The more China has accumulated power, the more it has attempted to achieve its foreign-policy objectives with bluff, bluster, and bullying. But, as its Himalayan border standoff with India’s military continues, the limits of this approach have become apparent.
The standoff began in mid-June, when Bhutan, an ally of India, discovered the People’s Liberation Army extending a road through Doklam, a high-altitude plateau in the Himalayas which belongs to Bhutan, but which is claimed by China.
India, which guarantees tiny Bhutan’s security, quickly sent troops and equipment to halt the construction, asserting that the road — which would overlook the point where Tibet, Bhutan, and the Indian state of Sikkim meet — threatened its own security.
Since then, China’s leaders have been warning India daily to back down or face military reprisals. China’s defence ministry has threatened to teach India a “bitter lesson,” vowing that any conflict would inflict “greater losses” than the Sino-Indian War of 1962, when China invaded India during a Himalayan border dispute and inflicted major damage within a few weeks.
Likewise, China’s foreign ministry has unleashed a torrent of vitriol to intimidate India into submission.
India’s government, led by prime minister, Narendra Modi, has kept its cool, refusing to respond to any Chinese threat, much less withdraw its forces.
China is using psychological warfare (‘psywar’) to advance its strategic objectives — to “win without fighting,” as the ancient Chinese military theorist, Sun Tzu, recommended.
China has waged its psywar against India through disinformation campaigns and media manipulation, aimed at presenting India — a raucous democracy with poor public diplomacy — as the aggressor and China as the aggrieved party.
Chinese state media have been engaged in eager India-bashing for weeks. China has also employed ‘lawfare,’ selectively invoking a colonial-era accord, while ignoring its own violations — cited by Bhutan and India — of more recent bilateral agreements.
For the first few days of the standoff, China’s psywar blitz dominated the narrative. But, as China’s claims and tactics have come under scrutiny, its approach has had diminishing returns.
Domestically, China’s attempts to portray itself as the victim — claiming that Indian troops had illegally entered Chinese territory, where they remain — has been damaging, provoking a nationalist backlash over the failure to evict the ‘intruders’.
As a result, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping’s image as a commanding leader, along with the presumption of China’s regional dominance, is coming under strain, just months before the critical, 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). And it is difficult to see how Xi could turn the situation around.
Despite China’s military superiority, it is scarcely in a position to defeat India decisively in a Himalayan war, given India’s fortified defences along the border. Even localised hostilities, at the tri-border area, would be beyond China’s capacity to dominate, because the Indian army controls higher terrain and has greater troop density.
If such military clashes left China with so much as a bloodied nose, as happened in the same area in 1967, it could spell serious trouble for Xi at the upcoming national congress.
China’s confrontational approach could drive India, Asia’s most important geopolitical ‘swing state,’ into the camp of the United States, China’s main global rival. It could also undermine its own commercial interests in India, the world’s fastest-growing major economy, which sits astride China’s energy-import lifeline.
Already, Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, has warned of economic sanctions, if China, which is running an annual trade surplus of $60bn with India, continues to disturb border peace.
As China has declared unconditional Indian troop withdrawal to be a prerequisite for ending the standoff, India, facing recurrent Chinese incursions over the last decade, has insisted that border peace is a prerequisite for developing bilateral ties.
The smartest move for Xi would be to secure India’s help in finding a face-saving compromise.
The longer the standoff, the more likely it is to sully Xi’s carefully cultivated image as a powerful leader, and that of China as Asia’s hegemon. This would undermine support for the regime at home and weaken China’s influence over its neighbours.
Some experts predict that China will move forward with a “small-scale military operation” to expel the Indian troops in its claimed territory. But such an attack is unlikely to change the territorial status quo in the tri-border area.
It certainly won’t make it possible for China to resume work on the road it wanted to build. That dream died when India called the Chinese bully’s bluff, as other Asian nations may now do.