Written by Ian Hall.
The ten-week standoff between Chinese and Indian troops in Doklam, in territory disputed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Bhutan, was finally concluded on 28 August, with the withdrawal of Indian troops and the cessation of road building by the Chinese.
One of the extraordinary aspects of this episode in the so-called “tri-junction” area, where the borders of Bhutan, China, and India meet, was the war of words waged by Beijing, by both Chinese officials and the state-run media. Throughout the standoff, a steady stream of statements and articles appeared in English language outlets – those primarily designed for foreign consumption – voiced anger at India’s actions, issued dire threats of punishment if India did not unilaterally withdraw, and launched pointed critiques on all aspects of India, including its political system and economic track-record.
Over the two and a half month of the standoff, Chinese officials progressively ratcheted up their rhetoric. In the first ten days, Beijing made no official comment. But then on 26 June, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang acknowledged the standoff was on-going and called on India to withdraw its troops from what he argued was Chinese territory. Geng upped the ante ten days later, declaring India had “violated the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and trampled on international law and the norms governing international relations”. On 3 August, his language was stronger still, as Geng called India’s actions “illegal” and “flagrant”, demonstrating its “irresponsibility and recklessness”, and its disregard for both China’s sovereignty and the UN Charter.
New Delhi did not back down in the face of Beijing’s orchestrated anger, pulling its troops out only once China agreed to cease the road construction activities that prompted India’s initial intervention.
In parallel, in the Chinese media, the hyper-nationalist Global Times predictably led the way. On 27 June – the day after the first MOFA statement – Global Times denounced India’s “unruly provocations” and “arrogance”, and called for it “to be taught the rules”. And as the official line hardened, GT broadened and deepened its attacks, evoking memories of India’s defeat by the People’s Liberation Army in 1962, mocking India’s military, criticising Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” push, accusing India of manipulating Bhutan and even questioning the health benefits of yoga. At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily also weighed in, warning that an opportunist and adventurist India is “flirt[ing] with disaster” and “playing with fire”. So too did China Daily, pointing to (among other things) the risk of “dangerous miscalculation”. The lowest point was reached, however, when state news agency Xinhua released a video detailing the supposed “Seven Sins” of India, featuring a humourless sketch widely and rightly condemned as racist.
Vehement and neatly coordinated, these various statements, from officials and from state media outlets, are best seen as a manifestation of what Todd H. Hall (no relation) terms “emotional diplomacy” – the use of a coordinated official emotional display for political ends. Going further than the usual threats and signalling involved in conventional modes of strategic coercion, the “diplomacy of anger” involves loud and sustained public expressions of indignation at supposed injury caused not just to national interests, but also to the nation itself.
As Hall’s work shows, the PRC is highly partial to this kind of emotional diplomacy. During the 1994-5 Taiwan Strait Crisis, Beijing officials and its media outlets deployed it to protest against the granting of a US visit to then-Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. Both Foreign Minister Qian Qichen and the People’s Daily furiously invoked the “righteous indignation” of the Chinese people in private and public protests, and warned that both the US and Taiwan were “playing with fire”. To reinforce this hyperbolic rhetoric, Beijing also cancelled a series of planned diplomatic meetings, transferred military technology to Pakistan, and conducted missile tests in the Taiwan Strait.
This action was neither spontaneous, as one might intuitively expect for an emotional reaction, nor uncontrolled. It was deliberate and carefully calibrated – using the diplomacy of anger was designed to impress on Washington the seriousness, for Beijing, of the issues concerned. Moreover, Hall thinks it was partially successful, as Washington acknowledged the reasons for this contrived anger and responded by trying to conciliate Beijing, reaffirming its commitments to the “One China” policy and muting criticism of the missile tests.
It is not clear, however, that the diplomacy of anger is a generally effective strategy, nor that China’s bluster over Doklam generated a similar response from India. Some recent work suggests, indeed, that this strategy doesn’t work as often as some in Beijing seem to think. Unlike the spontaneous anger of an individual or a group at some injustice, the diplomacy of anger is necessarily contrived, and prone to being perceived as inauthentic and lacking in credibility. Moreover, while displays of anger might signal one’s resolve to target audiences, they also tend to make interlocutors more truculent, keener to push back, and less willing to give in to one’s demands.
In any event, India’s official responses to China’s tirades suggest that Beijing’s deployment of diplomatic anger did not produce their desired effect in New Delhi. In general, official comments on the standoff from the Indian side were measured and calm throughout the ten weeks. Mid-crisis, the Foreign Secretary, S. Jaishankar, merely remarked that there is “no reason” why the standoff cannot be resolved diplomatically. The External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, also signalled a preference for patient negotiation. The government took steps to encourage prominent journalists to exercise restraint in their comments on the crisis, with the Ministry of External Affairs providing closed-door briefings to keep them up to date with developments, deter speculation, and discourage similar angry outbursts on the Indian side to those coming from the Chinese press. And in the end, New Delhi did not back down in the face of Beijing’s orchestrated anger, pulling its troops out only once China agreed to cease the road construction activities that prompted India’s initial intervention.
Ian Hall is a Professor in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University, Australia, and an Academic Fellow of the Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne. He tweets @DrIanHall. Image Credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.