About Chellaney

Professor, strategic thinker, author and commentator

China’s troublesome civil-military relations

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Recent developments suggest President Xi Jinping is still struggling to keep the People’s Liberation Army in line.

 

China Military Parade

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects People’s Liberation Army troops during a military parade to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the PLA on July 30. | AP

BY The Japan Times\

Has Chinese President Xi Jinping managed to assert full civilian control over the People’s Liberation Army through purges of generals and admirals and other reform-related actions? China’s secretive and opaque political system makes it hard to get a clear picture. Yet recent developments suggest Xi is still struggling to keep the PLA in line.

Take the recent troop standoff with India that raised the specter of a Himalayan war, with China threatening reprisals if New Delhi did not unconditionally withdraw its forces from a small Bhutanese plateau that Beijing claims is Chinese territory “since ancient times.” After 10 weeks, the faceoff on the Doklam Plateau dramatically ended with both sides pulling back troops and equipment from the site on the same day, signaling that Beijing, not New Delhi, had blinked.

The mutual-withdrawal deal was struck just after Xi replaced the chief of the PLA’s Joint Staff Department. This topmost position — equivalent to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff — was created only last year as part of Xi’s military reforms to turn the PLA into a force “able to fight and win wars.” The Joint Staff Department is in charge of PLA’s operations, intelligence and training.

The Doklam pullbacks suggest that the removed chief, General Fang Fenghui, who has since been detained for alleged corruption, was an obstacle to clinching a deal with India.

In mid-June, India’s close ally, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, discovered PLA crews working to build a road through Doklam, prompting New Delhi to dispatch troops and equipment to halt the construction of the road that was to overlook the trijunction where Tibet, Bhutan and the Indian state of Sikkim meet.

In seeking to use road construction to change the status quo in a disputed Himalayan territory, the PLA, in a strategic miscalculation, anticipated Bhutan’s diplomatic protest but not India’s rapid military intervention. With the attempted land grab also threatening Indian security, New Delhi was quick to turn Bhutan’s call for help into India’s own fight.

To be sure, this was not the first time the PLA’s belligerent actions in the Himalayas imposed diplomatic costs on China. A classic case was what happened when Xi went to India for a state visit in September 2014. Xi arrived on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s birthday with a strange gift for his host — a predawn Chinese military encroachment that day deep into India’s northern region of Ladakh. The encroachment, the worst in many years in terms of the number of intruding troops, overshadowed Xi’s visit.

It appeared bizarre that the military of an important power would seek to mar in this manner the visit of its own head of state to a key neighboring country.

Yet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s earlier visit to New Delhi in 2013 was similarly preceded by a 19-km PLA incursion into another part of Ladakh that lasted three weeks. The encroachment was seemingly intended to convey anger over India’s belated efforts to fortify its border defenses.

Such provocations might suggest that they are intentional, with the Chinese government in the know, thus reflecting a preference for blending soft and hard tactics. But it is also possible that the provocations — at least their timing and duration — underscore the continuing “disconnect between the military and the civilian leadership” in China that then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned about in 2011.

During his 2014 India trip, Xi appeared embarrassed by the accompanying PLA encroachment that cast a pall over his visit. He assured Modi that he would sort it out upon his return.

Soon after he returned, the Chinese defense ministry quoted Xi as telling a closed-door meeting with PLA commanders that “all PLA forces should follow the president’s instructions” and that the military must display “absolute loyalty and firm faith in the Communist Party, guarantee a smooth chain of command, and make sure all decisions from the central leadership are fully implemented.”

Just weeks later, Xi again asked for the PLA’s full loyalty to the party, telling a military-political conference in Fujian that “the Communist Party commands the gun.”

Recently Xi conveyed that same message yet again when he addressed a parade marking the 90th anniversary of the PLA’s creation on Aug. 1, 1927. Donning military fatigues, Xi exhorted members of his 2.3 million-strong armed forces to “unswervingly follow the absolute leadership of the party.”

Had civilian control of the PLA been working well, would Xi repeatedly be demanding “absolute loyalty” from the military or asking it to “follow his instructions”?

With its one-party dictatorship placing the Communist Party above the state, China does not have a national army; rather the party has an army. So the PLA has traditionally sworn fealty to the party, not the nation. By contrast, in the case of China’s closest ally, Pakistan, the army has a country.

Under Xi’s two immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, the PLA gradually became stronger at the expense of the party. The military’s rising clout has troubled Xi because it hampers his ambition to become China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Xi’s present wife — folk singer Peng Liyuan — is actually a civilian member of the PLA, holding a rank equivalent to major general.

As part of his effort to reassert party control over the military and carry out defense reforms, Xi has used his anti-corruption campaign to ensnare a number of top PLA officers. He has also cut the size of the ground force and established a new command-and-control structure.

But just as a dog’s tail cannot be straightened, asserting full civilian control over a politically ascendant PLA is proving unachievable. After all, the party is ideologically bankrupt and morally adrift, and depends on the PLA to ensure domestic order and sustain its own political monopoly.

The regime’s legitimacy increasingly relies on an appeal to nationalism. But the PLA, with its soaring budgets and expanding role to safeguard China’s overseas interests, sees itself as the ultimate arbiter of nationalism.

To make matters worse, Xi has made many enemies at home in his ruthless effort to concentrate power in himself, including through corruption purges. It is not known whether the PLA’s upper echelon respects him to the extent to be fully guided by his instructions.

The PLA and the government appeared to be on the same page during the Doklam standoff, with the Chinese foreign and defense ministries and other state organs keeping up a barrage of threats and vitriol against India. But no sooner had Xi fired the chief of the Joint Staff Department, Gen. Fang, then a deal with India was clinched. This suggested that the topmost general was resisting ending the standoff.

Fang was fired just days after he hosted America’s highest-ranking military officer, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Fang was replaced by Gen. Li Zuocheng, considered a “war hero” for his combat role in the 1979 Chinese invasion of Vietnam, although China received a bloody nose from the more battle-hardened Vietnamese.

Xi’s military purges have been designed to consolidate his authority over the PLA and ensure that it does not blindside the government with actions or statements. But as Fang’s firing and other latest changes in the PLA leadership signal, Xi is still working to bring the military fully under his control.

More fundamentally, the PLA’s growing power is redolent of what happened in Imperial Japan, which rose dramatically as a world power in one generation after the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Boosted by war victories against Manchu-ruled China and czarist Russia, the Japanese military acquired political clout and gradually went on to dictate terms to the civilian government, as the 1931 Manchurian Incident first highlighted. This opened the path to aggression and conquest in Asia, with tragic consequences for Japan and the region.

In the past decade, the PLA’s increasing clout has led China to stake out a more muscular role. This includes resurrecting territorial and maritime disputes, asserting new sovereignty claims, and using construction activity to change the status quo. It won’t be long before the PLA rekindles Himalayan tensions with a major new encroachment.

China’s cut-throat internal politics and troublesome civil-military relations clearly have a bearing on its external policy. The risks of China’s rise as a praetorian state are real and carry major implications for neighboring countries.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2017.

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India, beware: China could seek revenge for Doklam

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Damage from the Himalayan military standoff will not be easily repaired

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Exile Tibetans listen to a speaker during an Aug. 11 protest in New Delhi to show support for India in its Doklam standoff with China. The banners in local language read “Tibet’s independence is India’s security.” © AP

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

China and India have defused one of their worst border flare-ups in decades, which had threatened to trigger an armed conflict between the nuclear-armed Asian giants. However, the damage the 10-week troop standoff inflicted on the already frayed bilateral relationship will not be easy to repair. Indeed, the China-India divide over border, water, trade, maritime and other issues, including transportation and economic corridors, may only widen.

There is also the risk that the end of the face-off on the small Himalayan plateau of Doklam could prove just a temporary respite from border tensions before confrontation flares anew.

Beijing had all along insisted that if there was any dispute over Doklam — home to mainly Bhutanese shepherds — it was between China and tiny Bhutan. But, ultimately, it accepted a deal with the country it said had no role at all, India, which it labeled an “illegal trespasser.” The Chinese Communist Party and its People’s Liberation Army may find it difficult to live with a retreat that China was compelled to make after failing to intimidate India into submission through torrents of vitriol and warmongering.

China’s record under communist rule shows that it has at times retreated only to open a new front in the same area or elsewhere.

The Himalayan standoff was triggered when Chinese forces sought to change the territorial status quo by building a road through Doklam, the high-altitude Bhutanese plateau that China claims as its own. India, Bhutan’s security guarantor, intervened militarily and halted the construction, saying the road overlooking the triple border of Tibet, Bhutan and the Indian state of Sikkim threatened its own security.

The standoff ended on Aug. 28, the same day the state-owned China Daily had warned that India stood “to face retribution” over its intransigence. The Indian troops retreated 500 meters to the Indian side of the border, to a ridge-top post from where they can quickly intervene again if the PLA restarts work on the military road. China withdrew troops and construction equipment from the site while asserting the right to send armed patrols to the disputed plateau.

China sought to save face by spinning the deal as an Indian climbdown, camouflaging its own troop withdrawal from the site. It could not admit that it had withdrawn because it had claimed that Doklam — like the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, or the disputed South China Sea — had been Chinese territory “since ancient times.” In reality, China is unlikely to be able to resume work on the road project, which perished when India called China’s bluff.

Standing up to China

More fundamentally, India, like Japan before it, has shown that if a neighbor is willing to stand up to China, it can be made to back away. Doklam is a defining event: For the first time since China’s success in expanding its control in the South China Sea by artificially creating seven islands and militarizing them, a rival power has stalled Chinese construction activity to change the status quo on a disputed territory. In a grudging admission about the Doklam setback, China’s ultranationalist Global Times newspaper said on Aug. 30: “China needs to enhance its deterrence to avoid external provocations.”

Beijing was left with little choice but to negotiate a deal after India showed that it would not be cowed. To “win without fighting,” as the ancient Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu recommended, Beijing made India the target of its new “three warfares” doctrine, which was first described in a 2008 Pentagon report to Congress. The standoff revealed how China blends psychological warfare with disinformation campaigns, media manipulation, and legal action or “lawfare” to mount intense pressure while presenting the other side as the aggressor and itself as the aggrieved party.

Repeated Chinese warnings to India to back down or face dire consequences, however, fell on deaf ears. India allowed the war of words to become one-sided by refusing to react to the almost daily Chinese verbal attacks.

Eventually, Beijing was forced to end the face-off through mutual disengagement of troops. Two factors forced Beijing’s hand. It wished to save the Sept. 3-5 summit in Xiamen, China, of the BRICS countries, a bloc comprising Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa. More importantly, it wanted to safeguard Chinese President Xi Jinping’s reputation in the run-up to the critical party congress this autumn. Had the standoff with India dragged on, it could potentially have taken a toll on Xi’s standing.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration also helped put pressure on Beijing by implicitly supporting the Indian and Bhutanese positions, including backing a “return to the status quo” that prevailed on Doklam before the road building began.

The deal with India was clinched shortly after Xi replaced Gen. Fang Fenghui with Gen. Li Zuocheng in the top PLA post that is equivalent to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. This suggested that the removed chief, as head of the PLA’s operations, was an obstacle to a Doklam deal.

Despite China’s overall military superiority, India, with its terrain and tactical advantages, was in a stronger position in the triple border area. It could have prolonged the face-off until the onset of the harsh Himalayan winter, thus casting a cloud over the Chinese party congress. A protracted standoff would also have exacted increasing diplomatic costs for Beijing, given that India had dared to stand up to it, thus denting China’s reputed preeminence in Asia.

Doing Xi a favor

By reaching the deal, India effectively let China off the hook and did Xi an important favor at a time when he is focused on the party congress, which is expected to see him emerge as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. For New Delhi, salvaging Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s China visit for the BRICS summit, unfortunately, became an important consideration, although that grouping has increasingly come under Chinese sway.

But Beijing is unlikely to return the favor, and India’s decision to let China escape a strategic predicament of its own making could come back to haunt it.

China has tactically retreated because, beyond declaring war on India, it was running out of options. But without the distraction of a looming party congress, China could seek revenge for Doklam at a time and place of its choosing. Next time, the PLA is unlikely to make the mistake of encroaching onto an area where India enjoys the military advantage. It will choose a place where it can spring a nasty surprise and dictate terms to the Indian army.

With India already facing increasingly persistent PLA efforts to intrude into its borderlands, eternal vigilance holds the key to Himalayan peace. India’s army chief, Gen. Bipin Rawat, has cautioned that the country cannot be complacent because Doklam-style encroachments are likely to “increase in the future.” But while China uses the disputed long border with India as a justification to probe Indian defenses, India remains perennially in a reactive mode.

A grim reminder of the larger challenges in the bilateral relationship is China’s breach of legally binding obligations to supply India with hydrological data on upstream river flows in Tibet in order to facilitate flood forecasting and warnings. A third of India’s freshwater supply comes from river flows from Tibet. The current monsoon season has brought record flooding in parts of northern India.

Beijing has offered no explanation for its failure this year to honor bilateral accords that require it to transfer data on specific rivers to India annually from May 15 to Oct. 15. Had China been in India’s place, it would have linked the breach of commitments to the downstream floods and deaths. But India has been quiet. Timely transmission of data would have helped generate flood warnings, thus saving lives and reducing material losses in India’s northeast. The data denial apparently is designed to punish India for boycotting Xi’s Belt and Road infrastructure summit in Beijing in May.

When Beijing can breach formal bilateral agreements, will it continue to stick to the Doklam deal? In 2012, China and the Philippines reached a U.S.-brokered deal to withdraw naval vessels from around the disputed Scarborough Shoal. China gave the impression it was withdrawing its ships, only to return and capture the shoal.

China’s autocrats are actually undermining their country’s long-term interests by making a mortal enemy of India, with which they are currently running an annual trade surplus of nearly $60 billion. The cloistered process of decision-making in China has glossed over the far-reaching strategic ramifications of driving Asia’s most important geopolitical “swing state” into the U.S. camp.

Whatever happens next, Doklam illustrates China’s proclivity to miscalculate and overreach. India’s refusal to bend while talking peace offers other Asia-Pacific nations an example of how to manage Chinese coercion. Doklam also raises a broader question: Had U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration stood up to China in the South China Sea, would the seven artificial and now-militarized islands have been created? It is China’s success in altering the status quo there — without incurring any international costs — that has emboldened its territorial revisionism in the East China Sea and the Himalayas.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water, Peace, and War.”

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.

China’s water war on India by other means

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Tibet, a treasure-trove of natural resources, including water and precious metals, is a great strategic asset for China in its pursuit of an often-improvident style of economic growth. The sprawling Tibetan plateau also arms Beijing with water leverage over downstream countries because it is the starting point for most of Asia’s great rivers, many of which are being heavily dammed just before they cross into neighbouring nations.

China is sharpening its leverage with co-riparian India. Water indeed has emerged as a new divide in Sino-Indian relations, as Beijing quietly and opaquely builds dams, barrages and other structures on rivers flowing to India. It spurned then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s 2013 proposal that the two countries enter into a water treaty or establish an intergovernmental institution to define mutual rights and responsibilities on shared rivers. The flash floods that ravaged Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh between 2000 and 2005 were linked to the unannounced releases from rain-swollen Chinese dams and barrages.

At a time when the Doklam face-off has entered its third month and the risk of a Chinese military attack on India is growing, there is more troubling news: Beijing is fashioning water into a political weapon by denying India flood-related hydrological data since May, even as major flooding has hit the region from Assam to Uttar Pradesh. Data on upstream river flows is essential for flood forecasting and warning in order to save lives and reduce material losses. China’s data denial crimps flash flood modelling in India.

By embarking on a dangerous game of water poker, Beijing has demonstrated how the denial of hydrological data in the critically important monsoon season amounts to the use of water as a political tool against a downstream country. Indeed, even while supplying data in past years, China’s lack of transparency raised questions. After all, like rice traded on the world market, hydrological data comes in different grades and qualities — from good, reliable data to inferior data and broken data.

China’s latest action actually violates two bilateral MOUs of 2013 and a 2014 accord, which obligate it to transfer hydrological data to India from three upstream monitoring stations in Tibet every year from May 15 to October 15. No data has been transferred thus far this year, although India, in keeping with the MOUs, paid for the data in advance. While China sells hydrological data to downriver countries, India provides such data free to both its downstream neighbours — Pakistan and Bangladesh.

China has long displayed contempt for international law. No bilateral accord seems to have binding force for it once its immediate purpose has passed, as Beijing recently highlighted by trashing the 1984 Sino-British treaty that paved the way for Hong Kong’s handover in 1997. China said that pact had lost “practical meaning” because 20 years had passed since Hong Kong’s return. Yet it selectively invokes a 19th-century, colonial-era accord to justify its Doklam intrusion, while ignoring its own violations — cited by Bhutan and India — of more recent bilateral agreements not to disturb the territorial status quo.

India should not be downplaying China’s breach of commitment to supply hydrological data from May 15. Yet, for two months, the ministry of external affairs hid China’s contravention, which began much before the Doklam standoff. When MEA finally admitted China’s breach of obligation, it simultaneously sought to shield Beijing by saying there could be a “technical reason” for non-transfer of data (just as MEA sought to obscure China’s Aug. 15 twin raids in the Lake Pangong area by gratuitously telling the Financial Times that “no commonly delineated boundary” exists there). How can a technical hitch explain data withholding from three separate stations for over two months? MEA also went out of its way to reject a linkage between China’s data denial and the flooding, for example, in Assam. Wouldn’t the timely transmission of data have generated flood warnings and thus helped save lives and movable assets?

Had China been in India’s place, it would have promptly raised a hue and cry about the commitment violation and linked it to the downstream floods and deaths.

More fundamentally, the Doklam standoff, the Chinese hydro-engineering projects to reengineer cross-border river flows, the denial of hydrological data, and China’s claims to vast tracts of Indian land are all a reminder that Tibet is at the heart of the India-China divide. The 1951 fall of Tibet represented the most far-reaching geopolitical development in modern India’s history, with the impact exacerbated by subsequent Indian blunders. India must subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue, including by using historically more accurate expressions like “Indo-Tibetan border” (not “India-China border”) and emphasizing that its previously stated positions were linked to Tibet securing real autonomy.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2017.

Calling the Chinese Bully’s Bluff

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

The more power China has accumulated, the more it has attempted to achieve its foreign-policy objectives with bluff, bluster, and bullying. But, as its Himalayan border standoff with India’s military continues, the limits of this approach are becoming increasingly apparent.

The current standoff began in mid-June, when Bhutan, a close ally of India, discovered the People’s Liberation Army trying to extend a road through Doklam, a high-altitude plateau in the Himalayas that belongs to Bhutan, but is claimed by China. India, which guarantees tiny Bhutan’s security, quickly sent troops and equipment to halt the construction, asserting that the road – which would overlook the point where Tibet, Bhutan, and the Indian state of Sikkim meet – threatened its own security.

Since then, China’s leaders have been warning India almost daily to back down or face military reprisals. China’s defense ministry has threatened to teach India a “bitter lesson,” vowing that any conflict would inflict “greater losses” than the Sino-Indian War of 1962, when China invaded India during a Himalayan border dispute and inflicted major damage within a few weeks. Likewise, China’s foreign ministry has unleashed a torrent of vitriol intended to intimidate India into submission.

Despite all of this, India’s government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has kept its cool, refusing to respond to any Chinese threat, much less withdraw its forces. As China’s warmongering has continued, its true colors have become increasingly vivid. It is now clear that China is attempting to use psychological warfare (“psywar”) to advance its strategic objectives – to “win without fighting,” as the ancient Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu recommended.

China has waged its psywar against India largely through disinformation campaigns and media manipulation, aimed at presenting India – a raucous democracy with poor public diplomacy – as the aggressor and China as the aggrieved party. Chinese state media have been engaged in eager India-bashing for weeks. China has also employed “lawfare,” selectively invoking a colonial-era accord, while ignoring its own violations – cited by Bhutan and India – of more recent bilateral agreements.

For the first few days of the standoff, China’s psywar blitz helped it dominate the narrative. But, as China’s claims and tactics have come under growing scrutiny, its approach has faced diminishing returns. In fact, from a domestic perspective, China’s attempts to portray itself as the victim – claiming that Indian troops had illegally entered Chinese territory, where they remain – has been distinctly damaging, provoking a nationalist backlash over the failure to evict the intruders.

As a result, President Xi Jinping’s image as a commanding leader, along with the presumption of China’s regional dominance, is coming under strain, just months before the critical 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). And it is difficult to see how Xi could turn the situation around.

Despite China’s overall military superiority, it is scarcely in a position to defeat India decisively in a Himalayan war, given India’s fortified defenses along the border. Even localized hostilities at the tri-border area would be beyond China’s capacity to dominate, because the Indian army controls higher terrain and has greater troop density. If such military clashes left China with so much as a bloodied nose, as happened in the same area in 1967, it could spell serious trouble for Xi at the upcoming National Congress.

But, even without actual conflict, China stands to lose. Its confrontational approach could drive India, Asia’s most important geopolitical “swing state,” firmly into the camp of the United States, China’s main global rival. It could also undermine its own commercial interests in the world’s fastest-growing major economy, which sits astride China’s energy-import lifeline.

Already, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has tacitly warned of economic sanctions if China, which is running an annual trade surplus of nearly $60 billion with India, continues to disturb border peace. More broadly, as China has declaredunconditional Indian troop withdrawal to be a “prerequisite” for ending the standoff, India, facing recurrent Chinese incursions over the last decade, has insisted that border peace is a “prerequisite” for developing bilateral ties.

Against this background, the smartest move for Xi would be to attempt to secure India’s help in finding a face-saving compromise to end the crisis. The longer the standoff lasts, the more likely it is to sully Xi’s carefully cultivated image as a powerful leader, and that of China as Asia’s hegemon, which would undermine popular support for the regime at home and severely weaken China’s influence over its neighbors.

Already, the standoff is offering important lessons to other Asian countries seeking to cope with China’s bullying. For example, China recently threatened to launch military action against Vietnam’s outposts in the disputed Spratly Islands, forcing the Vietnamese government to stop drilling for gas at the edge of China’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

China does not yet appear ready to change its approach. Some experts even predict that it will soon move forward with a “small-scale military operation” to expel the Indian troops currently in its claimed territory. But such an attack is unlikely to do China any good, much less change the territorial status quo in the tri-border area. It certainly won’t make it possible for China to resume work on the road it wanted to build. That dream most likely died when India called the Chinese bully’s bluff.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© 1995-2017 Project Syndicate.

China’s Weaponization of Trade

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The largest container ship in world, CSCL Globe, docks during its maiden voyage, at the port of Felixstowe in southeast England, January 7, 2015. Photo: Reuters.

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

China denies mixing business with politics, yet it has long used trade to punish countries that refuse to toe its line. China’s recent heavy-handed economic sanctioning of South Korea, in response to that country’s decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, was just the latest example of the Chinese authorities’ use of trade as a political weapon.

China’s government has encouraged and then exploited states’ economic reliance on it to compel their support for its foreign-policy objectives. Its economic punishments range from restricting imports or informally boycotting goods from a targeted country to halting strategic exports (such as rare-earth minerals) and encouraging domestic protests against specific foreign businesses. Other tools include suspending tourist travel and blocking fishing access. All are used carefully to avoid disruption that could harm China’s own business interests.

Mongolia became a classic case of such geo-economic coercion, after it hosted the Dalai Lama last November. With China accounting for 90% of Mongolian exports, the Chinese authorities set out to teach Mongolia a lesson. After imposing punitive fees on its commodity exports, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi voiced “hope that Mongolia has taken this lesson to heart” and that it would “scrupulously abide by its promise” not to invite the Tibetan spiritual leader again.

A more famous case was China’s trade reprisals against Norway, after the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. As a result, Norwegian salmon exports to China collapsed.

In 2010, China exploited its monopoly on the global production of vital rare-earth minerals to inflict commercial pain on Japan and the West through an unannounced export embargo. In 2012, after China’s sovereignty dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands (which the Japanese first controlled in 1895) flared anew, China once again used trade as a strategic weapon, costing Japan billions of dollars.

Likewise, in April 2012, following an incident near the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, China bullied the Philippines not only by dispatching surveillance vessels, but also by issuing an advisory against travel there and imposing sudden curbs on banana imports (which bankrupted many Philippine growers). With international attention focused on its trade actions, China then quietly seized the shoal.

China’s recent trade reprisals against South Korea for deploying the THAAD system should be viewed against this background. China’s reprisals were not launched against the US, which deployed the system to defend against North Korea’s emerging missile threat and has the heft to hit back hard. Nor was this the first time: in 2000, when South Korea increased tariffs on garlic to protect its farmers from a flood of imports, China responded by banning imports of South Korean cellphones and polyethylene. The sweeping retaliation against unrelated products was intended not only to promote domestic industries, but also to ensure that South Korea lost far more than China did.

China will not use the trade cudgel when it has more to lose, as illustrated by the current Sino-Indian troop standoff at the border where Tibet, Bhutan, and the Indian state of Sikkim meet. Chinese leaders value the lopsided trade relationship with India – exports are more than five times higher than imports – as a strategic weapon to undercut its rival’s manufacturing base while reaping handsome profits. So, instead of halting border trade, which could invite Indian economic reprisals, China has cut offIndian pilgrims’ historical access to sacred sites in Tibet.

Where it has trade leverage, China is not shy about exercising it. A 2010 study found that countries whose leaders met the Dalai Lama suffered a rapid decline of 8.1-16.9% in exports to China, with the result that now almost all countries, with the conspicuous exception of India and the US, shun official contact with the Tibetan leader.

The harsh reality is that China is turning into a trade tyrant that rides roughshod over international rules. Its violations include maintaining nontariff barriers to keep out foreign competition; subsidizing exports; tilting the domestic market in favor of Chinese companies; pirating intellectual property; using antitrust laws to extort concessions; and underwriting acquisitions of foreign firms to bring home their technologies.

China regards even bilateral pacts as no more than tools to enable it to achieve its objectives. From China’s perspective, no treaty has binding force once it has served its immediate purpose, as officials recently demonstrated by trashing the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that paved the way for Hong Kong’s handover in 1997.

Ironically, China has developed its trade muscle with help from the US, which played a key role in China’s economic rise by shunning sanctions and integrating it into global institutions. President Donald Trump’s election was supposed to end China’s free ride on trade. Yet, far from taking any action against a country that he has long assailed as a trade cheater, Trump is helping make China great again, including by withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and shrinking US influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

The TPP, which Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to revive, but without US participation, can help rein in China’s unremitting mercantilist behavior by creating a market-friendly, rule-based economic community. But if the TPP is to be truly effective in offsetting the trade sword wielded by a powerful, highly centralized authoritarian regime, it needs to be expanded to include India and South Korea.

China’s weaponization of trade has gone unchallenged so far. Only a concerted international strategy, with a revived TPP an essential component, stands a chance of compelling China’s leaders to play by the rules.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

By refusing to buckle under China’s threats, India has called the bully’s bluff

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

modi-style_0_0Standing on the Himalayan crest with well-developed infrastructure, China is in a militarily advantageous position along much of the border with India. The tri-border overlooking the Chinese-held Chumbi Valley is one of the few areas where India still holds a distinct advantage, with Chinese forces within Indian observation-cum-artillery range. If China were to capture Bhutan’s high-altitude Doklam plateau, it would not only mitigate that vulnerability but also hold a knife to India’s jugular vein — the Siliguri Corridor, through which Bhutan’s communications and transportation arteries also pass.

While existential stakes drove India to halt China’s construction of a strategic highway through Doklam, Beijing made a serious strategic miscalculation by intruding there: It anticipated Bhutan’s diplomatic protest but not India’s swift, stealthy military intervention. The Indian army had long geared up to respond to such a contingency.

No Indian government can countenance the construction of a road through Doklam that allows China to bring main battle tanks to the tri-border and implement, in the event of a war, its military plan to decapitate India. In such a corridor-bisecting scenario, while China gobbles up Arunachal Pradesh, the other northeast Indian states, as a Chinese state mouthpiece warned recently, could become “independent”.

Today, thanks to its miscalculation, China finds itself in an unenviable position: It must extricate itself from a militarily wretched situation in Doklam, where its intruding soldiers are caught in a pincer movement. If China were to initiate hostilities at the tri-border, it will likely be left, as in 1967, with a bloodied nose, given the Indian army’s terrain and tactical advantages.

Politically, Beijing has boxed itself in a corner, with its intense psychological warfare (“psywar”) and disinformation operations failing to yield continuing gains, after the success in initially dominating the narrative. If anything, its psychological operations (“psy-ops”) and manipulation of legal arguments (“lawfare”), as by selectively quoting an 1890 colonial-era accord, offer India important lessons. It is standard Chinese strategy to play the victim in any conflict or dispute, as China brazenly did even in 1962.

Mounting frustration has sharpened Beijing’s war rhetoric, as its latest 15-page diatribe against India underscores. To compound matters, the standoff is imposing reputational costs on a power that supposedly brooks no challenge and is ever willing to wreak punishment. India, in the face of vitriolic warmongering, has defiantly stood up to China and refused to budge. By calling the bully’s bluff, India has set an example for other Asian states to emulate.

Beijing’s story that Indian troops “trespassed” into Chinese territory was designed to disguise its intrusion into tiny Bhutan. But this tale, along with President Xi Jinping’s vow not to permit the loss of “any piece” of Chinese land, deepens China’s discomfiture by undermining the image it has sought to project at home and abroad — Asia’s pre-eminent power that no neighbour will mess with.

In sum, China, if it is to save face, needs India’s help to extricate itself from a mess of its own making. Beijing’s coarse statements and threats, while integral to its psywar, are also part of a negotiating ploy to secure a compromise on largely its terms.

There is no reason, however, why India should let China off the hook easily. With Xi looking ahead to this autumn’s Communist Party congress to cement his status as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, India should play psychological hardball because Chinese incursions have become increasingly recurrent.

India should allow the Doklam military stalemate to drag on until the arrival of the harsh winter forces the rival troops to retreat, thus restoring the status quo ante, including frustrating China’s road-building plan. If an earlier negotiated mutual retreat from Doklam becomes possible, it should be based on an unequivocal assurance that China henceforth will refrain from unilaterally disturbing the territorial status quo anywhere in the Himalayan borderlands.

Implicitly, if not explicitly, China must come out a significant loser in order to help rein in its creeping, covert encroachments. There should be no more Depsangs, Chumars and Doklams or the quiet chipping away at Indian and Bhutanese lands.

The writer is a geostrategist and author. 

© The Times of India, 2017.

China Reveals How it Wages Psychological Warfare

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The Sino-Indian troop standoff has underscored the centrality of propaganda in China’s foreign policy.

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A Chinese government handout photo of a live-fire military exercise in Tibet. The photo was released amid rising border tensions with India. It later came to light that the military exercise was conducted before the crisis began.

By , The Japan Times

Since a Sino-Indian troop standoff began at the border where Tibet, Bhutan and the Indian state of Sikkim meet, China’s warmongering has become so raucous and coarse that, to the casual observer, a Himalayan military conflict may seem imminent. In reality, Beijing is waging — in Chinese strategic tradition — full-throttle psychological warfare to compel India to back down without a shot being fired.

The current crisis, more significantly, has underscored the centrality of propaganda in China’s foreign policy — from the aggressor playing the victim to unremitting efforts to camouflage its intrusion into tiny Bhutan that precipitated the standoff. China’s vitriolic war rhetoric and unrealistic preconditions for holding talks stand out in stark contrast to India’s measured response and emphasis on diplomacy and dialogue to peacefully resolve the standoff. The U.S. has implicitly supported India’s stance by similarly calling for a dialogue to peacefully end the crisis.

The crisis, in fact, has highlighted how China blends psychological warfare (“psywar”), media warfare and the manipulation of legal arguments (“lawfare”) to undermine the opponent’s information-control capabilities and to buttress its strategic game plan. Disinformation and deceit are among the tools China is employing in its psywar to tame India without military combat, in Sun Tzu style.

Its psychological operations (psy-ops) have included mounting almost daily threats to teach India a lesson, unless it gives in. Indeed, the authoritarian regime in Beijing has shown itself adept at exploiting the political divisions in the world’s largest democracy, including reaching out to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s opponents and attacking his “Hindu nationalism” in order to help sow dissensions in India on its current China approach.

Given China’s rise as a praetorian state, its foreign ministry is probably the weakest government branch; yet that ministry has taken the lead to intimidate India in unbecoming and undiplomatic language. Beijing is also using its state media to threaten an “all out confrontation” along the entire, more than 4,000-kilometer-long Sino-Indian border and to warn India that it would suffer a humiliating rout greater than it did in the 1962 war. One Chinese state mouthpiece even called the Indian foreign minister a liar.

In the current crisis, the Chinese state and its media have worked in tandem to feed disinformation as part of the psy-ops. After all, media organizations, backed by an annual $10 billion budget from the state, have become integral to China’s global propaganda offensive. Chinese propaganda is getting smarter and more targeted, with some in the Indian media lapping up the disinformation, yet Beijing’s mendacity is becoming conspicuous.

Consider two examples. In mid-July, the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV telecast a video of live-fire military exercises in Tibet by a mountain brigade deployed against India. It later came to light that this was a routine annual drill conducted in early June before the crisis began. Shortly after the CCTV report, the Chinese military’s official newspaper, PLA Daily, said tens of thousands of tons of military hardware had been moved to Tibet in response to the troop standoff. This report too turned out to be part of China’s psywar, with Indian intelligence still finding no evidence of a Chinese military buildup in Tibet.

In this light, what can China hope to achieve through its psy-ops? India has a lot at stake: If it were to wilt under the Chinese pressure, it would impair its national security and potentially open the path to its long-term strategic subordination to China. In addition, China would be able to mount a stronger military threat against India’s hold on its far northeast.

India is a raucous democracy with poor public relations and media outreach. Yet China’s psywar has failed to obscure even the key facts, let alone achieve any political objective.

The crisis, which offers important insights to other countries on China’s psychological-warfare practices, was triggered in mid-June after days of growing local military tensions when People’s Liberation Army troops sought to unilaterally change the territorial status quo by beginning work on a strategic highway through Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau, which is located very close to the Tibet-Bhutan-Sikkim trijunction. (China contends that Doklam is its own territory in the way it claims the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands or the sprawling northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.) The Chinese encroachment prompted the Indian army to swiftly intervene and halt the road construction, triggering the standoff.

The PLA has for years been quietly chipping away at strategic areas in Bhutan’s north and west. It has also waged an aggression by stealth to assert its claim over the Doklam Plateau, including by increasingly sending Tibetan herdsmen and armed patrols there and by turning some natural paths into small paved roads. Bhutan has long complained of Chinese encroachments. For example, it told its Parliament in 2009 that it had “protested many times to the Chinese regarding the road-construction activities.”

Bhutan, with just 8,000 men in its military, police and militia, has no means to resist Chinese encroachments. Its security partner, India, was previously loath to go beyond training and advising Bhutanese forces. But with China’s latest land grab also threatening Indian security, New Delhi decided that Bhutan’s fight was India’s fight. In a strategic miscalculation that has fueled its current fury, China anticipated Bhutan’s diplomatic protest over its latest road construction but not India’s rapid military intervention.

New Delhi cannot allow Beijing to gain control of Doklam because it will result in China fortifying its military positions around the border trijunction and bringing India’s territorial link with its northeastern states within Chinese artillery range. This link — the Siliguri Corridor — is just 27 kilometers wide at its narrowest point and is aptly known as the “Chicken Neck.” If China built the highway through Doklam, it would be able to transport heavy tanks to the trijunction and, in the event of a war, seek to implement its military plan to cut off mainland India from northeast India.

The risk that a frustrated China could escalate its current psy-ops to a military conflict cannot be discounted. Indeed, Beijing is signaling that it will brook no Indian “interference” in Bhutan’s external relations or national security, although Indo-Bhutanese relations are governed by a friendship treaty and defense arrangements. It wants India to leave Bhutan to its fate.

More fundamentally, China’s intrusion into Bhutan and its war rhetoric against India raise important larger issues. One issue is China’s disregard of international law, including the bilateral accords it has signed with Bhutan and India pledging not to alter the status quo unilaterally. As the South and East China seas also illustrate, Beijing signs agreements and treaties but does not comply with them.

Another issue is China’s abiding faith in propaganda, extending from fake history claims to other countries’ territories to disinformation operations intended to deceive and outmaneuver opponents. The reliance on propaganda blurs the line between fact and fiction to such an extent that, gradually, the Chinese state begins to believe its own propaganda and act upon it. This factor, along with its associated risks, is apparent in the Doklam standoff.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).

© The Japan Times, 2017.