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“Victory Without Bloodshed”: China’s India Strategy

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August 20, 2013

“Subduing India, preferably without striking a blow, remains a major Chinese policy objective.”

Reports of more than a dozen Chinese incursions during July-August across the poorly-defined Line of Actual Control (LoAC)—the de-facto border separating India and China—have surfaced, barely three months after a tense border face-off in mid-April when a Chinese platoon set up tents about 12 miles inside Indian Kashmir.


Mutual antagonism has persisted along the border ever since the 1962 China-India border war with frequent border skirmishes and standoffs. Negotiations over drawing the official borders have dragged on for so long that they now carry the distinction of being the longest-running border negotiations in the world.


The prospects of an early border settlement are not bright—indeed, the two sides have failed to even exchange maps showing each other’s “perception” of where the LoAC runs.


There is indeed a fairly good understanding of where the LoAC lies. This is evident from the fact that no incursions were reported for a decade from 1988 to 1998.

It was only in 1998—notably, the year India tested nuclear weapons— that PLA border patrols again began routinely made forays across the disputed 2,400-mile-long LoAC to try and establish new territorial claims. Indian military has recorded nearly 600 incursions over the last 3 years alone.


China’s aggressive patrolling along the unsettled border keeps India’s military forces tied down on multiple fronts, tests Delhi’s resolve, heightens its anxiety, exposes its strategic vulnerabilities, and diverts scarce resources away from its naval modernization.


Also indicative of this trend is Chinese maritime forces harassment of Japanese, Vietnamese and Filipino forces well within their exclusive economic zones ... Belligerence, brinkmanship, intimidation, risk taking, and controlled escalation have long been part of Chinese diplomacy.


There is a growing consensus in Asian capitals that a robust regional response to the PLA’s rejection of the territorial status quo may well be needed to maintain peace and stability in Asia.


With the PLA expanding its presence to both the east and west, and China’s neighbors shedding their defensive mindsets, there is a real risk of a miscalculation and a major catastrophe. The combative streak speaks to a profound shift underway in Chinese foreign policy.


Of particular significance is the growing disconnect between the PLA and Foreign Ministry. Chinese diplomats often appear to be caught by surprise when the military engages in provocative actions.


China’s new leadership appears to support the military hardliners’ attempts to change the territorial status quo through a provocative “forward policy.”


Hardliners see India as a “soft state” that is hamstrung by a fractious polity, poverty, and religious and regional fault lines. They seem convinced that China’s growing wealth and the unequal strategic equation will eventually force India (and others) to capitulate and acquiesce to China’s primacy. Many assume that the Indian state—plagued with terrorism and insurgencies internally and under strategic pressure on multiple fronts externally—will eventually unravel.


PLA admirals and analysts similarly express indignation over India’s oil exploration in the South China Sea, its statements in support of “freedom of navigation” and the proliferation of its security dialogues with Japan, Vietnam, Australia and the United States. Growing angst over Indian naval forays in the Pacific Ocean led one analyst to ask: “Are we all ready to accept India as a Pacific power?” Aggressive patrolling along the LoAC would surely help the PLA keep Indian military’s focus on its land borders instead of widening its navy’s horizons in distant seas.


A crucial means of “victory without bloodshed” (bing bu xue ren) in Chinese strategic tradition is to intimidate the hostile country into capitulation through provocation, brinkmanship, coercion, controlled escalation, and a shift in the balance of power. The aim is to convince the enemy, who is militarily weak and/or tied down by other security concerns, that the overall “correlation of forces” has shifted to his disadvantage and thus to force him to concede.


Both sides are arming for an all-out conflict. Strategic thinkers in both Beijing and New Delhi are bitten by the “containment” bug. Both countries aspire to the same things at the same time on the same (contested) continental landmass and its adjoining waters. Neither power is comfortable with the rise of the other. Asia has never known a time when China and India were growing strong simultaneously, in such close proximity and with disputed frontiers and overlapping spheres of influence.

In the absence of a border settlement, tensions on both sides of the Himalayan divide will remain high as both militaries reinforce their strategic positions and engage in a battle of wits. Subduing India, preferably without striking a blow, remains a major Chinese policy objective.

Dr. Mohan Malik is professor in Asian Security at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu and author of China and India: Great Power Rivals. These are author's personal views and in no way reflect the views of the Asia-Pacific Center or the U.S. Department of Defense.


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