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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 13, New Delhi, March 13, 2021

Galwan Valley clashes and China’s death narratives | Bhartendu Kumar Singh

Friday 12 March 2021

by Bhartendu Kumar Singh

Wars and clashes between nations are often contested in terms of cause, consequences and even statistics. Most nations have their own perspectives and interpretations to these conflicts though the truth may be something else! The Galwan valley clashes of 2020 was no different! Thus, while China reluctantly and belatedly accepted the death of four PLA soldiers in recent videos, Russian news agency TASS had earlier confirmed forty-five Chinese soldiers’ death as whispered in Indian media. By under-trading death cases, China is indulging in false narratives that may further harm its attempts to emerge as a ‘responsible power’.

An official spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of Defence claimed last month that Galwan valley clashes were triggered by Indian troops crossing the LAC and violently attacking Chinese officers and soldiers. Further, he claimed that the Indian troops repeatedly hyped up the casualities, distorted the truth and misled the international public opinion. China has also come up with metamorphosed videos showcasing their innocence! However, other than the heavily coached domestic constituency, there are no takers for Chinese opinion-building exercises. The international media, by and large neutral, has amply seen the Chinese shenanigans. Very few, amongst them, buy the Chinese propositions aimed at playing the ‘victim card’. The ubiquitous consensus is that while the LAC is not demarcated on the ground and, therefore, subjected to criss-crossing by Chinese and Indian troops due to perceptional differences, there is no denying that China initiated the conflict. The Indian casualties, numbering around twenty, were well known. And when reports surfaced in Indian and international media about China loosing around forty soldiers during the clashes, official response from Beijing meandered from self-denial to keeping mum!

Why didn’t China accept its soldiers’ death immediately? Why China continues to harp on only four deaths whereas the actual numbers were at least ten times more? Many factors explain this development. First, at a systemic level, China did what historically many nation states have done in matters of wars: distinguish between the ethics of war and peace and resort to lies. Statesmen and generals resort to a vocabulary where truth becomes a sacrificial lamb in the psychological game of perceptions and deceptions. Even the domestic media rely on national militaries and facilitate favourable public opinion. While all kinds of lies are resorted to, under-trading of death was key strategic tool for a game of one upmanship. Also, contemporary Chinese war philosophies and strategies are heavily guided by the indegenous Sun Tzu who defined war ‘as a way of deception’. Acceptance of forty plus deaths would have been a straight loss of face for China since such large number of casualties are the first after the Vietnam fiasco of 1979. Cunningness, deception and delays were, therefore, the best way out!

Second, China is an authoritarian set-up with significant role for PLA in the decision-making process concerning war and peace. It can also be assumed that the Chinese limited military offensive against India in Galwan valley may have been a personal initiative of President Xi Jinping, acting on the advice of an aggressive PLA. Acceptance of loss of so many deaths would have led to a hue and cry amongst the people, hitherto fed on high nationalistic fodder, and may have militated against Xi Jinping himself. It will perhaps take years before the Chinese establishment allows the real numbers of death to become public. After all, China has a history of hiding deaths. Millions of people died in the famine in late fifties and the Cultural Revolution in the sixties. Hundreds again died in the Tienanmen Square massacre in 1989. The establishment never came out with actual death figures on a real time basis. Even in wars, with the sole exeption of 1962 War, China could never manage an upper hand in conflicts with its neighbours, most notably in Vietnam in 1979 where it got a ‘bloody nose’. And yet, China never portrayed its losses correctly, be it wars, internal disturbances or even COVID related deaths since last year.

Third, China had apparently gone for the Galwan Valley experiment based on a series of ground-testing experiments along the LAC. The military infrastructure had been gradually built up along the entire LAC in Tibet and pockets of opportunities were identified in Eastern, Middle and Western Sector of the LAC. Throughout the pendency of the clash and grand-positioning by the two countries, China’s nationalistic media had raised the bar for its PLA troops. However, China may not have expected a swift response, death of so many PLA soldiers and the resultant stasis in the Galwan valley. A protracted conflict could have seen more bloodshed on both sides and perhaps more domestic and international scrutiny of Chinese military intentions on the LAC. Therefore, China has revealed lesser number of fatalities to contain the psychological damage to its reputation.

Fourth, the Chinese calculus of offence had not factored in the global response. Many Sinologists along with intelligence agencies in the US talked of high number of casualties on Chinese side, a fact confirmed by the US administration. However, in February this year, the Russian news agency TASS came out with statement pegging the Chinese loss at forty-five in the Galwan Valley clashes. Given the Sino-Russian camaraderie, as also the tight control of state on media in Russia, the news leakout was a total loss of face for China that had managed to sideline the issue from becoming a theme in Chinese domestic discourse.

Galwan Valley or the LAC are not the only situations where China has tried to hide facts and figures. Such narratives expand all along its periphery and in the South China Sea as well where China pursues an aggressive military policy coated with defensive language. Given China’s penchant for falsifying records, it is debatable if Chinese perspectives on war and conflicts, laced with charm offensive phrases like ‘defensive culture’, ‘peaceful periphery’ ‘security and development’ are taken seriously by strategic experts outside China. At best, they propel China’s domestic national security discourse.

Note: The author is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. Views are personal.

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