As Comprehensive National Power (CNP) of China is growing, its strategy to impose its national will (as perceived by its few key leaders), exercise its power through its behavior in the international arena is undergoing noticeable change. Besides unprecedented economic growth in last few decades, its technological advancement gave significant boost to its soft as well as hard power.

PLA celebrated its 90th anniversary on 01 August 2017, demonstrating its strengths through various parades, provocative statements, military posturing, live fire exercises, psychological warfare, and propaganda. The obvious question is that does it have sufficient confidence to be able to meet the goals set for it, as laid out in China’s Military Strategy document released in early 2015? Is its ambition moving much faster than its capability development (considering the fact that US defense budget is many times more than China)? Has China started giving teeth to its ‘Active Defense Strategy’ by ‘Incremental Encroachment’, based on extending its sovereignty claims on her one sided historical perspective (South and East China Sea, and Doklam Plateau Standoff being cases in point)? Is it that the goal which China had set for itself for 2049, President Xi Jinping wants to achieve by 2021, or in his next term itself? The article attempts to analyse some of these issues.

Chinese Active Defence Strategy turning into Incremental Encroachments

If threats, strategic and military posturing has been going on in South and East China Sea for few years now, Doklam Plateau is a recent incident, involving limited players as compared to South China Sea (SCS). What is significant is that China is increasing its territorial claims based on its own version of history as it suits them. It declares it as its sovereign territory, and resorts to creeping encroachment over a period of time, stopping just short of war, thereafter continue holding it, thereby resulting in expansion of its territory. Recently, after some increase in its CNP, China has started talking about global role, and its last Military strategy and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) documents published in 2015 give adequate indicators of its expansionist design, ascribing an expeditionary role for PLA, which has influenced China in working out its restructuring plans. China is crafting its strategic design for ‘China centric Asia’ through its assertive behavior. China used this strategy in SCS, attempting to convert atolls into islands in a manner that SCS becomes a “Chinese Lake”, ignoring international and legal opposition. China attempted to adopt the same strategy in Doklam Plateau also and expected that it will work as per its design, till it met a road block called “India of 2017”.

Why Doklam Plateau was Chosen for Ingress by China?

The events leading to Doklam Plateau stand-off and India China differences prior to that, have been widely covered by numerous authors, but the possible reason of China selecting it as the point to needle India could be:-

    India and Bhutan boycotted Belt and Road Forum (BRF) for International Cooperation, the Doklam ingress could embarrass both the countries simultaneously.

    Stressing on 1890 Treaty by China ( Signed between China and British India) takes away the logic of Tibet, as a player in dealing with India, thus a subtle message to Dalai Lama that he is not a stake holder in Tibet.

    Test the depth of Indo- Bhutanese security relationship.

    The area being too close to Siliguri Corridor/Chicken’s Neck, India had to be concerned and had to decide whether to intervene or otherwise in India’s own national interest, thereby conveying a message of standing up or not standing up to a challenge from Beijing in future too.

    As the construction activity was in Bhutanese Territory, a strong Indian reaction was not expected.

    In case India takes action, China can proclaim itself as an innocent victim and blame India to be an aggressor.

China was however surprised by an unexpectedly strong Indian reaction, and then it realized that the point chosen was such, where it had strategic and tactical disadvantages in escalating it. China was also surprised that in multiparty democracy like India, all parties are on the same page as far as stand on sovereignty and Doklam Issue is concerned. The end result is that China is extremely disturbed about it, and churning out fresh provocative statements almost on daily basis, launching psychological and propaganda war, war of words, and resorting to every possible means short of war to put pressure on India to withdraw its troops. The continuation of stand-off is exerting domestic pressure and rattling Chinese Government, which has painted larger than life image of its own power to make everyone follow its dictate. The Indian side on the other side has been relatively balanced, but firm in its stance, making very few statements.

Demarcation of Border/ Defining of LAC Inescapable to avoid Face-offs

Out of 14 countries with which China had border issues, it has resolved with 12 except India and Bhutan, With India, China has been delaying settling the border issue on some pretext or the other, and with Bhutan it has been shifting its claim lines many times. Even if resolution of boundary is considered to be a complex problem, the demarcation, delineation and defining of Line of Actual Control (LAC), (which is not a mutually accepted line as of now), is an inescapable necessity. It needs to be understood that with un-demarcated LAC, troops of both sides will patrol as per their own perceptions of LAC; some areas will be common which both sides will patrol to be its own. Every such patrol will be called as intrusion by the other side, hence such face-offs will continue till it’s demarcated, and the identification of its demarcation is made known to troops manning the borders. The incident of Chinese attempted intrusion on August 15, foiled by Indian troops leading to a short face-off in Ladakh, is one such common incident. Similarly the faceoff in Pongong Tso ( A lake which extends in India as well as China), is a result of non demarcation of boundary between both making resolution of the problem more complex.

Although China has resorted to adopting Sun Tzu principle of ‘winning without fighting’, or make India withdraw its troops without fighting in this case, through psychological and propaganda war, provocative statements, military posturing, exercises, cyber power, but India as a country, with strong leadership and operationally experienced military, is well placed to resist any action, without making much noise and maintaining its balance. Military threat or provocative statements cannot be an answer to this problem. The history can be interpreted by both sides to suit their claims, threat to revise policies can be from both sides (if China can talk about rethinking Sikkim/Kashmir policy/ or intervening in Nepal triangle,India can also talk about rethinking Tibet/One China policy or establishing diplomatic relations with Taiwan). The militaries have grown on both sides, the escalation dynamics of conflict will block growth and economic dreams of both countries, and the reality is that none can deter another.The mistrust between India and China is fueled by irresponsible so called Chinese media, publishing articles with vituperative rhetoric, Think-tanks and some ‘so called specialists’ reading the events beyond unimaginable limits (some Chinese media article talking of “Countdown to clash with India is on”, although Chinese establishment is distancing itself from such statement) has further made the resolution of Doklam Plateau stand-off difficult. Chinese efforts to establish bilateral talks with Bhutan have not materialized. Their efforts to involve Nepal have also resulted in response from their Deputy Prime Minister expressing unwillingness to take sides. Japanese Ambassador in New Delhi also said that there should be no attempt to change status quo on the ground by force, has also irked China, which finds no one buying its provocative narrative . Despite the fact that both countries don’t want a war, they would not like to appear weak in resolution process.

Doklam: The Way Ahead

When NSA Ajit Doval went to China to attend NSAs meeting of BRICS on 27and 28 July 2017, any expectations for commencement of meaningful diplomatic engagement was being unrealistic. Any war-game between Chinese and Indian Forces, if conducted by professionals will conclude that a land border conflict will end up in a stalemate, which is disastrous for the image of President Xi Jinping especially in an election year, besides being economically damaging for both countries. In a border standoff of this kind, neither side wants to appear weak; hence both seem to be reinforcing troops along LAC in Doklam Plateau and other areas, as a precautionary measure. It is therefore necessary that the two countries find a peaceful solution, with a face-saving gesture to ease tension. To resolve the current face-off:-

    Diplomatic engagement without preconditions will have to commence immediately setting aside hard stands, war of words, and rhetoric. In case either side doesn’t want to be appearing compromising to its people, Track2/informal talks can begin as a face saving measure, followed by formal talks. Any precondition laid down by either side, is likely to be resented, and prolong the stand-off. Even US is of the view that both sides should talk and resolve the matter.

    Chinese should stop construction of road immediately, honoring sovereignty of Bhutan and Trilateral agreement of 2012.

    Once status quo of pre-standoff period is achieved, military of both sides should pull back to pre standoff positions simultaneously.

    As a long term measure both China and India should expedite demarcation of LAC on ground, and disseminate it up to the level of troops manning the borders to prevent future face-offs, which is avoidable by cooperative political intent followed by intense diplomatic efforts.

South China Sea: Is Chinese Strategy same as Doklam?

The Similarity in Strategy in both Scenarios

 An analysis of similarity in strategy of these two scenarios is relevant for India, as it has stakes in both. The Chinese strategy as described above in case of Doklam Plateau had been earlier tested in South China Sea, with some differences.This is evident from the fact that China on the pretext of sovereignty claims based on its own interpretation of historical maritime boundaries has carried out incremental encroachment into South China Sea, as part of her ‘Active Defence Policy’ which is the same pretext of its ingress in Doklam. The Chinese Foreign Minister had said “The islands in the South China Sea (SCS) have been China’s territory since ancient times, and China has the right to safeguard its territorial sovereignty”. It indirectly means that the world must accept whatever China claims as having been part of Qing dynasty or any other historical period as per its convenience, as sovereign territory of China. While in Doklam it is the Anglo-Chinese Treaty of 1890 wherein neither Tibet nor Sikkim nor Bhutan were consulted or taken into confidence. India along with other users of SCS has stakes in SCS face-off to prevent Chinese future  interference in ‘Freedom of Navigation’ on account of major chunk of shipping trade passing through it, freedom of flight, restriction in offshore drilling deals for oil with Vietnam, and use of other global commons in international waters. 

The Differences in Both Situations

SCS is a global issue with involvement of superpower US along with other users. China’s strategic competition with US in Asia is a reality, and it is increasingly encroaching into US strategic space and influence, which includes SCS. Military posturing, tough statements and other actions of US, have not helped them much in losing ground, as China has not halted its activities. While the infrastructure development by China in SCS being dual use (civil as well as military), keeps progressing, it is viewed as usurping global commons by US and other users of SCS, and strategic encroachment by regional claimants. The strategic and military posturing and occasional hard statements on the claim of ‘Freedom of Navigation’ by US is considered as ‘Disturbance to regional peace’ by China. In comparison India’s timely intervention on behalf of Bhutan has saved the situation for Bhutan.

China’s assertive actions in SCS have inadvertently distanced her from many old friends having stakes there. The issue of their sovereignty claim over Freedom of navigation claim of others creates suspicion about free flow of global trade. Although China has not obstructed any trade shipping so far, but in future if SCS is allowed to become China’s lake, it may lay down some rules of business inconvenient to other users of SCS and global commons. In case it declares SCS as her ADIZ in future, the freedom of flights over international waters will get affected adversely.  With China’s claim that US is destabilizing/militarizing SCS, hence it may appear to be as China-US issue, but rest of the world including India, whose trade is passing through this crucial global SLOC may not like to see SCS being converted into China’s lake. While China will like to claim her freedom of navigation elsewhere, but her making it a sovereignty issue in SCS may not let it remain a zone of peace. The construction of airstrips, deployment of missiles, radars and other logistics facilities by China are an attempt to convert an ‘Atoll’ in SCS into an ‘Island’. This will help in converting the SCS into “China’s Lake” by using provisions of same UNCLOS, which it has been ignoring. These are not happy signs for other claimant countries and other regional users of SCS including ASEAN, who do not have the strength to stand up against China. They look upon US to fulfill its erstwhile role of ‘Net Security Provider’, in conjunction with other global users of SCS like Japan, India and Australia, without openly opposing China, and extracting best concessions from all.

China’s Blatant Refusal to Accept International Court of Arbitration Verdict

While China did not accept nor paid any heed to the International Court of Arbitration Verdict on the case taken up by Philippines, and has continued to build infrastructure on atolls to convert them into islands, but it definitely conveyed the global message that SCS cannot be treated as Chinese lake, as global SLOC and trade is affected by it.

    It conveyed that Chinese claim of it being her sovereign territory is not being considered convincing. It also gave a message that similar adventurism to claim any global choke-point anywhere in the world, will also invite sharp criticism.

    Increased military movement and exercises in SCS by China as well as US and its allies/friendly Navies is indicative of military posturing and War of words. While US, India and Japan maintain that Malabar exercises are not directed towards any other country, but analysts can read some subtle messages in it. As per Defence Update by US on July 22, 2017, it is looking at capacity building of Regional forces like India, Japan and Australia to check expeditionary and expansionist adventures of China.

    For the time being no recognizable change in South China Sea is visualised. The military posturing and show of force by US and China will continue, along with diplomatic efforts to pull other affected countries into their strategic orbit. The other claimant countries can hope for better concessions from both sides as Vietnam was visited by erstwhile President Obama, as well as Xi Jinping with unprecedented offers once the SCS row heated up. The recent attempts of China trying to negotiate Doklam Issue with Bhutan directly, or trying to get Nepal into this issue is a case in point for similar strategy.

    It certainly divides ASEAN with each country trying to get the best out of the existing situation and from both the superpowers.

    China’s has been luring claimant countries to bilaterally resolve SCS dispute is unlikely to work. It attempted the same by putting out in the media that Bhutan had not objected to Chinese presence in Doklam. This has been adequately refuted by the Bhutanese Foreign Minister in his meeting with the Indian Foreign Minister on the sidelines of the BIMSTEC Foreign Ministers held meeting recently in Kathmandu. The regional Daclaration of Conduct(DoC) and Code of Conduct (CoC) will not be able to check China’s unilateralism. The freedom in use of global commons will have to be contested by regional and other affected countries, including global powers.

    The verdict also gave a message that each contending side reads history, as it suits her in claiming territories, hence historical claims cannot be the overarching basis of territorial resolutions.

    China is neither the first or last country in not implementing international arbitration verdict (in absence of any enforcement mechanism), but the verdict gave the global mood, with some international pressure on Chinese hierarchy. India on the other hand had acted maturely as a responsible nation, by accepting a similar verdict, which was passed to resolve territorial water dispute with Bangladesh last year by the PCA.

Unfortunately, all global and regional players affected have been watching, while China has been conveniently progressing construction. Even the regional claimant countries and ASEAN seem to be growing softer on this issue. The strategic and military posturing and isolated provocative/threatening statements by US and voices of resentment by others will not help. A hard stand by US and other global players will have to be taken to stop further construction and creeping encroachment in SCS as has been done in case of Doklam. It therefore needs to be seen that Doklam Issue and its resolution is a test case in checking Chinese hegemony or otherwise. The resolution methodology of Doklam Issue may bring some lessons for SCS also.  A peaceful India- China border as well as South China Sea is essential for India, China and everyone’s growth and stability in Indo- Pacific region.

Commonality in the Way Ahead in Doklam and SCS

  • China must stop further construction.
  • China has to limit its imagination of sovereignty based on one sided historical claims. It needs to respect the ‘Sovereignty’ and ‘Core National Interests’ of other countries as well, otherwise its arrogance can make other countries take harder stands in future.
  • Diplomatic engagement without preconditions will have to commence immediately setting aside hard stands, war of words, and rhetoric’s.
  • The theory of deterrence to mould strategic choices will not work. If Vietnam could stand up to China and US, and both are finding problems in dealing with North Korea, then deterring India is unrealistic imagination.
  • Military posturing to be controlled by contesting sides.
  • International laws, Conventions, Treaties, Agreements need to be respected by all.
  • The diplomatic exercise to resolve these should continue simultaneously with commercial engagements. Talks are a must for resolving differences in perceptions.
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