Underplaying the China threat

Updated on Nov 11, 2021 08:43 PM IST

The government has consciously decided to downplay China’s aggression. This has possible benefits but also costs

Military mobilisation is more effective than public threats in demonstrating resolve against hawkish, as opposed to doveish, rivals. Not many in the world will characterise Xi Jinping as a dove anyway (AP) PREMIUM
Military mobilisation is more effective than public threats in demonstrating resolve against hawkish, as opposed to doveish, rivals. Not many in the world will characterise Xi Jinping as a dove anyway (AP)
ByKunal Singh

The Ladakh border crisis became public in early May 2020.

Since then, despite many claims to the contrary, the Narendra Modi-led government has consistently refused to accept that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is squatting on territories that India considers its own or are disputed. Recently, officials also tried to deny that China is changing facts on the ground by building villages in disputed areas in Arunachal Pradesh which that country holds.

This is a conscious decision of the government that impinges on two fronts, which I will consider separately.

First, there is an argument that by being economical with the truth, the government is wasting its domestic institutional advantage in this crisis with China. Popularised by James D Fearon in 1994 as the audience costs theory, this line of argument suggests that a State that can tie its hands better has an advantage in international crises against its rivals.

Generally. democracies are perceived to have an advantage in tying their hands because their leaders are accountable to the domestic audience. The logic is that if a democratic leadership backs down after making public coercive threats against its adversary, it will be punished by the domestic audience. Ergo, it can utilise this institutional feature to its advantage by making public threats against their rivals, especially those which cannot tie its hands with similar effectiveness. The assumption is that the rival would know that the democratic leadership cannot back down after making a public threat, lest it be punished by its domestic audience. The rival would, hence, back down in order to prevent the crisis from escalating.

The audience costs theory has several sceptics. Broadly, there are two lines of critique. One, many point out that the literature on audience costs has hardly any empirical support. States rarely make public coercive threats against their rivals. In case they make these, those threats are not very effective. Moreover, the domestic audience does not necessarily punish leaders when they back down after making a threat. Two, some scholars argue that democracies are not uniquely advantageous in generating audience costs. Political scientists such as Jessica Weeks and Jessica Chen Weiss argue that autocratic regimes too can generate audience costs.

Depending on which side of the argument one is on, the government may or may not have missed a trick by not accepting Chinese incursions in public and thus tying hands in front of domestic audience, which would expect the government to drive the PLA out of newly-occupied territories. The counterpoint is that such an act of tying hands would not be effective, as some critics of audience costs argue. Also, it might escalate the crisis and make any territorial negotiation difficult.

In its defence, the government may also argue that India’s military mobilisation against the PLA on the border makes up for the opportunities lost by tying hands. Just like the act of making public threats delivers a costly signal, military mobilisation achieves that through sunk costs —that is by paying the costs upfront unlike tying hands, in which costs are paid in future once backing down becomes inevitable. Through survey experiments on former and serving members of the Israeli Knesset, Karen Yarhi-Milo and co-authors have showed that recipients of costly signals are persuaded by military mobilisation as much as they are by public threats. In fact, military mobilisation is more effective than public threats in demonstrating resolve against hawkish, as opposed to doveish, rivals. Not many in the world will characterise Xi Jinping as a dove anyway.

Second, the government’s diffidence in accepting the hard truth also impinges on matters of democratic accountability. Maintaining silence may buy more room for negotiation. Military mobilisation, in place of public threats, may even achieve the effect of demonstrating resolve. However, neither of these benefits completely takes away from the imperative of a democratically-elected government being transparent. It is not certain that being more truthful with a domestic audience would necessarily escalate the border situation into a broader kinetic affair. Even if there is such a risk of escalation, can democratic accountability be forfeited in the interim? Nevertheless, critics of the government might say that the silence on Chinese incursions has less to do with containment of the crisis and more to do with saving face if New Delhi is unable to use its diplomatic and coercive tools to drive the PLA out of the newly acquired territories.

However one may analyse this government’s tactics, this is not the first time India has decided to keep the public in the dark about similar developments on the border. Having received definitive confirmation of the road that the Chinese built between Sinkiang (Xinjiang) and Tibet passing through Aksai Chin in early 1958, Jawaharlal Nehru decided to keep the matter away from the public until August 1959. Even then, facing criticism over his handling of the border situation by the Members of the Parliament, Nehru decided to play down the impact of the road that passed through territory that India claimed as its own.

To sum up, it is important to recognise that the government’s public communication on border crises has implications for both the crisis outcome as well as democratic accountability.

And sometimes, what is good for one may not be good for the other.

Kunal Singh is a PhD candidate in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The views expressed are personal

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