File photo of Chinese president Xi Jinping | Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg
File photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping | Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg
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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.


Also read: Close combat is so last century. China will use drones, PGMs, high-end tech against India


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.


Also read: Chinese media is the superspreader of disinformation: From Covid to Ladakh


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.


Also read: China is good at many things, just not propaganda. This Covid-19 story about India proves it


Wolf warriors

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.


Also read: Modi govt needs to come clean on China. India must win information wars too


Countering Beijing

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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17 Comments Share Your Views

17 COMMENTS

  1. If the premise is that -because how our democracy is not know, hence they are unable to attack us, I do not buy this. Issue is physical war happens on physical targets. Info war happens on mental targets. i.e. basically identity. India’s identity is confusing and hence it does not know what to attack. However, if you compare the image of China vs India internationally, China is ahead. Besides, for its actions, the kind of reaction it gets from world is far better than India. For CAA, which is basically a humanitarian gesture, any other country could have got peace award. Instead, we got abused. China is reforming its muslims. Word reaction is not much. In India, if we do any reform we will have worldwide ruckus.
    China is able to still plant stories in Indian media. China can activate Islamist sleepr cells with the help of Pakistan. India can not do anything.
    India needs to define its identity more clearly. Declare as civilization state, just like China. Only then we will be able to respond. Right now, the softpower of India is Yoga and the model behavior of Indian diaspora. Both come from our civilizational heritage. Strengthen those. We will get better

  2. Pys-war only works when you have credible media and sources. Chinese media and sources as a whole are wholly unreliable. Therefore, their psy-ops are not very effective. In India credible sources and media have largely been quite on the Chinese front. The Government needs to formulate a pys-op statergy and rope in the media that has some semblance of credibility.

  3. China is up in this Psycho war is because the media there is state controlled, and there is no opposition parties. But in India, it is opposite. The media is not only free, but is also controlled by vested interests. They write what they are paid to write and show, may be by Chinese money. And the same can be said about our opposition leaders, who too are saleable. These two are helping China in its armless war against India.

  4. Although I agree India has not responded to the Psy-war, some of the points raised to have a counter psy war is ridiculous. Community spread in Wuhan has stopped for some time now. The suggestion that Chinese soldiers have not been tested for the virus is immature at best. This article coming from a from a former NSC secretariat is unacceptable. India needs better standards. China is showcasing integrated maneuvers which they can easily use to create modern day flanking maneuvers while holding on their own at original flashpoint. They are also doing live ammunition drill with an aim to use destroy target bases with guided missiles. To counter that ”Oh! one of your helicopters don’t work in high altitude” is rather laughable. Silence is rather better. I hope the current crop has better minds.

  5. There is a mention of high number of Chinese patents in facial recognition. A few years back I have had the opportunity of studying CN patents in various areas of electronics, communication and software. Just like Chinese consumer goods, low cost but unreliable, most of three patents are filed for the sake of numbers. Most are frivolous to say there least. I also fail to understand the context of fascism recognition in psy -war.

  6. We were informed that the External Affairs ministry and spy agencies of India are understaffed. It’s time Modi’s government drafted services of retired personnel like the author of this article.

    • India does not require reappointment of personnel. The ministries have become post-retirement employment opportunities. Although I am not completely against it. But India needs young savvy people with a worldview. She was in office till 2017. Heightened Chinese threat to India’s foreign policy did not start with this clash or even at Doklam. It started a long ago with ports and pipelines in Myanmar (Kyaukphyu Port and Pipeline) and later in Sri Lanka. Look at Bangladesh how India has lost ground to China and Pakistan even there. Nepal is the latest. Despite being surrounded by China, the ministries did not respond and the blame largely rests with the bureaucracy. Despite popular promotion of the lateral entry, they are not part of the decision making process. India is the only country in the World which does not employ the best talents it has, rather relies on bureaucrats who are result of a Colonial System. The mistakes she has made in this article points out how little do they research over a certain subject. Yesterday there was a large pool party in Wuhan commemorating end of lockdown and at the same time the author talks about the Chinese military being fallible due to infection. There is another factual error on the origin of CIA, which another commentator has pointed out. India really deserves much better. India’s foreign policy has mostly been inward looking, but facing the serious threat which we are now we need much more. We need knowledgable people rather than people accustomed to modern challenges.

  7. It should be clearly understood that China with a 6 to one advantage in men and material over India would be a clear winner in any conflict, notwithstanding all the chest thumping going on in India.

    The only way to hurt China is economically. Ban everything Chonese even if it hurts in the short term.

    • India has 7:1 advantage over Pakistan………………yet PAF retaliated within 24 hours on Feb 27th ………….what is the use of 1.4 million military if it cannot avenge the deaths of 20 + brave Indian soldiers ??

  8. Correction during world war 2 the CIA didn’t not exist , there was OSS , the CIA was later created under Allan Dulles , the brother of Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles

  9. India losing out to China on psy – war sounds strange. If so put Malaviya and team of BJP IT in charge. After all they only catapult a non performing govt to power as also bring down elected governments state after state.

  10. After reading this article, I am wondering why Tara herself does not write a daily column in The Print blowing up Chinese lies and informing public opinion in India. Given her background, she would be the most reliable voice and Indians will understand and appreciate what is being written about.

    By and large, Indians are convinced that we are a good match to the Chinese and we can defend our territory very well; it is only the scenario of India attacking China to clear off transgression, that is a matter of doubt.

    I do not believe government should waste its time in tit for tat communication with the Chinese.

  11. Indian Government is fighting Psy war with its own people. To fight Psy war with China, Government needs to have peace with its own people or completely dominate people’s voice like Chinese Govt. has done. Our Govt is still fighting for internal political supremacy. I wish they achieve it at least to get space and time to fight Psy war with China. Best luck to our Govt. in fighting with China.

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