This long-term Chinese strategy is best exemplified by the Middle Kingdom’s step-by-step encroachments into the sea between Vietnam and the Philippines.
The Venetian merchant traveler Marco Polo may not have introduced salami to the Middle Kingdom in the 13th century, but salami-slicing—foreign policy consisting of a slow deliberate series of actions, none of which is sufficient to cause war, but together amount to a significant strategic shift—has become a hallmark of the Chinese state. This ‘one slice at-a-time’ policy has thus far proven to be an effective long-term strategy for China, best exemplified by the Middle Kingdom’s step-by-step encroachments into the sea between Vietnam and the Philippines.
But how this strategy functions in Doklam will depend on India’s objectives vis-a-vis Bhutan and China, as well as how far China is willing to push in order to construct a road that it had agreed five years ago it would not build. Understanding why China would resume slicing and change course in June 2017 requires analysis of China’s insular mindset.
Take, for instance, the film Dunkirk, which, despite its rave reviews and box office success, is not the highest grossing film currently in theatres. Propelled by the massive Chinese market, that honour belongs to Wolf Warriors 2, a Special Forces action flick set in Africa about the rescue of Chinese businessmen and locals from western mercenaries! The film’s tell-all tag line, as the BBC reported, reveals much about the Middle Kingdom’s contemporary headspace: “Anyone who offends China will be killed no matter how far the target is.”
Wolf Warriors 2 has instilled pride in China, marking significant cultural milestones. The People’s Liberation Army, the world’s largest and the only major world military controlled by a political party and not a government, is currently celebrating its 90th anniversary. The significance of this event, as well as the celebratory parades, are unlike anything in India. Politics birthed the PLA and it continues to play a political role. Marking the anniversary, the PLA’s naval arm recently partook in joint Sino-Russian exercises in the Baltic Sea, sending Changsham, a Type 052D destroyer, Yuncheng, a missile frigate, and Luoma Lake, a supply ship. The Baltic Sea is the site of more tension between Russia and NATO than anywhere else in the world. In this sense, the Wolf Warriors 2 tag line and the PLA’s Navy drills in the Baltic Sea fit together perfectly. Both are examples of China asserting itself across the globe.
The Indian reaction in Doklam, however, is an irritant that China didn’t plan for.
After the 1962 Indo-China war, a serious military clash occurred on 11 September 1967 at Nathu La on the Sikkim-Tibet boundary. The salami slicing ended with bloodshed, as both countries suffered casualties. The next episode happened almost twenty years later in Sumdorong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh. A May 15, 1987 India Today piece quoted a senior Indian army officer in Army Headquarters as saying “We are not preparing for a war or trying to provoke one. But we are in a much greater state of readiness than we have ever been before.”
Three decades later, that status-quoist language hasn’t changed, but the politics has. For this reason, it is worth taking a leaf out of the Atal Behari Vajpayee book.
Vajpayee has distinct memories of an elephant. Visiting China as External Affairs Minister, he returned hurriedly when the PLA invaded Vietnam on February 17, 1979. Two decades later he returned the favour, doubly. When Chinese strongman Li Peng landed in Mumbai on January 9, 2001, then-Prime Minister Vajpayee was on a visit to Vietnam, and on his departure he ordered an Agni II ballistic missile test. Remembering that in 1992, his friend, then-President R Venkatraman, suffered the ignominy of being on a formal visit to China while the country tested a 660 kilo ton nuclear device, its largest ever. The dragon also has a memory of an elephant.
In the Chinese way of doing things, respect is reserved for statements of strength. Vajpayee paid them back in the same coin. It is time that India sends out another statement of strength again.
Manvendra Singh is Editor, Defence and Security Alert magazine & a BJP MLA from Rajasthan.