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.

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

chickens-neck-India.jpg

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.

Truth Beyond the Brotherhood

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With the passage of time, the transactional elements in the U.S.-Indian partnership have become more conspicuous than the geostrategic dimensions, compounding India’s security dilemmas.

 Brahma Chellaney, Open magazine

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U.S. President Donald Trump made it known during his presidential election campaign that he likes India and Indians. Yet, in office, Trump has taken a series of steps in the immigration and trade realms that have adversely impacted India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a good first-ever meeting with Trump, although it yielded few deliverables. The two will have another opportunity to meet soon when Germany hosts the annual G-20 summit in Hamburg. Yet it is still not clear how salient India will be in the Trump foreign policy. This is largely because Trump’s larger geopolitical policy framework is still evolving.

The U.S.-India strategic partnership is essentially founded on two pillars — a U.S. commitment to assist, in America’s own interest, India’s rise; and a shared interest in building an inclusive, stable, rules-based Asian order to help manage China’s muscular rise. The hope in India has been that the U.S. would assist its rise in the way it aided China’s economic ascent since the 1970s. President Jimmy Carter, for example, sent a memo to various U.S government departments instructing them to help in China’s rise. Even China’s firing of missiles into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 did not change that policy. If anything, the U.S. has gradually loosened its close links with Taiwan, with no U.S. Cabinet member visiting that island since those missile manoeuvres.

U.S. policy, effectively, helped turn China into an export juggernaut, which today sells $4 worth of goods to the U.S. for each $1 of imports.  In the process, just as the U.S. inadvertently saddled the world with the jihadist scourge by training Afghan mujahedeen — the anti-Soviet guerrillas out of which Al Qaeda evolved — it unintentionally created a rules-violating monster by aiding China’s economic rise. Abusing free-trade rules, China has systematically subsidized its exports while impeding imports to shield domestic jobs and industry. In effect, China has grown strong and rich by quietly waging a trade war. Trump said he told Chinese President Xi Jinping during their Mar-a-Lago summit in April that “we’ve rebuilt China with the money you’ve taken out of the United States.”

India wants the U.S. to buttress the two central pillars of their strategic partnership. Washington’s China “opening” of 1970-1971, engineered by US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, was designed in the wake of the 1969 Sino-Soviet military clashes to exploit the rift in the Communist world by aligning China with America’s anti-Soviet strategy. The result was that China, in the second half of the Cold War, became Washington’s partner against the Soviet Union. By comparison, there is no tectonic geopolitical development or calculation motivating the U.S. to assist India’s rise. Rather, the main driver is a transactional calculation — that an economically booming India, just like China’s economic ascent, will be good for American businesses.

Make no mistake: U.S. foreign policy is inherently transactional, with commerce the central plank. Indeed, Trump’s recent visit to the world’s chief ideological sponsor of jihadism, Saudi Arabia, was a reminder that money speaks louder than the international imperative to counter a rapidly metastasizing global jihadist threat. The visit yielded business and investment deals for the U.S. valued at up to almost $400 billion, including a contract to sell $109.7 billion worth of arms to a country that Trump previously accused of being complicit in 9/11.

Trump’s immediate two predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, did not hide their transactional approach toward a warming relationship with India. For example, the landmark nuclear deal, unveiled in 2005, was pivoted on India boosting its defence transactions with the United States. Consequently, India has emerged as a top U.S. arms client in a matter of years, even as the 12-year-old nuclear deal remains a dud deal on the energy front, with not a single contract signed as yet.

Trump’s weakness, for which he has been widely lampooned, is that he is publicly mercantile and transactional in his foreign-policy approach. His being so commerce-oriented upfront, rather than quietly, as was the case under his predecessors, does not, of course, signify a shift in U.S. policy focus. For example, in the past, the American demand for Indian steps to correct India’s large trade surplus with the U.S. was made in private by a president or publicly by one of his Cabinet members. But Trump articulated that demand forthrightly in his opening remarks at the joint news conference with Modi. “It is important that barriers be removed to the export of U.S. goods into your markets, and that we reduce our trade deficit with your country,” he stated.

The mutual admiration on display during the visit — with Trump lavishing praise on Modi and calling him a “true friend,” and Modi returning the favour to laud Trump’s “vast and successful” business experience — could not obscure the U.S.-India divergence on regional security issues. The Modi visit speeded up Washington’s decision to fill the vacant position of U.S. ambassador to India by naming Kenneth Juster, a senior White House official. Hopefully, the visit will also accelerate the separate inter-agency reviews currently being conducted in Washington on America’s Pakistan and Afghanistan policies.

Take Afghanistan: For nearly 16 years, the U.S. has been stuck in Afghanistan in the longest and most expensive war in its history. It has tried several policies to wind down the war, including a massive military “surge” under Obama to compel the Taliban to sue for peace. Nothing has worked, in large part because the U.S. has continued to fight the war on just one side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan divide and refused to go after the Pakistan-based sanctuaries of the Taliban and its affiliate, the Haqqani network. As Gen. John Nicholson, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, acknowledged earlier this year, “It is very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven.” Worse still, the Taliban is conspicuously missing from the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, while the procreator and sponsor of that medieval militia — Pakistan — has been one of the largest recipients of American aid since 2001, when the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan helped remove the Taliban from power.

India is concerned that the U.S. still seeks to preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the Taliban. No counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when militants have enjoyed cross-border havens. The Taliban are unlikely to be routed or seek peace as long as they can operate from sanctuaries in Pakistan, where their top leaders are ensconced. Their string of battlefield victories indeed gives them little incentive to enter into serious peace negotiations. U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis in June signalled a potentially tougher approach to safe havens in Pakistan, saying the U.S. will hit the enemy where it is “fighting from,” which is “not just Afghanistan”. However, only time will be tell whether this was a rhetorical statement or more.

U.S. has long had a blind spot for Pakistan. Today, the key question for Trump on that front is whether to continue the carrots-only approach toward Pakistan of Obama and Bush or finally begin to wield the big stick against a country that defiantly remains wedded to terrorism. To be sure, the tough message to Pakistan in the joint U.S.-India joint statement on the occasion of Modi’s visit was music to Indian ears: “The leaders called on Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries. They further called on Pakistan to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai, Pathankot, and other cross-border terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups”. This was the clearest message to Pakistan that any Indo-U.S. joint statement has incorporated.

Indeed, the Trump-Modi statement also stated: “The leaders stressed that terrorism is a global scourge that must be fought and terrorist safe havens rooted out in every part of the world. They resolved that India and the United States will fight together against this grave challenge to humanity. They committed to strengthen cooperation against terrorist threats from groups including Al Qaida, ISIS, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, D-Company, and their affiliates. India appreciated the United States designation of the Hizbul Mujahideen leader as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist as evidence of the commitment of the United States to end terror in all its forms”.

The Pakistan-based Hizbul Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin, who held a joint public rally last December with Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed, is the first militant from India’s Jammu and Kashmir to be designated by the U.S. as a global terrorist. The action against Salahuddin, although belated and designed largely to play to the Indian gallery, adds to the number of Pakistan-based individuals designated as terrorists by the U.S. or the United Nations. It thus helps reinforce Pakistan’s image as a leading terrorist hub.

However, it is true that the U.S. has long been reluctant to take concrete action against Pakistan-based individuals that it has labelled “terrorists”, if their terrorism is directed only at India. Take Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the cataclysmic 2008 Mumbai terrorist strikes: The U.S. has yet to act five years after putting a $10 million bounty on Saeed’s head. Saeed, who founded the Inter-Services Intelligence agency’s largest front organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba, remains the Pakistani military’s darling, with his public life mocking both America’s bounty on his head and the UN’s inclusion of him on a terrorist list. Washington has refrained from even criticizing Pakistani authorities for aiding and abetting Saeed’s public rallies. The rallies seek to project him as some sort of messiah of the Pakistani people. Saeed’s public role adds insult to injury for India, reinforcing the imperative that it must on its own fight Pakistan’s jihad-inspired war, which shows no sign of abating. Indeed, with Pakistan’s ceasefire violations triggering a fierce Indian response, Pakistani generals since the beginning of 2016 are using their terrorist proxies to target security camps in J&K.

Through both policy inaction and generous aid, the U.S. has effectively turned Pakistan into its terrorist protégé, like Saudi Arabia. Pakistan is a valued asset for China to keep India boxed in, but why does Washington still shield that country? U.S. policy indeed plays into China’s hands by propping up Pakistan and unwittingly helping to cement the Sino-Pakistan nexus. Will Trump fix a broken Pakistan policy that permits the Pakistani military to keep nurturing transnational terrorists? It will be overly optimistic to believe that the U.S. under him will change course fundamentally and apply sustained pressure to encourage a reformed Pakistan at peace with itself.

Compounding matters for India is Trump’s lack of an Asia policy or a larger geostrategic vision that gives primacy to major Asian democracies like Japan and India so as to prevent the emergence of a Sino-centric Asia. Trump came to office vowing to end what he saw as China’s free ride on trade and security issues that has allowed Beijing to flex its muscles more strongly than ever. But in contrast to his tough talk during his presidential campaign, when he famously said he would not “allow China to rape our country,” Trump has sought a cooperative relationship with China grounded in reciprocity. Accordingly, Trump, far from seeking to challenge Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions, has stayed on the same China-friendly path as Obama.

In fact, underscoring how the U.S. still seeks to balance its bilateral relationships with important powers in Asia, Trump invited Xi to Mar-a-Lago — his private estate in Palm Beach, Florida, that he calls the “Southern White House” — because he wanted to offer the leader of the world’s largest autocracy the same hospitality that he extended to the prime minister of China’s archrival, Japan, which is Asia’s oldest democracy. In February, Trump brought Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Mar-a-Lago on Air Force One for a weekend of working lunches and golf. And in April, he hosted Xi at Mar-a-Lago.

Those Indians getting carried away by Trump’s praise for Modi should know the kind of admiration the U.S. president publicly displayed for Xi. “We have a great chemistry together,” he said about Xi. “We like each other. I like him a lot.” Trump also added that “lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away,” owing to his relationship with the “terrific” Xi.

The mercurial Trump’s honeymoon with Xi (and China), however, appears to be coming to an end. In a stunning admission of failure, Trump tweeted that counting on Xi to address the North Korea challenge hasn’t worked. It was naïve of Trump to rely on Beijing because North Korea has been seeking to escape China’s clutches and pursue direct engagement with Washington. It is possible that Trump may now pursue a tougher line toward Beijing, especially on trade issues. But that may not necessarily be India’s gain, unless he develops a larger geostrategic plan for Asia, including fixing Obama’s unhinged “pivot” policy and treating India as an indispensable partner. At present, Trump scarcely shares India’s concern about Chinese expansionism in its neighborhood and beyond and appears reluctant to aggressively confront Pakistan on its support for terrorist groups.

The growing cosiness in India’s ties with Washington masks New Delhi’s increasing concerns about its deteriorating regional-security environment. China has stepped up strategic pressure on India from different fronts, including deepening its nexus with Pakistan. Even as a pro-U.S. tilt has become pronounced in Indian foreign policy over the past one decade, with India emerging as a leading U.S. arms client, the relationship with Washington offers no answers to New Delhi’s security dilemmas. Trump, besieged by allegations of collusion between his campaign associates and Russia, has little space to fundamentally revamp U.S. foreign policy, including on Pakistan and China. The more things change, the more they tend to stay the same in U.S. foreign policy. India has no choice but to address the security dilemmas — and the regional threats — on its own.

© Open, 2017.