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Doklam Plateau Standoff or South China Sea: Chinese Active Defence Strategy turns into Incremental Encroachments

By Major General S B Asthana, SM, VSM (Veteran)
  • As Comprehensive National Power (CNP) of China is improving, its strategy to impose national will (As perceived by its few key leaders), exercise its power and its international behavior 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. As PLA celebrated its 90th anniversary on 01 August 2017, demonstrating its strengths through various parades, provocative statements, military posturing, exercises, psychological warfare, and propaganda, 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 a case 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 claims based on its own perception of history as it suits them, call it its sovereign territory, and continue encroaching it slowly, stop just short of war, and continue holding it thereafter, 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 BRI documents published in 2015 give adequate indicators of its expansionist design, expeditionary role for PLA and China has worked out its restructuring plans accordingly. China is crafting its strategic design for ‘China centric Asia’ with its assertive behavior. China used this strategy in SCS, attempting to convert a feature into island in a manner that SCS becomes a “Chinese Lake”, despite international and legal opposition. China adopted 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), the Doklam ingress could demean both the countries simultaneously.
  • Harping on 1890 Treaty by China 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 caught in awkward situation in deciding to intervene or otherwise, thereby getting a message not to challenge Beijing in future.
  • As the construction activity was in Bhutanese Territory, a violent 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 for her 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 throwing up 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 border is considered to be a complex problem, the demarcation, delineation and defining of Line of actual Control (LAC), (which is not a line as of now), is an inescapable necessity, because India will remain its neighbor is a geographical fact, which China cannot change. 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.
Ongoing Power Play on Doklam Issue
  • 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 leader and operationally experienced military, which has also studied Kautilya along-with Sun Tzu, 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 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 fueled by irresponsible media, articles with 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”, without understanding “Escalation Dynamics”, 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, and efforts to involve Nepal have also resulted in response from their Deputy Prime Minister expressing unwillingness to take sides.Despite the fact that both countries don't want a war, but they will 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 strategic scenario building wargame 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, so the two countries must find a peaceful manner and face-saving gesture to ease tensions. To resolve the current face-off:-
  • Diplomatic engagement without preconditions will have to commence immediately setting aside hard stands, war of words, and rhetorics. In case either side doesn’t want to be looking 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.
  • 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 hasalso been adopted in South China Sea, with some differences.This is evident from the fact that China on the pretext of sovereignty claims based on her perspective of historical maritime boundaries has carried out incremental encroachment into South China Sea, as part of her ‘Active Defence Policy’ which is worrisome for other claimant countries, as well as troublesome for other users of South China Sea following UNCLOS. TheChinese 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 part of Qing dynasty or any other historical period as per it’s convenience, as sovereign territory of China. By this flawed logic of China, the entire Pakistan should belong to India; hence India should claim to reunite entire Pakistan to India by 2047/2050, which will be considered absurd/ irresponsible logic by everyone in global community. 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 strategic encroachment by US, regional claimants, and other users of SCS. 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.
  •      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, 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, radar and other logistics facilities by China are an attempt to convert a ‘Natural Feature’ in SCS into an ‘Island’ and thereby 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 regional and global users of the SCS like India and Japan, besides others.
  • 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 Malaysia, and has continued to build infrastructure on features to convert them into islands,but it definitely conveyed the global message that SCS cannot be treated as Chinese lake, or US lake, as global SLOC and trade is affected by it.
  • It conveyed thatChinese 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 South China Sea 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 may claim that Malabar exercises are not directed towards any country, but it has some hidden messages in it, and future addition of Australia into it will make the message clearer. As per Defence Update of US of July 22, 2017, the US 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 President Obama, as well as Xi Jinping with unprecedented offers. The recent news 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 luring claimant countries to bilaterally resolve South China Sea dispute is unlikely to work. The regional DoC and CoC will not be able to check China’s unilateralism. The use of global commons, however, will continue to be contested by regional and other affected countries, including global powers.
  • One point comes out clearly 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.
  • Status Quo is likely to prevail regarding occupation of Islands, reefs and Other features in SCS. No major change in actual ground position can be expected, unless a concrete stand is taken by global community.
  •         Unfortunately, all global and regional players affected have been watching, while China has been conveniently progressing construction. Even the regional claimant countries have been seen to be growing softer on this issue. The strategic and military posturing and isolated provocative/threatening statements and voices of resentments will not help anyone. 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.
End Notes (The views expressed are my personnel views and do not reflect the views of Asia Times)

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