line — that, in turn, should power its own psy-war strategy. Leaders must talk to the people so that commanders can fight. It doesn’t have to be the absolute truth, but a version of it. Despite the calls from liberals for full disclosure on the border situation, the reality is that no political head, however transparent, will tell people everything; only what they need to know. That’s psy-war too. But then we’re good at that.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
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