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.

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.

Turn the tables on China

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China’s strategy is to subdue India by attacking its weak points and stymieing its rise to the extent possible.

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, July 22, 2017

The current troop standoff with China at Doklam offers India important lessons that go far beyond the Chinese intrusion into this Bhutanese plateau. Unless India grasps the long-term threat posed by an increasingly muscular China and responds with an appropriate counter-strategy, it is sure to confront much bigger problems than Doklam. Unfortunately, institutional memory in India tends to be short, with a mindset of immediacy blurring the bigger picture.

For example, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s recent statement that China is “meddling” in her state was seen as signifying a new trend. In truth, China — occupying a fifth of the original princely state of J&K and now enlarging its strategic footprint in Pakistan-occupied J&K — has long been playing the Kashmir card against India. In 2010 it honed that card by aggressively adopting a stapled-visa policy for J&K residents.

To mount pressure, Beijing has tacitly questioned India’s sovereignty over the 45% of J&K under Indian control and officially shortened the length of the Himalayan border it shares with India by purging the 1,597-kilometre line separating Indian J&K from Chinese-held J&K. China’s Kashmir interference will only increase as a result of its so-called economic corridor through Pakistan-held J&K, where Chinese military presence is growing, including near Pakistan’s ceasefire line with India. India now faces Chinese troops on both flanks of its portion of J&K.

China, which fomented the Naga and Mizo insurgencies, taught its “all weather” client Pakistan how to wage proxy war against India. China still fans flames in India’s northeast. For example, Paresh Barua, the long-time fugitive commander-in-chief of ULFA, has been traced to Ruili, in China’s Yunnan province. Some other Indian insurgent leaders have been ensconced in Myanmar’s Yunnan-bordering region controlled by the China-backed Kachin Independence Army. This newspaper reported in 2015 that Chinese intelligence played “an active role” in assisting nine northeast Indian insurgent groups to form a united front. The illicit flow of Chinese arms to India, including to Maoists, was confirmed by Home Secretary G.K. Pillai in 2010. Meanwhile, the deepening China-Pakistan nexus presents India with a two-front theatre in the event of a war with either country.

China’s strategy is to subdue India by attacking its weak points, striking where it is unprepared, and stymieing its rise to the extent possible. As part of this strategy, it is waging a multipronged unconventional war without firing a single shot. It is closing in on India from multiple flanks, extending from Nepal to the Indian Ocean.

Sixty-six years after gobbling up buffer Tibet and mounting a Himalayan threat, China — with the world’s fastest-growing submarine fleet — is opening a threat from the seas against India. Its recently opened naval base in Djibouti, at the Indian Ocean’s north-western edge, constitutes just a first step in its game plan to dominate the region. For India, whose energy and strategic infrastructure is concentrated along a vulnerable, 7,600-kilometre coastline, this represents a tectonic shift in its threat calculus.

Add to the picture China’s economic warfare to undermine India’s strength in various ways, including stifling its manufacturing capability through large-scale dumping of goods. Artificially low prices of Chinese products also translate into India losing billions of dollars yearly in customs duties and tax revenue. Portentously, China, including Hong Kong, made up 22% of India’s imports in 2015, with the US just at 5% and Japan at 2%.

Yet India has yet to fully shed its policy blinkers. As India repeats the same old platitudes about conciliation and cooperation, China is making clear that there cannot be “two Suns in the sky” — or, as a Chinese idiom goes, “one mountain cannot accommodate two tigers”. With its rekindled, atavistic nationalism, China plainly wants to be Asia’s sole tiger.

Beijing is currently waging full-throttle psychological warfare over Doklam to tame India. Deception and mendacity are its tools. If India gives in, it will endure strategic subordination and ignominy forever. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s excellent rebuttal in Parliament of Chinese disinformation begs the question: Why has India been so slow in countering Beijing’s propaganda war?

New Delhi must play psychological hardball: Instead of appearing zealous for talks, it should insist that China first withdraw both its troops and preconditions, while leaving Beijing in no doubt that India will hold its ground, come what may. If India is to stop China’s creeping, covert encroachments and secure Himalayan peace, it must be ready to give Beijing a real bloody nose if it escalates the standoff to a conflict. Humiliating China even in a localized military engagement, in 1967 style, is vital to help destabilize its expansionist regime.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2017.

China’s Bhutan land grab aims at bigger target

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Beijing employs stealth aggression in territorial expansion

My map of Himalayan territorial disputes (NAR)

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

China honed its “salami slicing” strategy in the Himalayan borderlands with India in the 1950s, when it grabbed the Switzerland-sized Aksai Chin plateau by surreptitiously building a strategic highway through that unguarded region. Aksai Chin, part of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, has since provided China with the only passageway between its rebellious regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.

Now, the attempt by the People’s Liberation Army to replicate its seizure of Aksai Chin by building a military road through the Doklam plateau of tiny Bhutan has triggered one of the most serious troop standoffs in years between China and India, which is a guarantor of Bhutanese security.

The standoff involving hundreds of PLA and Indian troops, near where the borders of Tibet, Bhutan and India’s Sikkim state meet, has successfully halted the Chinese construction of the highway in Doklam, which Beijing claims as a “traditional pasture for Tibetans.” This is similar to Beijing’s claims in the South and East China seas, which are based on “traditional fishing grounds for Chinese.” The Indian intervention has triggered a furious reaction from China, which is warning India almost daily to back down or face reprisals, including a possible war. India has mobilized up to 10,000 troops for any contingency.

The Chinese defense ministry has warned India to learn the “historical lessons” from the major military reversals it suffered in 1962 when China carried out a surprise trans-Himalayan invasion just when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were locked in the Cuban missile crisis. Beijing has also stepped up diplomatic pressure on New Delhi, with the Chinese foreign ministry insisting that the “precondition for any meaningful dialogue” would be for Indian troops to “unconditionally” pull back from Doklam.

Beijing’s full-throttle campaign against India amounts to psychological warfare, from mounting daily threats to staging military drills in Tibet. For example, a recent “full combat readiness” exercise with tanks was aimed at delivering a clear warning to New Delhi, according to Chinese state media. However, the more China threatens India and the more it refuses to seek a compromise, the more it paints itself in a corner.

Beijing has no good options in emerging as a winner from this confrontation. Given the geography, military logistics, weapon deployments and the entrenched Indian positions, the PLA will find it hard to give India a bloody nose and seize Doklam. If it were to attack, it could suffer a setback. Just as Beijing’s intense propaganda war against India over the Dalai Lama’s April tour to the Chinese-claimed northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh achieved nothing, China risks losing face over the current troop standoff.

The central issue that China has sought to disguise is its intrusion into tiny Bhutan, which has less than 800,000 people. To cause a distraction, Beijing, in keeping with ancient military theorist Sun Tzu’s concept of strategic deception, has tried to shift the focus to India through a public relations blitzkrieg that presents China as the victim and India as the aggressor. Just as it has touted historical claims to much of the South China Sea, which have been dismissed by an international arbitral tribunal as groundless, Beijing contends that Doklam (or “Donglang” as China calls it) has belonged to it “since ancient times.”

Beijing’s dire warning

Besides launching a flurry of official denunciations of India, China has employed the state media in the psychological warfare campaign. “We firmly believe that the face-off in the Donglang area will end up with the Indian troops in retreat. The Indian military can choose to return to its territory with dignity or be kicked out of the area by Chinese soldiers,” China’s nationalist tabloid Global Times said on July 5. “This time we must teach New Delhi a bitter lesson.”

An article on the PLA’s English-language website, China Military Online, has warned that “if a solution isn’t reached through diplomatic or military communication or the issue isn’t handled properly, another armed conflict … is not completely out of the question.”

Despite the Indian army’s prompt actions to protect Bhutan’s territorial interests, the standoff has exposed some of India’s institutional weaknesses. In combating disinformation in war or peace, time is of the essence. Yet it took New Delhi more than four days to issue its first statement in response to China’s verbal attacks against India’s move to protect Bhutan, its longstanding strategic ally. The result was that after Beijing revealed the days-old troop standoff just hours before the June 26 meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House, the Indian media was awash with Chinese propaganda, reporting only Beijing’s line on the standoff.

The current crisis has shown that New Delhi is ill-prepared to counter China’s grandstanding tactics. India’s response to the continuing barrage of hostile Chinese statements against it has been confined to a single statement issued by its foreign ministry on June 30. This is partly to do with India’s intrinsically defensive strategic mindset, including a reluctance to employ its natural economic leverage to rein in Chinese belligerence.

Since China has an almost $60 billion annual trade surplus with India currently, New Delhi has an opportunity to emulate Beijing’s use of trade as a political instrument in punishing South Korea, Mongolia, the Philippines, Japan and others. The flood of Chinese goods entering India is overwhelming. The lopsided trade balance not only rewards China’s strategic hostility but also foots the bill for its strategy of encircling India. Beijing thus has little incentive to moderate its behavior or avoid belligerence.

India also appears reluctant to reopen the Tibet issue, even though China is laying claim to Indian and Bhutanese territories on the basis of alleged Tibetan (not Han Chinese) historical links to these areas. Like Doklam, China claims Arunachal Pradesh, a territory almost three times larger than Taiwan that is famous for its virgin forests and soaring mountain ranges. To help curb such territorial revisionism, India needs to question China’s claim to Tibet itself.

Tibet, autonomous until China annexed it in 1951, enjoyed close historical transportation, trade and cultural links with India, exemplified by the fact that the main Tibetan cities are located close to the Indian border. But with Tibet now locked behind a Chinese “iron curtain,” the formerly integrated economies and cultures of the entire Himalayan region have broken apart.

Expansion drive

Modern China has come a long way since the Great Wall denoted the limits of the Han empire’s political frontiers, as during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Territorially, Han power is now at its zenith. With the exception of Mongolia, China is seeking to expand its frontiers beyond the conquests made by the Manchu Qing dynasty in the 17th and 18th centuries. By relying on stealth aggression in which no bullets or missiles need to be fired, China has mastered the art of creeping, covert warfare, as is apparent in the Himalayas and the South and East China seas. “Only vast lands can cradle great powers,” according to Chinese geographers Du Debin and Ma Yahua.

Recent events have offered clear evidence on how China uses history to justify its territorial ambitions. In the same week that it dusted off an 1890 colonial-era accord on the Tibet-Sikkim border to use in its propaganda war against India, even though the agreement was irrelevant to its intrusion into Bhutan, it mocked as worthless the legally binding 1984 pact with Britain that paved the way for Hong Kong’s handover in 1997 by guaranteeing the city’s rights and freedoms under China’s “one country, two systems” formula. By turning its back on the 1984 pact, Beijing indicated that “one country, two systems” was just a ruse to recover Hong Kong. Yet China will cling to colonial-era accords if they still serve its interests.

Unless Beijing reopens the door to diplomacy, the present military stalemate at Doklam could drag on until the arrival of the harsh winter forces the rival troops to retreat, thus ending the confrontation. This would restore the status quo ante by frustrating the PLA’s road-building plan. The brief July 7 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Modi at the G-20 summit in Hamburg has offered China an opening to save face through a possible mutual retreat from Doklam.

Whatever happens, the current crisis offers India important lessons, including how a clever China presents itself as the victim and feeds disinformation to the Indian media. This should, however, not have come as a surprise. It is standard Chinese strategy to play the victim in any conflict or dispute in an example of how China blends toughness, savvy, single-mindedness and deft propaganda to try to achieve its goals. Psychological warfare is integral to China’s military strategy. Yet India found itself taken by surprise.

More fundamentally, India must recognize that while caution is prudent, diffidence tends to embolden the aggressor. It should continue to err on the side of caution but must shed its reluctance to employ countervailing leverage against China so that it is not always in a reactive mode.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.

Asia’s colossus threatens a tiny state

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In the latest chapter in China’s stealth wars, Bhutan is the target.

BY , The Japan Times, July 5, 2017

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Bhutan, one of the world’s smallest nations, has protested that the Asian colossus, China, is chipping away at its territory by building a strategic highway near the Tibet-India-Bhutan trijunction in the Himalayas. Bhutan has security arrangements with India, and the construction has triggered a tense standoff between Chinese and Indian troops at the trijunction, with the Chinese state media warning of the possibility of war.

Bhutan says “China’s construction of the road inside Bhutanese territory is a direct violation” of its agreements with Beijing. China, however, has sought to obscure its aggression by blaming India for not respecting either the trijunction points or the boundary between Tibet and the Indian state of Sikkim, which is also contiguous to Bhutan.

In the way an increasingly muscular China — without firing a single shot — has waged stealth wars to change the status quo in the South and East China seas, it has been making furtive encroachments across its Himalayan frontiers with the intent to expand its control meter by meter, kilometer by kilometer. It has targeted strategic areas in particular.

If its land grab is challenged, China tends to play the victim, including accusing the other side of making a dangerous provocation. And to mask the real issue involved, it chooses to wage a furious propaganda war. Both these elements have vividly been on display in the current troop standoff at the edge of the Chumbi Valley, a Chinese-controlled zone that forms a wedge between Bhutan and Sikkim, and juts out as a dagger against a thin strip of Indian territory known as the Chicken Neck, which connects India’s northeast to the rest of the country.

In recent years, China has been upgrading its military infrastructure and deployments in this highly strategic region so that, in the event of a war, its military blitzkrieg can cut off India from its northeast. Such an invasion would also leave Bhutan completely surrounded and at China’s mercy.

India-Bhutan defense ties

Bhutan, with a population of only 750,000, shares some of its national defense responsibilities with India under a friendship treaty. Indian troops, for example, assist the undersized Royal Bhutan Army in guarding the vulnerable portions of Bhutan’s border with China.

The 2007 Bhutan-India friendship treaty states that the two neighbors “shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests.” The 2007 pact — signed after the Himalayan kingdom introduced major political reforms to emerge as the world’s newest democracy — replaced their 1949 treaty under which Bhutan effectively was an Indian protectorate, with one of the clauses stipulating that it would be “guided by” India in its foreign policy.

Recently, after days of rising Sino-Indian tensions at the trijunction, the People’s Liberation Army on June 16 brought in heavy earth-moving equipment and began building a road through Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau, which China claims, including Sinicizing its name as Donglong. Indian troops intervened, leading to scuffles with PLA soldiers, with the ongoing standoff halting work at the 3,000-meter-high construction site.

Significantly, the standoff did not become public until June 26 when China released a complaint against India, just as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was about to begin discussions with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House. The statement — timed to cast a shadow over the Modi-Trump discussions and to remind Modi of the costs Beijing could impose on India for his pro-U.S. tilt — presented China as the victim by alleging that Indian troops had “intruded” into “China’s Donglong region” and halted a legitimate construction activity. It demanded India withdraw its troops or face retaliation.

This was followed by a frenzied Chinese public-relations blitzkrieg against India designed to obfuscate the real issue — the PLA’s encroachment on Bhutanese territory. Chinese officials and state media fulminated against India over the troop standoff but shied away from even mentioning Bhutan.

It was only after Bhutan’s ambassador to India publicly revealed on June 28 that his country had protested the PLA’s violation of its territorial sovereignty and demanded a return to status quo ante that Beijing finally acknowledged the involvement of a third party in the dispute. The fact that an insecure and apprehensive Bhutan (which has no diplomatic relations with China) took eight days to make public its protest to Beijing played into China’s hands.

China piles on the pressure

The Chinese attacks on India for halting the road construction, meanwhile, are continuing. For example, the Chinese defense ministry spokesperson, alluding to India’s defeat in the 1962 war with China, asked the Indian army on June 29 to “learn from historical lessons” and to stop “clamoring for war.” The Indian defense minister, in response, said the India of today was different from the one in 1962.

The same trijunction was the scene of heavy Sino-Indian military clashes in 1967, barely five years after China’s 1962 trans-Himalayan invasion led to major Indian reverses. But unlike in 1962, the Chinese side suffered far heavier casualties in the 1967 clashes, concentrated at Nathu-la and Cho-la.

Today, to mount pressure on India, China has cut off Indian pilgrims’ historical access to a mountain-and-lake site in Tibet that is sacred to four faiths: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and the indigenous religion of Tibet, Bon. While Manasarovar is the world’s highest freshwater lake at 4,557 meters above sea level, Mount Kailash — the world’s legendary center — is worshipped by believers as the abode of the planet’s father and mother, the gods Shiva and Uma, and as the place where Lord Buddha manifested himself in his super-bliss form. Four important rivers of Asia, including the Indus and the Brahmaputra, originate from around this duo.

By arbitrarily halting the pilgrimages, Beijing is reminding New Delhi to review its Tibet policy. India needs to subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue in order to fend off Chinese pressure. After all, China lays claim to Indian and Bhutanese territories on the basis of alleged Tibetan (not Han Chinese) links to them historically. India must start to question China’s purportedly historical claim to Tibet itself.

More broadly, by waging stealth wars to accomplish political and military objectives, China is turning into a principle source of strategic instability in Asia. The stealth wars include constructing a dispute and then setting in motion a jurisdictional creep through a steady increase in the frequency and duration of Chinese incursions — all with the intent of either establishing military control over a coveted area or pressuring the opponent to cut a deal on its terms.

This strategy of territorial creep is based not on chess, which is centered on securing a decisive victory, but on the ancient Chinese game of Go, aimed at steadily making incremental gains by outwitting the opponent through unrelenting attacks on its weak points.

China has long camouflaged offense as defense, in keeping with the ancient theorist Sun Tzu’s advice that all warfare is “based on deception.” Still, the fact that the world’s fourth largest country in area, after Russia, Canada and the United States, is seeking to nibble away at the territory of a tiny nation speaks volumes about China’s aggressive strategy of expansion.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

© The Japan Times, 2017.

The Bull in the China Shop

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Beijing’s annual trade surplus with India is large enough for it to finance one China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) every calendar year and still have a few billion dollars to spare.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, June 29, 2017

Doklam plateau

Just as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was meeting US President Donald Trump at the White House, Beijing ratcheted up pressure on India by officially publicizing a military standoff at the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction. The shadow of China’s muscle flexing over the Modi-Trump discussions paralleled what happened when Chinese President Xi Jinping paid an official visit to India in 2014. Xi arrived on Modi’s birthday bearing an unusual gift for his host — a major Chinese military encroachment into Ladakh’s Chumar region. And Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s 2013 visit was preceded by a 19-kilometre incursion into Ladakh’s Depsang Plateau.

In China’s Sun Tsu-style strategy, diplomacy and military pressure, as well as soft and hard tactics, go hand-in-hand. In the same way, China’s xenophobic nationalism goes hand-in-hand with its economic globalization project. Similarly, Beijing poses as a champion of free trade even as it abuses free-trade rules to maintain high trade barriers and to subsidize its exports. In effect, China has grown strong by quietly waging a trade war.  China has held border talks with India while its forces perched on the upper heights of the Tibetan massif have staged fresh incursions.

In Beijing’s view, India is a critical “swing state” that increasingly is moving to the US camp, undercutting Xi’s ambition to establish a Sino-centric Asia through an expanded tianxia system of the 15th century. Given India’s vantage geographical location, China needs its participation to plug key gaps in Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) project. But India not only boycotted Xi’s OBOR summit but has also portrayed OBOR as an opaque, neo-colonial enterprise seeking to ensnare smaller, cash-strapped states in a debt trap.

China, by encroaching on Bhutan’s Doklam enclave, may have orchestrated the tri-junction standoff not so much to cast a shadow over the Modi-Trump discussions as to warn Modi that his increasing tilt toward America will carry long-term costs. China is already stepping up its direct and surrogate threats against India. One example is the proliferation of incursions and other border incidents since the 2005 Indo-US nuclear deal, which laid out a strategic framework for the US to co-opt India. China is also waging psy-war through media.

With Chinese forces aggressively seeking to nibble away at Indian territory, India’s Himalayan challenge has been compounded by a lack of an integrated approach that blends military, economic and diplomatic elements into a coherent strategy. Modi, for example, has allowed China’s trade surplus with India to double on his watch to almost $60 billion. By comparison, India’s trade surplus with the US is about half of that, yet Trump wants urgent Indian action to balance the two-way trade.

By importing $5 worth of goods from China for every $1 worth of exports to it, India not only rewards Chinese belligerence but also foots the bill for Beijing’s encirclement strategy. Beijing’s annual trade surplus with India is large enough for it to finance one China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) every calendar year and still have a few billion dollars to spare. India’s most powerful weapon against China is trade. Given China’s proclivity to deploy trade as a political weapon, as against South Korea in the latest case, why doesn’t India take a page out of the Chinese playbook?

India also needs to eschew accommodating rhetoric that plays into China’s hands. Modi’s recent statement that — despite the boundary dispute — “not a single bullet has been fired” was music to Chinese ears, with Beijing going out of its way to welcome it. In truth, China’s bullet-less Himalayan aggression, as the Sikkim episode demonstrates, is similar to the way it has expanded its control in the South China Sea. Indian statements should not give comfort to an adversary that employs furtive, creeping actions to alter the frontier bit by bit.

Meanwhile, China, by arbitrarily suspending Indians’ pilgrimage to the sacred duo of Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarover, is reminding New Delhi to review its Tibet policy. To blunt China’s Tibet-linked claims to Indian territories and to defend against the growing Chinese pressure, India must subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue. Theoretically, India has a better historical claim to Kailash-Mansarover than China has to Arunachal, where no Han Chinese set foot until the 1962 invasion.

Make no mistake: Despite the cosy ties with Washington, India, essentially, is on its own against China. It needs to bolster its border defences and boost its nuclear and missile deterrent capabilities. The U.S., with a price tag of up to $3 billion, is offering 22 unarmed MQ-9B unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance, not the “hunter-killer” UAVs India needs to counter the emerging Indian Ocean threat from China. By investing that kind of money, India could develop potent new deterrent instruments against China — intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and long-range cruise missiles, the symbols of power in today’s world.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2017.