Never to be undertaken thoughtlessly or recklessly wars are to be preceded by measures that make it easy to win
Sun Tzu, Art of War (Griffith, p 39)
By Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar
Published on the IPCS website in my column “The Strategist” http://www.ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5715
Chinese Tradition of Warfare
In would appear that the Chinese tradition of warfare differs from contemporary conventional understanding. Instead of focussing on their own weaknesses, they seek to avoid exposing their flaws by instituting long-term measures to alter and isolate the environment before subversion and morale-breaking disinformation clutches-in to generate the advantage. This strategy uses every possible means to manipulate forces at play well before confrontation. In this context the significance of the clash neither constitutes the “moment of decision” nor would its outcome be the end of the engagement. And if conclusion is not to China’s terms, it is effectively delayed and kept animated in order to erode the will to resist. A favourable consequence is thus sought through an “Isolate-Subvert-Sap” strategy.
All of China’s recent actions must be viewed in the context of its larger geopolitical ambitions of attaining status of the pre-eminent global hegemon by 2049 (China’s National Defence in the New Era, July 2019). These include the militarisation of the South China Sea, build-up and assault in Ladakh, repression in Hong Kong, establishment of the East China Sea ADIZ, incarceration of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and their delayed sharing of information around the Coronavirus pandemic.
The imbroglio in the South China Sea and the recent assault in Ladakh will be examined in a little more detail to try and discern the elements that hold sway in a Chinese military campaign.
Militarization of the South China Sea
China has laid claim to all the waters of the South China Sea based on a demarcation they call the ‘Nine-Dash’ line. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled that the origin of the entitlement is bereft of legitimacy and could not be used by Beijing to make historic claims to the South China Sea. The line, first inscribed on a Chinese map in 1947, has “no legal basis” for maritime claims, deemed the Court.
In brazen dismissal of the Tribunal’s ruling, China persists in its sweeping claims of sovereignty over the sea, its resources and de-facto control over the trade plying across it amounting to USD $5.3 trillion annually.
Satellite imagery has shown China’s efforts to militarize the Woody Island while constructing artificial Islands and setting up military bases, rejecting competing claims of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Most of the world along with claimant countries demand the rights assured under UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
In sum, China’s strategy for managing its claims in the South China Sea has emphasized delaying settlement of disputes. And in time with swelling military capability, occupation of contested features, building artificial Islands and locating military bases for control of the waters within the nine-dash line. In the face of these aggressive moves the other claimant states are left in awe as they are handed down a grim fait accompli.
In the meantime in response, the US, Japan, Australia and India have formed the ‘Quad’ an emerging alliance to improve their maritime security capacity and to deter Chinese aggression. The ‘Quad’ have initiated freedom of navigation exercises intended to affirm that Beijing cannot unilaterally seize control of the waterway.
Ladakh-High Place for a Showdown
China has in the last eight years attempted to put India in a strategically ‘benign’ economic-client slot. Beijing uses its proxy Pakistan to keep the Kashmir cauldron on the boil while it presses on with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in the UN it vetoes India’s efforts to become a permanent member of the Security Council and blocks its membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. All the while playing India at Wuhan and Mamalapuram; promoting its dysfunctional non-aligned policy or at least attempting to nudge India away from the US. (The Isolate-Subvert-Sap strategy at work).
Xi’s military assault in Ladakh has been underscored to assert that geography will not be allowed to come in the way of China’s strategic objectives; be it the CPEC , the BRI or the their arterial national highway 219 linking Lhasa to Xinjiang that cuts across India’s Aksai Chin.
India on its part has given a resolute and matching military riposte in Ladakh. It has quite boldly launched surgical strikes on Jihadi training camps in Pakistan by air and land forces and robustly rebuffed kowtowing with either Xi’s BRI or his economic grand plans. On the Line of Actual Control (LAC), for more than half a century India has followed a decrepit and emasculated policy of infrastructure building along the un-demarcated LAC with China. Doklam changed all of that and today more strategic infrastructure has come-up than had in the last 5 decades. While the Coronavirus pandemic has provided opportunity for leadership to India to pin accountability.
All of India’s actions have left Beijing a trifle red-faced.
To Untangle Beijing’s Behaviour
China’s century of Humiliation (1839-1949) coincided with the start of the First Opium War and ceding of Hong Kong to Britain. The conflict provided other colonial powers, a blueprint for usurping territories from the crumbling Qing dynasty. So, northern China was seized by the Czar, Formosa was taken by Japan; while Germany, France and Austria carved out coveted real estate through ‘loaded treaties’.
The period remains etched in Chinese institutional memory of a rapacious international system over which it had little influence. It has today shaped China’s thrust for controlling status in the very same system. More importantly, it provides a rallying point internally and a persistent reminder to its people of why the CCP.
Indeed, Xi’s declaration of 2017 that “…the world is not peaceful” is turning out to be an “engineered” self-fulfilling prophecy. When put on a strategic template the delaying actions to resolve simmering discords effected only to exasperate, Janus faced policies that serve to deceive and subvert alliances, coercive manoeuvres, lease-for-debt economic deals and flouting of international norms bear a bizarre semblance to the words of Sun Tzu: ‘The master conqueror frustrated his enemy’s plans and broke up his alliances. He created cleavages…He gathered information, sowed dissension and nurtured subversion. The enemy was isolated, divided and demoralized; his will to resist broken.” (Griffith, p 39).
Fortunately we are not in Sun Tzu times neither are strategies so opaque nor are Xi’s people with him. Yet China would do well to heed Sun Tzu’s sage words of avoiding a reckless path to an unintended war.