Recent news reports indicate that China has instructed its military personnel in the South China Sea (SCS) not to fire the first shot against US forces. Talks between the US and China had been ongoing for some time with both sides stepping up forces and maneouvers at sea increasing the risk of incidents that could flare up.
The US deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups for drills near Chinese waters and undertook night time missions close to China’s Guangdong and Fujian provinces. China similarly increased naval drills and flyover missions around Taiwan and the SCS. Beijing had been rebuffing the American proposal for conversation between defence ministers of both countries till recently but then suddenly agreed.
According to sources, Beijing has ordered its pilots and naval officers to exercise restraint in the increasingly frequent stand-offs with US planes and warships. The reason being given is that Beijing is keen to cool the tense and dangerous situation and “de-escalate” tensions with the US.
The logic being portrayed by China is not very different from the situation in Eastern Ladakh where it continues to talk about disengagement and de-escalation but has refused to return to status quo ante of April 2020 – retaining the territory upto its 1959 claim line and converting it into its Line of Actual Control (LAC) by force and by keeping additional troops not too far to respond at short notice. Beijing calls India the aggressor similar to posing as the victim of hegemony of the US and allies in the SCS.
But the ‘No First Shot’ strategy of China is hardly new; it has been successfully followed by China for decades even calling China’s aggression of India in 1962 as a ‘defensive counter attack’. Similar was the case in the Nathu La incident in 1967, eight month border war with Soviet Russia in 1969 and invasion of Vietnam in 1979.
However, in recent years, Chinese troops have fired lasers at US pilots from its overseas military base in Djibouti on the Bab el Mandeb Strait on the Horn of Africa, as well as in the SCS. Aside from PLA, China’s maritime militia has also fired lasers at US pilots in SCS. A striking feature of China’s No First Shot strategy is posturing, muscle flexing, crowding, jostling and buzzing of foreign vessels at sea and aircraft. The maritime militia is fully utilized in such operations to keep aggression below the level of military force and to complicate responses of the target force or country.
In April 2001 a Chinese J-11 fighter jet in an effort to buzz a US Navy EP-3E ARIES II signals intelligence aircraft collided with it in mid-air resulting in downing of the Chinese fighter jet and forced landing of the US aircraft. In 2013, INS ‘Airavat’ of Indian Navy on a goodwill visit to Vietnam was deliberately buzzed by a Chinese naval ship in the SCS.
In May 2014, two Chinese Shenyang J-11 fighters jet fighters flew within fifty feet of an American EP-3E Aries surveillance aircraft. Again in May 2017, two Chinese Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets came 150 feet close to a US WC-135 plane and flew upside down above it. According to US officials cited by media the US plane was on a mission to detect radiation in international airspace over the East China Sea (ECS).
China’s maritime militia has been involved in several incidents of crowding islands illegally claimed by China with scant regard to the territorial integrity of its neighbours. In the latest incident in a long string of Chinese actions to assert unlawful maritime claims in the SCS, Chinese Coast Guard vessel sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands in April 2 this year. In June 2020 a Chinese Coast Guard vessel and a speedboat chased, rammed and damaged a Vietnamese fishing boat near Lincoln Island in Vietnam’s Ho and Sa (Paracel) Archipelago.
In July, China held a five-day military exercise near Vietnam’s Paracel Islands. These Chinese actions have led to the US and Vietnam signing a memorandum of understanding aimed at strengthening Vietnam’s fisheries management and law management capabilities, which includes US support against illegal “intimidation” of Vietnamese fishermen at sea. During June 2020, a Chinese submarine cruised through the waters near Japan, prompting a scramble of aircraft and ships to track its furtive movements, while Chinese fighter jets and at least one bomber buzzed Taiwan’s territorial airspace almost daily.
Against India, China had been employing jostling, buzzing (INS ‘Airavat’ incident in SCS) and stone pelting since past few years. But in the ongoing aggression, PLA came prepared in advance with clubs, rods and wooden contraptions with iron spikes and barbed wire to exploit the No First Shot strategy especially in the instant case where both sides were to not carry firearms under a previous border agreement. The ensuing clashes with PLA were at multiple places, not at Galwan alone.
Whether in the SCS or against India, China’s posturing and vicious physical actions though without firing the first shot may be termed as ‘Coercion by Restraint’ through which China aims to instill the fear of full blown war should the enemy opens fire first, even though China too could itself suffer heavily in such war. Take the recent statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia will use nukes in case of a missile attack, which is quite logical since there is no way to decipher whether the incoming missile (s) are nuclear or conventional.
China’s ‘Coercion by Restraint’ also aims at taking on adversaries one by one. The fear is perceived overwhelming response if and when the adversary opens fire. China beefs up this fear through information and psychological operations using media and supporters in the target country for which ample scope exists in democracies like India.
China’s lackeys in Indian media are known, some of whom have been travelling to China to be ‘looked after’ and trained. They continue to hammer that those who talk of quid pro quo against the Chinese aggression need to study the military capabilities of China because any action by us will result in a two-front war. This is exactly what China wants; that we remain doomed to defend the 4056 km LAC linearly leaving the initiative to China.
As far as the two-front war is concerned, China can orchestrate that anytime it wants in conjunction Pakistan which is China’s vassal state and has no alternative but to follow the master’s orders. President Xi Jinping’s forthcoming visit to Pakistan may not be only to discuss mounting threats to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor but to plan its offensive defence.
China’s all around actions demonstrates that President Xi Jinping as the 21st century Hitler cares little for world opinion. Despite releasing the China Virus and taking on the world at large, his popularity within China appears to have gone up if Chinese media is to be believed. This may be true on the plank of nationalism since he would have sold the ‘China Dream’ at home just as Hitler duped Nazi Germany – that China will rule the world.
There have been some reports of some dissent against Xi’s policies including by two PLA Air Forces (PLAAF) Generals but this does would not make much difference. Having accumulated all power, Xi would like to show quick gains while the world is busy fighting the pandemic which may not last beyond a year from now unless a second virus release is engineered. The million dollar question is can the world and India call China’s bluff of its strategy of ‘No First Shot’ aka ‘Coercion by Restraint’?