Why Is China Downplaying Its Border Clash With India?
By refraining from turning its soldiers into national martyrs, Beijing is keeping its options open.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief. The highlights this week: Chinese media sidesteps the deadly clash at the border with India, parts of Beijing reenter coronavirus lockdown, and what to make of John Bolton’s revelations about Donald Trump and Xi Jinping.
If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.
How Many Chinese Soldiers Died in the Himalayas?
The bloody clash between troops on the disputed India-China border, which claimed at least 20 Indian soldiers’ lives and an unknown number of Chinese, is dominating Indian headlines this week—even as Chinese state media downplays the country’s most deadly military action in decades. The story has been relegated to fourth or fifth place in both Xinhua and the People’s Daily, which have led with President Xi Jinping’s phone call with his Ecuadorian counterpart and details of an upcoming China-Africa summit.
Weeks of clashes between Indian and Chinese troops culminated on Monday night in an angry meeting between patrols on a narrow ridge that grew into a brawl. Chinese and Indian patrols on the border customarily go unarmed to avoid escalation—but both sides turned to improvised weapons such as clubs, stones, and iron rods.
The conflict parallels clashes between Chinese troops and the Soviets in the late 1960s, when both armies used hand-to-hand weapons in brawls on the frozen river borders. But then, retrieving the injured was relatively easy. This time, 17 of the 20 killed on the Indian side died of their wounds or exposure to subzero temperatures in high-altitude terrain. Indian media reports as many as 43 Chinese deaths, supposedly based on intercepted transmissions, but that information is unreliable.
Why is China keeping quiet? India and China both have well-developed mythologies of national martyrdom in war, and the Indian soldiers who died are already filling that role. But it seems unlikely that China will even release the names of the dead. There is state hostility toward releasing any sensitive information—and especially for the opaque military. As indicated by the lack of media coverage, Beijing wants to keep its options open—and it doesn’t want to be trapped by public opinion calling for escalation. Deaths could also be read as a sign of weakness, especially if the Chinese side really did come off worse.
Is further conflict likely? Both sides say they want to de-escalate, with each casting the other as the aggressor and refusing to pull back its own troops. A wider conflict seems unlikely, given the range of crises both Beijing and New Delhi are facing—but this will permanently stain public feelings, especially on the Indian side. For more on the roots of the crisis and where it’s headed, see our explainer from yesterday, and read tomorrow’s South Asia Brief.
What We’re Following
Beijing’s new lockdown. Following an outbreak of coronavirus cases linked to the capital’s Xinfadi wholesale market, which supplies up to 80 percent of its fruit and vegetables, Beijing is back on high alert. Twenty-nine xiaoqu—the vast housing complexes where most Beijingers live—are under full lockdown, and many residents have received a call from the local police asking if they’ve had any contact with the market. Schools are closed, flights are cancelled, and temperature checks are reinstituted across the city. Subway transport has declined as anxiety grips the city once again.
Though the authorities expect more to come, Beijing has only seen 109 cases in its second wave—a fraction of the number of new cases in the United States every day. But the capital is particularly sensitive given the presence of an elderly and vulnerable political leadership. Two local officials have already been fired due to the outbreak, and the incident could endanger the career of Beijing Party Secretary Cai Qi, a high-flying ally of Xi.
Bolton’s revelations. Former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton makes a series of stunning claims about Trump’s attitude toward China in the Wall Street Journal. Trump reportedly approved of Xi’s description of China’s concentration camps for Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and asked the Chinese president to help him win reelection. Bolton depicts a bumbling president who fawned over Xi—calling him “the greatest Chinese leader”—and fumbled trade deal efforts.
It’s been obvious for a long time that China hawks who pinned their hopes on Trump were mistaken. Whether Bolton’s revelations will shake their faith remains to be seen.
Peace process explodes. There is private despair among Chinese diplomats following Pyongyang’s explosive provocations this week, including the destruction of the inter-liaison office with South Korea. Pyongyang’s recalcitrance about economic and social reform has long baffled Chinese counterparts, who point to their own economic success as an example of what the country could achieve if it followed in China’s footsteps. “I don’t know what they’re thinking,” one Chinese academic who has had frequent contact with North Korean diplomatic delegations told me.
Tech and Business
Xi promises debt cancellation. At a Wednesday video meeting with a group of African leaders, Xi promised to cancel certain debts by the end of 2020, responding to the leaders’ earlier calls for easier post-pandemic conditions. China is the biggest creditor for most African states, and it has taken flak in the past for so-called debt diplomacy that lets it seize vulnerable countries’ assets. The recent move is a considerable conciliation—but also a signal that the pandemic won’t slow down China’s Belt and Road ambitions.
American Express finally arrives. American Express has become the first foreign payments processor allowed to process local currency transactions in China. It’s a change that U.S. firms have pushed for years, but it is now likely too late to make any dent in China’s well-developed payment market. At this point, the move is largely symbolic, representing one of the commitments Beijing made as part of the phase-one trade deal. Any real American presence in China’s financial market is likely to be both constrained and used as future leverage by Beijing globally. For instance, Chinese authorities could threaten to kick Western firms out unless they shut down accounts used by dissidents or Uighurs abroad.
Rich people’s problems. The market for luxury goods among Chinese consumers is struggling to recover post-pandemic, especially since it’s so dependent on foreign shopping. In normal times, entire planeloads of Chinese tourists land in Milan every day for little reason other than to hit up the brand stores. Luxury spending has increased as Chinese switch from sweatpants to outdoor clothes once more, but it’s still below peak.
The importance of the Chinese market is also an indication of the fading impact of past anti-corruption campaigns, which once saw a 55 percent decline in purchases of luxury items—which could be signs of illicit graft.
What We’re Reading
The Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report, 1962
After China defeated India in the 1962 Sino-Indian war, the Indian government commissioned a full-scale investigation into the failures by two of its senior officers, T.B. Henderson Brooks and P.S. Bhagat—and then promptly buried the results. However, the first half of the report was leaked in 2014, and it remains available online. It’s uncomfortable reading for many in India, even today: Issues such as poor communication, stiff hierarchies, and overconfidence persist in the Indian military-political establishment.
That’s it for this week.