Among the issues impacting Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid's visit to Beijing and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's visit to India over the past few weeks, the recent Ladakh incident loomed large.

It all started with a few tents. Then, in a few days, it developed into a media firestorm in India. Television and print reports began to spin tales of a fire-breathing "dragon" and a political party too weak to slay it.

While the border issue was largely put aside in bilateral high-level meetings between the two countries, this 21-day standoff led Chinese and Indian soldiers to stand, as reporters in India put it, "eyeball-to-eyeball," and once again cast a light on lingering tensions and allegations of coercive diplomacy in Sino-Indian relations.

Lora Saalman
Saalman was a nonresident associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research focuses on China’s nuclear and strategic policies toward India, Russia, and arms control.
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Yet, a more direct light needs to be shone on the role of media, in particular Indian media, in complicating bilateral ties.

What became most apparent from the intensity of coverage was the unfettered media access at the border.

Ladakh, once tightly controlled with permits and passes, had its floodgates opened. Photo montages, shown again and again, fueled sensationalist reports on the assumed grand strategy of China's government to test Indian mettle and resolve the border issue in Beijing's favor.

Despite indications that the Indian government had sought over the past few years to stem information leaks about the border that could fuel media frenzy, this time its reporters had full access. There are competing potential reasons behind this shift. For the opposition party, media criticism of government weakness on Ladakh offered fodder for India's upcoming elections. For the ruling party, these reports distracted attention from corruption scandals involving railway ministers and rape cases.

Regardless of the motivations, there have been suggestions that the Indian media spurred its government to act and served as an information source in an opaque environment. This characterization, however, needs to be carefully assessed. There is a case to be made for the ability of the media to pressure the government into taking a stronger stand, but there are costs to such an approach. Media reports rapidly crossed from fact into speculation and spin.

Calls for military action against an aggressive China were not uncommon in Indian media coverage during the crisis. These statements do damage to views of bilateral relations not only within India's domestic populace, but also within that of China.

While the Chinese media tended to downplay the Ladakh incident, in doing so they instead recounted Indian reports.

Extreme views soon filtered their way into a young Chinese netizen community still forming its views on India.

The peaceful resolution of the Ladakh incident was a triumph of political and military diplomacy, not media brinkmanship.

The measured tone of both governments may not have been what the media sought, but it allowed both sides to withdraw in parallel and relatively quickly.

Through flag meetings and official channels, combined with setting up tents across from those of the Chinese military, the Indian military made full use of crisis-management mechanisms.

By applying leverage to pending reciprocal visits, Indian politicians used diplomatic pressure without rupturing ties. This balanced approach occurred in spite of Indian media sensationalism, not because of it.

This is not to say that media does not have a role to play in informing the public and allowing for vigorous debate. But serious questions remain when reporting is not only intemperate, but also wrong.

Out of dozens of interviews conducted during my visit to India during the Ladakh incident, only one newspaper used accurate quotations and comments from our exchange. This hardly bodes well for the veracity and integrity of reporting on something as prone to bias as the border issue.

After recent high-level visits between India and China, hopefully both sides can take a step back from the "coercive diplomacy" that seems to be driven not so much by government or military, but rather by the media.

This article was originally published by Global Times as part of feature offering contrary perspectives. Read Binod Singh's opposing take on the Global Times.