China’s expansionism creeps along as West distracted by Ukraine

China’s relentless expansionism in the frigid high Himalayas through furtive territorial encroachments has fostered a nearly 30-month military standoff with India.

The confrontation, and the wider faceoff between the world’s two most populous nations, persists even as both militaries have pulled back recently from some front line areas to establish buffer zones so as to reduce the risk of inadvertent clashes.

China’s Himalayan encroachments are a reminder that in contrast to Russia’s full-force attack on Ukraine, Beijing prefers to act gradually with stealth, deception and surprise to expand the country’s frontiers.

This incremental, salami-slicing approach of bulletless aggression comes at little international cost. Most prominently, China has redrawn the geopolitical map of the South China Sea and maritime Southeast Asia without inviting any concrete Western sanctions.

In the Himalayas, Beijing is seeking to replicate its South China Sea strategy by unilaterally changing facts on the ground, assuming there will be little diplomatic or geopolitical fallout. It has not spared even tiny Bhutan, nibbling away at its borderlands one valley at a time.

China honed its salami-slicing strategy in the 1950s when it carved off the Aksai Chin plateau, a Switzerland-sized area originally part of the princely Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Under President Xi Jinping, this strategy has evolved into a “cabbage” approach with the People’s Liberation Army stealthily cutting off neighboring states’ access to contested territory they previously controlled and surrounding the acquired areas with multiple layers of security forces.

China’s current military standoff with India involves some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth. But no sooner had New Delhi declared a nationwide lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that emerged from China in early 2020 than the PLA clandestinely invaded the borderlands of India’s northernmost region of Ladakh, enveloping hundreds of square kilometers of territory with layers of defense lines.

Although India has responded with heavy military deployments, leading to the largest Himalayan buildup of rival forces in history, the PLA remains in control of the larger areas it grabbed in April 2020. Through lengthy negotiations, India has managed only to get China to convert its smaller encroachments into buffer zones — largely on Beijing’s terms.

The daunting challenge for a traditionally defensive India is to regain lost territory in the same way China took it — without resort to open combat. The scale of the challenge may explain why Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has agreed to the establishment of four separate buffer zones, with the latest established in September in the Hot Springs area of eastern Ladakh.

Under these deals, the rival forces have pulled back by equal distances from specified confrontation sites to create no man’s lands between them. The buffers in effect advance China’s “10 miles forward, eight miles back” strategy, forcing Indian forces to retreat further back into their own territory while illustrating what Beijing calls “meeting each other halfway.”

In the more strategically valuable areas it has seized, China has fortified front line positions by establishing permanent military bases and deploying large, combat-ready forces with tanks, artillery and cold-weather troop shelters to preclude any Indian attempt to regain lost territory through counterforce operations.

Indeed, since the faceoff began, China has expanded its frenzied buildup of military infrastructure and capabilities along its entire disputed frontier with India. New heliports and expanded air bases near the border have strengthened China’s vertical lift capability.

Modi, while seeking to befriend China after taking office in 2014, coined the phrase “inch toward miles” as a motto for bilateral cooperation. Beijing has cynically translated that slogan to incrementally advance its territorial aggrandizement in the Himalayas.

Simply put, China’s strategy is proving just as effective on land as it has been at sea. In fact, its terrestrial aggression has attracted even less international attention than its blue-water expansionism.

China’s actions in muscling into its neighbors’ territory reflect the Communist Party’s goal of achieving Asian hegemony as a stepping stone toward supplanting the U.S. as the world’s preeminent power. Advancing that ambition means asserting the country’s economic and strategic interests and territorial claims, including by rewriting history and disregarding international law.

Should Beijing next target Taiwan, its aggression is likely to take the form of a slow squeeze of the island democracy rather than a full-fledged invasion. China’s live-fire exercises around Taiwan in August simulated the steps it might take to slowly throttle the island, including by imposing a blockade.

A video screen in Hong Kong shows China beginning military exercises near Taiwan on Aug. 4: Beijing’s aggression is likely to take the form of a slow squeeze of the island democracy rather than a full-fledged invasion. © Reuters

The White House acknowledged in August that China is pursuing a “boiling the frog” strategy against Taiwan by regularizing crossings of the median line that previously restricted military activities in the Taiwan Strait, stepping up coercive pressure and slowly altering the status quo.

The parable of the frog is about sensory adaptation to small changes over time: If a frog is put into a pot of boiling water, it will instantly jump out, but if it is placed in a pot of cool water that is then only slowly brought to a boil, the frog will not notice before it is killed by the heat.

China likewise pursues its expansionism incrementally, conditioning international power elites to its expanding footprint and thwarting a concerted Western response until it is too late.

Asked recently whether American forces would defend Taiwan if China attacks, U.S. President Joe Biden replied, “Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.”

China is more likely to slowly throttle Taiwan than directly attack, however. Would Biden put up with a gradual squeeze of Taiwan?

The singular focus of the U.S. and Europe on isolating and punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine has deflected attention away from China’s creeping, covert warfare. But while Russia’s strategic ambitions are essentially limited to its near abroad, China is seeking to fundamentally alter global power dynamics.

Author: Brahma Chellaney, NIKKEI Asia

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