Go, Lebensraum and Doklam: The New Great Game
Despite China and India disengaging in Doklam, the Chinese quest for territorial dominance will continue to create tension.
The Chinese invented the game of Go over 2,500 years ago. It begins with an empty game board as participants take turns to place stones on it, signifying control of territory. As the game progresses, players have to balance the need to acquire territory against overextension and capture. The winner must have enough stones to control the largest amount of the board. The best strategy to win a game of Go is to subtly gain a position of dominance with stones and expand before attacking the opponent’s unsupported pieces.
In modern history, Adolf Hitler, with his insatiable appetite for territorial expansionism, came closest to being a proponent of the strategic technique required to win a game of Go. His views manifested themselves in Mein Kampf as he defined Lebensraum, or living space. In Hitler’s words, “nature has not reserved this soil for future possession of any particular nation or race; on the contrary, this soil exists for the people who possess the force to take it.” To the question of resistance by the people already occupying it, his reply was noteworthy: “What is refused to amicable methods, it is up to the fist to take.”
Though the Tibetans will certainly differ, we may consider it an exaggeration to compare Lebensraum with the present-day irredentism exhibited by China. However, the aggressive approach of the Chinese disregarding international norms and claiming territory of other nations is an uncanny manifestation of the centuries-old technique taught by Go. Information warfare acts as the stones, with the state-controlled media letting out a disinformation campaign against adversaries, while the Peoples’ Liberation Army gains territorial dominance. Disputes with 23 nations while sharing borders with 14 exemplifies not just lust for territory, but also a larger strategy.
DOKLAM, AN OVERREACH
The military standoff between China and India in Doklam, which occurred between June and August, was the outcome of a strategic overreach by Beijing. That the Chinese yielded to Indian stubbornness to succumb to threats was again a result of their adherence to strategic techniques learned from Go. The game teaches its players adverse fallouts of overextension and avoiding capture during an aggressive foray for territory.
India’s military intervention in Bhutan was primarily strategic in nature. It was also a legal obligation arising out of the 2007 India-Bhutan treaty. China’s attempt to browbeat Bhutan by building a road in Doklam — a disputed territory between the two nations — was not only a surreptitious effort at irredentism, but also an overt attempt to imperil India’s security as well as diplomatic standing in the subcontinent.
The Chinese road in Doklam would have become the veritable Damocles sword over the Siliguri corridor connecting mainland India to the Northeastern Region. In the event of a conflict with China in Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing claims as its territory, Indian forces would find traversing through the corridor extremely arduous. In the interim, as a vitriolic editorial in the Global Times blatantly alluded, China would use its vantage position in Doklam to exploit the ethnic fault lines in the Northeast Region to foment armed insurgencies there.
The intervention in Doklam was also Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s method of informing China that the mistake of acquiescence during the occupation of Tibet would not be repeated. In Tibet, Jawaharlal Nehru’s naive strategic approach resulted in national security interests being sacrificed at the altar of self-aggrandizement. Instead of realpolitik, Nehru had abandoned Tibet with platitudes: “We cannot save Tibet, as we should have liked to, and our very attempts to save it might well bring greater trouble to it.” Bereft of the strategic buffer thereafter, the 1962 military debacle was a natural outcome of the myopic approach toward national security.
Indian intervention in Doklam, therefore, was also intended to gain the confidence of its allies in the subcontinent, in addition to attracting the attention of the international community to the Bhutanese chapter in the face of an ever-increasing Chinese territorial appetite. With the list of Chinese irredentism getting exhaustingly elaborate — construction of artificial islands near the Spratly, repeated standoffs with the US Navy in the South China Sea, and preventing Spain from exploring for oil in that sea on behalf of Vietnam — India used the Doklam incident politically to indicate its willingness to stand up to China’s bullying tactics.
The 72-day standoff and the subsequent “disengagement” have resulted in distinct strategic advantages for India. A clear message has gone out to the international community that, despite the 1962 military defeat, India has the gumption to play hardball with the Chinese.
The fact that India traversed the perception journey from being called “illegal trespassers” to China acquiescing to the firm Indian precondition of stopping construction work before the withdrawal of its forces is bound to put New Delhi in good stead. It will serve to enhance India’s leverage, allowing it to become the nucleus for a coalition of nations harassed by repeated Chinese expansionist claims. It allows India to proceed apace with constructing a counter string of pearls around China, with Japan and Vietnam being important assets in the necklace. The naval exercise dubbed Operation Malabar — with the Indian, American and Japanese navies in full attendance even as the Doklam crisis played out — was a clear message to Beijing: Henceforth, India is likely to be the axis around which China will meet strategic resistance.
Disquiet in India has been rising steadily over China’s relentless attempts to lay territorial claims on Indian territory. The Chinese policy of issuing stapled visas to residents of Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh is an affront to India’s sovereignty. The renaming of six districts of Arunachal Pradesh by China was again a brazen attempt to humiliate India. By blocking India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and vetoing the designation of Masood Azhar of Jaish-e-Mohammad as a terrorist, Beijing has infuriated New Delhi. That the vast majority of Indians consider China as untrustworthy is corroborated by the fact that the term “Chinese product” has become a euphemism for untrustworthiness.
China’s continued irrationality over its expansionist overdrive, and its emphasis on “subduing an enemy without fighting,” as described by Sun Tzu in Art of Military War, is making its territorial intentions suspect. Indians naturally view Chinese efforts to block its entry into the NSG in stark contrast to its complicity in illicit nuclear proliferation by its allies North Korea and Pakistan.
PEERING INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL
Due to mistrust, the Doklam disengagement is just a temporary relief. While external factors like the recent BRICS summit in Xiamen and China confronting topographical disadvantage at Doklam with battle-hardened troops of 33 Corps’ of the Indian army in the vicinity played their role in defusing the situation, the simmering differences between the two nations will certainly bubble over again — sooner rather than later.
Victor Gao Zhikai, a Chinese security expert, alluded to this fact: “India should be accustomed to more beefed up Chinese infrastructure not only in Doklam but in other parts of Tibet.” Therefore, India should anticipate China resorting to Sun Tzu’s edicts of “deception, speed and attacking the enemy’s weakness.”
The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party, which is scheduled for October, will also play a vital role in the continuation of conflict in changing theaters. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has cultivated an image of a strongman and successor to Deng Xiaoping, will not wish to attend the congress without responding to the ignominy of being stared down at Doklam. Although in a politically infallible position for the moment, Xi would be wary of rivals and contenders slyly playing up the withdrawal to embarrass him.
US President Donald Trump’s reprimand to Pakistan for providing a “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror,” and his call for India to contribute in “economic assistance and development” in Afghanistan will also raise hackles in Beijing. India will not wish to get militarily involved in Afghanistan and extend its “two and a half” wars, as Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat refers to the security threats confronting India.
The extension of India’s economic footprints in Afghanistan will, however, serve to raise Chinese apprehensions, as the increased Indian presence in Afghanistan will deprive China’s “all weather ally” Pakistan of the mythical strategic depth it has desperately yearned for. With China investing over $60 billion in the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) connecting Xinjiang to the Gwadar port near Karachi, it will now be cajoled by Islamabad to ensure retention of the country’s strategic depth.
The best way to restrict India within its territory would be to compel it to take care of its frontiers with China and Pakistan. An even better method could be to explore and utilize the internal fissures plaguing India. If the past is anything to go by, Pakistan will use Chinese patronage to inflame passions in Kashmir and ensure that Indian forces are militarily bogged down and, therefore, rendered capable of only a defensive role on external borders.
China, for its part, is likely to keep probing the 2,200 miles-long common border with India. There will be attempted incursions at vulnerable spots in Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand involving India in a crude variation of “catch me if you can.” India needs to be wary of incursions that have been routine and are now getting longer and inviting stronger retribution.
Notwithstanding the localized provocations, the possibility of a large-scale confrontation between India and China remains remote. The Chinese themselves would not like to face an uncertain war until the completion of CPEC and when the perceived economic gains from it mount. More importantly, China will desist from a military confrontation until its navy has achieved a blue water navy status. Despite remarkable development of its armada, the Chinese navy lacks combat capability away from its coastline. For a country that has most of its energy requirements coming in from the Middle East, overstretching its combat line would be pernicious. Even Sun Tzu said, “If not in the interests of the state, do not act. If you cannot succeed, do not use troops.”
Till then, Go strategies will continue relentlessly. India cannot lower its guard and allow the Chinese an opportunity to place their stones strategically. The new Great Game is just beginning.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.