After the standoff since mid-June at the border where Tibet, Bhutan and the Indian state of Sikkim meet between Chinese and Indian troops, a Himalayan military conflict may seem imminent to the casual observer. In reality, Beijing is waging — in Chinese strategic tradition — full-throttle psychological warfare to compel India to back down without a shot being fired.
The current crisis, more significantly, has underscored the centrality of propaganda in China’s foreign policy — from the aggressor playing the victim, to unremitting efforts to camouflage its intrusion into tiny Bhutan that precipitated the standoff. China’s vitriolic war rhetoric and unrealistic preconditions for holding talks stand out in stark contrast to India’s measured response and emphasis on diplomacy to end the standoff. The U.S. has implicitly supported India’s stance by similarly calling for a dialogue to peacefully resolve the crisis.
The crisis, in fact, has highlighted how China blends psychological warfare (“psywar”), media warfare, and the manipulation of legal arguments (“lawfare”) to undermine the opponent’s information-control capabilities and to buttress its strategic game plan. Disinformation and deceit are among the tools China is employing in this indirect aggression to tame India without military combat, in Sun Tzu style.
Its psychological operations (“psy-ops”) have included mounting almost daily threats to teach India a lesson. Indeed, the authoritarian regime in Beijing has shown itself adept at exploiting the political divisions in the world’s largest democracy, including reaching out to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s opponents and attacking his “Hindu nationalism” in order to help sow dissensions in India on its current China approach.
Given China’s rise as a praetorian state, its foreign ministry is probably the weakest government branch; yet that ministry has taken the lead to intimidate India in unbecoming and undiplomatic language. Beijing is also using its state media to threaten an “all out confrontation” along the entire 4,000-kilometer-long Sino-Indian border, and to warn India that it would suffer a humiliating rout greater than it did in the 1962 war. One Chinese state mouthpiece even called the Indian foreign minister a liar.
In the current crisis, the Chinese state and its media have worked in tandem to feed disinformation as part of the psy-ops. After all, media organizations, backed by an annual $10 billion budget from the state, have become integral to China’s global propaganda offensive. Chinese propaganda is getting smarter and more targeted, with some in the Indian media lapping up the disinformation, yet Beijing’s mendacity is becoming conspicuous.
Consider two examples. In mid-July, the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV telecast a video of live-fire military exercises in Tibet by a mountain brigade deployed against India. It was later discovered that this was a routine annual drill conducted in early June before the crisis began. Shortly after the CCTV report, the Chinese military’s official newspaper, PLA Daily, said tens of thousands of tons of military hardware had been moved to Tibet in response to the troop standoff. This report too turned out to be part of China’s psywar, with Indian intelligence still finding no evidence of a Chinese military buildup in Tibet.
In this light, what can China hope to achieve through its psy-ops? India has a lot at stake: If it were to wilt under the Chinese pressure, it would impair its national security and potentially open the path to its long-term strategic subordination to China. In addition, China would be able to mount a stronger military threat against India’s hold on its far northeast.
India is a raucous democracy with poor public relations and media outreach. Yet China’s psywar has failed to obscure even the key facts, let alone achieve any political objective.
The crisis, which offers important insights to other countries on China’s psychological-warfare practices, was triggered in mid-June after days of growing local military tensions when People’s Liberation Army troops sought to unilaterally change the territorial status quo by beginning work on a strategic highway through Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau, which is located very close to the Tibet-Bhutan-Sikkim trijunction (China contends that Doklam is its own territory in the way it claims the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands or the sprawling northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh). The Chinese encroachment prompted the Indian army to swiftly intervene and halt the road construction, triggering the standoff.
The PLA has for years been quietly chipping away at strategic areas in Bhutan’s north and west. It has also waged an aggression by stealth to assert its claim over the Doklam Plateau by sending Tibetan herdsmen and armed patrols there, and by turning some natural paths into small paved roads. Bhutan has long complained of Chinese encroachments. For example, it told its Parliament in 2009 that it had “protested many times to the Chinese regarding the road-construction activities.”
Bhutan, with just 8,000 men in its military, police and militia, has no means to resist Chinese encroachments. Its security partner, India, was previously loathed to go beyond training and advising Bhutanese forces. But with China’s latest land grab also threatening Indian security, New Delhi decided that Bhutan’s fight was India’s fight. In a strategic miscalculation that has fueled its current fury, China anticipated Bhutan’s diplomatic protest over its latest road construction, but not India’s rapid military intervention.
New Delhi cannot allow Beijing to gain control of Doklam because it will result in China fortifying its military positions around the border trijunction, and bringing India’s territorial link with its northeastern states within Chinese artillery range. This link — the Siliguri Corridor — is just 27 kilometers wide at its narrowest point, and is aptly known as the “Chicken Neck.” If China built the highway through Doklam, it would be able to transport heavy tanks to the trijunction and, in the event of a war, seek to cut off India from its northeast.
The risk that a frustrated China could escalate its current psy-ops to a military conflict cannot be discounted. Indeed, Beijing is signaling that it will brook no Indian “interference” in Bhutan’s external relations or national security, although Indo-Bhutanese relations are governed by a friendship treaty and defense arrangements. It wants India to leave Bhutan to its fate.
More fundamentally, China’s intrusion into Bhutan and its war rhetoric against India raise important larger issues. One issue is China’s disregard of international law, including the bilateral accords it has signed with Bhutan and India pledging not to alter the status quo unilaterally. As the South and East China seas also illustrate, Beijing signs agreements and treaties, but does not comply with them.
Another issue is China’s abiding faith in propaganda, extending from fake history claims to other countries’ territories, to disinformation operations intended to deceive and outmaneuver opponents. The reliance on propaganda blurs the line between fact and fiction to such an extent that, gradually, the Chinese state begins to believe its own propaganda and act upon it. This factor, along with its associated risks, is apparent in the Doklam standoff.