China honed its “salami slicing” strategy in the Himalayan borderlands with India in the 1950s, when it grabbed the Switzerland-sized Aksai Chin plateau by surreptitiously building a strategic highway through that unguarded region.
Aksai Chin, part of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, has since provided China with the only passageway between its rebellious regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. Now, the attempt by the People’s Liberation Army to replicate its seizure of Aksai Chin by building a military road through the Doklam plateau of tiny Bhutan has triggered one of the most serious troop standoffs in years between China and India, which is a guarantor of Bhutanese security.
The standoff involving hundreds of PLA and Indian troops, near where the borders of Tibet, Bhutan and India’s Sikkim state meet, has successfully halted the Chinese construction of the highway in Doklam, which Beijing claims as a “traditional pasture for Tibetans.” This is similar to Beijing’s claims in the South and East China seas, which are based on “traditional fishing grounds for Chinese.” The Indian intervention has triggered a furious reaction from China, which is warning India almost daily to back down or face reprisals, including a possible war. India has mobilized up to 10,000 troops for any contingency.
The Chinese defense ministry has warned India to learn the “historical lessons” from the major military reversals it suffered in 1962 when China carried out a surprise trans-Himalayan invasion just when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were locked in the Cuban missile crisis. Beijing has also stepped up diplomatic pressure on New Delhi, with the Chinese foreign ministry insisting that the “precondition for any meaningful dialogue” would be for Indian troops to “unconditionally” pull back from Doklam.
Beijing’s full-throttle campaign against India amounts to psychological warfare, from mounting daily threats to staging military drills in Tibet. For example, a recent “full combat readiness” exercise with tanks was aimed at delivering a clear warning to New Delhi, according to Chinese state media. However, the more China threatens India and the more it refuses to seek a compromise, the more it paints itself in a corner.
Beijing has no good options in emerging as a winner from this confrontation. Given the geography, military logistics, weapon deployments and the entrenched Indian positions, the PLA will find it hard to give India a bloody nose and seize Doklam. If it were to attack, it could suffer a setback. Just as Beijing’s intense propaganda war against India over the Dalai Lama’s April tour to the Chinese-claimed northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh achieved nothing, China risks losing face over the current troop standoff.
The central issue that China has sought to disguise is its intrusion into tiny Bhutan, which has less than 800,000 people. To cause a distraction, Beijing, in keeping with ancient military theorist Sun Tzu’s concept of strategic deception, has tried to shift the focus to India through a public relations blitzkrieg that presents China as the victim and India as the aggressor. Just as it has touted historical claims to much of the South China Sea, which have been dismissed by an international arbitral tribunal as groundless, Beijing contends that Doklam (or “Donglang” as China calls it) has belonged to it “since ancient times.”
Beijing’s dire warning
Besides launching a flurry of official denunciations of India, China has employed the state media in the psychological warfare campaign. “We firmly believe that the face-off in the Donglang area will end up with the Indian troops in retreat. The Indian military can choose to return to its territory with dignity or be kicked out of the area by Chinese soldiers,” China’s nationalist tabloid Global Times said on July 5. “This time we must teach New Delhi a bitter lesson.”
An article on the PLA’s English-language website, China Military Online, has warned that “if a solution isn’t reached through diplomatic or military communication or the issue isn’t handled properly, another armed conflict … is not completely out of the question.”
Despite the Indian army’s prompt actions to protect Bhutan’s territorial interests, the standoff has exposed some of India’s institutional weaknesses. In combating disinformation in war or peace, time is of the essence. Yet it took New Delhi more than four days to issue its first statement in response to China’s verbal attacks against India’s move to protect Bhutan, its longstanding strategic ally. The result was that after Beijing revealed the days-old troop standoff just hours before the June 26 meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House, the Indian media was awash with Chinese propaganda, reporting only Beijing’s line on the standoff.
The current crisis has shown that New Delhi is ill-prepared to counter China’s grandstanding tactics. India’s response to the continuing barrage of hostile Chinese statements against it has been confined to a single statement issued by its foreign ministry on June 30. This is partly to do with India’s intrinsically defensive strategic mindset, including a reluctance to employ its natural economic leverage to rein in Chinese belligerence.
Since China has an almost $60 billion annual trade surplus with India currently, New Delhi has an opportunity to emulate Beijing’s use of trade as a political instrument in punishing South Korea, Mongolia, the Philippines, Japan and others. The flood of Chinese goods entering India is overwhelming. The lopsided trade balance not only rewards China’s strategic hostility but also foots the bill for its strategy of encircling India. Beijing thus has little incentive to moderate its behavior or avoid belligerence.
India also appears reluctant to reopen the Tibet issue, even though China is laying claim to Indian and Bhutanese territories on the basis of alleged Tibetan (not Han Chinese) historical links to these areas. Like Doklam, China claims Arunachal Pradesh, a territory almost three times larger than Taiwan that is famous for its virgin forests and soaring mountain ranges. To help curb such territorial revisionism, India needs to question China’s claim to Tibet itself.
Tibet, autonomous until China annexed it in 1951, enjoyed close historical transportation, trade and cultural links with India, exemplified by the fact that the main Tibetan cities are located close to the Indian border. But with Tibet now locked behind a Chinese “iron curtain,” the formerly integrated economies and cultures of the entire Himalayan region have broken apart.
Modern China has come a long way since the Great Wall denoted the limits of the Han empire’s political frontiers, as during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Territorially, Han power is now at its zenith. With the exception of Mongolia, China is seeking to expand its frontiers beyond the conquests made by the Manchu Qing dynasty in the 17th and 18th centuries. By relying on stealth aggression in which no bullets or missiles need to be fired, China has mastered the art of creeping, covert warfare, as is apparent in the Himalayas and the South and East China seas. “Only vast lands can cradle great powers,” according to Chinese geographers Du Debin and Ma Yahua.
Recent events have offered clear evidence on how China uses history to justify its territorial ambitions. In the same week that it dusted off an 1890 colonial-era accord on the Tibet-Sikkim border to use in its propaganda war against India, even though the agreement was irrelevant to its intrusion into Bhutan, it mocked as worthless the legally binding 1984 pact with Britain that paved the way for Hong Kong’s handover in 1997 by guaranteeing the city’s rights and freedoms under China’s “one country, two systems” formula. By turning its back on the 1984 pact, Beijing indicated that “one country, two systems” was just a ruse to recover Hong Kong. Yet China will cling to colonial-era accords if they still serve its interests.
Unless Beijing reopens the door to diplomacy, the present military stalemate at Doklam could drag on until the arrival of the harsh winter forces the rival troops to retreat, thus ending the confrontation. This would restore the status quo ante by frustrating the PLA’s road-building plan. The brief July 7 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Modi at the G-20 summit in Hamburg has offered China an opening to save face through a possible mutual retreat from Doklam.
Whatever happens, the current crisis offers India important lessons, including how a clever China presents itself as the victim and feeds disinformation to the Indian media. This should, however, not have come as a surprise. It is standard Chinese strategy to play the victim in any conflict or dispute in an example of how China blends toughness, savvy, single-mindedness and deft propaganda to try to achieve its goals. Psychological warfare is integral to China’s military strategy. Yet India found itself taken by surprise.
More fundamentally, India must recognize that while caution is prudent, diffidence tends to embolden the aggressor. It should continue to err on the side of caution but must shed its reluctance to employ countervailing leverage against China so that it is not always in a reactive mode.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.