Some thoughts on the ongoing Indo-Chinese border clashes. Instead of focusing on events themselves, we will look at the various forces at play on a single player: China. China projects itself as some invincible titan. On the other hand, there are few people who dismiss it! The truth lies somewhere in between. Here we do a SWOT analysis!
Strength: the bully in the playground. It has border problems with India and Russia, territorial disputes with Japan, wants to annex Taiwan. With a reported GDP of 11T$, the world’s largest standing army, and a strong expenditure record on force modernization, the country looks formidable. Being the manufacturing base of the world, China is capable of arm twisting the West to play along. Their strides in the areas of information warfare [including in AI] are acknowledged globally. And their ability to reverse engineer are well known. On the military side – China has invested a lot of resources into becoming a superpower; at least on paper. Unlike democracies that are hamstrung in war times by their free press, China controls every single byte of information that is sent into the world. The world gets to know what China wants it to know. Its totalitarian control over its population, aided by its dominance in electronic surveillance, means that China can micro-manage the voice of 1.3B people better than any other country. Most important of all, China is never shy of signaling its ambitions: to be the next super power of the world.
Vast resources gained through global trade, combined with the trans-national loyalty of global Left, means that China is able to cultivate dissenting voices within every other country. Most media is left leaning, and lends a sympathetic pen to China for the right price. A price that China is willing to pay. In countries like India, Chino-philia is an affliction that has plagued the media, the bureaucracy and the polity [since 1947]. This leverage provides China an important advantage in times of war: China controls its own information, while leveraging friendly voices within enemy lands.
Weakness: being the bully in the playground. While most small countries are browbeaten by China, the Chinese aren’t really as strong as they seem on paper. Their army is often characterized as “chocolate boys with shiny toys”, reflecting their lack of real experience in warfare. Critically, incidents like those in South Sudan , stand-off at Do’lam , and the Galwan battle , show that the numerical superiority of the Chinese army is but a paper advantage.
While China boasts of an army that is almost twice as large as its nearest rival [India] in Asia, a careful look at the numbers exposes their claims for the hot air that they are. PLA’s Western theater command has only ~200,000 men [out of the 2.0 Million people in PLA]. And these 200,000 are split many ways to keep up with China’s geopolitical belligerence. China has a rocky relationship with Russia, and uses its army to subdue the civilians of Tibet; both demands on PLA resources happen in the Western theater. And then there is the border dispute with India. China’s paper claims of numerical superiority over India’s armed forces are negated [and even reversed in some cases] when they try and bring to bear such might on India’s borders. The most important difference comes from the fact that the Indian army has constantly been fighting an enemy. In Galwan, an unarmed and outnumbered Indian regiment routed a well prepared and numerically superior Chinese contingent. The PLA has no will to fight. While they are happy to breathe fire through their noses when things are rosy, in a real fight – the PLA soldiers are known to give up, and worse – abandon posts and weaponry in the face of an enemy.
Another important weakness for China is that they are over the population peak. China’s population is growing slower, their economically active population shrinking. China is sitting on a ticking demographic bomb where the bottom of an inverted pyramid will be asked to care for the ever expanding top. Moreover, the population control efforts coupled with their penchant for a male child, has given rise to interesting social dynamics. China today has more men than women of the productive age. Most families have no children to spare to the ravages of war or disease. While the “nation” China can afford to throw men at war, that luxury is denied to individuals whose son is the only earning member in the family.
Opportunities: China is in an enviable position today. Very few countries have had the right mix of leverage, wealth and population in the history of mankind. In the long run, China has the ability to bend civilizations to its will. In a clever move, it has made several countries economically and financially dependent. In a sense, what China is doing in Africa and elsewhere, is nothing short of a new wave of colonialism. Due to its size and the sheer volume of resources it has, most smaller countries are forced to deal with China on its own terms. Countries like Taiwan and Vietnam, while bravely resisting China’s territorial aggression, are powerless to put a stop to it. Even countries like US which have the ability to counter China, are willing to play along as long as their tactical goals are met and strategic goals aren’t threatened. In this author’s opinion, China is in a fortuitous position to convert all its tactical gains into strategic ones. While countries may bristle at the aggression, China can put man and machine to work at a pace that is unmatched. This will force others to cede territory. And territory once ceded, takes a long time and blood to recover. Most countries of the world, with their aging population, can’t afford to pay the blood price. Therein lies China’s biggest opportunity. While they are a paper Dragon, most countries don’t have the luxury of calling their bluff. Amidst a rapidly aging and shrinking humanity, China can become the leader by default if it holds nominal control over sufficient territory.
Threats: China has no friends. It has irate neighbors, wary trading partners, vassal states, and debtors – but no friends. While it is true that there are no permanent friends or enemies in geopolitics, it is a poor strategy to have no friends at all. An increasingly bellicose China had forced Japan to revisit its pacifism. More people in Japan are open to revisiting the constitutional constraints on the military than before. Similarly, Vietnam [which has faced-off China successfully in the past] has also started to bolster its weaponry. The stand-off with Taiwan and India, don’t need a preface. Less known are China’s border tensions with Russia and territorial disputes with Indonesia. Briefly put, It doesn’t matter where China opens up a full war, it will have to watch its back at all places at all times. This unfriendliness of the neighborhood splits its effective force.
China is also threatened economically by the widespread anger against their handling of the Covid-19 situation. China’s less than honest [being kind] management and cooperation with the world during the pandemic has left many countries questioning their economic dependence on the Asian giant. US is leading the charge, of course. But other smaller countries (Australia and Canada being two notable ones) are also taking this opportunity to speak out against China. Economic sanctions against China are also discussed, as in the case with Singapore. While China claims to be above it all, the reality might be not as rosy as China claims.
It is this author’s opinion that China will roll back its aggressiveness temporarily, and create an illusion of playing nice with everyone. However, it will be back to its own bullying ways soon if significant costs are not imposed. One needs to wait and see if the world has the discipline and stomach to impose such a cost.
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