The Chinese Art of Creeping, Covert Warfare

Brahma Chellaney, Mint, December 25, 2013

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 defense 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 method 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 neighbors that aims simultaneously to neutralize America’s extended deterrence in the Asian theater. Unlike the U.S., which has multiple allies and strategic partners, including a hub-and-spoke framework centered 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 U.S. 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 steady progression of small steps, none of which is dramatic enough to become a cause of war by itself, yet which cumulatively lead over time to a strategic transformation in China’s favor. 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 U.S. security assurances to allies and the value of building countervailing strategic partnerships between and among Asian states and America. More importantly, this salami-slice 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 multipronged invasion, it has ample leeway and capability.

In recent years, China has been pressing steadily outwards on its borders, intimidating its neighbors in a relentless territorial creep. The pace at which China’s bit-by-bit 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 political 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.

Yet China remains territorially a revolutionary power bent on upending the status quo in Asia. Its assertive claims springing from revisionist history — along with its unilateralist approach to international law and its penchant for brinkmanship — threaten Asian peace and stability.

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

An emboldened PRC then went on to seize 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). Its growing military might has strengthened its expansionist impulse.

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 colored his writings — is that China was provoked into attacking India to defend its honor 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 defense (let alone offensive capability), have itched to take on China in 1962? The Harvard scholar Roderick MacFarquhar has rightly dubbed 1962 “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.

Offense as defense 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 its 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.

The pattern of Chinese 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 the PRC’s 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 Buddhist regions located 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 Chinese 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 toward Chinese territorial airspace. This demand, unusual by international ADIZ standards, impinges on the principle of freedom of navigation of the skies. Yet Washington has advised U.S. 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, Washington is urging restraint also on Japan’s part, lest any escalation force it to take sides, undermining its policy to manage China’s rise without trying to contain it.

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

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

After lengthy negotiations, the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. failed to honor a treaty with another country. In fact, the U.S., despite a Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines that obligates the two nations to defend each another in the case of an attack, has done precious little in response to China’s occupation of the Scarborough Shoal.

The Obama administration’s actions on the world stage have been marked not by resolute leadership but by hesitation and doubt. Its stance not to challenge China directly only aids the Chinese incremental 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. China’s key neighbors 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.

(c) Mint, 2013.