China’s Expansionism A Strategic Perspective
China has been pursuing expansionist designs for a long time now. Being a communist country, analysts believe expansionism is crucial to its ideology. To support their view, they cite the instance of the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) overwhelming all its neighbours into submission. Though China claims to have resolved its borders with all its neighbours except two, but in view of its expansionists tendencies, China has border disputes with all its neighbours, be those the land or marine jurisdictions. The only exception is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan which is virtually its vassal state.
China’s Strategic Perspective
In pursuit of its centrality in international politics, China’s primary strategic goal is the accumulation of ‘comprehensive national power’ defined by economic, military, technological and diplomatic global leadership. To attain this objective, it has long set itself on four-pronged converging strategic courses.
Firstly, ensuring the domination of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) to retain a strict internal political and social code. Secondly, achieving high economic growth complemented by the disciplined domestic environment. Thirdly, following the concept of ‘Pacifying the Periphery’ by deepening economic ties with its Asian neighbours to ‘reduce regional anxieties’. Finally, China intends to cement its international status as the central actor in the international arena. As a prelude to exerting global influence in future, China wants to recover from the USA the primacy of power latter enjoys in Asia currently.
Bid to Increase Influence in Asia
Besides developing its comprehensive national power, it wants consolidation of its land and maritime boundaries, and to ‘reunify’ and ‘reclaim’ its ‘lost’ territorial and maritime borders, which it calls its ‘core interests’. Here, Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and the South China Sea become relevant.
For eighty per cent of its energy requirements, China is dependent on oil imports from the Middle East. To keepits marine supply lines open is a strategic imperative. This route passes through various choke points, like Straits of Malacca, rendering supplies susceptible to interference. Hence, China has security and economic compulsions to develop its bases in India Ocean Region (IOR) to secure its communication lines. Its eagerness to establish China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is to develop strategic communication alternatives.
While control over IOR is key to China’s economic interests, America’s vital national interests also entail ensuring uninterrupted supply of energy from the Persian Gulf, through the Indian Ocean, to the Pacific. The USA has a declared policy that it would employ any means necessary, including military, to protect this vital national interest. It also wants uninterrupted navigation and unimpeded commerce. Its strategies hinge on alliance-alignment-entente buildings in tandem. Containment, encirclement, and engagement are the other related strategies. Both the powers are employing all the means at their disposal—economic, military, diplomatic, and institution-building in a web—to realise and sustain their vital national interests. Thus, great power rivalry between the USA and China is already on.
Interestingly, China uses ‘Salami-slice’ strategy to expand its boundaries. It is a divide and conquer process through threats and alliances to overcome opposition. The term ‘Salami-tactics’ was coined in the 1940s by the Stalinist Communist Mátyás Rákosi to explain how the Hungarian Communist Party rose to absolute political power. He claimed to have destroyed the non-Communist parties by ‘cutting them off like slices of salami’. The process eliminates political opposition ‘slice by slice’ until it realises, usually too late, there was nothing left to retrieve.
China has finessed this deception to effective military use to expand its territories quietly. Continuously nibbling at neighbours’ land, at times even claiming an entire area on some dubious historicity, it successively builds up its military control over areas vital to its overall strategic designs. The annexation of Aksai Chin in the 1950s and repeated Chinese incursions into Indian territory are the executions of the same strategy.
China Plans Long-term
Unlike India, China haswell laid out long-term strategic goals, dovetailing territorial expansion and economic objectives.
l Leadership Role. China isaiming to dislodge the USA from the world leadership role. Naturally, it condones no competition from India to its hegemony in South Asia. China appears on course.
l Economic Powerhouse. With a $ 13.2 trillion economy, China is fast catching up with USA’s $ 21.44 trillion economy. China joined the World Trade organisation in 2001. Who could have then imagined such a quantum leap by the new entrant?
l Military Prowess. Militarily too, China is fast marching ahead. As per the Global Fire Power Review, China’s military-might ranks third behind the USA and Russia. With 2.18 million strength, it boasts of the highest number of active military personnel in the world. India is a distant second with aforce of 1.23 million. China has an impressive array of land, air and marine equipment and armament.
Federation of American Scientists, a thinktank, estimates that China possesses approximately 240 nuclear warheads. Further, making China a high-tech superpower is a cornerstone of Xi’s presidency.
l Territorial Ambitions. China recognises no border agreements. Dating back to 27th April 1914, after signing the draft of ‘Shimla Tripartite Agreement’ between British India, Tibet and China, defining the boundary between China and Tibet (later called the McMohan Line), China did a volte face to reject it outright. In 1949, PLA entered Xinjiang and the People’s Republic of China annexed Xinjiang followed by Tibet in 1951. Ironically, Chinese historiographers call these annexations as ‘Peaceful Liberations of Xinjiang and Tibet’. ‘Salami-slicing’ adventures continue to further Chinese territorial ambitions.
l China’s Maritime Ambitions. China’s ambitions to be Asia’s undisputed regional hegemon is perhaps most evident in the South China Sea. China has struck oil there. To reduce dependence on imports, it seeks to retain a monopoly over this reserve. Beijing continuously creates military bases along remote reefs and islands in a 1.5-million-square mile expanse. Since 2013, the People’s Republic of China has resorted to island-building in the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands regions to increase its maritime limits.
The South China Sea disputes involve both island and maritime claims among several sovereign states within the region, namely Brunei, the People’s Republic of China(PRC), the Republic of China (Taiwan), Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. An estimated$3.37 trillion worth of global trade passes through the SouthChinaSea annually that accounts for a third of the global maritime trade. China’s crucial energy imports and 39.5 per cent of its total trade passes through the South China Sea.
l CPEC & BRI. China’s annexation of Aksai Chin in 1950s was the first step of their perspective strategic planning. Next in the sequence was Pakistan’s ‘gift’ of Shakasgam Valley to China in 1963. Fifty years later, China announced the CPEC through this sensitive region as part of China’s BRI, commonly called the ‘New Silk Route’.
A mixture of hard and soft policies has characterised China’s relations with India. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the United States is getting closer to India to the extent of even forging a strategic partnership. In South Asia, India is the power that by its size and overall status does assume a leadership role beyond the orbit of South Asia, into the ‘extended neighbourhood’. China has deliberately kept the boundary dispute unresolved so that the unsettled border issue will keep India off-balance to reduce its maritime military investments.
India and China are locked in geopolitical and geo-economic games in South and Southeast Asia. On the one hand, to counter aggressive Chinese postures in Ladakh, South China and Straits of Taiwan, Australia-India- the USA- Japan Quadrilateral Alliance (QUAD) is being reactivated. On the other hand, China has the backing of Russia to modernise its military arsenal that may fall short of Western technological standards. Interestingly, the battle for power supremacy between India and China is enmeshed in the geopolitical realities of South Asia.
China and India’s Neighbourhood
Indian dispensation’s ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’ is under strain due to the active involvement of China in the region. Having gained excess through Gawadar port to the Arabian Sea, now China is eyeing access to the Bay of Bengal via Myanmar. It has weaned Nepal away from India and is hobnobbing in Bangladesh too.
lPakistan‘s increasing economic and military dependence on China has reduced the former to be a vassal state. Strategic consequences of this relationship need no elaboration.
lNepal. India arm-twisted Nepal through an ill-conceived economic blockade in 2015. It may have coerced Nepal to concede to the demands of Nepal’s Madhesi community;that has happened at the cost of India’s clout in Kathmandu. Naturally, China stepped in; consequences are now showing in the souring of Indo-Nepal relations.
lBhutan. Beijing is seeking to mend relations with Bhutan through soft power diplomacy. There has been a significant increase in Chinese tourists to Bhutan. Post-Dhoklam standoff Bhutan witnessed a considerable drop in tourist arrivals from China, warning Bhutan about its economic vulnerability.Bhutan is asserting its autonomy in its foreign policy too.
lBangladesh is a member of China’s BRI. Consequently, China has pledged an investment of $38 billion, the highest ever promised to Bangladesh by a single country. China even announced a tariff exemption for 97% of exports from Bangladesh. Bangladesh seems already on the lap of China.
lSri Lanka. Between 2004 and 2014, China provided $ 7 billion in loans and investment to Sri Lanka, including loans for the construction of the Port in Hambantota. Unable to repay the loan, in 2017 Sri Lankan Government handed over the port and 15,000 acres of land around it to China for 99 years.Just a few hundred kilometres from India’s shore, China thus gained a strategic foothold along a critical commercial and military waterway.
lThe Maldives. The Maldivian Government leased out Islands of Feydhoo Finolhuto China until 2066 for $4 million. China has established a military base on thisisland, posing a direct threat to Indian security and freedom of movement.
lString Of Pearls. It refers to the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities and relationships along its sea lines of communication extending from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan in the Horn of Africa. The sea lines run through major maritime choke points. Together with CPEC and BRI under Xi Jinping, this ‘string’ is a threat to India’s national security. It would encircle India and threaten its power projection, trade, and even territorial integrity. Another school of thought is that instead of encircling India it is China which is becoming overstretched and vulnerable.
Indo-Chinese Border Accords
Keeping the contentious boundary issue aside, Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping, the reformist Chinese leader, shook hands in 1988 to break the deadlock. To maintain peace and tranquillity along the LAC, India and China signed three more agreements in 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2013. A crucial boundary accord titled ‘Political Parameters and Guiding Principals for the Settlement of Indo-China Boundary Question’ was signed in 2005. Sadly, it seems that these agreements don’t hold any sanctity for the Chinese leadership. For them, economic and territorial expansion is paramount; morality finds no place.
Sino-Indian Border Standoffs
Chinese territorial claims lines keep shifting as per its strategic imperatives. They recognised a specific alignment until 1959 and another one by September 1962 before the war to occupy more parts in eastern Ladakh. After the 1962 war, they occupied even more areas compared to their own September 1962 claim line. The same strategy continues even now and is a reason for numerous border standoffs between the two countries. Despang in 2013, Chumar in 2014, Doklam in 2017 and Galwan in 2020 are recent examples. Besides occupying territory, China consolidates its gains by extending its infrastructure right upto the border and, if possible, beyond.
Present Standoff. There are reports that China has intruded into the Indian territory at as many as seven places in eastern Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. The current standoff in Ladakh portends serious consequences for India. There are source-based reports suggest de-escalation has started in the region. In the absence of a formal confirmation from the Government, there appears no finality to the Chinese withdrawal.
Pakistan Factor. Going by media reports, concurrent to the Sino-Indian standoff Pakistan is amassing troops in Gilgit- Baltistan area and China is in talks with Al Badr, a Pakistani terror group. China appears to be building a ‘two-and-half front’ war spectre. However, Pakistan’s direct involvement in a conflict between India and China is unlikely. Presumably, movement of Pakistan troops is to tie down Indians resources. At best, China may put Pakistan’s non-state strategic assets to use in UTs of J&K and Ladakh.
India’s Military Response
Martyrdom of 20 unarmed Indian soldiers in a treacherous ambush by People’s Liberation Army (PLA), in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley on 15 June 2020, resulted in nationwide anguish. By all accounts, Indian troops in a swift and bloody reprisal left double the number Chinese dead. Ever since two armies are in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. Both sides have built up their forces in the Sector.
Unlike in 1962, India is no pushover today. India has proven its prowess in the mountains during the 1999 Kargil conflict against Pakistan. It has already fast-tracked procurement of arms and ammunition. Should negotiations fail to restore status quo ante along the LAC as in April 2020, India is well poised to regain what China has grabbed. The situation is fluid by the hour, and any uninformed discussion here would be futile.
Standoff and India’s Diplomatic Outreach
Present border crisis will put India’s diplomatic acumen to test. All indications are that the standoff in Galwan is likely to continue. In such an eventuality, India needs to strengthen itself further, both militarily and politically. The USA has openly come out in support of India.
Given the Sino-Russian anti-American strategic combination in place, Russia remains publically non-commital. Notwithstanding Russia’s concern about growing Indo-US warmth, India’s arms import from Russia is higher than from the US. That India’s defence minister dashed to Russia to seek additional equipment and spares, Russian assurance may already be in place.It is to the credit of India’s diplomatic success that most countries have stood by India in the present crisis.
Despite a perceived power asymmetry, India must stand up to China’s hegemonistic tendencies. Resolution of the standoff through diplomacy is ideal. If that fails, Indian Armed Forces have adequate capability to inflict a bloody nose to the Chinese in a short duration conflict.
Future of India’s regional standing and Sino-Indian relationship depends upon how India resolves the current crisis. A negotiated disengagement must ensure status quo ante as
In April 2020. Any concessions to the Chinese will only lead to more conflicts in future and diminish India’s stature in the region.
Lastly, there are lessons in this crisis for India. Firstly, never link national security narrative to domestic politics. It forecloses strategic options. Secondly, it is time political executive realised that foreign relations are not merely a function of personal equation between leaders, even less of the brilliance of party ideology or functionaries. Latter, to some extent, is responsible for deteriorating relations with our eastern neighbours. Lastly, we must urgently evolve an exhaustive National Security Doctrine. Its absence remains a legacy from the past.
By Lt Col Yoginder Kandhari