China appears to have drawn a leaf from its South China Sea strategy and put it to use in the Himalayas against India. Likewise, there are a few instances of Chinese intentions and operations against India and some of these are being practiced in the South China Sea.
First, the current tensions between India and China in the Himalayas. These began in May this year after People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crossed over the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at several points along the 3,500 kilometres long de facto border between the two countries. What ensued was weapon-less skirmish that left 20 Indian soldiers dead, and an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers killed. In the past, India has fought a war with China (1962) in the Himalayas, and claims and counter-claims over territory have been the feature marked by frequent intrusions at a number of places along the un-demarcated border. There have also been military standoffs between the militaries; the last such faceoff was in 2017 at the Doklam plateau that prolonged over 70 days. This prompted India to invest in infrastructure development for military capacity enhancement along the LAC as also inter-sector connectivity.
Challenging the Status Quo
There is ample evidence that China has relentlessly pursued the strategy of changing the status quo in the Himalayas and the South China Sea. It has used numerous tools including military coercion in an unabashed manner resulting is mistrust with its neighbours. The Japanese Defence White Papers note that “China is moving forward with militarization, as well as expanding and intensifying its activities in the maritime and aerial domains, thereby continuing unilateral attempts to change the status quo by coercion to create a fait accompli.” Similarly, a statement by India’s Ministry of External Affairs notes with concern that the Galwan valley incursion was “an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo there,” and the Indian military has warned that Doklam (2017) and Galwan (2020) type incidents are likely to ‘increase’ in the future.
The Chinese articulation of their ‘core interest’ to include Taiwan, South China Sea and Tibet has sent discomforting signals to India and ASEAN Member States. For instance, it has been argued that “by declaring the South China Sea a ‘core national interest’ and elevating it to the same status as Tibet and Taiwan, Beijing has marked another territorial claim. If this is not challenged, it will gradually gain de facto international acceptance, as its claims over Tibet and Taiwan have in the last six decades.” In fact, there have been periodic articulations in the Chinese media about Tawang and in 2009, during Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh. The Global Times labelled it as a “provocative and dangerous move” and warned that India will “make a fatal error if it mistakes China’s approach for weakness.” It further goes on to say that “India would ‘just’ have to surrender the Aksai Chin plateau in Ladakh and Tawang and the border issue could be solved.”
Similarly, South China Sea is a ‘core national interest’ of Vietnam, Philippines and other claimant states for whom the region lies at the heart of their economic growth and geostrategic considerations. For instance, Chinese interference in offshore exploration and its assembling of 40 naval vessels off Hainan to pressurise Vietnam may have caused huge losses for the state-owned energy company PetroVietnam who will “pay the money to Repsol of Spain and Mubadala of the United Arab Emirates in ‘termination’ and ‘compensation’ arrangements.” South China Sea provides Hanoi strategic heft and boosts its position when dealing with external powers involved in the region. It is fair to assume similar loss may have been incurred by other claimant states to island features in the South China Sea.
China’s provocative behaviour for nearly last two decades now in the South China Sea and its strategy of “salami-slicing” by gradually accumulating “through small but persistent acts” or an “enduring presence in its claimed territory,” merits attention. In the South China Sea, China has displayed indifference and disregard for the 2016 award to the Philippines by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague. It has challenged the economic rights of the claimant states under the 1982 UNCLOS; warned against the right of ships and aircraft to transit; and deliberately delayed the finalisation of the Code of Conduct (CoC). These are some of the facts on the ground and China hopes to “establish de facto and de jure settlements of its claims.”
There is, in India, a strong belief that China is pursuing “salami-slicing” in the Himalayas. In 1951, China annexed Tibet and permanently stationed military on its borders with India; in 1962 it fought a war with India; it captured Aksai Chin; unilaterally claimed nearly 90,000 square kilometres in Arunachal Pradesh; is in occupation of nearly 43,000 square kilometres of territory in Jammu and Kashmir; occupied 5,000 square kilometres of territory in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) in 1963 through a ‘ceding agreement’ with Pakistan for the construction of the Karakoram Friendship Highway.
Economic Engagement but Aggressive Posturing
Another facet of the Chinese strategy against its contenders is to incentivise economic engagements while putting the contentious issues such as boundary and territorial disputes/claims on the back burner and offer false assurances of peace, stability and tranquillity. China is signatory to the ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation which has at its core the idea of the non-use of force in managing conflicts that may arise between them. The signing of TAC in 2003 was seen by the ASEAN Member States as China’s commitment to uphold the norm of peaceful settlement; but TAC appears to be in jeopardy and China is being questioned over its behaviour with regard to the territorial dispute with claimant states.
As far as India is concerned, India and China signed the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement (BPTA) and the 1996 Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field to lower tensions. Although both militaries had pulled back to rear positions, persistent border intrusion by the PLA as also build-up of military infrastructure, including strategic missile deployments to support operations have contributed to trust deficit and India is increasingly concerned about Beijing’s strategic intent, particularly over their respective military developments across the Himalayas.
Finally, China adeptly attempts to push the boundary disputes with India, and the CoC with the ASEAN to the backburner. It has built up requisite political, economic and military muscle. Its idea of “Shared Visions for the 21st Century,” with India and ASEAN is an enigma and will continue to confound the international community.
Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
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