The Significance of China's ‘Unrestricted Warfare’ on U.S. Ally India

In 1999, two Chinese officers explored potential strategies that militarily inferior nations might use against a superpower like the U.S. In their book Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America, they expounded on alternatives to direct military confrontation -- often defined as “gray-zone” or indirect war, and including tactics such as assaults on economic and financial systems, gaining control of infrastructure, disrupting networks, cyberattacks, political propaganda, and replacement of populations. Of course, China has employed this strategy, reminiscent of Sun-Tzu’s conviction that wars should be won without firing a single shot, against other adversaries. But nowhere is this more evident than in its actions against U.S. ally India.

Since the advent of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949, the newly independent India, under prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was viewed by the American leadership as “potentially a great counterweight to China” in the region. But it was more than 70 years before a strong alliance was forged between the two countries by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump, during the latter’s visit to India in 2020. Simultaneously, the revival of the Quad alliance -- India, U.S., Japan, and Australia -- solidified the relationship as a bulwark against China’s growing dominance in the region. During his India visit, President Trump remarked approvingly on the difference “between a nation that seeks power through coercion” and one that “rises by setting its people free… and that is India.” Therefore, China’s attempts to weaken India militarily and economically will certainly diminish our regional ally’s value as a counterweight.

Several events of the past two years highlight China’s insidious war of sabotage against India, the world’s largest democracy. These include skirmishes along the Sino-Indian border; stealth appropriation of territory; the use of unorthodox weapons; several crippling cyber-attacks, including one that caused an extensive power outage in India’s financial hub Mumbai; the diversion of shared water resources; and a treacherous geostrategic alliance with India’s archenemy Pakistan. China is deploying both Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and the PLA officers’ Unrestricted Warfare as playbooks.

Last summer, Indian and Chinese troops clashed at Galwan, in a disputed Himalayan border region that’s part of Ladakh, a Union Territory (UT) of India. China had amassed troops on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), violating bilateral agreements limiting border deployments. India was forced to respond with a sizable number of troops. In the ensuing skirmish, 20 Indian soldiers were killed and 75 injured. Upon the cessation of the conflict, Jin Canrong, a professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University, proudly reported that China had prevailed by deploying “microwave weapons” that were effective up to a kilometer, cleverly dodging the “no live shot” rules of engagement. He was referring to microwave technology that heats up fluid under the skin, causing intense pain and vomiting and that resulted in Indian troops retreating after becoming violently ill.

Border clashes in Ladakh have been frequent over several decades. But in recent years, the PLA has been building infrastructure, conducting war drills, and even occupying disputed territories. The Galwan incident was an escalation of this insidious “salami tactic,” and resulted in the first fatalities in almost 45 years. It’s a tactic China has used against Nepal and Bhutan too, intruding, withdrawing when they protest, only to intrude again. Shortly after disengagement in Galwan, satellite imagery showed Chinese soldiers building additional military infrastructure at the site.

China’s attacks on all fronts are well coordinated. At the height of the border standoff, there was a 200% increase in cyberattacks on Indian IT and banking systems over five days, with more than 40,000 attempts by Chinese hackers to install malware in Indian networks. Chinese-sponsored groups also mounted espionage operations against India’s power and transportation sector, including two ports. Indian vaccine manufacturers, including the world’s largest, were infiltrated, allegedly to gain a competitive advantage. All this was interpreted as a threat for India to stand down.

The major power outage in Mumbai in October 2020, which stopped trains, forced the closure of the stock market, and caused hospitals to switch to generators in the midst of a pandemic, was found to be the result of an attack by the Chinese military group RedEcho. Recorded Future, a U.S.-based cyber investigation firm, said the group “had been seen to systematically utilize advanced cyber intrusion techniques to quietly gain a foothold in nearly a dozen critical nodes across the Indian power generation and transmission infrastructure.” The company notified the Indian authorities about the suspected intrusions, coinciding with the lead-up to the 2020 border skirmishes.

A mega-dam that China is building on the Yarlung Zangbo (or Yarlung Tsangpo) could also give it control of the water supply to India. For the Yarlung Zangbo -- which runs eastward on the Chinese side of the Himalayas -- takes a U-turn at the Sino-Indian border in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and runs westward in India as the Siang and then the Brahmaputra. Having invaded and annexed Tibet in the early 1950s, China has taken control of ten major river systems of Asia and thus over the continent’s water supply. With its numerous dams and water-transfer canal systems, China uses its control of massive water resources as leverage against downstream countries like India, says a recent report by Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research, New Delhi. The mega-dam near Tibet’s highly militarized border with India will be the highest in the world, generating three times the hydroelectric power from the Three Gorges Dam, at present the world’s largest. Chellaney writes that a highway has been completed through the Yarlung Zangbo canyon and a high-speed train that crosses the river will connect the area to a nearby military town.

In addition, China is acquiring geostrategic control that is already posing a major threat to India. It has expanded its interests by cultivating politicians in Nepal, building infrastructure in Bhutanese villages, virtually owning a port in Sri Lanka that’s within 100 kilometers of India, cultivating nearly 70 countries through its Belt and Road Initiative, and embracing India’s archrival Pakistan with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Pakistan also participates in the Belt and Road Initiative, and China is investing heavily in the Islamic Republic, even in territories like Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have gone to war three times. China views Kashmir as an important source of water and a critical link in its Belt and Road Initiative. So, in a sense, the Chinese encirclement of India is complete.

In the Indian Ocean, there has been a growing Chinese presence over several decades, raising concerns about intelligence collection, trade interference, and plans for military actions. Indian officials have taken note of China’s increasingly sophisticated military capabilities and “debt-trap” diplomacy -- the granting of excessive credit to leverage economic relationships and arm-twist countries that are unable to repay. Like a loan shark, China is using debt traps to gain control over many countries taking part in the Belt and Road Initiative and thus expand its economic and political influence, from East Asia to Europe. Sri Lanka and Pakistan are just two cases in point. The Communist power has also set foot in many African countries. So in case of a conflict, China’s navy may be well-positioned to threaten American and/or Indian assets, as well as to deter foreign interdiction in Chinese commercial and military operations.

China’s conflict with India goes beyond what’s apparent on the surface: it’s part of the Communist nation’s attempt to wrest power from and destabilize the United States. Undermining India -- the only democracy in the region, and a staunch U.S. ally at that -- is what China hopes is a surefire way to ideological, economic, and strategic dominance of the world. Sun Tzu would definitely approve of these tenets of “unrestricted warfare.”

Image: Madhumita Das

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