As China’s economic and political clout increases at the international stage amidst a raging pandemic with origins in China, the various tools China uses in conducting international relations keeps constantly expanding. Hitherto unheard forms of conducting foreign relations like ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ and ‘weaponisation of trade’ have come to occupy centre stage of Chinese foreign policy. Outlining six diplomatic highlights for China in 2021, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng spoke of Xi Jinping’s proposal of a Global Development Initiative at the UN, the extension of China- Russia friendship treaty, the virtual meeting between Xi and Biden, Meng Wanzhou’s return home, completion of the China-Laos railway and China’s vaccine diplomacy.
Meng’s return home is tied to China’s hostage diplomacy as in its response to Meng’s arrest in Canada, China arrested two Canadian citizens- Michael Kovrig and Michale Spavor in 2018 on charges of espionage. Kovrig is a former diplomat while Spavor is a businessman. Even though charges of espionage were levied against the Canadian citizens, the two were released as soon as Meng’s release was secured! The espionage charges magically disappeared, making China’s motives behind taking the two Canadian citizens clear! China has often taken foreigners as hostages to use them as bargaining chips! Despite article 34 of the 1949 Geneva Convention stating that taking hostages is prohibited, China has often engaged in taking hostages to further its political goals.
The latest case of taking hostages by China is that of the abduction of 17-year-old Miran Taron from the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Taron’s friend Hohny Yaiying who managed to escape informed authorities that Taron was abducted by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Taron and Yaiying are local hunters from Arunachal Pradesh’s Zido village and the abduction took place near where the Brahmaputra River, (known as Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet) enters India in Arunachal Pradesh. In September 2020, the PLA had kidnapped five boys from Arunachal Pradesh and had released them after about a week. Further back in May, a 21 year old man was abducted by the PLA from the same area, and he was released after the Indian Army’s intervention.
India-China relations have hit their lowest since 1962, as the PLA, disrespecting all agreements on border control and management infiltrated into Indian territory in 2020 and killed 20 Indian soldiers in the most barbaric ways possible using batons and barbed wires. Both sides have since stepped up monitoring the 3488 kilometres border. Since April 2020, the PLA has blocked Indian troops from reaching at least 10 patrolling points (PP) in eastern Ladakh, running from Depsang Plains in the north to the Pangong Tso in the south. There are at least 65 PPSs from the base of Karakoram to Chumar. The 14 rounds of talks between the two sides have yielded no breakthrough.
In order to ensure that locals do not get caught in the crossfire, India’s Ministry of Defence issued orders asking grazers to restrict their cattle movements. Nevertheless, because there is no earmarked line going through forests, it is difficult for grazers and hunters to determine which area falls into the disputed category. It is not just Indian grazers who tread into disputed territory, Chinese grazers do the same! The only difference is that they do not get abducted by the Indian side. A three-member delegation to India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh in January this year, stated how the PLA uses Chinese nomads in Ladakh to transgress into Indian territory while India has restricted its own nomads to pasture lands, severely impacting the lives of the locals.
While the playbook remains largely the same for recipients of China’s hostage diplomacy, in India’s case there is an added element of psychological warfare to it. Taking locals hostages sends the message to India that China is in control of the territory and the territory is beyond negotiations or formal diplomacy. In the 1962 debacle, China undertook brainwashing techniques of the 3962 prisoners of war (POWs) as part of what Beijing calls ‘imparting correct ideological education’ to help understand the ‘territorial issues along the China-India border’. China maintains its narrative that Indian POWs enjoyed ‘extra-standard humane treatment’. However, as stated by the POWs themselves, to break their morale, Indian officers were sent to solitary confinement for weeks. Chinese account of the camps in which the Indian POWs were kept does not mention these constant indoctrination sessions or the torture POWs were put through.
In the case of the current standoff, a photo showing an Indian Army personnel overpowering another man is being shared with the claim that the Indian army holds more than 150 Chinese soldiers hostage in Arunachal Pradesh. The photo was shared with different claims in Hindi, both of which implied that it showed a scene from the recent face-off in Tawang. However, as revealed by fact checkers, the photograph is a still from a film titled LAC, which was made in 2020! While China actually takes Indian locals hostage, it puts out the false narrative about India taking hostages, using false imagery and narratives in the digital domain. As China’s economic and political clout keeps increasing at the international stage, it becomes pertinent for India to take cognisance of the myriad tools China uses to influence and impact Indian public opinion, psyche and morale.