NEW DELHI – China is subverting the status quo in the South and East China Seas, on its border with India, and even concerning international riparian flows – all without firing a single shot. Just as it grabbed land across the Himalayas in the 1950’s by launching furtive encroachments, China is waging stealth wars against its Asian neighbors that threaten to destabilize the entire region. The more economic power China has amassed, the greater its ambition to alter the territorial status quo has become.
Throughout China’s recent rise from poverty to relative prosperity and global economic power, the fundamentals of its statecraft and strategic doctrine have remained largely unchanged. Since the era of Mao Zedong, China has adhered to the Zhou Dynasty military strategist Sun Tzu’s counsel: “subdue the enemy without any battle” by exploiting its weaknesses and camouflaging offense as defense. “All warfare,” Sun famously said, “is based on deception.”
For more than two decades after Deng Xiaoping consolidated power over the Chinese Communist Party, China pursued a “good neighbor” policy in its relations with other Asian countries, enabling it to concentrate on economic development. As China accumulated economic and strategic clout, its neighbors benefited from its rapid GDP growth, which spurred their own economies. But, at some point in the last decade, China’s leaders evidently decided that their country’s moment had finally arrived; its “peaceful rise” has since given way to a more assertive approach.
One of the first signs of this shift was China’s revival in 2006 of its long-dormant claim to Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh. In a bid to broaden its “core interests,” China soon began to provoke territorial disputes with several of its neighbors. Last year, China formally staked a claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to more than 80% of the South China Sea.
From employing its strong trade position to exploiting its near-monopoly on the global production of vital resources like rare-earth minerals, China has staked out a more domineering role in Asia. In fact, the more openly China has embraced market capitalism, the more nationalist it has become, encouraged by its leaders’ need for an alternative to Marxist dogma as a source of political legitimacy. Thus, territorial assertiveness has become intertwined with national renewal.
China’s resource-driven stealth wars are becoming a leading cause of geopolitical instability in Asia. The instruments that China uses are diverse, including a new class of stealth warriors reared by paramilitary maritime agencies. And it has already had some victories.
Last year, China effectively took control of the Scarborough Shoal, an area of the South China Sea that is also claimed by the Philippines and Taiwan, by deploying ships and erecting entry barriers that prohibit Filipino fishermen from accessing their traditional fishing preserve. China and the Philippines have been locked in a standoff ever since. Now the Philippines is faced with a strategic Hobson’s choice: accept the new Chinese-dictated reality or risk an open war.
China has also launched a stealth war in the East China Sea to assert territorial claims over the resource-rich Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu Islands in China), which Japan has controlled since 1895 (aside from a period of administration by the United States from 1945 to1972). China’s opening gambit – to compel the international community to recognize the existence of a dispute – has been successful, and portends further disturbance of the status quo.
Likewise, China has been posing new challenges to India, ratcheting up strategic pressure on multiple flanks, including by reviving old territorial claims. Given that the countries share the world’s longest disputed land border, India is particularly vulnerable to direct military pressure from China.
The largest territory that China seeks, Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims is part of Tibet, is almost three times the size of Taiwan. In recent years, China has repeatedly attempted to breach the Himalayan frontier stretching from resource-rich Arunachal Pradesh to the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir – often successfully, given that the border is vast, inhospitable, and difficult to patrol. China’s aim is to needle India – and possibly to push the Line of Actual Control southward.
Indeed, on April 15, a platoon of Chinese troops stealthily crossed the LAC at night in the Ladakh region, establishing a camp 19 kilometers (12 miles) inside Indian-held territory. China then embarked on coercive diplomacy, withdrawing its troops only after India destroyed a defensive line of fortifications. It also handed a lopsided draft agreement that seeks to freeze the belated, bumbling Indian build-up of border defenses while preserving China’s capability to strike without warning.
India has countered with its own draft accord designed specifically to prevent border flare-ups. But territory is not the only objective of China’s stealth wars; China is also seeking to disturb the status quo when it comes to riparian relations. Indeed, it has almost furtively initiated dam projects to reengineer cross-border river flows and increase its leverage over its neighbors.
Asian countries – together with the US – should be working to address Asia’s security deficit and establish regional norms. But China’s approach to statecraft, in which dominance and manipulation trump cooperation, is impeding such efforts. This presents the US, the region’s other leading actor, with a dilemma: watch as China gradually disrupts the status quo and weakens America’s allies and strategic partners, or respond and risk upsetting its relationship with China, the Asian country most integral to its interests. Either choice would have far-reaching consequences.
Against this background, the only way to ensure peace and stability in Asia is to pursue a third option: inducing China to accept the status quo. That will require a new brand of statecraft based on mutually beneficial cooperation – not brinkmanship and deception.