China: Coercion as National Policy
Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The Defence Spokesperson of CMC, Senior Colonel Wu Qian in a regular press conference on 27 Jan 2022 stated that China’s neither “coerces” nor is “coerced” by others! This view is open to serious contention, as it is apparent, China has resorted to political, economic and military coercion with regularity. China is a risen power, its coercion—the use or threats to force the target state to change behaviour, is becoming more and more pronounced. It has become increasingly well-versed in the use of non-militarized coercion, like diplomacy and economic intimidation, as also military coercion.

China and its History of Coercion

In 2010 the Nobel committee in Oslo awarded the Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a jailed Chinese intellectual and human-rights activist. China immediately ordered a six-year diplomatic freeze on Norway and cut off salmon exports. Norway lost nearly $1.3 billion in its exports to China between 2011 and 2013. In 2010, the Japanese government had a rude wakeup call - China had abruptly cut off all rare earth exports to Japan over a fishing trawler dispute. In July 2008, China had threatened to impose economic sanctions against Exxon Mobil, in response to its planned collaboration with Vietnam to explore for oil in an EEZ claimed by both countries.

China had strongly opposed the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. In retaliation, China suspended operations in 87 out of its 99 mainland stores for South Korean Chain Lotte Mart, ostensibly for alleged violations of its fire-safety codes, resulting in loss of US$365 million in the first half of 2019. Lotte Mart was eventually forced to abandon and sell all of its stores in China. South Korea’s pop-stars concerts which were much sought after in China were forced to cancel performances. South Korean cosmetics and beauty products which were also very popular in China saw their sales being impacted.

More recently, Lithuania annoyed China by allowing Taiwan to open de facto embassy in the country. The PRC downgraded its ties with Lithuania and responded with punitive economic coercive measures. In response to the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on an American extradition warrant in late 2018 in Canada, China detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and imposed trade curbs on Canadian canola, soy, peas and pork exports. The Michaels were promptly released on deportation of Meng Wanzhou! More recently, in response to the call of Australia for investigation in Corona virus origins, China placed bans and high tariffs on selected Australian beef producers and coal, barley, wine and other exports.

China also has an expansive toolkit of coercive tools, beyond economic and political domains towards military coercion. China has stepped up military pressure against Taiwan. H-6K bombers with fighter planes and KJ-500 early warning or Y-8 electronic warfare aircrafts project have been projecting capacities towards an eastern front of Taiwan. Significant developments have taken place in the South-western corner of Taiwan’s ADIZ, close to the Bashi Channel. How far up can China go on the escalation ladder of coercion with Taiwan is a moot question.

China has used military coercion in its disputes in the South China Sea since the 1990s, with its Nine-Dash Line claims. In 1995, China’s military seized and occupied Mischief Reef which had been contested by the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. In March 2011 Chinese maritime surveillance ships expelled Philippine vessels exploring for oil around Reed Bank in the Spratly Islands sought by the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. In 2012 China imposed diplomatic and economic sanctions on the Philippines when Chinese fishermen were caught at Scarborough Shoal. Chinese claims of Scarborough Shoal contested by the Philippines were partially dismissed in 2016 by the International Permanent Court of Arbitration. Using the UNCLOS as its guide, the Court ruled that China had “no historical rights” to these islands and waters. Instead of complying with the unanimous ruling, China aggressively dredged sand akin to artificial islands of the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei and Taiwan, which it had militarized with airfields, ports and barracks. Sweeping Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and over-flight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for littoral nations. Similarly, Japan had expressed strong concerns over China's attempts to change Senkaku Islands' status quo by 'coercion' in 2020.

China well understands that in capitalist economies, even minor trade curbs create a frenzy that force MNCs to lobby within their respective Governments for changes in their foreign policy vis-à-vis China. Despite Chinese coercion against Norway in 2010, South Korea or Australia recently, the trade volumes increased during the period. It is also true for South East Asian Nations, Taiwan or Japan, wherein military coercion and confrontation in the two China Seas remains unrelated to burgeoning economic trade. India too, having faced expansionism and belligerence in Eastern Ladakh, has witnessed the bilateral trade cross $125 billion in 2021! Hence Chinese ‘coercion’ is well calculated!

Chinese Concept of Deterrence and Coercion

It is instructive to consider the difference between Western and Chinese thinking about deterrence and coercion. The concept of deterrence is simply the persuasion of one’s opponent that the costs and/or risks of a given course of action that he might take outweigh its benefits. The difference between Western and Chinese thinking about deterrence, however, begins at this fundamental, conceptual level. Obviously, deterrence is primarily about dissuasion, the threat intended to keep an adversary from doing something. Coercion on the contrary is the threat to make an adversary do something. The difference is the power to dissuade as opposed to the power to coerce or compel. Deterrence with dissuasion is, hence, distinct from compellence or coercion.

The Chinese term that is most often equated with deterrence is weishe (威慑) which embodies both dissuasion and compellence. The 2011 PLA volume on military terminology defines a strategy of deterrence, or weishe zhanlue, as “a military strategy of displaying or threatening the use of armed power, in order to compel an opponent to submit”. It attempts to persuade the opponent what ought to be done through deterrence, and demands the opponent to submit to the China’s volition. According to the 2015 edition of the Science of Strategy (zhanlue xue; 战略学), published by the Chinese National Defence University, strategic deterrence is military combat whereby an adversary is coerced to give way, compromise, or submit, thereby stating that there is no distinction made between dissuasion and compellence. For the Chinese it is all about coercion, which is the cornerstone of demanding an opponent to submit to its will!

Planning Counter-Coercion

India has to be cognizant of China’s strategy of coercion. Dramatic changes are being brought about in the proximate regions of India-China border and in Tibet and South Xinjiang Military District, which must be taken as a form of coercion and compellence. Upgradation work on G219 and G318 highways running parallel to India-China borders in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh has commenced. By 2021, Tibet had 1,18,000 km of road network. Preliminary work has started on Hotan-Shigatse, Gyirong-Shigatse railway lines and Chengdu-Wuhan-Shanghai high speed railway lines. 14th Plan will witness Chengdu-Chongqing world class airport cluster and 30 more civilian transport airports. Currently, Tibet and South Xinjiang have 12 airports operating/ under construction. The 739km long oil pipeline from Golmund to Lhasa will have a new 1076 km long parallel Snow Mountain Oil Dragon Pipeline with increase in oil depots in Tibet to ten. By Dec 2020 China had installed central power grid connection across all 66 counties and 8 districts in Tibet.

Much has been written about renaming of places in Arunachal Pradesh with Chinese names, new Border Law and the Xiaokang Villages. China has greatly invested in border defence villages, with simultaneous relocation of Tibetans with next generation infrastructure including internet connectivity projects. The plan involves building 628 villages in the TAR’s 112 border towns across 21 border counties in Shigatse, Lhokha, Nyingchi and Ngari prefecture-level cities. Of these 628 administrative border villages, 427 are first-line villages and 201 are second-line villages. Of the 427 first-line villages, Shigatse city is building 354 villages along the borders with Bhutan, Nepal and Arunachal Pradesh. Through this initiative, the PRC plans to move 62,000 border residents and 241,835 people into 62,160 households across 628 villages. In the Ngari Prefecture’s Rutog County – Jagan Village (Tisom Township), Gar County –Dianjiao-Demchok (Zhaxigang Township) and Zanda County Chusong Village (Chulu Songjie Township) are under construction. By the end of 2019, Tibet had complete access to the optical fibre network, and even border defence villages reportedly had a 4G access rate of around 98%.[1] The infrastructure already developed and under development in Tibet and South Xinjiang is dual use military-civilian, and naturally has immense coercive value.

It is apparent that China coerces only countries whose markets or resources it does not need, and those who are perceived as geopolitical challengers to its global ambitions. China has used coercion against India lately primarily to convey its resolve and intimated its sovereignty. India, hence, clearly falls in the category of nation that will be coerced, and attempts may take place in compellance, despite of the continuing economic trade upturn. The Chinese coercion can take myriad forms, well short of war. There can be politico-diplomatic opposition on international fora, utilising considerable global influence achieved, to cause continual embarrassment. Similarly, China will continue befriending India’s neighbours, and making them totally dependent or in debt. These can be set right by pro-active engagement with countries with similar values as India, and concerted engagement of neighbouring nations. There may also be economic coercive actions like denial of critical items like the APIs for pharmaceutical industry or import of raw material like iron ore. These too can be offset by finding alternatives, as nations like Australia have undertaken. Military coercion is possible utilising the services of bosom-ally Pakistan, by carrying out intensive offensive manoeuvres in Tibet/Xinjiang in proximate areas to the borders, by pin-pricking along the Line of Actual Control, by stand-offs in maritime domain or by using technological measures like cyber, space and electronic warfare in the hinterland. Chinese use of information warfare to target the public at large or disgruntled elements, or support to anti-national groups is well nigh feasible. The military coercion needs serious addressal.

Contextually, the 12 Jan 2022, 14th Round of Talks at Moldo was unique with a joint press release issued by China and India. The agreement was to stay in close contact, maintain dialogue via military and diplomatic channels, work out a mutually acceptable resolution of the remaining issues at the earliest and hold next round of the Commanders’ talks at the earliest. The likelihood of an agreement on creation of additional patrolling moratorium may be feasible. That however does not predict resolution of the boundary issue. Hence, it is imperative to plan counter-coercion for the future. Five pathways are considered to counter China’s military coercion by “gangster coercive tactics” like undertaken in the two China Seas and Eastern Ladakh.
First, the military posture and modernisation must be with specific and clearly articulated political objectives, and be duly communicated, to have better chances of success. If the goal is to avoid war, India will need to assure itself of firm denial to any effort towards terrestrial conquest by force. An imperceptive strategy does not convey realistic policy objectives. India should state its red lines, be firm, candid and be prepared and yet not exhibit belligerence or antagonism.

Second, swift deployment of forces in response to a crisis is perhaps the best tool to counter military coercion short of armed conflict. This resolve was apparent in 2020 in what was termed as ‘mirror deployment’. The capabilities to deploy forces in difficult terrain and capacities to face adversity are major military messaging, and must be carefully planned and trained for.

Third, simplistic exercises that are aimed at testing readiness are not convincing to carry clear messaging across. Holding military exercises is important for confidence-building and counter-coercion, if these planned at comparable terrain, in right season with correct compliment of participants, conveying the capability and the will. Such exercises will impose caution, and an environment of anxiety to the adversary.

Fourth, wars are a historic constant, warfare is constantly changing, especially so in 21st century. The force and technological asymmetry with China exists, and we will have to plan resilience against a devastating pre-emptive. This must not deter us in creating well planned and focussed, demonstrable counter-coercing capabilities – in technological sphere and long range, precise, lethal kinetic targeting. As an example, Chinese writings contemplate use of space forces and capabilities to deter or coerce an opponent, preventing the outbreak of conflict, or limiting its extent should conflict occur. Our plan hence to deny the adversary the ability to exploit space and to secure it for our own use is fundamental to establishing capabilities in space domain. These demonstrable capabilities will by themselves be deterrence and will counter coercion.

Fifth, for China, the growing role of information and associated technologies has led to “information deterrence” becoming aspect of weishe. Information itself has become an instrument of conflict, with the ability to establish “information dominance.” Chinese are masters in disinformation with the ability to threaten nation’s information systems directly affecting societal stability. In the same context, authoritarian China has greater anxieties on public opinion pressures and for the CCP to ensure the social contract that it has with the public at large. We must create the ability to successfully conduct reciprocal offensive information operations, as the most important means of implementing information deterrence. A demonstrated capability of exploiting information to our own end will nonetheless arouse concerns in the adversary.

Endnotes :

[1]Suyash Desai, Civilian and Military Developments in Tibet, Takshila Discussion Document, Bengaluru, v1.0., 06 Dec 2021, accessed at https://takshashila.org.in/takshashila-discussion-document-civilian-and-military-developments-in-tibet/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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