Call­ing the Chi­nese bully's bluff

Financial Nigeria Magazine - - Contents - By Brahma Chel­laney

The more power China has ac­cu­mu­lated, the more it has at­tempted to achieve its for­eign­pol­icy ob­jec­tives with bluff, blus­ter, and bul­ly­ing. But, as its Hi­malayan bor­der stand­off with In­dia's mil­i­tary con­tin­ues, the lim­its of this ap­proach are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ap­par­ent.

The cur­rent stand­off be­gan in mid-June, when Bhutan, a close ally of In­dia, dis­cov­ered the Peo­ple's Lib­er­a­tion Army try­ing to ex­tend a road through Dok­lam, a high-al­ti­tude plateau in the Hi­malayas that be­longs to Bhutan, but is claimed by China. In­dia, which guar­an­tees tiny Bhutan's se­cu­rity, quickly sent troops and equipment to halt the con­struc­tion, as­sert­ing that the road – which would over­look the point where Ti­bet, Bhutan, and the In­dian state of Sikkim meet – threat­ened its own se­cu­rity.

Since then, China's lead­ers have been warn­ing In­dia al­most daily to back down or face mil­i­tary reprisals. China's de­fence min­istry has threat­ened to teach In­dia a “bit­ter les­son,” vow­ing that any con­flict would in­flict “greater losses” than the Si­noIn­dian War of 1962, when China in­vaded In­dia dur­ing a Hi­malayan bor­der dis­pute and in­flicted ma­jor dam­age within a few weeks. Like­wise, China's for­eign min­istry has un­leashed a tor­rent of vit­riol in­tended to in­tim­i­date In­dia into sub­mis­sion.

De­spite all of this, In­dia's gov­ern­ment, led by Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, has kept its cool, re­fus­ing to re­spond to any Chi­nese threat, much less with­draw its forces. As China's war­mon­ger­ing has con­tin­ued, its true colours have be­come in­creas­ingly vivid. It is now clear that China is at­tempt­ing to use psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare (“psy­war”) to ad­vance its strate­gic ob­jec­tives – to “win with­out fight­ing,” as the an­cient Chi­nese mil­i­tary the­o­rist Sun Tzu rec­om­mended.

China has waged its psy­war against In­dia largely through dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns and me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tion, aimed at pre­sent­ing In­dia – a rau­cous democ­racy with poor pub­lic diplo­macy – as the ag­gres­sor and China as the ag­grieved party. Chi­nese state me­dia have been en­gaged in ea­ger In­dia-bash­ing for weeks. China has also em­ployed “law­fare,” se­lec­tively in­vok­ing a colo­nial-era ac­cord, while ig­nor­ing its own vi­o­la­tions – cited by Bhutan and In­dia – of more re­cent bi­lat­eral agree­ments.

For the first few days of the stand­off, China's psy­war blitz helped it dom­i­nate the nar­ra­tive. But, as China's claims and tac­tics have come un­der grow­ing scru­tiny, its ap­proach has faced di­min­ish­ing re­turns. In fact, from a do­mes­tic per­spec­tive, China's at­tempts to por­tray it­self as the vic­tim – claim­ing that In­dian troops had il­le­gally en­tered Chi­nese ter­ri­tory, where they re­main – has been dis­tinctly dam­ag­ing, pro­vok­ing a na­tion­al­ist back­lash over the fail­ure to evict the in­trud­ers.

As a re­sult, Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping's im­age as a com­mand­ing leader, along with the pre­sump­tion of China's re­gional dom­i­nance, is com­ing un­der strain, just months be­fore the crit­i­cal 19th Na­tional Congress of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party (CCP). And it is dif­fi­cult to see how Xi could turn the sit­u­a­tion around.

De­spite China's over­all mil­i­tary su­pe­ri­or­ity, it is scarcely in a po­si­tion to de­feat In­dia de­ci­sively in a Hi­malayan war, given In­dia's for­ti­fied de­fences along the bor­der. Even lo­cal­ized hos­til­i­ties at the tri­bor­der area would be beyond China's ca­pac­ity to dom­i­nate, be­cause the In­dian army con­trols higher ter­rain and has greater troop den­sity. If such mil­i­tary clashes left China with so much as a blood­ied nose, as hap­pened in the same area in 1967, it could spell se­ri­ous trou­ble for Xi at the up­com­ing Na­tional Congress.

But, even with­out ac­tual con­flict, China stands to lose. Its con­fronta­tional ap­proach could drive In­dia, Asia's most im­por­tant geopo­lit­i­cal “swing state,” firmly into the camp of the United States, China's main global ri­val. It could also un­der­mine its own com­mer­cial in­ter­ests in the world's fastest-grow­ing ma­jor econ­omy, which sits astride China's en­ergy-im­port life­line.

Al­ready, In­dian For­eign Min­is­ter Sushma Swaraj has tac­itly warned of eco­nomic sanc­tions if China, which is run­ning an an­nual trade sur­plus of nearly $60 bil­lion with In­dia, con­tin­ues to dis­turb bor­der peace. More broadly, as China has de­clared un­con­di­tional In­dian troop with­drawal to be a “pre­req­ui­site” for end­ing the stand­off, In­dia, fac­ing re­cur­rent Chi­nese in­cur­sions over the last decade, has in­sisted that bor­der peace is a “pre­req­ui­site” for de­vel­op­ing bi­lat­eral ties.

Against this back­ground, the smartest move for Xi would be to at­tempt to se­cure In­dia's help in find­ing a face-sav­ing com­pro­mise to end the cri­sis. The longer the stand­off lasts, the more likely it is to sully Xi's care­fully cul­ti­vated im­age as a pow­er­ful leader, and that of China as Asia's hege­mon, which would un­der­mine pop­u­lar sup­port for the regime at home and se­verely weaken China's in­flu­ence over its neigh­bours.

Al­ready, the stand­off is of­fer­ing im­por­tant les­sons to other Asian coun­tries seek­ing to cope with China's bul­ly­ing. For ex­am­ple, China re­cently threat­ened to launch mil­i­tary ac­tion against Viet­nam's out­posts in the dis­puted Spratly Is­lands, forc­ing the Viet­namese gov­ern­ment to stop drilling for gas at the edge of China's ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone in the South China Sea.

China does not yet ap­pear ready to change its ap­proach. Some ex­perts even pre­dict that it will soon move for­ward with a “small-scale mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion” to ex­pel the In­dian troops cur­rently in its claimed ter­ri­tory. But such an at­tack is un­likely to do China any good, much less change the ter­ri­to­rial sta­tus quo in the tri-bor­der area. It cer­tainly won't make it pos­si­ble for China to re­sume work on the road it wanted to build. That dream most likely died when In­dia called the Chi­nese bully's bluff.

Brahma Chel­laney, Pro­fes­sor of Strate­gic Stud­ies at the New Delhi-based Cen­ter for Pol­icy Re­search and Fel­low at the Robert Bosch Academy in Ber­lin, is the au­thor of nine books, in­clud­ing Asian Jug­ger­naut, Wa­ter: Asia's New Bat­tle­ground. Copy­right: Project Syn­di­cate

In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi

Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping

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