NEW DELHI – U.S. President Donald Trump’s apocalyptic threats against North Korea have attracted much international attention but not China’s unceasing warmongering against India. As the face-off between Indian and Chinese troops on the small, desolate Doklam Plateau enters its third month, Beijing’s saber- rattling against India shows no sign of easing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has sought to present himself as the voice of reason by calling for U.S. restraint on North Korea, even as his regime has been busy hurling almost daily threats at India. The American press has published Xi’s call for dialogue and negotiations to find a diplomatic solution to the North Korea issue without citing his opposition to similarly settle the Doklam impasse with India.
In reality, Xi faces a frustrating paradox: He is seeking to avert a military conflict over the potential threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile advances just when he is searching for a way to punish India, including by potentially employing force.
By standing up to Beijing in the face of harsh warmongering, India has challenged China’s reputed preeminence in Asia and dared Xi, the strongman, at a time when he is busy with his own domestic political machinations in the run-up to the critical Communist Party congress in the fall. Undeterred by Chinese threats, India has stood its ground at Doklam, a 3,350 meter-high plateau along the border that the Indian state of Sikkim shares with Bhutan and Tibet. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared his country is “capable of thwarting any challenge to its security.”
Incursions and scuffles along the long, 4,057-km Himalayan frontier have increased since the Doklam standoff began, raising the risks of a war. No shots, however, have been fired by either side. Illustrating the rising tensions, Indian and Chinese soldiers on Aug. 15 traded blows and hurled stones at each other by a lake, leaving a number of them wounded.
China, meanwhile, has threatened to teach a bigger lesson to India than it did in 1962 when it carried out a surprise trans-Himalayan invasion just when the specter of a nuclear Armageddon emerged from the Cuban missile crisis. China’s warmongering against India now is occurring at a time when another missile crisis is haunting international security — North Korea’s threat to target America’s Guam island territory with ballistic missiles.
But while China was not involved in the Cuban missile crisis between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, it is central today to the U.S. strategy against North Korea. A U.S. military conflict with North Korea, Beijing’s estranged ally, could easily draw in China.
Trump’s threat to rain “fire and fury” on the regime in Pyongyang, along with other statements from U.S. officials about the possibility of war, has unnerved Beijing, despite Washington subsequently seeking to ease fears. This factor could be one reason why China, even at the risk of being all bark and no bite, has thus far not acted on its unremitting threats to teach India a lesson.
India, however, cannot afford to be complacent. Just because China has not militarily attacked India thus far does not mean that it won’t act later if it finds circumstances propitious for action. New Delhi cannot overlook the fact that Xi’s regime has been mobilizing domestic support for a possible war with India. For example, after weeks of escalating war rhetoric, China released a 15-page position paper on Aug. 2 that accused India of “invading Chinese territory.” It came a day after Xi, in a speech marking the 80th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), vowed not to permit the loss of “any piece” of Chinese land “at any time or in any form.”
The position paper obfuscated the fact that the Doklam standoff was triggered by China’s attempt to alter the status quo by intruding into disputed territory in the way it has successfully done in the South China Sea. In mid-June, the Indian army stopped the PLA from building a strategic highway across Bhutan’s China-claimed Doklam Plateau toward a ridge that overlooks India’s most vulnerable point — a narrow stretch of land, known as the “Chicken Neck,” that connects its northeast to the heartland. Bhutan, with barely 800,000 people, relies on Indian military support.
The position paper — essentially a compilation of what China had stated since the standoff began — presented two new claims: India had pulled out most troops from Doklam (an assertion that proved false); and Beijing notified New Delhi in advance of its highway-building plan. But if India is a third party with no role in Doklam, as the paper claimed, why was it pre-notified?
More broadly, the standoff has highlighted how China is implementing its new three-warfare doctrine against India — waging media, legal and psychological warfares to “win without fighting,” in Sun Tzu style, and, in case it fails, to prepare the ground for military operations. A 2008 Pentagon report to Congress said China’s three-warfare doctrine was being “developed for use in conjunction with other military and nonmilitary operations.”
In Beijing’s thinking, according to a subsequent Pentagon report in 2014, “it is not the best weapons that win today’s wars but rather the best narrative” — even if it is a false narrative. On the Doklam issue, as it has done in the South and East China seas, China is operating on the Orwellian principle that “if you say it enough, they will believe it.”
A torrent of fresh warnings to India to back down or face dire consequences has been delivered this month by the Chinese defense and foreign ministries, the People’s Daily, the People’s Liberation Army Daily, the Xinhua news agency, and other state mouthpieces. As a former PLA general has acknowledged, “Such strong response from the Chinese government has been rare.”
But with India refusing to react to the stream of almost daily Chinese verbal attacks, it has become a largely one-sided war of words. New Delhi has merely said the dispute can be resolved not by war but by diplomacy and suggested a mutual troop withdrawal.
Would the risk of a Chinese military attack on India increase if the probability of a military conflict over North Korea’s actions recedes? Xi has sought to reduce tensions over North Korea by banning imports of North Korean iron, lead, coal and fish, and promising other steps to rein in Pyongyang. In return, the Trump-initiated bureaucratic process to investigate China’s trade practices virtually lets Beijing off the hook by indefinitely putting off punitive action.
In deciding whether to act against India, Xi must consider other factors too, including a shaky Chinese economy, hot-money outflows, the forthcoming party congress, and the Sept. 3-5 summit of the BRICS grouping in Xiamen, China. Unless the Himalayan border situation deteriorates further, Modi will likely be at the BRICS summit.
More fundamentally, China’s modus operandi to alter the territorial and maritime status quo in Asia has been to wage stealth wars — without firing a single shot — by slicing off some salami here and peeling off a cabbage leaf there. Doklam would represent a turning point if China’s bullet-less aggression of the past decade in Asia escalates to a shooting war with India.
Deception, tactical surprise, shrewd timing and blitzkrieg (lightning war) have been the common elements in China’s use of military force under Communist rule. The goal in all cases has been to stun the enemy and make quick military and political gains.
Beijing cannot count on all these elements today to launch a 1962-style invasion of India. But with China framing the Indian action in Doklam as a direct threat to its territorial integrity and delivering warnings of the type it did before intervening in the Korean War, and launching the 1962 and 1979 wars against India and Vietnam, the risks of a Chinese military attack or bloody border skirmishes cannot be discounted.
India, for its part, cannot afford to take any chances: It must be ready to fend off a possible attack with full strength and ingenuity, and inflict serious reverses on the invading forces. Only an India fully prepared to counter and defeat aggression can deter China from initiating a military conflict.
Long-time Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.