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China’s stealth wars of acquisition

by Brahma Chellaney

In the way China made land grabs across the Himalayas in the 1950s by launching furtive encroachments, it is now waging stealth wars — without firing a single shot — to change the status quo in the South and East China seas, on the line of control with India, and on international-river flows.

Although China has risen from a poor state to a global economic powerhouse, the key elements in its statecraft and strategic doctrine have not changed.

Since the Mao Zedong era, China has adhered to ancient theorist Sun Tzu’s advice: “The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy.”

This approach involves taking an adversary by surprise by exploiting its weaknesses and seizing an opportunistic timing, as well as camouflaging offense as defense. As Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception.” Only when a war by stealth cannot achieve the sought objectives should an overt war be unleashed.

China did stage overt military interventions even when it was poor and internally troubled. A Pentagon report has cited Chinese military preemption in 1950, 1962, 1969 and 1979 as examples of offense as defense. There was also China’s seizure of the Paracel Islands in 1974, the Johnson Reef in 1988, the Mischief Reef in 1995, and the Scarborough Shoal last year.

However, for a generation after Deng Xiaoping consolidated power, China actively promoted good-neighborly ties with other Asian states so as to concentrate on rapid economic growth. This strategy allowed Beijing to accumulate considerable economic and strategic heft while permitting its neighbors to spur their own economic growth by plugging into China’s dramatic economic rise.

The good-neighborly approach began changing from the past decade as the Chinese leadership started believing China’s moment in the sun had finally come.

One of the first signs was China’s 2006 revival of its long-dormant claim to the large northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Other evidence of a shift to a muscle-flexing approach followed, with China picking territorial fights with multiple neighbors and broadening its “core interests.” And last year, China formally staked a claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea.

From employing its trade muscle to inflict commercial pain on a rival to exploiting its monopoly on the global production of a vital resource like rare-earth minerals, China has staked out a more muscular role, heightening Asian and wider concerns. In fact, the more openly China has embraced market capitalism, the more indigenized its political ideology has become. The country’s elites — by turning their back on Marxist dogma, imported from the West — have put Chinese nationalism at the center of their political legitimacy. As a result, China’s new assertiveness has become more and more linked with national renewal.

Against this background, China’s increasing resort to stealth war to accomplish political and military objectives is turning into a principal source of strategic instability in Asia. The instruments employed are diverse, ranging from waging economic warfare to creating a new class of stealth warriors under the aegis of paramilitary agencies, such as the Maritime Safety Administration, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, and the State Oceanic Administration.

These agencies, with the support of the Chinese navy, have been in the vanguard to change the status quo in China’s favor in the South and East China seas. China has already scored some successes, encouraging it to pursue multidirectional assertiveness against more than one neighbor at the same time.

For example, after a months-long standoff with the Philippines, China took effective control of the Scarborough Shoal since last year by deploying ships around it and denying its adversary any access. Philippine fishermen can no longer enter a lagoon that served as their traditional fishing preserve.

With the Chinese ships staying put, the Philippines has been faced with a strategic Hobson’s choice: accept the new Chinese-dictated reality or risk open war.

Even as China has effectively changed the status quo on the ground, the U.S. has done little to come to the aid of its ally, the Philippines. The U.S. kept urging restraint and caution on both sides after a Philippine warship squared off with Chinese vessels near the shoal a year ago, prompting China to embark on economic warfare.

Beijing sought to bankrupt many banana growers in the Philippines and hammer the tourism industry there by curbing banana imports and issuing an advisory against travel to that country. The shoal lies more than 800 kilometers from the Chinese mainland but is well within the Philippines’ “exclusive economic zone,” as defined under the Law of the Sea Convention.

In China’s stealth war to contest the decades-old Japanese control over the Senkaku Islands, Beijing has already succeeded in its opening gambit — to make the international community recognize the existence of a dispute. In that sense, the new war of attrition China has launched against Japan over the Senkakus has helped shake the status quo.

By sending patrol ships frequently to the waters around the islands since last fall — and by violating the airspace over them — Beijing has ignored the risk that an incident could spiral out of control, with dire consequences. Indeed, it engaged in a recklessly provocative act early this year when a Chinese vessel locked its weapon-targeting radar on a Japanese ship — an action equivalent to a sniper locking the little red dot of his laser sight onto the forehead of a chosen target.

The stealth war against Japan has also spawned economic warfare, with an informal Chinese boycott of Japanese goods leading to a fall in Japan’s exports to China and a decline in sales of Japanese products made in China.

What has been the U.S. response to all this? It has urged both its ally Japan and economic-partner China to tone down their political crisis over the uninhabited islands. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told reporters while traveling to Japan in September 2012 that “I am concerned that when these countries engage in provocations of one kind or another over these various islands that it raises the possibility that a misjudgment on one side or the other could result in violence and could result in conflict.”

China, in addition to seeking hegemony over the South China Sea and much of the East China Sea, has stepped up strategic pressure on India on multiple flanks, including by ratcheting up territorial disputes. Unlike Japan, the Philippines and some other Asian states that are separated from China by an ocean, India shares with that country the world’s longest contested land border. It is, therefore, more vulnerable to direct Chinese military pressure.

The largest real estate China seeks is not in the South or East China seas; it is not even Taiwan. It is in India — Arunachal Pradesh, which is three times as large as Taiwan and twice bigger than Switzerland. The tensions over China’s territorial disputes with India arise for the same reason as in the South and East China seas — moves to disturb the status quo.

Although the Indian government chooses to underplay Chinese actions so as not to provoke greater aggressiveness, its figures reveal that — in keeping with a pattern witnessed since 2007 — the number of stealthy Chinese forays into Indian territory again increased last year. With the Himalayan frontier vast and inhospitable and thus difficult to effectively patrol in full, Chinese troops repeatedly attempt to sneak in, both to needle India and to possibly push the line of control southward.

In the latest case, a platoon of Chinese troops quietly intruded 10 kilometers across the line of control into disputed land in the Ladakh sector of Kashmir on the night of April, setting up a camp. The intrusion has triggered a dangerous military faceoff with India rushing troops to that area.

As in the case of the territorial and maritime disputes, China is seeking to disturb the status quo on international-river flows to its neighbors. Just as it has furtively encroached on disputed land in the past to present a fait accompli, China is seeking to re-engineer cross-border river flows by starting dam projects almost by stealth.

China values controlling transboundary water flows to gain greater economic and political leverage over neighboring countries. Power, control and leverage are central elements in Chinese statecraft. Once its planned dam cascades on transnational rivers are completed, it will acquire implicit leverage over neighbors’ behavior.

In this light, China’s increasingly fractious relations with its neighbors and the U.S. — characterized by a security deficit and a norms deficit — are set to face new challenges. Persuading China to accept the status quo has become pivotal to Asian peace and stability.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author of “Asian Juggernaut” (HarperCollins) and “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).

  • chinditone4

    This is a confused article. The article forgets that the Diaoyu/Senkaku are historical islands that China owned going back to the 1300′s only were only ceded to Japan as part of Taiwan in the1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki. The Potsdam Declaration stipulated thatthe islands be returned to China/Tawan – but is was never done and Japan gained control of the Diaoyu’s by stealth!!! Deng Xiao Ping and Japan agreed in 1978 to shelve the Diaoyu/Senakau issue – as corroborated by Kissinger – in order to concentrate on their relationships. Noda and Japan showed bad faith with China broke the agreement with Japan by nationalising the islands – and incurred China’s wrath. China decided to put its foot down and show teh world thatteh Chinese are the rightful owners of the Diaoyu. The Diaoyu issue is very different from all the other ASEAN issues – but Japan is trying to use the other ASEN issues as a smokescreen to cover Japan’s theft of the Diaoyu’s/Senkaku’s. Japan’s Nationalism is no excuse for the theft or breaking the 1978 Deng agreement. Japan is not going to have peace with China over the Diaoyu issue until it accepts China as the rightful owner or sits down and negotiates with China.

    • JR

      and no one will achieve peace by being stubborn, immovable dolts. Make the islands into a permanent symbol of PEACE and WISDOM. In other words, share them wisely and use them as an example to future generations. So you can say…look…we disagreed, we discussed, and we made peace, and it was good for all…the other choice will be we disagreed, we fought, we killed, and the problem is still unsolved. Isn’t it obvious which is the wiser route? Why must adults act worse than children?

      • thinkinggggg

        The two countries have taken their positions. Japan is in control and has put its national pride on the line. The Japanese will not allow the islands to be ceded to China nor any international body, in the same manner that ROK has put its national pride on the line in the Dokdo/Takeshima issue.

        Once national pride is on the line, nations in this part of the world tend to be inflexible.

    • Michael Williams

      Chinese claims of historical relevance are irrelevant. The Potsdam Declaration was not a treaty, it was a statement of Allied intentions. Keep in mind that the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union all had different political agendas, national goals, and wartime strategies to resolve the conflicts in their respective theaters of war. The purpose behind their conferences and agreements was to keep each other on the same page and to remain united against the principle enemy of the war, which was Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Do realize that the conflict between Japan and the United States was fought in principle by those two nations? The USSR only attacked Japan when it was on it knees, and proceeded to make a land grab to consolidate it’s power in Asia, in order to position itself against the United States.

      After the war ended, the United States pivoted it’s concerns to it’s tenuous ally and new found enemy, the Soviet Union. As the USSR made land grabs at islands formerly of the Hokkaido Prefecture, the United States consolidated it’s position in Japan to contain Soviet expansion; if the United States did not do such, the Soviets would have taken all of Japan.

      Now ask yourself, what country was literally a facsimile of the USSR? Communist China. Again, ask yourself, what has been the principle foreign policy of the United States since the beginning of the Cold War? The containment of USSR and the communist states that it leveraged and manipulated; which included China, North Korea, North Vietnam, Cuba, and the Soviet puppets of the Warsaw Pact.

      Think logically about the following. The United States exercised sole occupation over Japan, and this included the Prefecture of Okinawa, which itself was not relinquished back to Japan until 1969. Why would the United States relinquish control of any part of the Prefecture of Okinawa, which included the Senkakus, to China? China was aligned with the only other Super Power that existed, the USSR. At that time, the Cold War was seven years past it’s apex, the Cuban Missile Crisis; however, the tensions between the United States and the United Soviet Socialist Republics remained at a knife’s edge and the entire world was teetering on the edge of nuclear obliteration.

      If China wants that territory, they will have to take it by force, without justification, just as they did from everyone else. However, this time around, China is picking a fight with Japan, the cornerstone Asian ally of the United States. Whether you like it or not, the United States has been in this position 67 years; and at this moment, it is shifting its interests away from Iraq and Afghanistan, and focusing back to it’s position in Asia. A position in which it is fortified, well equipped, well supplied, and ready for any conflict at a moment’s notice.

      The fact is this. Chinese historical claims are meaningless; they are weak attempts to fabricate justification of their attempt to seek hegemony in Asia. If China wishes to change the status quo in this situation, they will
      have to do so through the United States and it’s allies; which include
      almost every other military power that is worth mentioning in the entire
      world.

      If they attempt to do such, then they are fooling themselves into thinking they can win. The difference of military power between the two is as vast as the ocean that separates them and as clear as the Sun in the sky. Keep in mind that China cannot even produce it’s own turbine power plants for their own aircraft; additionally, almost every other copyrightable technology they possess was stolen or copied from other countries during their economic rise.

      • Globeharmony

        Simply, a non-owner (US) had no legal right to hand over the administration of the islands to another non-owner (Japan).

        The islands were war loots and should be returned to the rightful owner, no more, no less.

        And remember what US had said to Taiwan at the time: the hand over of the islands was for administration, NOT “OWNERSHIP’.

        And who is the world hegemony and warmonger? Ignorance is boundless if you think the entire world will get involved because there is a fight between Japan and China on these islands.

        May be it is time to return the islands in lieu of past wrongdoings.

  • Pradhuman Singh

    Couldnt have been a better explanation of the Chinese Strategic Mindset. The Sun Tzu doctrine is still being followed.

  • Ken5745

    What a one-sided piece of propaganda shrill. The author again neglects to explain how the much-maligned McMahon Line, a boundary arbitrarily drawn up by the British and forced under duress in 1914 on Tibet , a province of China but not agreed with the Chinese Govt, had encroached into 65,000 sq km of Chinese territories.

    In fact, “Arunachal Pradesh, which is three times as large as Taiwan and twice bigger than Switzerland” lies South of the McMahon Line but it was previously Chinese territory. before the McMahon Line was drawn.

    As for the Paracel, Nth Vietnam’s Pham Van Dong had written to Zhou Enlai to confirm that Nth Vietnam had no historical or geographical claims on the Paracel.

    As for the Diayu/Senkaku, both Deng and Tanaka had agreed in 1978 to defer the resolution of the dispute to wiser future generations of Chinese and Japanese to resolve. It was Japan’s nationalization of the islands that triggered off the crisis in Sept 2012.

    China has only 35% of the world’s deposit of rare earths so why should it be expected to produce 97% of the world’s supply?

    How can one believe an author who does not deal with facts?