India and China are currently involved in a border stand-off in the northern region of Ladakh. The stand-off started with the Chinese taking a position, apparently against Indian infrastructure development, on the Indian side. The exact reason for the stand-off or the demands made by the Chinese are not available in the open domain. It would not be surprising to know that China has not made any demands but merely postured to confront, albeit, just below the level where India would need to think of a military response. Posturing on disputed borders is a par for the course, it is when incidents and actions lead to a military response in pursuing national security that the countries could end up in a conflict that would harm both and achieve very little. Before it is assumed that this is commentary on the India-China stand-off, let me set the context. This is not the first domain, i.e., on a disputed land border, that China has postured yet remained cautious that the adversary does not respond militarily.
In 2013-2015, when China carried out mass dredging of the disputed reefs in the South China Sea (SCS), it was stepping on many adversarial toes. There were protests from the claimants, U.S. carried out Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) to undermine any claims on the features by China and the International community, watched, outraged at the blatant capture of disputed areas. Yet, the infractions were not deemed large enough for a military response. The result, incremental gains by China, to a stage that now it has military grade facilities, in terms of harbors and airstrips, on almost all of the disputed reefs that it claims as its own.
In 2017, the India-China stand-off in Doklam was also against infrastructure development in a disputed area. While it ended peacefully, it appears that the infrastructure in question, has been consolidated thereafter, albeit, on the Chinese side. In the aftermath of Doklam incident, some had suggested India change its strategy to deal with China.
In Jan 2020, having consolidated its hold on the disputed reefs of the Spratly and Paracel Island groups by building artificial islands, China looked once again, to one of the furthest features it disputes as its own, the Natuna Islands. These are claimed by Indonesia, while China also claims them and calls them Nansha Islands. Chinese fishing vessels supported by the Chinese Coast Guard came in numbers to defy the Indonesian EEZ. This time, Indonesia reacted by sending its Navy to the islands, as well as by a Presidential visit. The Natuna posturing was called off by China, but the intent was clear. There is likely to be more Chinese posturing at a chosen time in the future.
What do all these dispersed incidents demonstrate about Chinese strategy of dealing with disputed territories? The common thread that appears in all these incidents is that in settling its disputes the Chinese are playing the long game. China chooses the areas that it wants to address, undertakes military/ non-traditional maritime militia posturing and keeps the pressure just under the threshold of a military response. How does that help? It ensures that incremental gains are made in positions on the ground, while their strategic messaging continues to hint on historical claims and peaceful development. Ashley Tellis, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has recognized the wide-spread Chinese aggression but warns against reading too much into coincidences. Although, he does bring out that in the current stand-off, India has only bad and worse options. Therefore, it is clear that China is exploiting individual power differentials and creating a new-normal in almost all its disputed/ claimed areas.
What does that mean for India since we have the largest disputed and unmarked land border with China? War as a means of policy, for India, at this stage, does not seem to be an appealing option. Therefore, India’s response of diplomatic deliberations is rational. China has always wanted to address disputes bilaterally, and most countries have preferred it so. This method however, seems to be suited to the strategy that China is employing to make incremental gains with each of the disputed parties.
It has been brought out in ‘The Tragedy of Small Power Politics’ that smaller powers, when dealing with larger powers, need international alliances to address the power differential. Consistency in policies and follow through with cooperative policy decisions can ensure lasting solutions to settling such disputes. While India may not be a small power, there is a significant power differential when compared to China. It is apparent that bilateral discussions are not a permanent solution going forward considering that they will always yield an interim stalemate, only to re-surface at another time. Chinese economic power over its likely adversaries makes it very unlikely that these countries would join any overt military alliance to deter China.
The larger question may be, how the does the International community respond and is this Chinese strategy only limited to China’s disputed areas or are such incremental gains indicators of an expansionist outlook? There is growing alarm about China’s increasing militarization on foreign soil like Djibouti and Cambodia as well. The ‘wait and watch’ policy by the international community has only resulted in China consolidating its position in the SCS and being better prepared to counter any military response to more such maneuvering.
There are increasing voices discussing a more international response to China’s aggressive actions in disputed zones. Rory Medcalf, an Australian strategist, in his recent book, the Indo-Pacific Empire, has brought out that China’s ‘mental map’ is centered on the dominance of the Indian Ocean. He brings out that while China may not create a world empire, there is clear intent to replace the U.S. as the dominant world power. He has also highlighted that there is a need for a larger international alliance to undertake what he calls ‘conditional engagement’ which could be a probable solution.
In another detailed paper discussing the possibility of a ‘Pacific NATO’ type alliance to deter conflict, Aaron Bartnick brings out, that there are many flash points in the region that could ignite a wider conflict. Harvard professor Graham Allison has argued that 12 of the 16 cases of great power competition in the past 500 years ended in war and bloodshed. He has brought out that great power competition needs to avoid the Thucydides’ Trap, which comes from the insight that Thucydides offered, “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” Graham Allison also brings out that the most common path to war was a third party conflict that eventually drew in larger neighboring powers.
COVID-19 and its accompanying isolationism may be an opportunity for the affected parties to reduce economic dependence on China and thereby reassert their rights through a deterring alliance. Most contemporary scholars have suggested that current multilateral arrangements like ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), Quad or Quad Plus should be expanded and examined to be able to deter the subtle aggression by the Chinese. The U.S. has already responded to increased Chinese aggression in the SCS during the pandemic by deploying three aircraft carrier groups to the western pacific. It is unfair to expect the U.S. to go alone in an endeavor to counter-balance China. The situation is developing and seems poised to determine the future of the Indo-Pacific.
2 Rajesh Rajagopalan (2019) Did India Lose China?, The Washington Quarterly, 42:1, 71-87, DOI: 10.1080/0163660X.2019.1592364
5 Misalucha-Willoughby, C., & Medillo, R. (2020). The Tragedy of Small Power Politics: The Philippines in the South China Sea, Bandung, 7(1), 3-23. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/21983534-00701002
8 Bartnick, Aaron. “Asia Whole and Free? Assessing the Viability and Practicality of a Pacific NATO.” Paper, March 2020. https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/asia-whole-and-free-assessing-viability-and-practicality-pacific-nato#:~:text=A%20Pacific%20alliance%20network%20similar,of%20South%20and%20Southeast%20Asia.
(Commander Digvijay Sodha (Retired) is a seasoned leader from the Indian Navy with 20 years of experience leading Strategy & Operations. He has Commanded warships and represented the country in International Military Fora. He has led the end-to-end deployment of Indian Naval assets across multiple geographies. He specializes in conceptualizing and executing large-scale operations, streamlining processes, and creating standard operating procedures. Digvijay has recently moved on from the Indian Navy to pursue a second career seeking to advance sustainable mobility adoption in India and the world. He has a MA in defence studies from King’s College London).