Flowing out of Sun Tzu’s idea of winning a war without fighting, China has been strategically smart in expanding its footprint in all domains incrementally without getting involved in a major conventional war in the last few decades, which could have disturbed its economic growth.
China will like the world to believe that its defence policy aims to safeguard its sovereignty, security, and developmental interests. China’s stated military strategy remains based on the concept of Active Defence. In 2019, China’s Central Military Commission adopted a new strategy for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), titled the Military Strategic Guidelines for the New Era. China’s leaders seek to align the PLA’s transformation with China’s overall national modernization so that by the end of 2049, China can field a “world-class” military capable of taking on the global/expeditionary roles and winning wars, way beyond the realms of benign active defence. China has begun to provide teeth to its “Active Defense Strategy” by Incremental Encroachment, which is predicated on extending its sovereignty claims based on its one sided historical view (the Ladakh Standoff, the South and East China Seas are two examples). Through its expansionist behaviour, China is crafting its strategic design for a Sino-centric Asia and later a global order.
WHAT IS INCREMENTAL ENCROACHMENT STRATEGY?
The recent infrastructure aggression along China India borders, plans of highways like G695 in areas where PLA was not supposed to be as per Confidence Building Measures, building 628 well-off villages and infrastructure in the Himalayas in areas belonging to India, Nepal and Bhutan, the ongoing Ladakh standoff, converting features into military bases in overlapping EEZ in South and East China Seas indicate that China is adopting the Incremental Encroachment Strategy in multi domain warfare, without naming it to be so.
Flowing out of Sun Tzu’s idea of winning a war without fighting, China has been strategically smart in expanding its footprint in all domains incrementally without getting involved in a major conventional war in the last few decades, which could have disturbed its economic growth. One of the key facets of this strategy has been the aggressive expansion of its infrastructure. In the continental domain, it is known as salami slicing and is demonstrated along its boundaries with other nations, including more recent village building in the territory of Bhutan and Nepal. The strategy entails resorting to slow territorial expansion over a period of time via military build-up or infrastructure development as long as it is halted by the enemy, stopping short of full-scale conflict, continuing to hold it, and imposing a standoff of varying duration, leading to some territorial gains/expansion without fighting. Occupation of a part of Aksai Chin and Doklam standoff are apt examples of the same, where it stopped just short of war, when faced with opposition, but consolidated the gains by additional build up.
The ambit of Incremental Encroachment goes well beyond Salami Slicing and into elements of multi domain warfare to include economic encroachment, digital encroachment, technological encroachment, psychological encroachment, information encroachment through manipulating media and some opinion makers as part of Three Warfare Strategy to include Psychological, Media and Legal Warfare. In the maritime domain, China extended the strategy to include one-sided interpretation of history by claiming the Nine Dash Line, junking PCA’s ruling and applying its own legal warfare strategy to justify its action, leading to conversion of atolls into military bases in a manner that SCS becomes a “Chinese Lake”, ignoring international and legal position, as part of the incremental encroachment strategy. Sri Lanka’s lease of Hambantota port to China is an apt example of Chinese economic encroachment leading to debt trap and turning into land encroachment. While Salami Slicing impacts Chinese neighbours most, but economic, digital, technological, space and psychological encroachment impacts entire world.
APPLICATION OF INCREMENTAL ENCROACHMENT STRATEGY IN INDIAN CONTEXT
Besides hardening its position in the Ladakh standoff, China continues its efforts to close in to areas strategically important for India like Siliguri Corridor by encroaching into Bhutanese land. China has earmarked $30 billion for infrastructure development in Tibet and Xinjiang in its 14th Plan. Besides highways and villages, the twin bridges on Pangong Tso will help sustain the Moldogarrison in Ladakh, seen to be vulnerable during Indian occupation of Kailash Range. The 16th round of military negotiations did not result in a resolution to the standoff, suggesting that China intends to integrate the areas where disengagement was sought. India, meanwhile, is standing firm with its massive troops deployment to thwart any plans for additional aggression and to maintain the stance for finding a resolution, indicating no normalisation till pre-April 2020 status quo is achieved.
The Chinese Border Defence Law passed last year has adequate provisions to expedite its infrastructure aggression and speedy deployment of troops to creep forward. The recent air incursions near LAC indicate Chinese effort to test Indian resolve to its encroachment into its airspace, if not contested. The latest objection flagged in the last military level talks, which included air representation, seems to be heading towards the establishment of a hotline between Indian Air Force and PLAAF—justifies that the Chinese listen only when strongly opposed. The increased trade figures with China during the Ladakh standoff indicates Chinese economic encroachment into India, and the Chinese domination of the mobile phone market indicates its deep digital encroachment. While the continental encroachment is visible and debatable, the multi-domain encroachment invites less media glare but is even more impactful in context of comparative Comprehensive National Power.
WHAT CAN INDIA DO?
A serious push in capacity building and infrastructure build-up along LAC to take on the China challenge in the recent past is encouraging. India needs a change in mindset from reactive to proactive, with additional offensive capability created to demonstrate capacity to encroach into sensitive areas of China, and inflict punitive cost, because China has assumed the freedom to encroach anywhere, at will.
India should also pass the equivalent of Chinese Border Defence Law in some form, like strategic infrastructure along border to have preferential yardstick for speedy clearance by local, regional and central authorities to avoid incidents like environment activists obstructing strategic constructions.
In light of the trust deficit, recent activities along the LAC, the past track record of the Chinese, the un-demarcated LAC as well as the border, and the Chinese government’s refusal to disengage, India has to be ready for all contingencies with additional deployment along LAC, in future. India needs to upgrade its entire surveillance plan, to deny any “first movers’ advantage” to China, with added confidence and experience of 2020, including creating some new leverages, when needed.
The Indian aim should be not to concede to the Chinese attempt to redraw the LAC as LAC-2020. Despite no major breakthroughs in the 22nd round of China-India border talks and 16 rounds of military talks, India’s strategic goal should be to continue insisting on disengagement and de-escalation, followed by delimitation and demarcation of the LAC, to prevent further LOC-ization of LAC.The Chinese will like to keep the border unsettled, till the time the political cost of not settling it becomes higher than doing so, for CCP, China. Its efforts of incremental claims near trijunctions with Bhutan/Nepal are to create further complications in the long-term resolution of the borders.China will continue to try encroaching on Bhutanese land to create more space in Chumbi Valley, to threaten the Siliguri Corridor.
In response to the Chinese build-up of hundreds of new well off villages to incrementally change the ground position, it is recommended that States/UTs along LAC should allot concessional land to security forces like regional Scouts, ITBP, SSB, and families hailing from that area (adopting the son of soil concept), ready to settle in villages so constructed, along our own perception of the LAC. This will improve inclusive growth, integration, besides being proof of our claims on the border, to ward off Chinese Strategy of Incremental Encroachment.
In response to economic and digital encroachment, India must increasingly draw out a negative import list of all products imported from China, which have been/can be manufactured in India and increasingly ban their imports, as is being done to improve self-reliance in defence manufacturing. It’s absurd to notice India’s trade surplus with China is growing beyond its defence budget during the Ladakh standoff period.
Strategic partnerships with like-minded democracies and collective naval posturing to create multifront situation for China in Indo-Pacific is essential to check Chinese expansionism and threatening global commons with steps like China centric Coast Guard Law and Maritime Traffic Safety Law. India is rightly building a series of strategic partnerships with the US and other China-wary Asian countries, to mitigate the ongoing Chinese military activities in the Indo-Pacific region. There is a need for alternative supply chain, trade and technological ecosystem independent of China, for which some initial steps taken by Quad countries need to be pursued to prevent multidomain encroachment. An alternate infrastructure architecture in the form of B3W, Blue Dot Network and Friendship Highways are essential to save fragile economies getting into China’s debt traps through BRI. The announcement of Indo-Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF) is a small step to thwart the Chinese economic encroachment. Collective response against cyber, space, and other domains of encroachment/expansion needs to be worked out.
Major General S.B. Asthana is an Army veteran. The views expressed are personal views of the author, who retains the copyright.