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. Because of its expansionists tendencies, China has border disputes with all its neighbours, be those over land or marine jurisdictions. The only exception is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan which is virtually its vassal state. Interestingly, China uses ‘Salami-slice’ strategy to expand its boundaries.
‘Salami-slice’ strategy 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 MátyásRákosi 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 execution of the same strategy.
China Plans Long-term
Unlike India, China has well laid out long-term strategic goals, dovetailing territorial expansion and economic objectives.
China is aiming 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.
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?
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 a force of 1.23 million. China has an impressive array of land, air and marine equipment and armament.
Federation of American Scientists, a think-tank, estimates that China posses approximately 240 nuclear warheads. Further, making China a high-tech superpower is a cornerstone of Xi’s presidency.
China recognises no border agreements. Dating back to 27 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 Mc Mohan Line) China did a volt face to reject it outright. In 1947, the People’s Republic of China annexed Xinjiang and then 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.
China’s Maritime Ambitions
China’s ambitions to be Asia’s undisputed regional hegemon is perhaps most evident in the South China Sea. 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 South China Sea annually that accounts for a third of the global maritime trade. Eighty per cent of China’s energy imports and 39.5 per cent of China’s total trade passes through the South China Sea.
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 China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through this sensitive region as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), latter commonly called the ‘New Silk Route’.
China and India’s Neighbourhood
India appears to have made a mess of bilateral relations with smaller neighbours. Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’ is under severe strain. India has not adequately been able to block China’s access to warm waters. Having gained excess through Gawadar port to the Arabian Sea, now China is eyeing excess to the Bay of Bengal via Nepal and Bangladesh.
Increasing economic and military dependence on China has reduced the former to be a vassal state. Strategic consequences of this relationship need no elaboration.
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.
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. India seems to be losing ground in Bhutan.
Its is a member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 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.
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.
The Maldivian Government leased out Islands of FeydhooFinolhu to China until 2066 for $4 million. China has established a military base on this island, posing a direct threat to Indian security and freedom of movement.
String 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 chokepoints. 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
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, 1966 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, none of these agreements holds 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.
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 severe strategic consequences for India.
Without dwelling into the tactical details, the intrusion in Galwan Valley and the area around is to deny India unhindered use of Darbuk-Shayok- Dualta Beg Oldie (DBO) Road, a vital road link between Leh and DBO Sector, also called Sub Sector North (SSN). Importantly, the DBO Sector represents Indian presence in Aksai Chin plateau which otherwise is controlled by China. Denial of this road to India has several consequences. While on the one hand maintenance of Indian troop will be adversely impacted, on the other hand, India would cease to dominate Tibet- Xinjiang Highway. Increased domination by Chinese over Aksai Chin plateau will also render Indian airstrip at DBO vulnerable to interference.
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. Pakistan is obliged to play ball with China. 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 15th 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 are building 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-committal. 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 massive 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. After all, brief and swift Sumdarang Chu border conflict in 1987, left 800 Chinese dead.
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 personnel 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 urgently need an exhaustive National Security Doctrine in place. That probably is a legacy from the past.