Strategic Coercion: War by other Means
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Issue Vol. 38.2, Apr-Jun 2023 | Date : 05 Jul , 2023

Today the foundations of power have been moving away from the emphasis on military force and conquest. The absence of a warrior ethic in modern democracies means that the use of force requires an elaborate justification to ensure popular support.” — Joseph Nye (2002)

In any international forum of heads of states there is invariably a mention of the current global geopolitical environment being “complex”. Evidently, these leaders find it complex in its form and equally complex in its intertwined application in bilateral and global situations.

At the turn of this century, digitalisation supported with secure speedy communications facilitated the process of globalisation which in turn had converted the world into a ‘global village’. Manufacturing was dispersed globally. Parts manufactured in some corner of the globe were made available ‘just in time’ through a well-oiled network of supply chains to places where the final product was assembled for further distribution anywhere in the world. It was a seamless interdependence where borders seemed irrelevant. Unfortunately, the unprecedented Covid pandemic brought the whole system to a jolting halt. It compelled countries to regress into isolation and resort to protectionism. Borders reemerged as sacrosanct and dictated national sovereignty. A selfish uncaring form of national interest dominated the scene particularly demonstrated by the so called developed cabal of the west. Along with that came the Ukraine war. A war that has been going on for over 16 months. European Union perceives Russian a threat to its security architecture. Ukraine is being lavished with US and European military equipment to fight their war for them by proxy. Their premeditated intentions have been exposed as also their ulterior motives of these so called western developed nations. The gravity of the complex problems threatening the ‘global village’ seems so immense that it may be living on borrowed time!

The Indian Prime Minister has emphatically stated not once but twice that “this is not an era of wars”. Relations between nations too witness differences in perceptions and clash of interests. These may not be easily resolved through negotiations. Such differences generally occur due to ideology and/or the form of government – monarchy, autocracy and democracy. Plato, in his magnum opus, the Republic had listed five types of governments, namely, aristocracy, timocracy (a form of government in which possession of property is required in order to hold office), oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. Obviously autocratic rulers have always been around well before the Common Era! Then the question arises as to what do nations do to pursue and protect their national interests?

…Covid pandemic brought the whole system to a jolting halt. It compelled countries to regress into isolation and resort to protectionism. Borders reemerged as sacrosanct and dictated national sovereignty.

Having established that there are bound to be differences between countries due to ideology or the ambition of the leader, there is need to identify methods that can be applied to arrive at an amicable and acceptable solution satisfying the interests of both parties without recourse to war. Therefore, as the affairs of states continue to evolve into a complex web of interdependence, cooperation, and competition, pressure mounts on states to effectively employ the tools of statecraft to attain their political objects and protect their interests.

As a theorist, Clausewitz explication on war is based on the fundamental foundation of existence of a nation state. The nation-state permeates the whole of Clausewitz’s work. He analogizes war and the state through a trinity. War, the primary trinity, is composed of enemy, chance and intelligence. The secondary trinity, the nation-state of his day, consisting of the people, the military, and the government is directly linked to his dictum that – war is a continuation of politics. For Clausewitz, the nation-state is identified by its capacity to harness resources and the energy of the people and convert it into the activity of war. He concluded that unlike all other forms of political organization, the nation-state was not likely to disappear any time soon. Clausewitz’s theory has endured to the present day as the nation-state remains the primary unit of international politics. However, the emergence of ‘non-state actors’ in the twentieth century has given a new twist to the aspect of ‘nation state’.

Clausewitz stated that, “war is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means.” That is to say, war is one means of political interaction, manifesting by employing military force, to accomplish the stated political ends. The implication therefore is that the nation-state has other elements of power for political interaction, of which war is but one of them. Overall, these means can be collectively described as diplomatic, military, and economic means. Clausewitz theory seems to have stood the test of time as it relates to conventional wars arena and diplomacy. Interestingly, a new dimension gets added when non-state actors, mercenaries and private military companies come on to the stage.

In International Relations, a policy of deterrence generally refers to threats of military retaliation in an attempt to prevent the initiator from implementing the threat by use of military force in pursuit of its foreign policy goals.

Undoubtedly, as the primary instrument of foreign policy, diplomacy is the highest expression of political intercourse. Diplomacy is international dialogue encompassing negotiations, alliances, treaties, agreements, etc. It is the sum of all means of verbal and written communication between nation states. As Henry Kissinger stated, “diplomacy is the art of restraining power.” Thus, it would appear that diplomacy is in some measure a contradistinction to war, which can be termed as a violent irruption of power. However, when the instruments of diplomacy fail to secure the nation-state’s pressing political imperatives, war is resorted to accomplish the same by force. Diplomacy and war flow into one another—“where one stutters, the other completes the utterance!”

During the Cold War, deterrence was the main focus of policy and research, and even today, its importance has not waned. Deterrence is a passive and static strategy. The concept of deterrence can be defined as “the use of threats by one party to convince another party to refrain from initiating some course of action. A threat serves as a deterrent to the extent that it convinces its target not to carry out the intended action because of the costs and losses the target would incur”. In International Relations, a policy of deterrence generally refers to threats of military retaliation in an attempt to prevent the initiator from implementing the threat by use of military force in pursuit of its foreign policy goals.

Therefore, militarily, success of general deterrence refers to preventing state leaders from issuing military threats and actions that escalate normal diplomatic and military competition into a crisis or military confrontation which spirals upwards from posturing to skirmishes to localised conflict to possibly war. The prevention of crises or wars, however, is not the only goal of deterrence. In addition, the country receiving the threat must be able to resist the political and military demands of the potential attacker. If armed conflict is avoided by the country subjected to the threat of war at the price of diplomatic concessions to the maximum demands of the potential attacker as appeasement, then deterrence has not succeeded. In the nuclear weapons environment, deterrence has been shaped by the destructive power of the nuclear weapon. During the Cold War the number of nuclear warhead’s mattered, as did first-strike capability, survivability in case subjected to a first strike, triad and second strike capability. As a result there were submarines armed with ballistic missiles; bombers with nuclear weapons on board in the air at a moment’s notice; on the ground there were hardened silos housing ballistic missiles and mobile launcher with ballistic missiles always on alert and ready to launch missiles in a first strike or to retaliate in a second strike. Added to this later was the Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) to enhance survivability post a first strike. It resulted in a situation which was quite literally MAD – Mutual Assured Destruction!! In the conventional arena, wars acquired a new profile – regional wars, limited wars, conventional wars below the nuclear threshold (including 4th, 5th, etc generation wars, hybrid wars), proxy wars and terrorism.

Coercive strategies, in particular ‘compellence’, is a counterpart of ‘deterrence’, both holding a special position in the contemporary International Relations theory.

Parallel to deterrence, as a method of influencing the other party’s WILL, are the strategies of compellence and coercive diplomacy used around the world at par. Coercive strategies, in particular ‘compellence’, is a counterpart of ‘deterrence’, both holding a special position in the contemporary International Relations theory. Compellence is defined as, “the use of threatened force — and at times the actual use of limited force to back up the threat — to induce an adversary to reverse an intolerable action he has taken earlier.”

Compellence can include the actual use of military force, in addition to the threat of force. Since the status quo is not preferred in case of compellence, the side using compellence needs to take the initiative in convincing the other party to do what it has demanded. In other words, there is a need to continually apply pressure, until the other party accepts the demands and takes action to meet the demand. The actual use of force in compellence is expected to exemplify damage and political degradation that will be further inflicted if the demands are not heeded to. By influencing the cost-benefit calculation of the party being subjected to pressure, it aims to drive this party to decide to accept the demands of the compeller in order to avoid further damages.

Prepared based on the figure on Jakobsen 2011, 155

Historically, post World War 2, the main protagonist on the global arena employing coercive strategies has been the US. As the Chinese say – “…. the United States has a very disgraceful ‘dark history’ in coercive diplomacy. Today, coercive diplomacy is a standard instrument in the US foreign policy toolbox, and containment and suppression in political, economic, military, cultural and other fields have been used to conduct coercive diplomacy around the world for pure US self-interest. Countries around the world have suffered, with developing countries bearing the brunt of it, and even US’ allies and partners have not been spared.”

Some of the prominent examples of the coercive strategies that US has applied over the years are – the commercial, financial and cultural embargo on Cuba imposed in 1962 continues till date; since 2006 US has imposed sanctions against Venezuela which were further tightened by the previous President by freezing government assets in US, sanctions on oil, mining and banking; since 2006 and by successive governments against North Korea; against Iran since 1979; against Belarus since 2004; against Russia since 2014 which was further tightened and widened in 2020 and also involving the European Union. China too claims to be the target of US coercive strategies but it is able to resist and react against such pressure due to it being a substantial economic power as well as a military power.

India’s determined response, both politically and militarily, unhinged the Chinese coercive strategy. China was compelled to come to the table to talk.

A powerful military supports US in coercive diplomacy. The US frequently employs military coercion and heedless use of force in international relations. The US is the world’s largest arms exporter, and it often relies on arms trafficking to provoke regional conflicts. US military facilities and personnel are located in all corners and key areas of the globe. According to a 2020 report on US overseas military bases, the US has more than 800 military bases around the world, with 173,000 people deployed in 159 countries across Europe, Asia, West Asia and many other regions.

The US frequently uses military force to initiate, instigate or precipitate wars and conflicts. Between 1776 and 2019, the US conducted nearly 400 military interventions worldwide, half of which occurred between 1950 and 2019, according to the Tufts University report, “Introducing the Military Intervention Project: A New Dataset on US Military Interventions.” After World War 2, major wars initiated or launched by the US include the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Kosovo War, the Afghan War, the Iraq War, the Libyan War and the Syrian War. Proxy wars are a common form of US military interventions, with countries such as Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen suffering. According to the “Cost of War” project data of the Watson Institute at Brown University, conservative estimates show that the total number of military and civilian deaths caused by the US wars in the “post-9/11 era” is as high as 929,000, with at least 38 million people displaced. If China is to be considered a superpower, it will have to follow in the footsteps of the US. From its machinations in the South China Sea, the East China Sea and its blatant naked belligerence against Taiwan, China is likely to be a more power hungry ruthless hegemon pursuing aggressive coercive strategies in its foreign policies in the near future.

Interestingly, on the contrary, in a paper published by a Chinese scholar recently, China claims that – “….an important tradition in its diplomacy is to uphold the equality of all countries large and small, and never to divide the world into different groups or engage in the practice of coercion and bullying.” He further claims that “China has always taken a clear-cut stand against hegemony, unilateralism and coercive diplomacy. China never threatens other countries with force. China never forms military coalition or exports ideology. China never makes provocations at others’ doorstep or reaches its hands into others’ homes. China never wages trade wars or groundlessly hobbles foreign companies. To slander China for engaging in the so-called coercive diplomacy is obviously just making trumped-up charges.” This is an outright fabricated claim and to put it mildly, ludicrous and laughable! China is conscious of its global image and therefore paints its facade in the right colours to secure for itself a moral high ground to condescendingly pontificate to the rest. It tries to cover its outrageous bullying by such plauditory false fronts.

Sans substantial US military presence in the Asian region, China is emerging as an aggressive hegemon spreading its tentacles to dominate the region. India is thus confronted by this irredentist rising power pursuing an expansionist’s agenda. Whether it is laying claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh [after having acknowledge the McMahon Line as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in 1959 and withdrawing north of the LAC after unilaterally declaring ceasefire after its 1962 aggression], or seeking to alter the tri junction between India-Tibet-Bhutan in Doklam and more recently, seeking to change the existing status quo along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh, China, has always resorted to coercive strategies to impose its will on its neighbours- be they neighbours on land or in the maritime region.

For too long the world had hyphenated India with Pakistan which gave it a higher standing in the world that what it deserved. It continues to demand such consideration even when, as a country, it is on a ventilator.

Chinese belligerent use of military force in Eastern Ladakh, in May of 2020, was against the expected norm of the theoretical definition of coercive diplomacy. China used force even before it issued any threat of use of force!! It is probably unprecedented in the theoretical study of strategic coercion and has added a new dimension to coercive strategies – pro-active use of force to achieve a limited political objective alongside building up military force rapidly to signal that substantial action will be taken if there is an attempt to undo the altered situation. Thereby, implying, that India should accept the changed status of the LAC or be prepared for a larger conflict that China signalled to unleash thereby, forcefully impose the new alignment and status of the LAC.

India’s determined response, both politically and militarily, unhinged the Chinese coercive strategy. China was compelled to come to the table to talk. There have been 18 rounds of talks between the military commanders; the governments special representatives on the boundary question have also met a number of times as have the Foreign Ministers and Defence Ministers. India has not given in to Chinese demands. While there has been pull-back from certain areas there remain disputes in two areas and on the issue of buffer zones. That China was forced on to its backfoot was a black blot to its self-image as also it has undermined adversely its elaborately furbished global image of Confucian sagacity. Like in human relationships a bully when confronted by an unexpectedly strong retaliation is compelled to pause and change tack. Similarly in interaction between nations a hegemon when faced by a determined political and military response, is rattled and it unsettles the hegemon and they fumble. China will ‘lose face’ if it were to concede failure of its coercive strategy in Ladakh and to revert to the status of the LAC as was existing until April 2020. Therefore, it is reckoned that China will wait for an appropriate opportunity when the global attention is diverted towards a more serious global issue in some other part of the world, it may then withdraw from the areas of persisting contention. If China cannot ‘gain face’ it has to ‘save face’ and no political price is too big for that.

Pakistan poses another type of challenge for India. It is not a military power, its economy is tottering on the verge of collapse, its internal political instability and lack of effective governance (could justify the appellation of it being a failed state) is a destablising factor in the south Asian region. In fact, there the diktats of the Mullahs override those of the state. In this scenario the only weapon available with Pakistan to bolster its foreign policy is the plethora of its state sponsored terrorist groups. Since it cannot employ any coercive strategies against India, in the literal sense, it has weaponised its terrorists and thus continues to wage a proxy war against India. Pakistan has deployed religious fundamentalists to implement its strategy of “a thousand cuts”. For Pakistan the terrorist is an expendable commodity, not anything to lament over. Unlike Israel which pro-actively decapitates terrorist organisations and targets terrorist infrastructure in Lebanon and Syria, India has been overly restrained in decapitating the terrorist groups and targeting their organisations inside Pakistan. Further, Pakistan is a strategically irrational player and has an inflated sense of self-worth. For too long the world had hyphenated India with Pakistan which gave it a higher standing in the world that what it deserved. It continues to demand such consideration even when, as a country, it is on a ventilator. India needs to continue to put pressure to isolate Pakistan globally and put it in the dog-house where it belongs.

Deterrence, dissuasion, compellence and coercion are tools available to a country to diplomatically safeguard its interests in the complex geopolitical environment as prevailing globally. In the end it can be conclusively summarised that economic and military power are fundamental prerequisites for diplomacy to succeed.

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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

Lt Gen (Dr) JS Bajwa

is Editor Indian Defence Review and former Chief of Staff, Eastern Command and Director General Infantry.  He has authored two books Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army and  Modernisation of the Chinese PLA

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2 thoughts on “Strategic Coercion: War by other Means

  1. The present situation of Pakistan, as that of East-Pakistan in 1971. In 1971, Bangladeshi illegal migrants came to India and now a major threat for its internal security. The same will happen with Pakistan, millions of Pakistanis will illegally migrate to India from Sind, Punjab’s Pakistan, POJK. Presently only terrorists are coming, now hungry, poor, humiliated, downtrodden people of Pakistan will illegally come to India and Indian politicians for vote-bank politics allow them to come. A scary scenario!!!

  2. US always use such coercive strategies not only for Asian, African countries or parts of the world, but now using it its own NATO allies. E.g. Germany in the current Ukraine-Russia conflict. Unwilling Germany have to support Ukraine and shut Gas pipeline project. Similarly the case of France.

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