Antony's visit: Why the Chinese general's warning matters

In the language of military hardware, Maj Gen Luo Yan, who fired off a fusillade against India on Thursday, has always been something of a loose cannon.  On his blog (here) and on his Sina Weibo (Chinese-language Twitter-like service) feed (here), Luo, a scholar at the PLA's Academy of Military Sciences, has in recent years and months kept up a steady barrage of muscular, over-the-top commentaries, comments - and open threats to China's neighbours - that have served to channel a hawkish line that China's People's Liberation Army can never hope to do officially.

That parallel channel of communication has served the purpose of rallying fenqing - China's new generation of neocon nationalists - and serving notice on China's "adversaries", while simultaneously giving China's political leaders plausible deniability. It's the usual good-cop-bad-cop routine, except in this case, the regularity of Luo's jarring pronouncements seemed to suggest that he was only channelling the unspoken sentiments of PLA ventriloquists, who were using him to "throw their voices."

What happened on Thursday fits in with that well-established routine. At an interaction with the foreign media - on the day AK Antony touched down in Beijing for the first visit to China in seven years by an Indian Defence Minister - Luo cautioned India not to "stir up new trouble" along the border with China.

It would be folly to dismiss  Luo Yan as a loose cannon.

It would be folly for India to dismiss Luo Yan as a loose cannon.

Taken in their entirety, there was enough in Luo's comments to suggest that he was signalling moderation: for instance, he noted, in the context of the border tensions between India and China that the problems needed to be addressed with a "cool head" and that the situation was largely under control. But  he pointedly referred to India's "increased military deployment along the border area" as problematic, without acknowledging that India's troop deployment - such as it is - was merely reactive and in response to China's far more formidable marshalling of troops on the Himalayan heights.

When disquieted Indian officials took up the matter with Chinese authorities, they met with the predictable disclaimer: that Luo's thoughts did not reflect official views.  That fits in with the template for the blow-hot-blow-cold rhetoric from official China that has left Indian officialdom unable to fathom Chinese intentions and, generally, wrong-footed Indian policy response to China.

Just late last week, for instance, at the Special Representative-level talks between India and China, for instance, the Chinese side came across as being keen to "break new ground" in the border talks, which have gone through 16 rounds of negotiations without making substantive progress. The atmospherics surrounding the visit by the delegation headed by India's Special Representative, Shivshankar Menon, were markedly upbeat, and the Indian delegation appeared well-pleased with the course of the talks. Indian diplomats had even said that that they sensed a generational shift in the way the new Chinese leadership team - of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang - was setting the tone for the border talks.

But already that sunny view of the relationship - as rare as the gloriously good weather that Beijing has had in recent days - has been partly clouded over by the haze from Luo Yan's tough talk.

Even given Luo Yan's record as a loose cannon, it would be folly to dismiss his grating rhetoric directed at India for the reason that he isn't a lightweight in the PLA academy. His father, Luo Qingchang, was an early member of the Communist Party and a senior official and intelligence officer who was considere close to former Premier Zhou Enlai. And Luo Yan himself is believed to be close to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is looking to consolidate his power within the Communist Party hierarchy and the military leadership.

The fact that Luo Yan's comments on India as the troublemaker were made at an officially convened media briefing - and not made off the cuff - lend them far greater weight and gravitas than might otherwise be the case. In any case,  Luo Yan's social interactions - on Sina Weibo and on his blog - have, he has himself acknowledged, happened with the official "permission" of the PLA and the military leadership.  To that extent, he does channel the "unofficial" voice of the PLA.

If there is one saving grace to Luo's comments directed at India on Thursday, it is that they are positively benign when compared with his rather more provocative observations against Japan and other maritime neighbours of China. For instance, at the height of the confrontation with Japan over the Senkaku islands last year, Luo drew up a "war-time strategy" which envisaged taking the 130,000 Japanese citizens in China hostage. Similarly, he has warned the Philippines that it was rapidly running out of time to reconcile itself to Chinese sovereignty over areas in the South China Sea that are at the heart of a dispute among many littoral states.

It's true, of course, that much as they did on Thursday, Chinese officials have frequently "disowned" many of these hawkish pronouncements. In fact, earlier this year, there were reports that he had been eased out of one of China's top advisory bodies - the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference - because he was "too outspoken''.

But just the fact that that for all the displeasure that he ostensibly give rise to within the political leadership with his inflammatory rhetoric, the loose cannon was firing off against India on the day when Antony was arriving for talks points to China's artful deployment of double-speak as a weapon of propagandist war to keep Indian officialdom guessing about Chinese intentions.

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Updated Date: Jul 05, 2013 08:48:07 IST

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