Inscrutable China | A clash of nationalisms

Srikanth Kondapalli, the JNU Prof has been Peking behind the Bamboo Curtain for 30 years@SrikanthKondap8

The detailed written agreement for “phased, coordinated and verifiable” disengagement and “synchronised de-escalation” of troops on the western sector of the border with China is a work in progress as it is a complex and complicated process. While the process is said to have been completed in the Pangong Tso region, with China demolishing the military infrastructure it had put up and going back to east of Finger 8 at Sirijap, other areas in the western sector, Sikkim and other areas also need to be addressed.

Meanwhile, Beijing is shooting nationalist rhetoric as a new variable in bilateral relations which could have a far-reaching impact. When China’s objectives may not have been met in the last one year, due to stout resistance from India, fanning Chinese nationalism directed at India is an option for Beijing to put up a brave face.

Coinciding with the announcement of the disengagement of troops in the Aksai Chin-Ladakh region on February 10, China had for the first time released details of the casualties it had suffered at Galwan on the night of June 15 in skirmishes with Indian troops. It claimed it had suffered four casualties, although other estimates suggest 45 (Russian reports) to 120 (Western sources).

The release of information on the number of casualties led to the arrest of three Chinese journalists for questioning the official figure. Also, the Indian embassy in Beijing received hate messages, suggesting that eight months after the Galwan incident, pent-up nationalism is being whipped up against India.

In the past, China’s Communist Party has whipped up demonstrations across the country against Japan and its businesses, in protest against historical events such as the establishment of Manchukuo in the 1930s or the issue of ‘comfort women’ and the visits of Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo that reveres Japan’s war-dead. China also organised such protests against the US embassy in Beijing in protest against the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

While China’s nationalism is still primarily directed against Japan and the US, the recent online tirade against the Indian embassy in Beijing brings to the fore a new factor of clashing nationalisms in its bilateral relations with India.

Historically and traditionally, the Chinese considered India as “western heaven” (tianzhu) while reserving the label of “barbarian” for the rest of the world. However, an official nationalist tabloid in China termed India “barbarian” in the current stand-off at the borders. A number of recent developments suggest that the current leadership is triggering an epistemological break in this traditional format -- with long-term consequences for its India policy.

First is the vehemently negative portrayal, bordering on racism, of India’s Sikh community in Chinese official media, which has shaped China’s discourse towards India since the Doklam crisis in 2017. Negative images of the Sikh regiments participating in the Opium Wars of 1842 and 1856 were revived, though in a selective manner as China now wants to recruit Gorkhas. The role of Sikh soldiers in the Indian armed forces, specifically in Doklam and Galwan incidents, were mentioned negatively in the official Chinese media, partly to pursue psychological warfare but mostly with rabid nationalist motivations.

Second, since 2005, official documents in China have been depicting Arunachal Pradesh as a part of “southern Tibet” and, by implication, as one of the core interests to be defended against India. China’s depiction last year of the western sector border as part of its “sovereignty”, instead of the previous “disputed area”, was aimed at fanning nationalism against India.

Thirdly, China elevated its Belt and Road Initiative and alliances-in-the-making concept of “community of common destiny” as its twin forward policies. India’s distancing from these two has incensed Beijing. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meetings on not neglecting the sovereignty concerns of countries that the Belt and Road Initiative passes through. India also criticised the lack of transparency, debt financing and environmental fall-out of such projects. Beijing sees the Indian position as a challenge to its strategic policies, which requires it to whip up nationalism at home.

Raising nationalist rhetoric is an easy way out in the short term to address Chinese worries over India, but in the long term, it would be playing with fire. The Communist Party-controlled nationalism could be rolled back when it suited Beijing to pursue business interests with Japan or strategic equations with the US. But in relation to India, raking up the nationalism card is bound to pitch the two most populous countries in the world on a path of ever-lasting hostility.