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China’s Stealth Wars

NEW DELHI – China is subverting the status quo in the South and East China Seas, on its border with India, and even concerning international riparian flows – all without firing a single shot. Just as it grabbed land across the Himalayas in the 1950’s by launching furtive encroachments, China is waging stealth wars against its Asian neighbors that threaten to destabilize the entire region. The more economic power China has amassed, the greater its ambition to alter the territorial status quo has become.

Throughout China’s recent rise from poverty to relative prosperity and global economic power, the fundamentals of its statecraft and strategic doctrine have remained largely unchanged. Since the era of Mao Zedong, China has adhered to the Zhou Dynasty military strategist Sun Tzu’s counsel: “subdue the enemy without any battle” by exploiting its weaknesses and camouflaging offense as defense. “All warfare,” Sun famously said, “is based on deception.”

For more than two decades after Deng Xiaoping consolidated power over the Chinese Communist Party, China pursued a “good neighbor” policy in its relations with other Asian countries, enabling it to concentrate on economic development. As China accumulated economic and strategic clout, its neighbors benefited from its rapid GDP growth, which spurred their own economies. But, at some point in the last decade, China’s leaders evidently decided that their country’s moment had finally arrived; its “peaceful rise” has since given way to a more assertive approach.

One of the first signs of this shift was China’s revival in 2006 of its long-dormant claim to Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh. In a bid to broaden its “core interests,” China soon began to provoke territorial disputes with several of its neighbors. Last year, China formally staked a claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to more than 80% of the South China Sea.