A “strategic communication” with India, via Luo Yuan?

Luo Yuan meets the press, July 4, 2013 - photo by Ananth Krishnan

Luo Yuan meets the press, July 4, 2013 – photo by Ananth Krishnan

To those people who subscribe to this blog via email, thankyou and i’m sorry — you guys always miss out on various additions and clarifications (e.g. headings, signpost & summary sentences) to the shoddy initial versions i post. If you’re interested in the topics but find my chaotic writing confusing, i’d always recommend waiting a few hours and then viewing via the web, rather than email.

If it wasn’t clear, the point of yesterday’s typically unwieldy post was actually quite simple: Luo Yuan, and the other “hawks”, are probably in the game of military political work, rather than policy competition.

With impeccable timing, Luo Yuan has provided a lovely example to illustrate this. [UPDATE JULY 8: Not really an example at all, it turns out.]

On Thursday, only hours before AK Antony arrived in Beijing for the first visit by an Indian Defense Minister for seven years, Luo held a press briefing and told India to be “very cautious in what it does and what it says.” [UPDATE: The briefing was not about India, and Luo only commented on India when asked by a journalist to do so. I have been told Luo made no attempt to raise the topic of India. Thus, the working hypothesis this piece was written under — that this was a carefully timed piece of strategic communication aimed at India — is invalid. It was almost certainly just a coincidence that Luo commented on India just before the Defense Minister’s visit. However, this doesn’t diminish the likelihood that Luo Yuan is in the business of political communication, only that this particular action was targeted at India.]

He prefaced that remark by noting:

India is the only country in the world that says that it is developing its military power because of China’s military threat

He also said:

“The Indian side should not provoke new problems and increase the military deployment at the border areas and start new trouble.”

As some reporters have pointed out, these comments were relatively mild compared to many of Luo’s previous statements. Yet the medium — Chinese hardline general — proved more important than the message. As Luo and his superiors surely understood, this was guaranteed to cause a stir in the Indian media. A sample of headlines:

The comments appear to have quickly made it into diplomatic circles. According to Firstpost’s Venky Vedu (confirmed by another source) “disquieted Indian officials took up the matter with Chinese authorities, [and] met with the predictable disclaimer: that Luo’s thoughts did not reflect official views”.

As Vedu points out, Luo Yuan’s intervention has had the effect of injecting some element of uncertainty — however minute — into the minds of Indian officials who felt relations were tracking forward positively after recent talks on the disputed border areas, and a cordial exchange between Foreign Ministers Salman Kurshid Wang Yi in Brunei earlier in the week.

The Hindu’s highly respected China correspondent Ananth Krishnan recently wrote that Luo Yuan’s outspokenness is “seen by many diplomats here as underscoring his strong political connections as well as the support he enjoys among sections of the party and the military”.

If so, the diplomats should consider the likely nature of such support. For while many everyday Chinese people — including soldiers, cadres and citizens — agree straightforwardly with his hardline views, there is scant evidence of this actually affecting policy. At the highest levels, support for Luo is more likely for the role he plays as a “hawkish PLA general”, rather than support for the policies he pushes — as Luo’s own explanations discussed in yesterday’s post imply.

Like the relatively mildness of his “warning”, the fact that Luo was wearing a business suit, not military uniform, looks like a careful attenuation of the message designed to ensure that he didn’t affect the visit too much.

But during the briefing Luo also repeated his line about being a “rational hardliner”, suggesting a desire to keep reminding the visiting Indian officials: there are — or might be — hardliners pressuring the friendly, moderate leaders you will be meeting with.

Thankfully, Defense Minister Antony seems determined not to take Luo’s comments too seriously in his assessment of China’s policy positions:

Asked whether he took up the hostile comments made by a Major General of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Luo Yuan, Antony said, “My discussions were with official people. Very detailed delegation level dialogue with the Defence Minister, and with the Premier also. The message is very clear. […]”

Yesterday, Antony and PRC Defense Minister Chang Wanquan agreed on the need for “strategic communication” over their disputed borderlands. The possibility should be considered that Luo Yuan’s intervention was a carefully organized strategic communication of another kind. [UPDATE: Wrong! Luo Yuan may indeed be in the business of political communication, but this was not aimed at India.]

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