Those of us who follow Twitter know that a small spark from even a barely known handle can trigger mass outrage or mirth. There was an ample dose of both when the handle of The International Spectator, which claims to follow global political and military issues, reported that Chinese State TV had recently claimed its motorised troops needed 48 hours and paratroops 10 hours to reach India's capital if war broke out.

 

 

Even as many Indian websites are awash with jokes of how Chinese troops would struggle with Delhi’s maddening traffic, we risk missing the essence of Beijing’s claims — which betray a sense of nationalist arrogance and insecurity. Writing in Outlook Magazine, V Sudarshan reported on an interesting meeting between then Chinese president Jiang Zemin and French leader Jacque Chirac in 1999:

 

“Zemin said, ‘each time we tested them by sending patrols across, the Indian soldiers reacted by putting their hands up.’ He rounded off the description by stating ‘If India were to attack China again, we will crush it.’ And just in case Chirac missed the point, Jiang reportedly squeezed his hands together to stress the word crush.

 

This aforementioned exchange provides just a snapshot into the paradox that is China’s strategic policy. If on the one hand, Beijing appears keen to push business deals despite frayed ties (evidenced by its interest in bullet train deals in India), China has also allowed crude expressions of nationalism in its tightly regulated social environment.

 

Even as several major nations led by France threatened to boycott the Beijing Olympics of 2008 protesting China’s crackdown on Tibetan protesters, Beijing didn’t back down. More than 150 people were killed in the protests, but the Olympics were held successfully with no boycotts. France backed down from its boycott call when Beijing threatened business reprisals.

 

Protests against Japan have been increasingly common in the past decade, related to disputes in the South China Sea and Japan’s conduct in World War Two; some of these protests against Japanese businesses have turned violent.

 

China’s continuing military modernisation is a concern for India. The aim of a “leaner and meaner” People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is being realised by investing in infrastructure including new transport aircraft and modernised airbases and rail networks in Tibet. But the kind of airborne invasion of Delhi reportedly threatened by Chinese State TV will remain a pipedream for the foreseeable future.

 

However, India should expect more claims and expressions of bravado similar to the “48-hour invasion” as Prime Minister Narendra Modi pursues a more assertive policy by engaging with traditional Chinese rivals such as Vietnam and Japan. China has already criticised India’s plans to export missiles to Vietnam and warned of consequences even though Beijing has been Pakistan’s largest arms supplier for decades.

 

The likelihood of the incoming Donald Trump administration in the U.S. pursuing a tougher stance against Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea has also made Chinese policymakers nervous. The PLA’s official English language news website recently accused Trump of “playing with fire” for his outreach to Taiwan.