Beijing has voiced uncharacteristically strong warnings to India this week, each growing stronger by the day. Following the release Wednesday by China’s foreign ministry of evidence in support of demands that Indian troops withdraw from disputed territory, Beijing again issued a warning late Thursday night that the Chinese military’s restraint has limits.
The same week that saw a massive show of military strength to mark the People’s Liberation Army’s ninetieth anniversary also saw tensions ratcheted up beyond the level seen recently in any of China’s other territorial disputes. Beijing has clearly drawn a line in the sand that Indian troops need to vacate the area in dispute at once. The repeated advice Thursday night indicated India had yet to heed the warning.
A barrage of coverage in Chinese state media may serve as another message that China is prepared to act. The government-controlled media has made daily reminders to their Chinese audience that Indian troops have entered Chinese territory, that the PLA’s patience is limited, and that China’s military is ready to fight.
That last point is of special importance in the context of PLA anniversary, and a recent documentary celebrating Xi Jinping’s reform of China’s armed forces. The widely aired episode of a ten part series touting China’s reforms stressed the PLA’s preparedness for battle, and also hinted at the necessity for the military to see action.
One army official interviewed in the documentary, Li Huohui, explained during the episode, entitled “Road to a Strong Military”, that military drills held in Zhurihe, Inner Mongolia exposed an important weakness in China’s military.
“[China] hasn’t fought a war in many years, and as such a mentality of peace has developed. Xi Jinping has repeatedly stressed that the army is for fighting wars.”
The Zhurihe military base, where the drills that Li referred to were held, was also the site of the PLA anniversary parade held last Sunday, a show of military power no doubt intended to instill pride in the Chinese public as much as to intimidate potential foes.
Following the display of military might, this week saw an already tense dispute with India grow even more so when Beijing released its statement on Wednesday. The document emphasized that so far China has exhibited a “high degree of restraint”, but that no country should “underestimate the Chinese government and people’s resolve to defend sovereignty of their territory.”
China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang explained the reason behind China’s statement and demands “was to make clear to the international community the facts of India’s incursion into Chinese territory, and to fully state the position of the Chinese government.”
Speaking on a China Central Television news segment over a banner which asked “how much more time will be given to India to ‘correct their mistake?’”, China Institute of International Studies Vice Dean Rong Ying said documents such as the one released Wednesday were not common, and that this situation was likely to drag on for some time, regardless of whether India withdrew the troops.
Regarding the drawing down of troops from a peak of more than 400 to the more recent number of 40 cited by China in the Wednesday paper, Rong played down the significance.
“The situation hasn’t really seen any change. While the number of troops has gone down, that just means that the confrontation between the two sides at the site has eased,” he said. “More importantly, even if Indian troops completely withdraw, afterward the problem will still be there. The investigation of the situation and how to resolve it, these issues still have to be dealt with. So I think it is very hard to predict, and there is no way to judge from the current state of affairs where we are, even more so to say we are already seeing the end.”
Despite the prominence given to this situation by China’s foreign ministry and press, Beijing has shown restraint in the language used, shying away from direct statements that use of force is imminent. China will also be eager to play up cooperation with India on the international stage when BRICS nations meet next month, and is hoping to come to an early agreement on the Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership trade deal, which Beijing will need New Delhi’s help with. Not to mention, military action may be too risky for Xi Jinping to risk ahead of the upcoming Party Congress.
All these factors lead one to believe that China’s state media will continue to be careful not to raise expectations of use of force too high among its domestic audience. But with the endless barrage of images of armed forces ready for action, that may be hard to do.