India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said last week that the deadly clashes on the disputed Sino-Indian border this year had “completely changed national sentiment” in his country towards China. There is evidence that Beijing recognises the dangerous double-edged sword of nationalist public opinion in India. So far, this recognition of Indian public opinion’s role in the episode appears to have induced caution from Beijing, but under different circumstances it could lead to escalation.
On the afternoon of 15 June 2020, several dozen Chinese and Indian soldiers stared each other down on a desolate Himalayan mountainside in the Galwan Valley, more than 4,000 metres above sea level. What happened next on that day in June remains shrouded in mystery and recrimination, but what isn’t in dispute is that an enormous brawl erupted that night, in which hundreds of soldiers wielded an array of crude weapons against each other, including rocks, clubs studded with nails and batons wrapped in barbed wire. By morning, twenty Indian soldiers and an unknown number on the Chinese side had died, and war between Asia’s two rising powers became more likely than it has been since the 1970s.
The Sino-Indian disputed border areas are remote and unpopulated. The two governments have previously been able to defuse tensions there quietly, using a series of bilateral agreements for managing border issues signed between 1993 and 2013. The melee of 15 June changed all that, making the Sino-Indian border crisis a matter of intense and ongoing public focus in both countries and beyond. But in contrast to China’s territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, where Beijing has positioned itself as the aggrieved historical victim, here India carried the emotional burden — and wielded the power — of national humiliation.
India’s historical burden
Decisive Chinese victory in the 1962 Sino-Indian War humiliated the Indian Army and entrenched a status quo in which China controls most of the disputed territory. A nationalistic press and commentariat has kept 1962 vivid in India’s popular consciousness. India’s political environment, meanwhile, rewards tough posturing on the border issues.
The Galwan Valley violence of 15 June immediately triggered impassioned anti-Chinese street protests across India. Crowds smashed Chinese phones, burned the PRC national flag and effigies of Xi Jinping, and demanded boycotts of Chinese companies. The media provided wall-to-wall coverage of the incident and aftermath, and opinion leaders lined up to demand retribution for the deaths of the twenty Indian soldiers.
New Delhi’s official language was at times strikingly familiar to that frequently employed by Beijing in diplomatic altercations. In a speech to a national meeting of India’s political parties on June 19, Prime Minister Modi declared: ‘[T]he entire country is hurt and angry at the steps taken by China at the [Line of Actual Control] . . . No one can even dare look towards an inch of our land.’
In diplomatic exchanges, Indian foreign policy officials also tried to impress upon their Chinese counterparts the ‘sensitivities’ of the issue. In November, after Twitter geotagged a map depicting Ladakh as part of China, the chair of the Joint Committee of Parliament on Data Protection Bill (Meenashki Lekhi, who is also national spokesperson for Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party) announced that the company’s representatives ‘have apologised for hurting Indian sentiments and have sworn to correct the error’.
Modi’s allusion to the hurt and anger of the ‘entire country’ acknowledged genuine prevailing outrage in the country. But the publication of the remark on the Ministry of External Affairs website also suggested an intention to communicate to Beijing the popular pressure on the government to escalate the conflict in the hope that it might lead Beijing to take steps to cool down the situation. But did that work? The evidence from Beijing is mixed.
The waves of nationalism in India attracted significant attention in China, where they were addressed in statements by Chinese leaders, in state media and through scholarly analyses.
In a July 6, 2020 telephone conversation with India’s National Security Adviser, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on India to ‘correctly guide public opinion and the people’s sentiments.’ Chinese leaders and media have used near-identical language following outbursts of anti-Chinese sentiment in Vietnam in 2011 and 2014. Such calls for the other side to placate or control anti-China public opinion, accompanied by measures to downplay the issue in China’s own media, imply that Beijing understands nationalist sentiments to be stronger on the other side.
Editorials and commentaries in the Global Times, a state-run nationalistic tabloid, paid special attention to Indian public opinion in the crisis. In late May, even before the outbreak of hostilities, its Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin had already begun warning about the Indian media’s ‘fanning’ of nationalist sentiments, which he contrasted with the Chinese side’s restraint.
This was followed with a commentary cautioning against ‘extreme anti-China sentiment’ promoted by ‘radical media outlets and organizations in India.’ Following the wave of nationalist mobilization in India in mid-June, the paper directly addressed Indian citizens with the message that boycotting China would harm India’s own interests.
Yang Siling 杨思灵 of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences argued Indian popular nationalism had contributed to an ‘increased risk of large-scale confrontation or even war.’ Yang wrote:
‘Indian officials, media and scholars’ discussion of China’s ‘invasion’ and distorted reports and propaganda inevitably results in a surge of domestic anti-China sentiments, which in turn force the Indian government and military to maintain a hard-line stance and even take things to the brink. . . . anti-Chinese sentiments provoked by these kinds of words could force the Indian Government into a dead end of military confrontation with China.’
Beneath the surface message of pinning blame on India, such an assessment also carries an important, though unstated, policy implication for China: Beijing needs to act cautiously if it wishes to avoid an accidental war with India.
With the news of warning shots fired on September 7 near Pangong Tso, a large lake about 100km south of Galwan Valley, dangers have risen further. The Global Times’ editorial that day called for an end to this vicious cycle, but offered no suggestion as to how it might be done — besides exhorting India to take control of public opinion:
‘Indian public opinion’s participation in the border issues is too deep and too broad, the Indian Army is clearly captive to domestic nationalism, and their ostentatious displays in the border area, it must be said, are influenced by the intense interactions of the military and the media. Thus, besides China and India jointly controlling the border disputes, India domestically should control the above-mentioned interactions of public opinion and military nationalism. . .’
These surging Indian nationalist sentiments and actions evidently made Beijing both uncomfortable and cautious. Yet if Xi Jinping was to conclude that Indian nationalist sentiments are so strong as to make escalation inevitable, then he might be inclined to strike first, as Mao did in 1962. If such a scenario should come to pass, Indian nationalism would flip overnight from a fragile deterrent to a driver of conflict.