The Dragon has emerged from its cave, spewing flames and putting to rest all doubts and debates of a ‘peaceful rise’. It has timed its coming-of-age actions at a time which it definitely considers to be strategically appropriate. A time when Covid-19 has induced immense international pressure on all countries, desperately battling the pandemic, and its knock-on effects of immense strain on health systems, economies and directly impacting the lives and livelihoods of billions.
China saw this as the right moment to pursue its long-term national strategy articulated in the white paper — China’s National Defense in the New Era published in 2019 — that was systematically chosen to tick the boxes of its to-do list. Given the current environment of economic discontentment and tenuous geopolitical situation, are China’s actions strategically opportune?
China’s goals — whether to emerge as an equal to its global role model of power and prosperity (the USA) or to regain its civilisational leadership yearning — does not need reiteration. In the post-Covid construct, its initial attempts to garner goodwill by providing pandemic-related aid were negated by the poor quality of the test kits and PPEs. This was exacerbated by the Wuhan Lab controversy, its concealment of pandemic-related facts and figures, and the subversion of the WHO.
In the backdrop of the trade wars with the US and upping of the anti-China rhetoric, it unleashed coercive foreign policy actions against its neighbours in the eastern and southern seaboards, across the disputed land borders with India, arm-twisting Australia with sanctions and cyber-attacks. The list appears to be growing.
The world is once again taken by surprise at the Chinese unpredictability and belligerence.
Seen through the conventional lens of the norms of international relations, China appears to take everyone by surprise again and again. Fed on Jomini, Machiavelli and Clausewitz, the very structured and pragmatism-driven Western strategic thought either failed to grasp or did not give adequate credence to the Eastern way of thinking. A way where a few words or a phrase or a shloka, encapsulates an almost philosophical approach to strategy. An approach where the essence of a vast idea or thought is distilled and reduced to a few lines — simple lines which are meant as signposts for the mind, leading towards deeper thought and reflection, or a few words or a phrase as a means of sophisticated and nuanced strategic signalling. The revered Sun Tzu’s approach to strategy is the golden thread which runs through and dominates Chinese thinking and especially statecraft. And it is this very reverential, dogmatic and consistent adherence to Sun Tzu that makes China predictable.
Most countries seemed to have been afflicted by a ‘Nelson’s eye pandemic’ in the recent past, having been deliberately turned blind to the long-term strategic intentions of the Dragon, to serve their individual, possibly short-term, national interests of economic engagements.
China, on the other hand, has steadfastly adhered to its long-term vision and national interests. It has used the civilisational construct to define the Chinese territorial reach and unilaterally claimed that as the datum for the ‘one China’ strategic vision. It used salami-slicing tactics over their perceived land territories, nibbling away at varying points of tactical application.
Over maritime spaces, it has been extremely innovative. It strategically exploited its airpower as a coercive instrument of the state in an essentially maritime domain by establishing a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea (ECS), employing the anti-area-access-denial, creating artificial islands which will enable positioning of land-based airpower in the South China Sea (SCS), and create conditions for an ADIZ in the SCS region. These innovative actions indicate a deliberate tactic of creating new normals. New normals, which become the fresh datums of Chinese engagement, including coercive action in the maritime domain and the region.
The Chinese ports are the wellsprings of its progress, and the Asian waters are the vital lifelines for its energy, trade and commerce. Therefore, securing the maritime domain until the two island chains is its strategic necessity.
Whether across the LAC with India, or those in the maritime domain, the actions taken by the Dragon have often in the past have ended up becoming the new normal from the Chinese foreign-policy standpoint. Today, the geographic points of its force applications join to form clear outward arcs of expansion towards its perceived ‘great China’s’ historical boundaries — in the ECS and SCS over the sea, and Arunachal and Ladakh over land. The vast array of China’s actions over the years have been firstly, to an articulated plan. Second, it has amply indicated its intent with deliberate strategic signalling. Third, it has been consistent in adhering to its red lines. Next, it has adopted a stridently aggressive, exploit-all-means comprehensive approach in its foreign policy. Finally, from a strategic standpoint, it has been remarkably consistent in its unpredictability of actions. It is time we stopped being taken by surprise.
The current actions, from its perspective, are strategically timed — when it can flex its economic leverages along with synergised signalling by its significant military hard power in an economically stressed environment when the world is distracted and vulnerable in a post-Covid moment of disarray. To China, this is possibly the perfect moment to exhibit its arrival as a great power — expecting the world to come to terms with this new normal.
The US is currently under a Covid-induced pressure topped by a rising and popular anti-racial dissent, and this to China was an ideal moment to push its expanding arcs strategy in simultaneity over sea and land. While the Dragon is possibly convinced that the timing is right in keeping with its long-term goals, it may have miscalculated its actions this time.
The increasing perception of a China-bred and spread of the pandemic, its evident attempts at concealing facts, trade wars with divisive outcomes, coercive territorial actions in the region, combined with an international mien of internal pressures of health, economy, unemployment and poor growth, have possibly had unintended consequences that have been misread by China. The inevitable ‘nation first’ approach of countries in moments of crises, has somewhat lowered the tolerance threshold to negative geopolitical strokes. China’s action has elicited firm international reactions — US, Australia, India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, etc. — and brought its actions under scrutiny when the world is in a bad mood. The region and the world are watching China very closely, and not in the way it would like to be perceived.
The next unintended consequence is the growing evidence and realisation across smaller Asian countries, that they cannot hope to engage China on their own. Its actions and their timing have, if anything, opened up a strategic window for affected nations to come together. Major powers like Australia and India standing up rather firmly to the Dragon in quick succession has encouraged all countries in the region and the world to review their engagement with China, and more importantly, strategically amongst themselves. It may have just triggered a greater re-engagement of the US with India, Southeast Asia and the region. This has led to the creation of a window of strategic opportunity, of coming together of those of common value and interests, as a viable counter to a unipolar Asia and the wider China-driven Indo-Pacific region.
The final miscalculation has been the expanding territorial arc strategy. It has triggered the unintended consequence of a miscalculation of India’s strategic resolve. With its military build-up in Ladakh, China has escalated the ante for itself in having to balance its seaboard security concerns along with the consequences of the Indian reaction.
India is no longer haunted by the ghosts of 1962, but has certainly not forgotten that watershed year. Doklam was the turning point for India towards a resolute national security outlook. India’s actions on the ground have not only surprised the Chinese, but its prepared narrative and perception management also ran into unexpected international support in India’s favour. With this miscalculation, if India chooses to sustain the pressure comprehensively, China will be increasing its strategic vulnerability, having been forced militarily into two opposite fronts.
The question is: will China push to alter the status quo with India militarily and run the risk of rendering itself vulnerable along its seaboard? In its efforts to showcase its dominant position in Asia and globally, a military showdown with India runs the risk of altering its current standing and status, and China has the most to lose under the present circumstances.
India’s firm stand in Ladakh is also a clear signal against China’s unipolarity in Asia, and a rallying cry in the ECS and SCS regions. This strategic opportunity, if exploited by the affected nations, could be the first of the many more in the future of a standing-up-to-the-Dragon-together approach and forcing it to redact its reckless behaviour towards conforming to international norms and structures. Yes, this might be a little far-fetched an expectation from China’s strategic DNA. It will at the least force a realisation of the necessity of a rethink of its approach. But most importantly, it is an opportunity for the affected nations to make it clear to the Dragon that it cannot expect to be the dominant power in Asia, and certainly not a unipolar Asia.
India’s deliberate foreign policy choice of strategic autonomy — to choose and do in India’s best interests — has never been more imperative. This is not 1962, and the stakes are much higher. And India must not blink. This is quite possibly the geopolitically defining moment for India’s position and standing not only regionally in Asia, but globally as well. This is a strategic window of opportunity for India. A chance to act from strength, review and re-draw our red lines, lead the rallying together — as a nation in the region, and globally. Strategic resilience, an all-of-government approach, and a realpolitik outlook are the order of the season. The world is watching very closely, if not with bated breath.