As reports about a Chinese bridge on their side of the Pangong Tso emerge while the standoff enters its second consecutive year, experts point to commonalities between their strategy in the South China Sea and Ladakh. Called ‘Shi’ and ‘Weiqi’, the former involves ‘strategically using’ the ‘fear of war’, while the latter is an ancient board game of ‘encircling’ the enemy and ‘filling in a vacuum’; both to ‘win without fighting’.
According to Alexander Vuving, and Gregory Poling, in its South China Sea disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei, China seizes disputed islands during the brief absence of other powers such as France, the United States or the Soviet Union. Vuving teaches at the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, while Poling is Director, South Asia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies.
According to Vuving, in 1974, China exploited the ‘strategic vacuum’ left behind by the US after being banned by the Congress from militarily intervening in Indo-China, and seized the western group of the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam. “The Eastern Group of Paracel Islands were secretly occupied in 1956 when France withdrew from Vietnam; in 1988 it seized six reefs from Vietnam in the run up to the USSR’s dissolution and Mikhail Gorbachev’s rapprochement with China and the US,” Vuving says.
In Ladakh, the ‘strategic vacuum’ was the absence of Indian troops who were not monitoring an annual January People’s Liberation Army (PLA) exercise in Tibet due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequent lockdown announced on March 24, 2020. The PLA formations simultaneously occupied multiple points in Depsang, Gogra, Galwan Valley, Hot Springs, and Pangong Tso in a warlike manoeuvre with massive mobilisations behind their lines, unlike the standalone face-offs in Depsang (2013), and Chumar (2014).
Indian strategic and military analysts also agreed that the manner of PLA deployments were not in combat mode, and merely for display. Yan Xuetong, Dean of the Institute of Contemporary International Relations, Tsinghua University gave the first known articulation of this strategy in his essay last July: “The PLA’s mission will still be deterrence, not external expansion. China has always avoided escalating the conflict between the South China Sea and the Sino-Indian border into war”.
This ‘riskfare’ by playing on the other side’s fear of escalation worked. Indian statements after discovering the incursions and even following the Galwan Valley clash were reconciliatory — stressed on ‘confidence building measures’, citing ‘difference in perception’ of the LAC, and upheld ‘maintaining peace and tranquillity’. It was China who was accusing India of aggression and provocative actions.
‘Deterrence’ not only prevents war between bigger nuclear powers, but even smaller atomic states such as India and Pakistan — both tacitly disengaged from the brief fisticuffs in September 2016, and February 2019. Neither did the Chinese mobilise or interfere during these conflagrations or intervened in Kargil in 1999. The seven-year long Sumdorong Chu standoff and the two-month Doklam crisis 2017 were also kept from spiralling into a conflict.
But in Ladakh in April 2020, the Chinese concluded that the Indian leadership particularly lacked the stomach for a military response. India was reeling under an unprecedented economic downturn that was worsened in the lockdown, beside the massive public health emergency itself. Prime Minister Narendra Modi denied the incursions in June 2020, while Northern Army Commander Lt Gen YK Joshi reiterated that no land had been ceded to China, and that Depsang was a “legacy issue” in a February 2021 interview.
While talking about Taiwan, John Culver, former US National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, is of the view that China respects in an adversary the “will to fight and maintain a posture for a long time”. “Rather than invade Taiwan, it would take advantage of the psychological impact on Taiwan to press for negotiations,” Culver adds.
“China’s ‘gray zone’ tactics stoke fear of risk to unacceptable levels, and coerce parties into accepting new status quos, but without using armed force. This seems to apply to the SCS, East China Sea, Taiwan or Ladakh,” Poling told this author. The mobilisation in Ladakh also served as a signal to the US, that China can simultaneously mobilise for war on two fronts — the other being the Western Pacific — even at the height of a pandemic, and has the economic capacity to afford it.
Good students of Vladimir Lenin and Sun Tzu, the culturally-strategic Chinese showed an economically- and technologically-lessor India that muscular bombast on national security might only work with Pakistan. While China’s Great Power Contest with the US has not yet turned ideological like the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the only moral it seems to convey is, ‘At least we don’t go all guns blazing like the Americans.’