China: “Soft use” of “Hard power”
Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

China’s geopolitical aims and global ambitions are not a secret. President Xi sees China the most pre-eminent power in Asia and eventually, the world, consolidating trans-continental routes and waterways, and assured political influence among larger comity of nations through trade, commerce, and infrastructural development, to achieve glorious heights.

China confronts the most contested strategic geography of any major power in the world. Regional primacy, hence, becomes the springboard to global ambitions. Conventional wisdom indicates that it implies obtaining subservience or at least deferential behaviour from neighbouring countries. In doing so, China is assuring for itself dominant status on its territorial periphery by economic relationships, defence networks, diplomatic and cultural influence. China is employing both coercion and inducements to shape the region to better accommodate Chinese leadership.

China has an expansive toolkit of coercive tools, beyond economic and political domains, towards military coercion. Over a period of three decades, China had developed the art of “Soft use” of “Hard Power,” in pursuit of its well thought out long term aims that lend towards its ambitions. It is these machinations that propelled China to apply just sufficient hard power to achieve its Nine-Dash Line claims, without exceeding the likelihood of escalation. In this manner, in 1995, China’s military occupied Mischief Reef which had been contested by the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. In March 2011 Chinese maritime surveillance ships expelled Philippine vessels exploring for oil around Reed Bank in the Spratly Islands sought by the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. China aggressively dredged the islands and militarized with airfields, ports and barracks. In time, it is apparent that China has brazenly militarized the artificial islands in the South China Sea.

China has also undertaken punitive measures against South Korea following induction of Theatre High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system. China also caused economic retributions to Australia following its calls for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Applying the methodology, China has often attempted to change Japan’s Senkaku Islands' status quo by 'coercion,' and regular ratcheting up military pressure against Taiwan. How far up can China go on the escalation ladder of coercion with Taiwan is a moot question!

Is India a geopolitical competitor for China, despite the economic, military, and technological asymmetry in its favour? India has focussed on steady growth, exhibited tremendous growth potential that she is striving to achieve, immense soft power in the comity of nations especially the Global South (without having to ‘purchase likeability’ like China) and political stability. India is a credible military power and a challenge in the geostrategic peninsular location at the head of all-important Indian Ocean. India is also becoming indispensable partner to the Western nations, especially the US. Indeed, China does not want persistent security challenges along its territorial periphery, as it will have to focus its energies on its own security than on creating global influence.

For China, India has to be, hence, distracted from the growth path and embroiled in a web of inimical peacetime activities. Contextually, China will attempt to generate economic dependencies for India and create relationships with India’s neighbours to promote anti-India bias. After achieving its territorial ambitions, retaining the Damocles Sword of an ambiguous, unresolved, live border with erratic yet well-planned events and with a threat-in-being against India, would greatly suit China.

It was apparent by 2013 that LAC was an incurably faulty concept, without any formal delineation and demarcation, and Indian and Chinese militaries followed their own imaginary LINES, without mutual approvals. The Johnson-Ardagh Line based on Kun-Lun Range the basis of Indian delineation of International Border, had been overtaken by Chinese occupation of Aksai Chin in the Fifties. The McDonald-McCartney Line, which was based upon Karakoram Range, was overtaken by the Chou-en-Lai’s enunciation of 07 November 1959 Line, and the 1962 Sino-Indian War. China had often stated that "we cannot lose a single inch of the lands we inherited from our ancestors," and seek to safeguard Chinese sovereignty and keep the peace at the same time. It is another matter that there is no justification or historic authenticity of the arbitrary 07 Nov 1959 Line in Eastern Ladakh, or Arunachal Pradesh!

A few months after 18th Party Congress with the new General Secretary Xi Jinping in chair, it was then that the first attempt was made in April 2013. China hence pursued a policy of a more favorable environment along the LAC since 2013, by altering the status quo in its favour increasingly varied toolkit – the most prominent being the “soft use” of “hard power,” well short of direct use of military force for fear of escalation to a conflict. This was followed by belligerence at Chumar in September 2014, and Doklam in 2017.

It was over a large frontage that PLA used “hard power, softly” with major transgressions in Eastern Ladakh in May 2020, that lead to the tragic incident of Galwan on 15 June 2020. This time though PLA while surreptitiously moved to occupy key terrain features/locations and relied upon just sufficient back-up of “hard power” in proximity to deter escalation. The possibility escalation was well proved by the events of Galwan River Valley. Consequent to 2020 serial incidents in Eastern Ladakh, moratoriums on patrolling (buffer zones) have been established post-negotiations. The standardised Chinese contention thereafter has been that the boundary issue should be henceforth put in the “proper place” in bilateral relations and situation at their borders be under “normalised management and control.”

Two significant happenings on the India-China relationship issue need further consideration. First, on the side-lines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in May 2023, the PLA Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo of the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) said, “India is unlikely to catch up to China in the coming decades because of its weak industrial infrastructure, while China has built complex and systematic defence industrial platforms.” “India has spared no effort in military modernisation in a bid to become an impressive superpower as other countries have done,” and that “India will not pose a security threat to China” said Senior Colonel Zhang Chi, another associate professor at the PLA National Defence University.

Second, on a visit to Inner Mongolia in June 2023, President Xi Jinping called on China's border troops to forge a "wall of steel" along country's frontiers by enhancing their capabilities in border defence and control. He exhorted PLA to break new ground in border defence efforts to intensify troop training and enhance combat preparedness and speed up capacity building concerning information technology-enabled border defence and control.

Paraphrasing the two disparate yet related remarks, evidently border-defence is a reference to Indian border – China has no significant ‘border defence’ related issues with any other country! President Xi’s praise on China's progress in border defence work since 2012, stating PLA troops have effectively safeguarded China's sovereignty, security, and development interest, also has larger Indian context.

The remarks for the two Senior Colonels of AMS and NDU are significant. That ‘India will not pose a security threat to China’ is incomprehensible. It however, puts to rest the oft repeated argument, that India is not on Chinese horizon and consideration militarily, focussed as it is on the US and Taiwan. Indian armed forces modernisation plans obviously are under keen comparative gaze, even if brushed aside summarily in Shangrila Dialogue. Apparently conflict with India exists in contemplation by PLA, and its think tanks.

In sum, for India, there is no evidence to suggest that China will use fewer military tactics as its overall military capabilities continue to grow. Or that improved bilateral economic relations will discourage China from pressing its territorial claims pressure on India. Chinese may use influence, cyberwarfare, disinformation, and information operations (especially through social media). China may use its control over Brahmaputra River (or other Rivers emanating from Tibet) as leverage over India by manipulating water flow. However, though these would be disruptive in some manner, none of them are existential threats to India.

It must be stated that China is obviously yet dissatisfied with the borders, having attempted nibbling on McMahon Line at Yangste in December 2022 and having sought in 18th Round of Corps Commanders Level Talks, additional 15-20 km of buffer at Depsang. In the latter case, China is seeking to extend the buffer zone to Burtse Post, coinciding with 07 Nov 1959 Line. Added to this is the naming exercise of places in Arunachal Pradesh, which was just a pressure-tactic by China, well understanding that Arunachal Pradesh is inalienable part of India. It is obviously clear to any discerning analyst (and to PLA/ Chinese hierarchy) that any further attempt of “soft use of hard power” along LAC-McMahon Line will be expansionism and hence assure escalation and could well lead to conflagration to an uncontrollable situation.

To requote the senior Colonels at Shangrila Dialogue, “India will not pose a security threat to China,” indeed; though an escalation may throw-up unexpected, unfathomable surprises for PLA!

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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