Whoever thinks China and India aren’t getting on, may need to get off the news for a while.
The two countries may be at odds on a lot of things, from a troubled border to ocean navigation rights. But when it comes to their media, they are a picture of collaboration – obsessively following and reporting each other, and in the process creating perennial news loops the likes of which are seldom seen between two states not at war.
Take the current sniping over BrahMos missile. It began with a Times of India scoop on August 3 that India was deploying the supersonic cruise missile in its Arunachal Pradesh state, which China claims as its own. Peppered with impressive military jargon like “trajectory manoeuvre and steep-dive capabilities for mountain warfare”, the report cites an unnamed Army source as detailing how the missile co-developed by India and Russia has “nine times more kinetic energy than sub-sonic missiles” for “greater destructive potential”.
Such militaristic reportage of India’s preparations for its coming war with China has become increasingly common in Indian media in recent years and is treated with a degree of circumspection by serious students of the region’s geopolitics. But it can be disturbing stuff if you are a Chinese defence commentator or journalist. More so because your own government is telling you nothing and your only clue to China’s India policy is the unruly Indian media.
Two weeks go by, in which time Indian papers have reported how Chinese papers are asking India to stay out of the South China Sea row and focus on the economy, which is spun with great relish as a sign of Beijing’s nervousness. To help matters, soon another triumphant Times of India story declares India builds a ‘China wall’ with tanks in Ladakh, jets in northeast, detailing India’s moves to activate landing facilities in Arunachal.
Again, the source is an unnamed Army officer. But riled up enough by now, an analyst at the PLA Daily, the People’s Liberation Army’s mouthpiece, decides to put in his two fens. India is ‘nervous’, the expert from the PLA Navy’s Engineering University writes. The decision to deploy BrahMos could trigger “counter-measures” by China, he warns.
Bingo. The dull China-India border – which hasn’t seen a single bullet fired in four decades – comes back to life, even if only on headline fonts. China warns India against BrahMos deployment, scream Indian papers. Politicians’ statements on how India has the right to deploy BrahMos keep the news cycle churning for the next couple of days. Then, when it begins to quieten down, someone decides to get creative, again. India’s missile deployment is none of China’s business, the Indian Army is reported as having said. Well, not the Army Army, but an unnamed source in the Army.
But when have we journalists ever let details like that come in the way of a great headline? If we did, we would see the PLA Daily piece wraps up by pointing out three major flaws of the BrahMos system that render it ineffective. “Limited practical impact”, as it puts it. Also, the opinion piece appears at the bottom of the PLA Daily’s page 5. The government’s stance on important issues is reserved for the comment section at the bottom of Page 1. The PLA Daily is primarily aimed at defence personnel and others connected to the security field. The target readership is purely internal. Which is why, the supposed threat can’t even be found on the PLA Daily’s English site, which is where it plays up its messages targeted at an external audience. But again, minor details.
Details are a luxury in the 24x7 news cycle. Not only do journalists now have to produce more, reader response to their work can be instantly evaluated, unlike in the old days when you would be the toast of the newsroom if you elicited a letter to the editor two weeks later. As journalist and media scholar Marvin Kalb writes in the foreword to the Media and Foreign Policy, “The correspondent, as well as the diplomat, is denied the opportunity for reflection. Both are part of the new, global loop of information, their fortunes intertwined. They are pressured to react quickly, in some cases. ‘live’.”
Bombarded with content all day, the hapless reader, too, is denied the opportunity for reflection. So in the hurry to retweet the headlines, no one notices that at every stage of this particular news loop, the sources to the key stories are all unidentified. Neither has the Indian government declared the deployment nor has the Indian Army issued a press release telling the Chinese to mind their own business, nor has the Chinese government threatened an escalation.
Probably India will really deploy the BrahMos and revive high-altitude landing facilities. Probably China will really retaliate with its own weapons or troops deployment, who knows. But if I were a military planner, I wouldn’t bother. I would simply summon a journalist to a dark alley, deliver the ‘scoop’, go home and watch him fight my war on the evening news.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury is the deputy editor of This Week in Asia