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CHELLANEY: Countering China’s ‘string of pearls’
Asia needs a plan for checking Beijing’s military expansion
With China’s “peaceful rise” giving way to a more muscular approach, Beijing has broadened its “core interests” and exhibited a growing readiness to take risks. As if to highlight its new multidirectional assertiveness, China’s recent occupation of a 12-mile-wide Indian border area close to where the borders of India, Pakistan and China converge has coincided with its escalating challenge to Japan’s decades-old control of the Senkaku Islands.
China is aggressively conducting regular patrols to solidify its sovereignty claims in the South and East China seas and to furtively enlarge its footprint in the Himalayan borderlands. While its navy and a part of its air force focus on asserting Chinese sovereignty claims in the seas, the army stays active in the Himalayas, nibbling at territory.
China is employing novel methods to alter its line of control with India in the mountains and valleys bit by bit — without having to fire a single shot. For example, the Chinese army has brought ethnic Han pastoralists to the frontier and given them cover to range across the line. Using pastoralists in the vanguard and troops in the rear is designed to drive native herdsmen out of their pasturelands and assert Chinese control over those places.
Such subversion of the status quo, along with China’s ever-expanding “core interests” — which have grown from Tibet and Taiwan to Xinjiang and the South China Sea — is at the root of instability in Asia. The latest addition to its core-interest list is the Senkaku Islands.
This pattern of increasing Chinese assertiveness began when China revived its long-dormant claim to the large, northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh just before the 2006 India visit of its then-president, Hu Jintao. The resurrection of that claim was followed by its provoking territorial spats with several other neighbors, signaling that China was staking out a more domineering role in Asia. It was as if China had decided that its moment had finally arrived.
For example, playing a game of chicken, China has been posing major new challenges to India, ratcheting up strategic pressure on multiple flanks, including stepping up cross-border military forays and shortening the length of the Sino-Indian border so as to question India’s territorial sovereignty in key sectors. It has repeatedly attempted to breach the Himalayan border by taking advantage of the fact that the frontier is vast and forbidding and thus difficult to effectively patrol by Indian forces, who are located on the lower heights in many sections. When an incursion is discovered, Beijing’s refrain — as in the latest incursion — is that its troops are on “Chinese land.”
Yet India remains more focused on the process than on the substance of diplomacy. Process is important, but only if it buys time to build countervailing leverage. Unfortunately, a rudderless India has made little effort to craft such leverage.
India’s defensive mindset has been on full display in the latest episode. It initially blacked out the April 15 incursion in the way it has suppressed its own figures showing a rising pattern of Chinese cross-border military forays. A whole week went by before New Delhi said a word on the record about the furtive Chinese ingress. The first public word came only after Beijing issued a bland denial of the incursion in response to Indian media reports quoting army sources.
Its cautious, conciliatory response to the deepest Chinese incursion in more than a quarter-century has been manifest from its decision not to scrap its foreign minister’s scheduled trip to Beijing on May 9 and to host, days later, the new Chinese prime minister on his first official overseas visit. This approach has invited mounting criticism from those who see the intrusion as a premeditated, muscle-flexing provocation backed by China’s new leadership.
India should be under no illusion that diplomacy alone will persuade China to withdraw its camped soldiers. One way to force China’s hand would be for the Indian army to intrude and occupy a highly strategic area elsewhere across the line of control and use that gain as a trade-off.
More fundamentally, India can maintain border peace only by leaving China in no doubt that it has the capability and political will to defend peace. If the Chinese see an opportunity to nibble at Indian land, they will seize it. It is for India to ensure that such opportunities do not arise. In other words, the Himalayan peace ball is very much in India’s court.
India thus must have a counterstrategy to tame Chinese aggressiveness. Tibet remains at the core of the Sino-Indian divide, with India’s growing strategic ties with the United States increasingly rankling China.
To build countervailing leverage, India has little choice but to slowly reopen the central issue of Tibet — a card New Delhi surrendered at the altar of diplomacy. India’s recognition of full Chinese sovereignty over Tibet was based on Beijing’s acknowledgment that Tibet is an “autonomous region” in China. The fact that China has squashed Tibet’s autonomy creates an opening for India to take a more nuanced position.
More broadly, China’s strategy to assemble a “string of pearls” — ports, staging posts and hubs for expanding its interests and presence from East Africa to the Pacific — can be countered by forming a “string of rapiers” with like-minded Asian-Pacific countries. At the root of growing tensions and insecurity in Asia is China’s ongoing strategy to subvert the status quo. Only mutually beneficial cooperation can shield Asian peace and economic renaissance, not muscle-flexing and furtive moves.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).
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