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In the way China made land grabs across the Himalayas in the 1950s by launching furtive encroachments, it is now waging separate stealth wars—without firing a single shot—to change the status quo in the South and East China Seas, on the line of control with India, and on international river flows. Although China has risen from a backward, poor state to a global economic powerhouse, the key elements in its statecraft and strategic doctrine have not changed.

Since the Mao Zedong era, China has adhered to ancient theorist Sun Tzu’s advice, “The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy." This approach involves taking an adversary by surprise by exploiting its weaknesses, seizing any opportunistic timing, and camouflaging offence as defence. As Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception."

For a generation after Deng Xiaoping consolidated power, China actively promoted good neighbourly ties with other Asian states so as to concentrate on rapid economic growth. This strategy allowed Beijing to accumulate considerable economic and strategic heft, while also permitting its neighbours to spur their own economic growth by plugging into China’s dramatic economic rise.

The good-neighbourly approach began changing from the past decade, as the Chinese leadership started believing that China’s moment in the sun had finally come.

One of the first signs was China’s 2006 revival of its long-dormant claim to Arunachal Pradesh. Other evidence of a shift to a muscle-flexing approach followed, with China picking territorial fights with multiple neighbours and broadening its “core interests". And last year, China formally staked a claim to more than 80% of South China Sea.

In fact, the more openly China has embraced market capitalism, the more indigenized its political ideology has become. The country’s elites—by turning their back on Marxist dogma, imported from the West—have put Chinese nationalism at the centre of their political legitimacy. As a result, China’s new assertiveness has become more and more linked with national renewal.

Against this background, China’s increasing resort to stealth war is turning into a principle source of strategic instability in Asia. The instruments it uses are diverse, including a new class of stealth warriors reared by paramilitary maritime agencies. China has already scored some successes.

After a month-long standoff with the Philippines, China has taken effective control of the Scarborough Shoal last year by deploying ships around it and denying its adversary any access. Philippine fishermen can no longer enter a lagoon that served as their traditional fishing preserve. With Chinese ships staying put, the Philippines has been faced with a strategic Hobson’s choice: accept the new Chinese-dictated reality or risk open war.

In China’s stealth war to contest the decades-old Japanese control over the Senkaku Islands, Beijing has succeeded in its opening gambit—to make the international community recognize the existence of a dispute. In that sense, the new war of attrition China has launched over the Senkakus has helped shake the status quo.

In addition to seeking hegemony over South China Sea and much of the East China Sea, China has stepped up strategic pressure on India on multiple flanks, including ratcheting up territorial disputes. Unlike Japan, the Philippines, and some other Asian states that are separated from China by an ocean, India shares with that country the world’s longest contested land border. It is, therefore, more vulnerable to direct Chinese military pressure.

In fact, the largest and most prized real estate that China seeks is not in South or East China seas. It is in India—Arunachal Pradesh, which is three times as large as Taiwan. Yet the tensions over China’s territorial disputes with India arise for the same reason as in the South and East China seas—moves to disturb the status quo.

Although the Indian government chooses to underplay Chinese actions so as not to provoke greater aggressiveness, its figures reveal that—in keeping with a pattern witnessed since 2007—the number of stealthy Chinese forays into Indian territory again increased last year. Given that the Himalayan frontier is vast and inhospitable and thus difficult to effectively patrol in full, Chinese troops repeatedly attempt to sneak in, both to needle India and to possibly push the line of control southward.

Although such infiltration occurs in all sectors, much of last year’s increased incursion activity was concentrated in the high-altitude, 134km long Pangong Lake, where China is engaged in a game of chicken to expand its area of control. This endorheic lake— two-thirds of which China now holds—was the scene of bloody battles during the 1962 Chinese invasion of India.

As in the case of the territorial and maritime disputes, China is seeking to disturb the status quo on international river flows to its neighbours. Indeed, just as it has furtively encroached on disputed land in the past to present a fait accompli, China is seeking to re-engineer cross-border river flows by starting dam projects almost by stealth.

China values controlling transboundary water flows as a lever to gain greater economic and political leverage over neighbouring countries. Power, control, and leverage are central elements in Chinese statecraft. Once its dam are built on transnational rivers, it will acquire implicit leverage over its neighbours’ behaviour.

In this light, China’s increasingly fractious relations with its neighbours and the US—characterized by a security deficit and a norms deficit—are set to face new challenges. Persuading China to accept the status quo has become central to Asian peace and stability.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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