Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2020-05-13 09:08:08 Published on May 13, 2020
China’s salami slicing overdrive

The world is facing a global pandemic, a once in a lifetime crisis – one which is possibly the single biggest threat facing humanity since World War II. Nations are scrambling to figure out a response so as to somehow manage the domestic socio-economic fallout of the crisis. Societies are withering, economies are wilting and a health crisis is challenging us to alter our assumptions about national security. Global order, already under flux before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, stands at an inflection point with major powers either unwilling or unable to uphold their side of the bargain in its management.

But for the Communist Party of China (CPC), it’s business as usual. In fact, it’s an opportunity to accelerate the process of presenting itself as a global power to the wider world. And that too not by making a case of Beijing as a benevolent power that is interested in working in concert with other powers to evolve a coordinated global response to the pandemic. But by bullying smaller neighbours and hectoring the not so small ones.

Aside from targeting the Trump administration, CPC officials are busy berating Australian policy makers and forcing Europeans to acquiesce to their narrative. Every time any official from the West makes a point about China’s culpability in mismanaging the initial stages of this crisis, the CPC machinery leaves no stone unturned in reminding the world that it is the West’s own inefficiencies that have resulted in the crisis achieving the magnitude it has while China is gradually getting back to business. From using global institutions to further its agenda to launching misinformation campaigns, the CPC seems to have emerged as a real malevolent power intent on shaping the emerging world order in its own image.

What is of equally grave concern is the use of the instrumentality of force by the CPC in projecting its power. At a time of a serious worldwide crisis, the CPC seems to be in a mood to put on display its growing military prowess not only in the South China Sea but even beyond. Much to the outrage of other claimants, China established new administrative districts for the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos and named 80 islands and other geographical features in the sea.

The other nations like Vietnam and the Philippines could only challenge these actions diplomatically without any real effect. In fact, the Chinese military upped the ante further by sinking a Vietnamese fishing trawler and conducting military exercises in the contested maritime waters. Last month, the PLA’s Southern Theatre Command, which oversees the South China Sea, took part in an anti-submarine training exercise.

It is certainly true that China has followed a long-term strategy towards establishing its claims in the region. With or without Covid-19 crisis, it would have pressed ahead with its claims. After all, this is the standard ‘salami slicing’ tactic it has followed for most of its territorial claims, whereby its minor actions without provoking any reaction from others over a period of time lead to a strategic shift in the ground realities in its favour.

But with a world distracted with managing the pandemic, the Chinese military seems to have got an even freer hand than otherwise. This was reflected in the concerns of Indonesian foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, who underscored that recent Chinese activities in the South China Sea could have potentially escalated tensions at a time when the global collective effort is vital in fighting Covid-19.

And it is not only the South China Sea. Taiwan, Japan and even South Korea have had to face Chinese military recklessness. The Liaoning aircraft carrier strike group has sailed close to Taiwan and Japan and PLA aircraft have been spotted at least six times flying close to Taiwan’s airspace this year. Taiwan’s ministry of national defence has also announced that China is planning to set up an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea.

In March, South Korea had to scramble fighter jets after Chinese Y-9 surveillance aircraft trespassed into the Korean ADIZ without any prior notification. Reports also emerged last month that China has been conducting sub-critical or zero-yield nuclear tests at its Lop Nur site in Xinjiang. India too has not gone unscathed. Additional troops have been rushed to the border after clashes and stone pelting broke out between PLA and Indian soldiers at two places in Ladakh and Sikkim over the last week. Reports have also emerged of Chinese helicopters violating Indian airspace in eastern Ladakh, resulting in IAF scrambling its Sukhoi jets.

Chinese military assertiveness was already increasing before the outbreak of Covid-19 and there was a growing sense in the top CPC leadership that PLA should be more muscular in asserting Chinese sovereignty in disputed areas. After all, this was reflected in the Chinese defence white paper of 2019. In line with this, the PLA has been busy exploiting opportunities to further Chinese interests and territorial claims.

It should therefore be of no surprise that the CPC might be viewing this moment as one of particular vulnerability for many of its regional neighbours and global powers. For India and the world at large, this is a moment when internal socio-economic consolidation clearly needs to be a priority. But they must remember that the CPC has another agenda and if they are not attuned to that, then the costs can be huge.

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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