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Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

The Chinese art of creeping warfare

By altering territorial 'facts' on the ground, China is successfully altering its borders without resorting to war

With its increasingly powerful military calling the shots in strategic policy, China’s jurisdictional creep in Asia is manifesting itself in three distinct ways. One mode is by air, as illustrated by its new air defence identification zone (ADIZ)—an action that lays unilateral claims to international airspace over the East China Sea and covers territories that China does not control. Another is territorial creep by sea. And the third approach is encroachment by land to strengthen its military position and claims against India.

China is working to alter the status quo in Asia little by little as part of a high-stakes effort to extend its control to strategic areas and resources and to gain Asian primacy.

China’s persistent territorial nibbling reflects a strategy of extended coercion against neighbours that aims simultaneously to neutralize America’s extended deterrence in the Asian theatre. Unlike the US, which has multiple allies and strategic partners, including a hub-and-spoke framework centred on bilateral security treaties, China is a lonely rising power with no real allies, yet propping up two renegade states, North Korea and Pakistan, to secure narrow sub-regional geopolitical advantages.

Through extended coercion, China is waging creeping, covert warfare in Asia while keeping the US at bay. Washington, far from coming to the aid of its allies and strategic partners, has chartered a course of neutrality on sovereignty disputes so as to protect its deep engagement with China.

In practice, the strategy of extended coercion translates into salami slicing. This involves a progression of small steps, none of which is dramatic to become a cause of war by itself but which cumulatively lead over time to a strategic transformation in China’s favour. By creating new facts on the ground by stealth, China seeks to grab the salami it covets in slices as part of a plan to bamboozle and outwit the opponent.

By moving slowly and quietly but inexorably, China undercuts the relevance of US security assurances to allies and the value of building countervailing strategic partnerships between and among Asian states and America. More importantly, this approach seriously limits the military options of rival states by confounding their deterrence plans and making it difficult for them to devise proportionate or effective counteractions.

China’s strategy seeks to ensure the initiative remains with it. Take India. It is locked in a very defensive and militarily challenging posture vis-à-vis China along what is the world’s longest and most-forbidding disputed border. Whether Beijing wishes to keep India under sustained pressure through cross-frontier incursions or catch India militarily by surprise through a Depsang-style deep but localized encroachment or a 1962-type multi-pronged invasion, it has ample leeway and capability.

In recent years, China has been pressing steadily outwards on its borders, intimidating its neighbours in a relentless territorial creep. The pace at which China’s strategy proceeds depends on the extent to which its opponents marshal political will and the capability to resist it. The strategy, for example, has run into stiffer obstacles vis-à-vis an unyielding Japan than with a weaker Philippines.

Nearly 65 years after the communist takeover in China, the country is still seeking to expand its frontiers, even though Han territorial power is now at its historical zenith. China has never been as large as it is today, except when it was ruled by the foreign Mongol and Manchu dynasties.

Let’s be clear: changing the territorial status quo has remained the unfinished business of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1949, when it set out to forcibly absorb the sprawling Xinjiang and Tibetan plateau—actions that increased the landmass of China by 44%.

An emboldened PRC then seized the Switzerland-size Aksai Chin plateau of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in the 1950s, the Paracel Islands in 1974, the Johnson South Reef in 1988, the Mischief Reef in 1995 and, most recently, the Scarborough Shoal (2012) and the Second Thomas Shoal (2013).

Yet the apologists for China in India—as elsewhere—are still seeking to whitewash its record of aggression. Belgian scholar Pierre Ryckmans— publishing under the pen name of Simon Leys—coined the phrase the “100 percenters" to describe the PRC fan club members who support whatever China does or says 100%.

The 100 percenters in India have actually gone to the extent of blaming their own country for inviting the 1962 Chinese attack. These inveterate appeasers do not deny that it was China that attacked India, a historical fact beyond the pale of controversy. However, their thesis—relying on a controversial 1970 book by the Australian journalist Neville Maxwell, whose Marxist orientation and deep-seated prejudice against India coloured his writings—is that China was provoked into attacking India to defend its honour and dignity and to stop further Indian provocations.

Blaming the victim for inviting the aggression echoes the argument of warped minds that rape victims often invite the assault. It is a thesis that only the true 100 percenters could have propounded. The historical fact is that the PRC launched a forward policy of aggression from 1950 onwards, gobbling up Tibet and then nibbling at Indian territories, prompting India to belatedly forward deploy some ill-equipped and ill-trained forces.

How could India, with a ragtag military and no robust defence (let alone offensive capability), have itched to take on China in 1962? The Harvard scholar Roderick MacFarquhar has rightly dubbed 1962 as Mao’s India War, detailing how the Chinese carefully planned the invasion and cleverly used Jawaharlal Nehru’s unguarded remarks (“our instructions are to free our territory") to brand India as the aggressor.

Offence as defence has remained a core element in the PRC’s strategic doctrine. A Pentagon report published in 2010 has specific cases where China carried out military preemption in the name of a strategically defensive act. These examples include its intervention in the Korean War (1950), the 1962 attack, its initiation of a border conflict with the Soviet Union through a military ambush (1969), the Paracel Islands’ capture and invasion of Vietnam (1979).

Even in the more recent acts of aggression involving its seizure of the Johnson South Reef, the Mischief Reef, the Scarborough Shoal and the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, China claimed it was provoked into carrying out those actions by Vietnam and the Philippines.

Changing facts on the ground is a strategy the PRC first honed at home by staging demographic aggression against ethnic-minority homelands, such as the Tibetan plateau, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, and gerrymandering Tibet. Today, China’s navy and new coast guard assert territorial and maritime claims in the South and East China Seas, while its army flexes its muscles in the high-altitude borderlands with India.

This pattern of territorial creep has become familiar: construct a dispute, initiate a jurisdictional claim through periodic incursions, and then increase the frequency and duration of such intrusions, thereby establishing a military presence or pressuring a rival to cut a deal on China’s terms. This is in keeping with its approach to territorial disputes: what is ours is ours and what is yours is negotiable. If an opponent refuses to give in, China employs punitive instruments from its diplomatic toolbox, including economic warfare.

Along land frontiers, rodent-style surreptitious attacks usually precede salami slicing. The aim is to start eating into enemy land like giant rodents and thereby facilitate the slicing. This strategy is particularly focused on the two strategic regions on opposite ends of the Himalayan frontier—Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.

Consider another provocative action: China’s new ADIZ covers territories it claims but does not control, setting a dangerous precedent in international relations. If China prevails in the game of chicken it has started against Japan, India will likely come under greater pressure. Japan has asked its airlines to ignore China’s demand for advance notification of flights even if they are merely transiting the new zone and not heading towards Chinese airspace. This demand, unusual by international ADIZ standards, impinges on the principle of freedom of navigation of the skies. Yet Washington has advised US carriers to respect China’s ADIZ, opening a rift with Tokyo.

President Barack Obama’s administration has responded to China’s ADIZ with words of cautious criticism but no castigatory step. Indeed, the US is urging restraint on Japan’s part, lest any escalation force it to take sides, undermining its policy to manage China’s rise without containing it.

One handicap Washington faces in seeking to combat the Chinese hegemonic strategy is American consumerism and the US debt to China that has now reached $1.3 trillion. Inflows of cheap Chinese capital remain critical for the US to finance its supersized budget deficits.

The US not willing to defend its allies’ territorial claims by acting in ways that could damage its relations with China, is now central to its economic and political interests. Take China’s seizure of the Scarborough Shoal, located barely 200km west of the Philippines’ Subic Bay.

After lengthy negotiations, the US in June 2012 brokered a deal for a mutual withdrawal of Chinese and Philippine maritime vessels from the area. The Philippines withdrew first on Chinese insistence but on a clear understanding that China will follow suit. China instead pursued a game of deception, giving the indication that it was withdrawing, only to reinforce its muscle power in the area and occupy the Scarborough Shoal.

In this light, Japan faces a deepening security dilemma. To rely on the security treaty with the US in the event of a war with China would be risky for Japan, given America’s strategic compulsions. It would not be the first time that the US failed to honour a treaty with another country. In fact, the US, despite a Mutual Defence Treaty with the Philippines that obligates the two nations to defend each other in the case of an attack, has done little in response to China’s occupation of the Scarborough Shoal.

The Obama administration’s actions have been marked not by resolute leadership but by hesitation and doubt. Its stance not to challenge China directly only aids the Chinese aggression in Asia. In the absence of any geopolitical blowback, an emboldened China will continue to subvert the status quo to create a hegemonic Middle Kingdom. Its neighbours must overcome their differences and collaborate strategically. Separately, they are outclassed by China but, collectively, they have the potential to rein in its expansionism.

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

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