October 20, 2014 1:00 pm JST

The myth of China's strategic shrewdness

HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO --Imagine if just a few days before China's leader Xi Jinping made his first official visit to Japan, the Chinese navy entered the Japanese territory around Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Should it happen, tensions would boil over, making it hard for the visit to proceed as planned.

     An incident similar to this hypothetical situation actually happened recently. According to local reports, days before Xi's visit to India, scheduled to begin on Sept. 17, without any warning, Chinese troops crossed into Indian-controlled territory in the disputed Ladakh region. The border in this area is yet to be demarcated, even decades after the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962.

     Over 1,000 Chinese soldiers entered the territory this September. It was still happening after Xi's arrival in India, and meant that as the leader called for friendship and cooperation with India's people, Chinese soldiers remained in India-controlled soil.

     Some observers believe that Xi allowed the troops to cross the line of control, aiming to keep India in check. But the prevailing view is that the Chinese military acted without Xi's knowledge. Many officials, including those at Japanese and U.S. national security authorities, share the latter view.

     The purpose of Xi's Indian visit was to express Sino-Indian friendship and lessen the influence of Japan and the U.S. on India. However, the India-China border incursion has seriously damaged any such aims, it also caused embarrassment for the Chinese president.

     A similar border incident occurred in the spring of 2013, roughly a month before Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited India.

Unpredictably dangerous moves

"Obviously China's local military acted without authority, and China's leaders appeared confused," said a diplomatic source familiar with developments behind the scenes. "I had information that at that time, that local commanders responsible for the troops were feeling frustrated over Xi's budget restrictions and appointments of officials."

      Naturally India is alarmed by the developments. "People's Liberation Army behavior along the India-China border areas has been quite unpredictable and stubborn," says Professor Jagannath Prasad Panda, a research fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. "Though China is keen for greater economic cooperation with India, they want to send the strong message that the security and territorial issues should not be confused with economic cooperation."  

     Possibly due to well known Chinese literary classics, such as "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and "The Art of War" by ancient military strategist Sun Tzu, it is widely imagined that Chinese people are very tactful strategists, carefully calculating everything they do. However, it seems that this does not apply to the China of today.

     China, like other nations, has many carefully prepared strategies. It hopes to use its growing strength to change the current Asian political order and the American hegemonic hold that it was built on. If this is to be achieved, China's best policy would be to positively engage neighboring countries to win them over. But the country is doing the opposite.

     As a result, China has driven India into the arms of the Japan-U.S. alliance. Two weeks after his summit with Chinese President Xi, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington. There they agreed to establish a dialogue among the foreign ministers of India, the U.S. and Japan.

     According to U.S. military sources, the Indian and U.S. leaders also set up military cooperation projects, such as the use of U.S. technology by India to build an aircraft carrier as well as India's licensed production of U.S. weapons, although the two countries refrained from announcing these agreements.

Hindered by size?

President Xi might have started to think that the Chinese military's recent behavior is not helping his diplomatic aims. However, the present state of China may be likened to an obese man with so many health issues that his brain and nerves are not well aligned, causing different body parts to act independently and without synchronicity.  

     If true, the current state of play is worrisome, because a handshake between national leaders may not ensure the aversion of military clashes. 

     Since the start of this year, Chinese fighter jets have made two dangerous approaches on Japanese Air Self-Defense Force aircraft. They have done the same to U.S. fighter planes several times. While some media regarded the actions as Chinese provocations, Japanese and U.S. officials believe that either the pilots or local Chinese commanders acted on their own authority.

     Before World War II, some U.S. officials believed that increasing pressure on Japan would not trigger a war because the Imperial military was under the Emperor's "supreme command." But history has proved that such military controls are not always as strong as thought from the outside.

     Arguments about China's threats tend to be made on the premise that China always has a common will. If this is not the case, the world needs to deal with China in a more sophisticated manner than simply assuming a "hard-line" or "conciliatory" approach.

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