James Holmes

China’s Great India Folly

By reopening its territorial quarrel with India, China risks having to redirect resources from sea power back to land defense.

One hopes China has genuinely reconsidered picking a fight with India, a great power with which it shares a long land frontier. Beijing has created headaches aplenty for itself through its conduct in the South China Sea and East China Sea. The last thing it should do is open another axis along which to disperse energy and resources. Why am I venting my spleen? Because last month a Chinese military patrol encamped several kilometers on the Indian side of the "line of actual control," which delineates the de facto border. It's doubtful the intrusion was a mistake. The patrol set up camp 10-20 kilometers on the Indian side of the line, depending on the news source. That's a heckuva navigation error.

The LAC is an artifact of a long-ago conflict, the 1962 Sino-Indian border war. The 1962 defeat is engraved on India's cultural memory. Chinese officials forever bemoan their century of humiliation; you'd think they would foresee the repercussions of dredging up bad memories among the Indian state and society. Yes, I understand neither Beijing nor New Delhi accepts the line of actual control as the precise boundary between the two countries. But that's beside the point, isn't it? The LAC represents a stable status quo. Neither side has any compelling interest in upending it. Yet China seemed intent on doing just that until Sunday, when the two governments agreed to pull back their forces.

Strategic theorists were probably turning over in their graves during the impasse. Given the rock-star status Alfred Thayer Mahan enjoys in China, decision-makers there should understand the perils of waging simultaneous strategic competitions on land and at sea. Mahan concedes that a nation can be a great sea power and a great continental power for awhile, but he also warns that the good times won't roll for long. China has mounted an impressive naval buildup precisely because it quieted disputes along its distended continental periphery. By reopening its territorial quarrel with India, Beijing risks having to redirect resources from sea power back to land defense. Needlessly draining your national treasury is self-defeating behavior.

Carl von Clausewitz expresses this commonsense idea — conserve and focus your resources by conserving controversies and antagonists — with his customary analytical rigor. The Prussian sets a high bar for opening new theaters or endeavors. Such an effort should be "exceptionally rewarding" without placing the main theater or enterprise in jeopardy. Before taking on a new commitment, therefore, statesmen and commanders should ensure they command "decisive superiority" at the places that matter the most. Again: don't multiply problems for yourself the way Clausewitz's and Europe's great enemy, Napoleon Bonaparte, did.

Harvard professor Joseph Nye wrote a column not long ago pointing out that Russia and China don't grasp how soft power works. And how! If it keeps unsettling its surroundings, Beijing shouldn't be surprised in the future when nervous giggles — instead of admiration and amity — greet its efforts to court foreign audiences. Why Beijing deliberately junked a promising charm offensive ranks as one of the wonders of the age. Hopefully the end to the Himalayan standoff marks a real retrenchment in Chinese strategy — not just a temporary tactical withdrawal.