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Since 2010, the frequency and magnitude of Chinese aggression on Indian territories have increased significantly. Now, every 3 to 5 years, China undertakes a major attempt to change the status quo along the India-China border. Major flare-ups since 2010 include China establishing a camp at the Daulat beg oldie in 2013, the Doklam standoff in 2017, and most recently, Chinese incursions in Ladakh in 2020.

Apart from these major face-offs, minor conflicts and faceoffs have become a recurring feature of the Indo-China border. By doing so, China checks and calculates how much it can get away with without getting a reaction from India. This is the classic Chinese strategy of creeping expansionism. But what we have seen in recent times is that the “creeping” part is somewhat missing from the Chinese strategy. Chinese incursions on Indian territories have become bolder and more provocative.

The Doklam standoff was an important juncture in this regard. India responded to Chinese incursions in Doklam, but not much changed on the policy front. De-hyphenation between economic and security interests prevailed in the India-China relationship. India continued its bilateral path with China to iron out differences. This continuity in India’s policy was partly the reason behind China’s bolder moves in Ladakh. China calculated that border issues will not dominate the economic sphere, more so during the economic hardships of the COVID pandemic. But after China’s actions in Ladakh, India not only reacted but India took a paradigm shift in its policy towards China.

The defining feature of de-hyphenation of economic and security interest in India-China relations was shunned by India and it took several economic actions in retaliation against China like tweaking its FDI policy to control Chinese investments, banning Chinese apps, and removing Chinese companies from its 5G trials.

The bilateral feature of the India-China relationship also changed. After the Galwan attacks, India embraced multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific to deal with the threat from China.

In this context, the Quad is a very important development as it showcases the shift in India’s China policy. Since its inception in 2004, the Quad remained popular in Indian academic circles. But it did not have traction in political circles. India was unsure about the feasibility of the Quad. Indian policymakers were still contemplating the strategic utility and liability of Quad but came on board after the Galwan incident.

China miscalculated its strategy of creeping expansionism by underplaying the “creeping” part of the strategy. But Chinese policy is equipped with a high degree of adaptability. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that we will see an aggressive move from the Chinese anytime soon. However, China will maintain its aggressive posture on the border to secure its gains from the 2020 Ladakh incursions but will not open any new front.

Failure of China’s not so creeping expansionism does not mean that China’s expansionist agenda will stop. China has exhibited very high dynamism in its foreign and security policy. Even before the setback of Galwan, China was working on unconventional strategies to push forth its expansionist agendas without attracting global ignominy and which were more subtle and easier to justify. These three strategies are weaponization of trade, weaponization of cyberspace, and weaponization of natural resources.

The first explicit use of weaponization of trade by China was against Norway when it punished Norway for awarding the Noble Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a jailed Chinese dissident. Since then, in a not-so-subtle way, China has vigorously pursued its geopolitical and strategic goals through the weaponization of trade. The recent imposing of anti-dumping duties and curbing of imports from Australia is another example of China employing this strategy.

The platform of the weaponization of cyberspace in China is well developed. There are several instances of Chinese cyberattacks on India. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington, 108 cyberattacks from 2006 to 2018 were linked to China. In 2018, a report by Computer Emergency Response Team documented that China carried out the highest number of attacks on the official websites of India. The most recent cyberattack on India was the failed attempt to hack the power grid in Maharashtra in 2020.

China is also working on the strategy of weaponization of natural resources. Several international, natural, and customary laws protect natural resources from being used as a weapon of war, but this has not deterred China. There are talks of changing the course of the Brahmaputra River and constructing several dams on it. This will allow China to control the flow of the Brahmaputra which can be used as a weapon against India in times of conflict. Further aggravating this problem is the fact that India does not have any treaty with China to resolve the conflicts related to water. The talks of changing the course of Brahmaputra are at very early stages, nonetheless, it’s a grim prospect if this becoming a reality. China does not discuss this strategy openly because it is against all the tenets of just warfare. But this strategy has a lot of traction amongst Chinese political elites.

Today, these unconventional strategies are much more preferred over the conventional boots on the ground strategy because they are subtle, more efficient, and easier to disguise and justify. Not only China but there are also other countries employing these strategies as part of their security policy. These new strategies have brought a change in the nature of war in the contemporary era. And China has emerged as the pioneer of these unconventional strategies and has seamlessly incorporated them into its expansionist agenda.

Priyam Gangwar studied Political Science at Amity University, Noida, India. He completed a Master's degree in Politics with a specialization in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. He is a former Research Assistant at the Centre for Human Security Studies (CHSS), Hyderabad and is currently a Research Assistant at the Jindal Centre for the Global South (JCGS), Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), O.P. Jindal Global University.