Strategy relies on a steady progression of actions to outmaneuver rival states
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is helping to obscure China’s expansionism in Asia, where it continues to redraw its land and maritime borders and exert growing pressure on Taiwan. Unlike Russia’s frontal military assault, China’s preferred mode of expansionism is salami-slicing, or altering the status quo in its favor, little by little.
In the latest example, the Chinese government’s news website Tibet.cn reported earlier this month that the People’s Liberation Army had quietly completed the 624 villages that China had set out to build in disputed or captured Himalayan border areas.
China’s militarized villages in the Himalayan borderlands, that India, Bhutan and Nepal consider to be within their own national boundaries, are the equivalent of its artificial islands that it is turning into forward military bases in the South China Sea.
What is remarkable about its village-building spree in the Himalayas is that China has reportedly managed to complete it despite the specter of armed conflict raised by its ongoing military confrontation with India. The Indian and Chinese militaries have remained locked in multiple Himalayan standoffs for the past 23 months after China stealthily encroached on some key border areas in the northernmost Indian territory of Ladakh, leading to the first deadly Chinese-Indian military clashes since 1975.
Recent talks to defuse the military crisis, including between military commanders and later between the foreign ministers, made little headway. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s New Delhi trip on Mar. 25 was the highest-level visit between the two countries since the standoffs in the frigid Himalayan heights began.
Effective control is the most vital element of a strong territorial claim in international law. This explains why establishing new facts on the ground, whether in the form of high-altitude artificial villages with planted settlers or human-made islands, is integral to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s territorial aggrandizement.
Xi’s expansionism has not spared even tiny Bhutan, with a population of barely 800,000. In disregard of a 1998 bilateral treaty that obligated its parties “not to resort to unilateral action to alter the status quo of the border,” several of China’s militarized villages have come up in Bhutan’s northern and western borderlands.
More broadly, China’s territorial revisionism follows a cabbage strategy: gradually wrapping a claimed or contested area in multiple layers of security, like the concentric leaves of a cabbage, thereby denying access to any rival.
Just like the concentric layers of occupation around the South China Sea islands by Chinese fishing boats, coastguard ships and naval ships, expansionism in the Himalayas has involved bringing in people from afar to settle in desolate, previously uninhabited areas, with civilian militias, paramilitary police and regular PLA forces forming multilayered security.
China’s strategy of territorial creep relies on a steady progression of actions to outmaneuver a rival state, in keeping with the ancient Chinese game of Go, in which the goal is to incrementally gain more territory through unrelenting attacks on the opponent’s weak points. Before initiating a jurisdictional claim through a rising tempo of incursions, Beijing has a history of constructing a dispute.
In the East China Sea, China succeeded in getting the world to recognize the existence of a dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands by steadily increasing the frequency and duration of its intrusions into their territorial waters and airspace and by popularizing the islands’ Chinese name Diaoyu.
Chinese marine surveillance ship cruising in the East China Sea near Senkaku Islands in February 2021. (Photo by Hitoshi Nakama) © Kyodo
Even as Beijing started dispatching armed ships and larger vessels, Japan has recoiled from purely defensive steps like building a lighthouse on the Senkakus. Indeed, no Japanese defense minister has conducted an aerial survey of the uninhabited Senkakus in order not to provoke China.
By keeping opponents off-balance, Xi’s strategy bears all the hallmarks of brinkmanship, including reliance on stealth, surprise and an indifference to the risks of military escalation. Camouflaging offense as defense, it casts the burden of starting a war on the other side.
In international law, a territorial claim must be based on continuous and peaceful exercise of sovereignty over the territory concerned. But even after an international arbitral tribunal’s 2016 ruling invalidated its territorial claims in the South China Sea, Beijing imposed “might makes right” in that region.
In more recent years, however, China has increasingly employed new domestic law both as a cover for unlawful actions and to underpin its territorial claims in international law. Through domestic legislation, Xi has sought to legitimize Chinese actions ranging from the human-made militarized islands and new administrative districts in the South China Sea to the Himalayan border villages.
China’s shadowy expansionism in the Himalayas extends far beyond the 624 border villages whose construction a 2017 Chinese government document unveiled. To project power and enable more rapid movement of troops, weaponry and equipment, Beijing has pursued frenzied construction of new military infrastructure, including in disputed borderlands. New Chinese roads through Bhutanese territory have opened an axis against India’s most vulnerable point — the Siliguri Corridor, which connects the country’s far northeast to the Indian heartland.
What stands out is the speed and scale with which China is redrawing facts on the ground without firing a shot. China’s territorial creep is contributing to increasing insecurity in Asia, the world’s most dynamic region economically.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”