The Strategist

China's Curious Wars

25 Aug, 2020    ·   5715

Vice Adm (Retd) Vijay Shankar locates the Galwan Valley clash in the broader context of China’s approach to territorial disputes

Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Distinguished Fellow

Never to be undertaken thoughtlessly or recklessly wars are to be preceded by measures that make it easy to win.

—Sun Tzu, Art of War (Griffith, p 39)

The Chinese tradition of warfare differs from contemporary understanding. Instead of focusing on their own weaknesses, they seek to avoid exposing their flaws by instituting long-term measures to alter and isolate the environment. This is before subversion and morale-breaking disinformation generate the advantage.

This strategy uses every possible means to manipulate forces at play well before confrontation. In this context, the significance of the clash neither constitutes the ‘moment of decision’ nor would its outcome be the end of the engagement. And, if conclusion is not to China’s terms, it is effectively delayed and kept animated in order to erode the will to resist. A favourable consequence is thus sought through an ‘isolate-subvert-sap’ strategy.  

All of China's recent actions must be viewed in the context of its larger geopolitical ambitions of attaining pre-eminent global hegemon status by 2049 (China’s National Defence in the New Era, July 2019). These include the militarisation of the South China Sea (SCS), build-up and assault in Ladakh, repression in Hong Kong, establishment of the East China Sea (ECS) air defence identification zone (ADIZ), incarceration of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and dubious involvement in the global pandemic set off by the Wuhan virus.

The SCS imbroglio and recent assault in Ladakh will be examined in a little more detail to try and discern the elements that hold sway in a Chinese military campaign.  

Militarisation of the SCS

China has laid claim to all the waters of the SCS based on a demarcation they call the ‘nine-dash’ line. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that the origin of the entitlement, bereft of legal legitimacy, could not be used by Beijing to make historic claims on the SCS. The line, first inscribed on a Chinese map in 1947, has “no legal basis” for maritime claims, deemed the Court.

In a brazen dismissal of the Tribunal’s ruling, China persists in its sweeping claims of sovereignty over the sea, its resources, and de-facto control over the trade plying across it that amounts to USD $5.3 trillion annually.

Satellite imagery has shown China’s efforts to militarise the Woody Island while constructing artificial islands and setting up military bases, and rejecting the competing claims made by Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Most of the world along with claimant countries demand the rights assured under UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In sum, China’s strategy for managing its SCS claims has emphasised delaying dispute settlement. And in time, with swelling military capability, occupation of contested features, building artificial islands, and locating military bases for control of the waters within the ‘nine-dash’ line. In the face of these aggressive moves, the other claimant states are left in awe as they are handed down a grim fait accompli.

In the meantime, the US, Japan, Australia, and India have formed the ‘Quad’ as a response—an emerging alliance to improve their maritime security capacity and deter Chinese aggression. The ‘Quad’ has initiated freedom of navigation exercises intended to affirm that Beijing cannot unilaterally seize control of the waterway.

Ladakh: High Place for a Showdown

China has in the last eight years attempted to put India in a strategically ‘benign’ economic-client slot. Beijing uses its proxy, Pakistan, to keep the Kashmir cauldron on the boil while it presses on with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). At the UN, it vetoes India's efforts to become a permanent member of the UNSC, and blocks its membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). All the while playing India at Wuhan and Mamalapuram, promoting its dysfunctional non-aligned policy, or at least attempting to nudge India away from the US. This is the ‘isolate-subvert-sap’ strategy at work.

Xi’s military assault in Ladakh has been underscored to assert that geography will not be allowed to come in the way of China’s strategic objectives; be it the CPEC, BRI, or the arterial national highway 219 linking Lhasa to Xinjiang that cuts across India’s Aksai Chin.

India for its part has given a resolute and matching military riposte in Ladakh. It has quite boldly launched surgical strikes on terrorist training camps in Pakistan by air and land forces and robustly rebuffed kowtowing to either Xi’s BRI or his grand economic plans. On the Line of Actual Control (LAC), India has followed a decrepit and emasculated policy of infrastructure-building along the un-demarcated LAC with China for more than half a century. Doklam changed all that, and more strategic infrastructure has come up now than in the past five decades. The more recent Wuhan virus pandemic has provided opportunity for Indian leadership to pin accountability.

All of India’s actions have left Beijing a trifle red-faced.

To Untangle Beijing’s Behaviour

China’s century of humiliation (1839-1949) coincided with the start of the First Opium War and ceding of Hong Kong to Britain. The conflict provided other colonial powers a blueprint for usurping territories from the crumbling Qing dynasty. And so northern China was seized by the tsar, and Formosa taken by Japan, while Germany, France, and Austria carved out coveted real estate through ‘loaded’ treaties.

The period remains etched in Chinese institutional memory—of a rapacious international system over which it had little influence. It has shaped China’s thrust for control in the very same system. More importantly, it provides a rallying point internally, and a persistent reminder to its people of ‘why the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).


Indeed, Xi’s 2017 declaration that “…the world is not peaceful” is turning out to be an engineered self-fulfilling prophecy. When put on a strategic template, the delaying actions to resolve simmering discord effected only to exasperate; Janus-faced policies that serve to deceive and subvert alliances; coercive manoeuvres; lease-for-debt economic deals; and flouting of international norms bear a bizarre semblance to the words of Sun Tzu: “The master conqueror frustrated his enemy’s plans and broke up his alliances. He created cleavages…He gathered information, sowed dissension and nurtured subversion. The enemy was isolated, divided and demoralised; his will to resist broken.” (Griffith, p 39).

Fortunately we are not in Sun Tzu’s times. Strategies are not so opaque, nor are Xi’s people with him. Yet, China would do well to heed Sun Tzu’s sage words: of avoiding a reckless path to unintended war.


Vice Adm (Retd) Vijay Shankar is a former Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Forces Command of India, and Distinguished Fellow, IPCS.