Doklam standoff: China must remember grievance-based nationalism is a double-edged sword

Those wishing to sense the contemporary public mood in China should watch the classic propaganda documentary, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), made on Adolf Hitler’s orders by German actress-turned-filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl. This enduring record of the euphoric 1934 Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg is on YouTube. It starts dramatically, referencing a resurgent Germany shrugging off the humiliation of World War I. In successive screens, set to a Wagnerian score, German angst plays out: “On 5th September 1934… 20 years after the outbreak of the World War… 16 years after the start of German suffering (the Treaty of Versailles)… 19 months after the start of Germany’s rebirth (Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor)… Adolf Hitler flew once again to Nuremberg to hold a military display.”

A similar Chinese Communist Party propaganda film, were one to be made about General Secretary Xi Jinping’s review on Sunday of a massive People’s Liberation Army (PLA) display at the Zhurihe training base, would echo a similar mood of historical grievance: “On 30th July, 2017… 177 years after the start of China’s ‘Century of Humiliation’ (the First Opium War)… 68 years after China’s rebirth (the capture of power by the Chinese Communist Party)… five years after he began realising the ‘Chinese Dream’ … Xi Jinping flew to Zhurihe to hold a military display.”

Riefenstahl’s films, and the cheering German throngs they capture, convey the same giddy ambiance of vindication, renaissance and unstoppable rise that pervades China today. Just as a uniformed Hitler snapped off Nazi Party salutes to jackbooted German soldiers, paramilitaries and an adoring public in 1934; a camouflage-clad Xi Jinping yelled out “Hello Comrades” and “Comrades, you are working hard”, through a portable microphone on the open vehicle in which he reviewed troops in Zhurihe. And just as the euphoric Germans roared back “Sieg Hail”, the serried ranks of the PLA chorused: “Serve the People!”, “Follow the Party!” and “Fight to Win!”

Illustration by Ajay Mohanty
Just as Hitler subordinated Germany’s military to the Nazi Party, Mr Xi exhorted the PLA on Sunday to “always listen to and follow the Party’s orders, and march to wherever the Party points to.” This faithfully echoed Mao Zedong’s 1938 dictum: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.”

Beyond similarities in the political symbolism and vocabularies of the Chinese and German dictators lies the crucial question: Will their views on military power also inevitably align? Hitler had famously declared: “Armies do not exist for peace. They exist solely for triumphant exertion in war”. On Sunday, a bellicose Mr Xi declared: “The world is not all at peace and peace must be safeguarded… Today we are closer to the goal of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation than any other time in history, and we need to build a strong people’s military more than any other time in history.” The moth-eaten narrative of “China’s peaceful rise” is receding into the mist, but will Beijing’s growing sense of its power also demand the PLA be put to triumphal use?

On Sunday, Mr Xi threatened that the PLA would strike down “all invading enemies” — a careful choice of words that apparently urges only defensive use against external aggression. In fact, China’s maximalist definition of its security interests allows it to mask even blatant aggression as legitimate defence — such as its military occupation of disputed islands in the South China Sea. As it has done in Doklam, Beijing is adept at dressing up one-sided rationales to claim “indisputable ownership” of disputed territory, and them treating competing claims as territorial aggression. With Indian troops facing off against Chinese border guards on Bhutanese-claimed territory at the border tri-junction where India, China and Bhutan come together, what can New Delhi anticipate?

Until China escalates, India must proceed on the assumption that Beijing has triggered the Doklam crisis not to create a flashpoint for armed confrontation at a time of deteriorating relations; but calculating that India would not retaliate as decisively as it has done — interceding on behalf of a third country and creating a new normal. Under way now is a contest in coercive diplomacy — which is the simultaneous employment of threats or limited military action and diplomatic efforts designed to persuade a target state to change its policies or behaviour. The aggressive use of media and displays of nationalistic fervour are an essential part of this. India must not back down.

Sensible Indian military planners would not be unduly rattled by Chinese threats of war and menacing reminders of the 1962 debacle — mainly from the state-controlled Chinese media, but also from government spokespersons. The pitfalls of drawing parallels from that war should be obvious, given that 1962 was a highly limited operation. Barely two Indian divisions fought the Chinese, while more than 80 per cent of the army sat out the war. Today, 12 Indian divisions would come into action from Day One of a war, while another 25 divisions guard the western and northern borders with Pakistan. Depending upon the operational situation there, at least five of those could be switched to Ladakh, Sikkim or Arunachal Pradesh, becoming effective in 10-15 days. Adding to India’s advantage would be the Indian Air Force, which was inexplicably left out of combat in 1962. With Indian military aircraft operating from bases in Assam and helicopter operations mounted from a string of advanced landing grounds in the hills, the air force would be a significant force multiplier. Meanwhile, China’s air force would be constrained by having to operate from high-altitude bases in Tibet. 

Much is rightly made of China’s road and rail infrastructure in Tibet, but it remains to be seen how much of that survives the Indian Air Force’s attentions. Despite India’s deplorable lag in building forward road infrastructure – only 22 border roads have been completed out of 73 planned – the army enjoys far greater battlefield mobility today than in 1962. Equipment shortages remain a worry, but the military is far better poised today – a pre-deployed, fully acclimatised, operationally inoculated military – than it was when China last came knocking.

Since China knows this, large-scale military retaliation to Doklam appears unlikely, at least for now. What India should anticipate is small-to-medium retaliatory incursions by Chinese troops, perhaps in tri-junction areas for political messaging, aimed at building pressure on India. In dealing with these, army planners would do well to seal and localise Chinese incursions and retaliate in kind elsewhere on the border, escalating horizontally rather than vertically.

Leni Riefenstahl lived to be 101 and her films will survive far longer. But a decade on from Nuremberg, the Third Reich lay in ruins. As Beijing ratchets up tension with its East and Southeast Asian neighbours, and now with India, it would do well to remember that grievance-based nationalism is a double-edged sword.

Twitter: @ajaishukla

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