Doklam, BRICS and Beyond: Assessing China’s Response
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 03 Oct , 2017

 “Strategy 11 ‘李代桃僵’ – Plum tree sacrificed for the peach tree (Sacrifice the silver to keep the gold).

There are circumstances in which you must sacrifice short-term objectives in order to gain the long-term goal. This is the scapegoat strategy whereby someone else suffers the consequences so that the rest do not.” — Chapter 2, 36 Strategies of Ancient China[1]

The above quoted ‘Stratagem’, of sacrificing short-term objectives for long-term goals, aptly defines China’s current response to India. That China suffered loss of face in the Doklam fiasco has been well underscored in much of the media, thereby causing it a setback in its push for sole leadership in ASEAN and South Asia for the moment. It appears that China agreed to the naming of the terrorist organisations in the recent BRICS joint statement in line with the above strategy[2]. China, however, continues to sit comfortably in a unique position amongst the comity of nations – feared by the small nations, yet needed by them for its financial muscle, while the developed countries are stuck proverbially between the ‘Devil and the Deep Sea’. Having financed the economic rise of China through much of the last three decades, thereby converting China into their manufacturing hub, any economic counter to a ‘Rising, Revanchist’ China would result in a blowback on their economies that they are loathe to accept.

This paper assesses the likely Chinese response based on the ‘Strategies of Ancient China’, the ‘Wei Qi’ game and Unrestricted Warfare to these recent ‘setbacks’ in their quest to achieve the Chinese Dream and the implications for India.

Strategies of Ancient China, Wei Qi: Present Perspective with the Unrestricted Warfare Concept

“Strategy 10 ‘笑里藏’” – Knife sheathed in a smile.Charm and ingratiate yourself to your enemy. When you have gained his trust, you move against him in secret.” — Chapter2.36 Strategies of Ancient China[3]

Post the negative fallout of the continued Doklam standoff, Xi Jinping appears to have adopted the above quoted strategies to gain some space before the crucial 19th Congress. In the process the strident media, psychological and legal warfares that had been resorted too, were silenced (‘sheathed) with a smile and two ‘scapegoats’ seem to have been sacrificed – General Fang Fenghui, the all-powerful Chief of the Joint Staff Department was removed from office and replaced by General LiZuocheng, the PLA Ground Force Commander, in late August 2017[4], and the naming of Pakistan specific terrorist organisations in the joint BRICS statement in Xiamen[5]. Whether Fang Fenghui was penalised for the Doklam fiasco and placed under anti-corruption investigation along with General Zhang Yang, Director of the  PoliticalWorks Department and Admiral Wu Shengli, the former commander of the Chinese Navy[6] is open to question. However these purges also serve to tighten Xi’s hold on the CMC and his push to ensure his space in China’s history as the great leader who laid the foundation for China’s super power status.

•  To achieve the same ‘The Chinese Dream’was enunciated by Xi way back in 2012 on becoming the General Secretary of the CCP, which is best described as achieving the “Two 100s”,

  • the material goal of China becoming a “moderately well-off society” by 2021, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, and
  • the modernization goal of China becoming a fully developed nation by about 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic[7]

It encompasses the ‘strong nation dream’ (qiangzhongquomeng)[8], and the road to renewal or rejuvenation (fuxingzhilu), a factor that also underlines the rise of an aggressive Chinese posture under his leadership. For the moment however, the aggressive posture could be ‘sheathed’ temporarily while dealing with India and its other neighbours even as it recalibrates its strategy to circumvent this situation. The riposte would soon be coming, as China perceives that the strategic window it has to assert its dominance in Asia is getting reduced by the day, with a rising India and its growing proximity to USA and the West.

“Strategy 14 ‘借尸还魂’ – Borrow another’s corpse to resurrect the soul (Raise a corpse from the dead).Take an institution, a technology, or a method that has been forgotten or discarded and appropriate it for your own purpose. Revive something from the past by giving it a new purpose or to reinterpret and bring to life old ideas, customs, and traditions.” — Chapter 2, 36 Strategies of Ancient China[9]

For the present China would like to work through the BRICS institution to further its interests, in the manner it did with the extant Western Institutions to achieve its ‘core interests’.  With politico-economic woes in Russia, Brazil and South Africa, and a sharp contraction in overall economic activity of China there have been concerns that this grouping may have floundered. Goldman Sachs, where the idea originated, closed its BRIC investment fund in November 2015 after assets reportedly declined in value by 88% from a 2010 peak. The bank told the US Securities and Exchange Commission it did not expect “significant asset growth in the foreseeable future”.[10] To avoid close attention to its aggressive posturing, China could utilise the BRICS Institution, especially the New Development Bank,alongwith the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), as part of its ‘Wei Qi/Go’ strategy to regain its space in what it considers its sphere of influence, the South Asia, ASEAN and its Eastern Seaboard.

Wei Qi/GO is a Chinese game that is over 2000 years old and in many ways resembles the Chinese way of war and diplomacy. The name of this game, Wei Qi(pronounced weich‟i), literally means encircling territory, an essential component of a nation state. Coupled with it is the concept of‘shi,’ putatively a strategy to exploit the “strategic configuration of power”, China would use it to its advantage and maximize its ability to developing a favourable situation with great potential to achieve the political objectives and develop its Comprehensive National Power and restrict the same for its other ‘challengers’.

A game played between two players over 361 squares with 180 coins/spheres each, it is an abstract strategy board game, in which the aim is to surround more territory than the opponent. Players usually start in the corners,since establishing territory is easier with the aid of two edges of the board. This explains the rationale for the aggressive Chinese push on the ‘9-Dash-Line’ in the South China Sea, The ADIZ over the East China Sea and its economic thrust in ASEAN, South Asia and Central Asia. It needs to secure its corners/edges before it can ‘dream’ of competing with USA. For the present it views only India as its main ‘challenger’ against a ‘China-centric’ Asia.The Wei Qi game is however very slow moving and needs careful analysis before any step is taken;hence, if China feels it has a very short window of strategic opportunity it could trip itself, provided India plays it ‘coins’ well.

‘Strategy 35 “连环计” – Chain together the enemy’s ships (Never rely on but a single strategy).’ In important matters one should use several strategies applied simultaneously. Keep different plans operating in an overall scheme; in this manner if any one strategy fails you would still have several others to fall back on. — Chapter 6, 36 Strategies of Ancient China[11]

Along with the above and utilising the concept of Unrestricted Warfareas enunciated in 1999[12],the Chinese have been moving ahead relentlessly with the single-minded purpose of ensuring China‘s rise as the sole power in Asia.It is using military, quasi-military and non-military domains unrelentingly to achieve this end. With a common goal and purpose overarching all the policies in these domains, each step forward in any domain strengthens the rest akin to a ‘Force Multiplier‘, thereby ensuring that the sum is greater than the parts as a whole.

The implication is that China has moved on to a ‘Peoples War in all Domains’ against all nations that it feels can compete with it in its rise, as also the existing World Powers, to ensure that it has an unhindered riseas the sole Power in Asia in the medium term and is moving towards that goal in a step-by-step approach. Due to its geo-political and geo-strategic acceptability by most nations within the region, it sees India, under the present dispensation, as the only hindrance to its progress – as was evident with the strong response to its Doklam stand-off.

Implications for India

Under this strategy, China would aim to undercut India’s economic growth from within, using its ‘deep connections’ and create socio-political and socio-economic turmoil to subvert India’s steady rise. It would aim to curtail India’s outreach within the region and within ASEAN to enable it to secure its ‘edge and sides’. At an opportune moment, in the near to medium term, it could ‘do a Kargil’ on India to cause it a politico-military embarrassment, though it would execute the same when it feels it has control on the ‘escalatory dominance matrix’.

(a) Political.

 ‘Strategy 18’ “Defeat the enemy by capturing their chief (擒賊擒王/擒贼擒王, Qínzéiqín wáng”) If the enemy’s army is strong but is allied to the commander only by money, superstition or threats, then take aim at the leader. If the commander falls the rest of the army will disperse or come over to your side. If, however, they are allied to the leader through loyalty then beware, the army can continue to fight on after his death out of vengeance. — Chapter 3, 36 Strategies of Ancient China[13]

In today’s context, the aim would be more to attempt a ‘regime change’ through the ballot box. Towards that end, it would commence a ‘media, psychological and legal warfare’ against the current government using its deep connections, with a view to undercut its standing amongst the masses.  It would attempt to create socio-political and socio-economic turmoil, utilising the extant social, religious and economic fissures. Politically, its main concern would be to ensure that either the current Government loses the next elections or the winning margin in the 2019 elections would be less for the BJP within the NDA Government, as then the ‘coalition culture’ could restrict the PM’s hand from a hard stand against China. Concurrently it would also strive to undermine the civil-military relations and use media/social media to demoralise the Armed Forces.

(b) Regional.

China would work to wean away both Bhutan and Nepal from India and bring it firmly under its own ambit. It would not have been lost on China that during the Doklam stand-off the Bhutanese Parliament was silent and did not take any sides. Further, it would use its geo-economic clout to gain strategic space /equity from Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. In the case of Bangladesh, it could influence the general elections in 2019, if the Sheikh Haseena Government is not forthcoming to its demands. It would continue to prop up Pakistan to and provide tacit support to its proxies to bleed India, thereby countering its unhindered rise.

(c) ASEAN.

Even as India looks to ‘Act East’, China has been utilizing its geo-economic outreach bilaterally to undermine the cohesion of ASEAN and ensure its overarching influence to the detriment of both India and USA. China’s efforts is to ensure a hold over the archipelagic states of this region to enable unhindered outreach of its navy into the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, thereby enabling its geo-political and geo-strategic hold on South and South East Asia.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, AVSM, VSM

Retired after 37 years of distinguished service, as the ADGMO (B) in 2016,having been closely involved with Future Strategy, Force Structures and Force Modernisation.

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One thought on “Doklam, BRICS and Beyond: Assessing China’s Response

  1. Chinese Strategies , explained beautifully, … It is here we have to resolve the debacle caused 55 yrs ago … with reference to the Strategies 10 and 18 …. The roadmap though is too long for India, we should not trust Chinese in any case ….

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