Normally, any untoward incident between India and China triggers a Pavlovian response in the Pakistani media. There is undisguised glee, even excitement and expectation, over the prospect of the two countries getting into a shooting match in which, the Pakistanis are dead certain, India will get a very bloody nose, will be cut to size by Pakistan’s ‘all-weather friend’ China, and will be exposed as a paper tiger.
Some Pakistani strategists, mostly retired diplomats or generals, who always lament that Pakistan wasted the opportunity of wresting Kashmir in 1962 when India was on the ropes, feel that the next time India gets embroiled in a war with China, Pakistan should make a bold grab for Kashmir.
This two-front situation — Pakistan and China acting in collusion — is also something that Indian strategic planners and thinkers have been factoring in their strategic calculus. Of course, while this two-front situation is India’s worst-case scenario, it is Pakistan’s cherished dream.
Against this backdrop, it is a little strange that the current three-week long stand-off (and which is unlikely to end anytime soon) between Indian and Chinese forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Union Territory of Ladakh has been virtually ignored by the Pakistani media.
Even more surprisingly, despite reports of unarmed clashes between the Indian and Chinese soldiers and the fact that the stand-offs are taking place at more than one place, the Pakistanis haven’t yet started salivating.
Apart from a few news reports, mostly quoting Indian news sources, there has been almost total radio silence so far. It is only after a few reports in the Indian media of Chinese troops ‘occupying’ Indian territory that there has been some stirring in Pakistan, and that too mostly in the social media.
While this two-front situation is India’s worst case scenario, it is Pakistan’s cherished dream.
Since the reports appeared about the ‘occupation’ of Indian territory — a Pakistani OSINT handle has gone to the extent of saying that “India has been technically invaded” — there is some excitement in Pakistan.
The same handle has even held a poll about how India would fare in the event it has to fight both Chinese and the Pakistani armies together. Other Twitter users are a tad more sober but reflect the ingrained schadenfreude of Pakistanis when it comes to India.
The former High Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit, has declared that “India is now almost isolated in the region. China, Pakistan, Nepal and even Bangladesh have serious issues with India. Bhutan also interested in establishing diplomatic relations with China. And Sri Lanka and future Afghanistan under Taliban can never trust India.”
An academic who pretends to be balanced has taken a dig at India and Indian media by tweeting “Is this China intimidating India cos it knows that India knows that China is not Pakistan when it comes to crossing lines? No surgical strikes to correct this one? No media blitz? Nothing.” In another tweet, the same academic has expressed the hope that the Chinese incursion would force India to shift focus to the LAC and that could ease things along the LoC.
In the mainstream media, however, there has been very little comment or analysis over the on-going stand-off. On the day the report on China ‘occupying’ Indian territory appeared, a former Pakistani air force official wrote an article in which he wondered if South Asia was drifting towards another war.
Although the article was more about Kashmir and the recent exchanges of fire along the LoC, he brought in the China angle and also linked the recent boundary spat with Nepal to plug his point that Prime Minister Modi’s quest for an “assertive India” made for a “toxic mix for a region likened to a tinderbox.”
According to this article, the US was nudging India to assert against the growing Chinese influence which would “pull the Chinese into the region kinetically to safeguard their vital interests like CPEC. The last time something like this happened was in 1962, and the results weren’t pretty.”
Earlier, there were a couple of pieces on how India was ‘nibbling’ away at Nepalese territory and the pushback that was coming from Nepal. Needless to say, there was no nuance or even an effort to analyse the issues objectively and the Pakistanis were quick to dump all the blame on India.
The same evening, Pakistan’s own current affairs ‘Nostradamus’, a TV anchor who is also called Dr Doom by his detractors for his obsession with ‘End of Times’, referred to the issue on his show. But other than this, Pakistan TV channels have not reported on the India-China spat.
Back then, the Pakistanis appeared quite certain that something would give and the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation will escalate into at least a major clash, if not a limited or even wider war.
Compared to the reams of articles and hours of TV programming during the Doklam crisis in 2017, there is virtually no coverage so far of the stand-off in Ladakh. Back then, the Pakistanis appeared quite certain that something would give and the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation will escalate into at least a major clash, if not a limited or even wider war.
When for weeks nothing happened, the Pakistanis under the then ISPR chief Asif Gafoor tried to use fake news to push things along. A WhatsApp message was sent to some news organisations in Pakistan claiming that a major clash had occurred between Chinese and Indian troops and more than 150 Indian soldiers had been killed. Soon the fake news went viral. The idea was that the fake news would get a life of its own and the resultant pressure would force the hand of Indian government and trigger the war neither China nor India were interested in. But the Chinese were quick to refute the news item.
Soon it transpired that the fake news had been sent by someone in ISPR — there was speculation that it was the handiwork of the then ISPR chief, Asif Gafoor — with the instructions to Pakistan’s ‘independent media’ to peddle the news and make it seem credible. At that time, there was some talk that the Chinese had rapped the Pakistanis on their knuckles and warned them against such antics. This time, however, there has been no official comment, much less any manufactured news.
So, what is behind the silence? There are a few possible explanations. First, there has been a change of guard in the ISPR and the new chief appears to be a more sober and circumspect individual who, unlike his predecessor, has behaved more like a soldier than a propagandist; second, the India-China border face-offs have become something of a routine and the Pakistanis have realised that there is no point in getting needlessly excited about these incidents which invariably end in an anti-climax for them. In other words, they will get excited if something extraordinary happens, not if it’s a routine sort of occurrence.
Lastly, the Pakistani media has its hands full with a whole lot of other issues — COVID-19 and its management (or mismanagement and confusion about whether to open up, how much to open up or to continue with the lockdown); the massive economic crunch with jobs being lost and economy in a tailspin; political scandals and inquiry reports into financial scams which hold the potential for major political realignments; the developing controversy over the efforts of the government to ram through an amendment in the National Finance Commission award by fiddling with the 18th Amendment and upending the financial arrangements between the federal and provincial governments; a plane crash; war and peace efforts in Afghanistan; a spike in terrorism in the erstwhile FATA and the restive Balochistan province; the situation in Kashmir and along the LoC coupled with the usual raving and ranting over India and Modi; and finally, Eid.
Chances are that once the Eid holidays are over, there will be some traction that the India-China spat will get in the Pakistani media.
To be sure, TV channels and newspapers will latch on to the story about how China has ‘invaded’ India to take vicarious pleasure and also raise the morale of the people who live in a society in which the ruling principle is that the wall of the neighbour must be brought down even if you yourself come under it. But soon there is the budget that will come and there will be other developments that will take hold of the news cycle.
Therefore, unless things really deteriorate between India and China, chances are that the keyboard warriors in the social media space will continue to talk about this issue, but mainstream media will focus on more existential issues.
(This article first appeared in ORF. The author is Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. Views expressed are personal)