China’s furtive wars of acquisition

In the way China made land-grabs across the mighty Himalayas in the 1950s by launching surreptitious encroachments, it is now waging furtive wars — without firing a single shot — to change the status quo in the South and East China seas, on the long line of control with India, and on international-river flows.

Although China has risen from a 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 and seizing an opportunistic timing, as well as camouflaging offense as defense. As Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception.” Only when a war by stealth cannot achieve the sought objectives should an overt war be unleashed.

China did stage overt military interventions even when it was poor and internally troubled. A Pentagon report has cited Chinese military preemption in 1950, 1962, 1969 and 1979 as examples of offense as defense. There was also China’s seizure of the Paracel Islands in 1974, the Johnson Reef in 1988, the Mischief Reef in 1995, and the Scarborough Shoal last year.

However, for a generation after Deng Xiaoping consolidated power, China actively promoted good-neighborly 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 permitting its neighbors to spur their own economic growth by plugging into China’s dramatic economic rise.

The good-neighborly approach began changing from the past decade as the Chinese leadership started believing 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 the large northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Other evidence of a shift to a muscle-flexing approach followed, with China picking territorial fights with multiple neighbors and broadening its “core interests.” And last year, China formally staked a claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea.

From employing its trade muscle to inflict commercial pain on a rival to exploiting its monopoly on the global production of a vital resource like rare-earth minerals, China has staked out a more muscular role, heightening Asian and wider concerns. 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 center 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 furtive war to accomplish political and military objectives is turning into a principle source of strategic instability in Asia. The instruments employed are diverse, ranging from waging economic warfare to creating a new class of stealth warriors under the aegis of paramilitary agencies, such as the Maritime Safety Administration, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, and the State Oceanic Administration.

These agencies, with the support of the Chinese navy, have been in the vanguard to change the status quo in China’s favor in the South and East China seas. China has already scored some successes, encouraging it to pursue multidirectional assertiveness against more than one neighbor at the same time.

For example, after a months-long standoff with the Philippines, China took effective control of the Scarborough Shoal since 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 the 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.

Even as China has effectively changed the status quo on the ground, the U.S. has done little to come to the aid of its ally, the Philippines. The U.S. kept urging restraint and caution on both sides after a Philippine warship squared off with Chinese vessels near the shoal a year ago, prompting China to embark on economic warfare.

Beijing sought to bankrupt many banana growers in the Philippines and hammer the tourism industry there by curbing banana imports and issuing an advisory against travel to that country. The shoal lies more than 800 kilometers from the Chinese mainland but is well within the Philippines’ “exclusive economic zone,” as defined under the Law of the Sea Convention.

In China’s furtive offensive to contest the decades-old Japanese control over the Senkaku Islands, Beijing has already 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 against Japan over the Senkakus has helped shake the status quo.

By sending patrol ships frequently to the waters around the islands since last fall — and by violating the airspace over them — Beijing has ignored the risk that an incident could spiral out of control, with dire consequences. Indeed, it engaged in a recklessly provocative act early this year when a Chinese vessel locked its weapon-targeting radar on a Japanese ship — an action equivalent to a sniper locking the little red dot of his laser sight onto the forehead of a chosen target.

The campaign against Japan has also spawned economic warfare, with an informal Chinese boycott of Japanese goods leading to a fall in Japan’s exports to China and a decline in sales of Japanese products made in China.

What has been the U.S. response to all this? It has urged both its ally Japan and economic-partner China to tone down their political crisis over the uninhabited islands. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told reporters while traveling to Japan in September 2012 that, “I am concerned that when these countries engage in provocations of one kind or another over these various islands that it raises the possibility that a misjudgment on one side or the other could result in violence and could result in conflict.”

China, in addition to seeking hegemony over the South China Sea and much of the East China Sea, has stepped up strategic pressure on India on multiple flanks, including by 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.

The largest real estate China seeks is not in the South or East China seas; it is not even Taiwan. It is in India — Arunachal Pradesh, which is three times as large as Taiwan and twice bigger than Switzerland. 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 surreptitious Chinese forays into Indian territory again increased last year. With the Himalayan frontier 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.

In the latest aggression that has cast a pall over the China-India relationship, a platoon of Chinese troops quietly intruded 19 kilometers across the line of control into disputed land in the Ladakh sector of Kashmir on the night of April 15, setting up a camp. The brazen intrusion into a highly strategic area controlling key access routes has triggered a dangerous military faceoff with India rushing troops to that area. How has the U.S. State Department responded? By urging India and China to work “together to settle their boundary disputes bilaterally and peacefully.”

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

China values controlling transboundary water flows to gain greater economic and political leverage over neighboring countries. Power, control and leverage are central elements in Chinese statecraft. Once its planned dam cascades on transnational rivers are completed, it will acquire implicit leverage over neighbors’ behavior.

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

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author of “Asian Juggernaut” (HarperCollins) and “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).

(c) The Japan Times, 2013.