China’s Strategic Mind and Method - An Insight
What India needs to do
The terrible and provocative assault by Chinese armed forces along the Line of Actual Control, which killed and injured many Indian soldiers is a complete violation of a series of historical Sino-Indian Agreements. This is a reprise of the 1962 attack by China on Indian soil. Many analysts are writing on this conflagration; this article looks at the longterm planned Chinese methods and compulsions which guide its vicious and threatening assaults.
Chinese Geo-Political Method:
1. China acts on the basis of its own historical memory re-constructed to current geo-strategic contexts. It never acts in haste, but has a long term, multi-pronged, flexible strategy that is thought through, planned and executed over years, even decades.
This is made possible with centralised, command and control Communist Party of China (CPC) structures. The Chinese leadership (Xi Jinping) has control over the military (PLA) and information/ technology systems across China. They use a number of experts from military analysts, commanders to academics and others to formulate strategy. The Chinese authoritarian structures of policy formulation and execution are backed by state capitalism and the availability of a forced financial surplus.
The CPC leadership is able to plan and execute power, influence citizens and carry out policy implementation internally, and then project its power and influence in the international system and global political economy. Its vision and purpose are clear, long term and can be executed in a multifunctional way (Ai Weiwei, 2020).
2. China does not acknowledge its own transgressions of laws, treaties, borders, seas – unless it suits CPC interests – and claims other territories and marine areas to be part of Chinese territory or naval rights. China has a slippery conceptualisation of its rights and boundaries. For domestic legitimacy, like many other xenophobic nationalisms, China traces a continuity with its glorious past in the ‘Middle Kingdom’ (feudal period) incorporating myths as facts.
At the same time, China has settled its border disputes with several states like Russia, etc.
3. China speaks of its ‘peaceful rise’, as opposed to the militarism/ imperialism of the West. But its rise is linked to rise of Chinese mercantilism and finance capital and the way it is embedded in the global political economy. China’s ‘core interests’ stem from their understanding of re-constructing the Chinese role and assertion both as an Asian and International power and player.
The USA sees China as a major threat and China will make alliances to protect itself, while knowing it cannot replace the US as a Global power.
4. China is clear it cannot match either US or Western ‘soft power’, or even compete with the legitimacy India used to have as a functioning democracy or the cultural influence, tolerance and empathy that made India an acceptable model to much of the Third World in the past. This Indian influence is waning with several old allies because of India’s domestic policies, and China is well aware of the new ideological shifts.
5. China’s rise was hastened by the process of globalisation which enabled it to become a major manufacturing centre and increase the force of its finance capital in the last decades. This capital is safeguarded by an increasingly powerful modernised army and naval force, and with a nuclear strategy since the 1960s as a currency of power.
6. The CPC will not give up its territorial claims, whether in Taiwan and Hong Kong, or in Tibet and along the India–China border. Similarly in the South China Sea and even the border between Central Asian states like Kazakhstan and Kyrgzstan. This is a principle and core interest, which can sometimes be shrouded in pride, nationalism, territorial claims, changed maps. But the principle will not shift.
International outcry does not matter to them (see Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei’s interview with the Indian Express, June 14). China claims equal partnerships with smaller states and ‘win-win relationships’, but has a clear division between principles, ‘core national interests’ and partnerships. China would like to reproduce the USA’s ‘hub and spokes’ principle with its allies.
7. President Xi asserts that while China did not follow the path of expansionism and colonialism, it would not part with its territory: “Any inch of territory down from ancestors cannot be lost while we want nothing from others” (Nagai and Nagasaki, 2018). However the territorial and maritime boundaries of the nation are traced to the myths of the ‘Middle Kingdom’. There are ongoing legal disputes on the International laws of the Sea.
8. China uses a variety of threats and small tactical actions like incursions, gun boat scares, occasional press articles to confuse the international community. Essentially they practise the principle of pressure, retreat, pressure. For example, in May-July 2019 it sent its oil rigging ships and military patrol boats near Malaysian rigs, reefs in the Philippines, Vietnamese coastal waters in the Vangaurd Reef, near Indian-Russian rigs, and to the port of Colombo (only Vietnamese patrol boats reacted, while others registered diplomatic complaint).
Similarly stray and multiple intrusions are enacted in the border territories, especially India but also Bhutan, Nepal, India, Myanmar, Central Asia. These steps appear isolated, piecemeal, and insignificant in the larger geopolitics. Several states believe that these ‘small steps’ by the Chinese do not warrant retaliation (Mahalingam, 2019).
These ‘small steps’ do not cause concern to the international community. But these small actions are designed to set precedent, become major strategic challenges, and ultimately alter the status quo in the state’s interests. China ‘tests’ its strategy several times, as it has done with India, to check out their response, their partnerships, alliances etc.
9. Chinese roads, ports, the Belt and Road Initiative etc. being built across the Indian and Pacific Oceans have manifold use. For example, the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, where the Sri Lankan government has signed a 99-year lease agreement, similarly to the ports built in Pakistan (CPEC) proposals include production of military hardware and joint production. China’s first military base in Djibouti is backed by naval ships and hardware. Its encroachments of 3,200 acres in the Spratly and Paracelsus Islands have transformed into military bases. All other states from Russia to the Pacific Rim have had to accept this.
10. Geopolitics between the USA, Russia and China, India and other regional powers is militarising and threatening the Asian region, even as several countries try to leverage one major power against the other. Philippines cancelled the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US and then revived it. Nepal and Sri Lanka are balancing between India and China to get advantages. The ASEAN negotiates trade agreements with China, as the US is erratic towards them. Such steps confirm their strategy of gradual militarisation and simultaneous pressure points. They are using financial pressure to build ‘semi-client’ states like foreign-investment starved Pakistan, Philippines, Nepal etc.
11. China has consistently tried to pressure smaller states to ensure its core interests. For example, asserting its security interests in Tajikistan, which shares a 1,300 km border with Afghanistan, dominates the economy. They use Pakistan as a front towards Afghanistan. They use Russia as a front in West Asia. At the same time, small states leverage their relations between the multiple actors in Asia for gain.
China is developing several client states in the Asian region. They have increased their influence over Nepal recently in multiple ways, from providing them with transit, so they do not remain dependent on India, to engaging in infrastructure projects in Nepal. Recently Nepal agreed to make learning Mandarin compulsory in schools, since China agreed to pay the salaries of school teachers there. This is Chinese material power before the soft power of culture and temples.
12. The Chinese government’s 10th white paper on national defense (2019) asserts its right to defend its core interests, and to protect its inalienable territories in the East China Sea, South China Sea and with India. China is building a world-class military in keeping with its international status.
13. China is clear it cannot compete with the US and others on soft power. But they know the use of financial and material power, and have increased their influence by diverse financial deals, technology and R&D. China focuses on state relations, and has little interest in people, or the environment, or civil society. For example, in Pakistan before the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor only 1% of fuel used was coal, now after Chinese investment in the Thar desert, there is an increase by 70% in coal use. The BRI is being used to export excess capacity in old, inefficient and carbon-heavy industries of China (Duara, 2019). Chinese policies remain non-transparent. Many countries have become indebted to China, from Kenya (Port Mombasa) to Sri Lanka and others.
What India needs to do:
1. Build on its strengths and acknowledge its weakness: Build a common security network with allies and not alienate its neighbors. Support the idea of strategic autonomy and non-alignment. Link with Asian countries in their goals for growth and development, including, re-building alliances with smaller states on the basis of equality and empathy since they are more vulnerable to great power interventions. This should be proposed without targeting any other power. India has to further strengthen its relations with Russia.
2. Focus on strengthening regional organisations and their secretariats.
3. Strengthen its standing in key multi-lateral and international institutions.
4. Ensure its respect by safeguarding its hard-won democratic freedoms and protection of rights of all people.
5. Mobilise the UN; expose the internal assaults on Uighurs, Tibetans and minorities in China; expose Chinese hegemonic politics in Hong Kong, etc. This can be done by contrasting the Indians’ policies of magnanimity, so the Chinese do not get a chance to indulge in ‘whataboutery’.
In conclusion we argue, that analysing foreign policy as a silo or as an international chess game cannot yield success. Internal politics have become globalised, more so after globalisation.
Professors Anuradha and Kamal Chenoy were formerly faculty with the Jawaharlal Nehru University