Is China’s Strategic Aggression Ill-Timed?


By Air Cmde Arjun Subramaniam

Within the framework of China’s meteoric rise, analysts across the world have chronicled its recent strategic belligerence without taking a call on whether this aggressiveness is part of a well-thought out ‘coming of age’ strategy, or a premature and ill-timed display of coercive diplomacy. To understand Chinese strategic ambiguity, it is essential to dissect several recent events.

Whether it is ‘shadow boxing’ with India over Arunachal Pradesh and the Northern Areas of POK, the face-off with Japan near the Senkaku islands, or the pronouncements on territorial waters in the South China Sea, China has gradually expanded its zone of core concerns beyond Taiwan. It has also indicated that it is ready to question, if not yet confront the US over its presence in the Eastern Pacific and South China Sea. It is quite clear that China believes that it had successfully completed Phase I of its rise that dealt with creating domestic economic robustness, economic domination of global trade and expansion of economic influence across continents, and was ready for Phase II that called for demonstration of military and coercive capability. Phase III would then leverage the gains accrued from the earlier phases to create a global network of influence that could effectively challenge the US and push for a bipolar world in the coming decades.

Has Phase II been ill-timed? The Chinese are seldom known to take hasty strategic decisions, leading to a suspicion that the aggressive posturing in their immediate neighbourhood has more to do with internal compulsions than with any meaningful geostrategic ambitions. In this context, it would be naive to imagine that the PLA/PLAN/PLAAF have the immediate capability to militarily confront the US in the Pacific or for that matter, force a decisive result in any integrated campaign against India, Taiwan or Vietnam. The recent face-off between North and South Korea could challenge Chinese resolve should the US decide to engage in its own brand of ‘protective coercion’ in the region.

Three internal issues that are unfolding simultaneously in China merit attention. The first is the increasing clout and impatience of the PLA in determining the pace and texture of strategic events. Wide publicity was given earlier this year to the promotion of Mao’s grandson, Mao Zinyu to the rank of Major General. He is being showcased as the youngest General Officer and encouraged to discuss his ideas freely in blogs and other internet forums. 11 other PLA officers in their early fifties were promoted to the rank of General by President Hu Jintao, indicating that a younger PLA leadership was an imperative in these changing times. This also means that the CPC is willing to accept a more assertive and articulate military in the coming years. At the same time, it appears that the PLA is more comfortable with a Maoist legacy and wants to ensure that reformists are kept at bay within the PLA. Meanwhile, it is also evident that acceptance by the PLA is essential for claiming the top spot in Chinese politics.

The next issue that is dictating Chinese assertiveness relate to schisms that have emerged within Chinese society. Whether it is the growing urban-rural divide, the growing gap between the rich and poor, growing unrest in China’s periphery or the lop-sided export driven economy, there are enough reasons for the Chinese government to want to deflect public attention to territorial issues that have the potential to whip up nationalism around perceived external threats.

Finally, there is the question of the kind of legacy that President Hu Jintao wants to leave behind. Lacking the charisma and statesman-like qualities of his predecessors, Hu has, at best, been a superbly efficient technocrat who has consolidated China’s rapid economic progress and placed it on the threshold of becoming a great power. With China’s economic might in the region virtually unchallenged, President Hu Jintao had the opportunity to show strategic vision and be seen as the prime mover in resolving territorial conflict with all its neighbours, India included. This could have actually been an interim phase where China could have built a very strong case for global leadership based on it being seen as a responsible and accommodating power with the capacity and capability for some kind of ‘global altruism’, a concept that is well understood and executed by the US. However, by embarking on an aggressive revisionist posturing, he seems to have lost an opportunity to leave a legacy worth talking about.

The prognosis for India is lukewarm. China’s regional belligerence, leadership challenges over the next two years and internal schisms makes it impossible for India to let her guard down on both diplomatic and military fronts. While India’s military has to continue to build conventional capability to counter any kind of Chinese adventurism, her diplomacy has to be nimble enough to cope with continued Chinese strategic ambiguity. In the final analysis, it is opined that China has played its regional cards prematurely and runs the risk of being seen as an expansionist and revisionist power that seeks to upset global balance; a power that more countries would fear rather than respect.

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Government of India

Air Cmde Arjun Subramaniam, 50th Course, National Defence College, New Delhi, may be reached at [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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