OWhen Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the “precedent” set by the United States’ use of Little Boy and Fat Man – the nuclear missiles dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945 – the possibility of witnessing another nuclear attack did not seem so far away.
In the international relations (IR) literature, what Putin said is part of what we call nuclear signaling, also known as crisis signaling – a threat to use nuclear weapons made by a leader to clarify his intention to an adversary. This can be done through public statements, military exercises involving nuclear weapons, actual nuclear weapons tests, or movements of nuclear weapons, which the adversary is likely to notice.
The distinction between the classical IR understanding of deterrence and coercion, and the Chinese meaning of deterrence is crucial to understanding Beijing’s military strategy in Ladakh.
A Chinese angle to deterrence
Chinese term for deterrence, wēi she (威慑), differs from the English term. The first combines deterrence and coercion strategies without distinguishing between the two.
Deterrence generally refers to deterring the adversary from carrying out a threat, and coercion means compelling the adversary to change his behavior in a conflict or to shape his foreign policy interests. But the Chinese understanding of deterrence blends these two strategies using a more active coercion approach through demonstration tests and media psychological warfare.
“Nuclear deterrence is defined as the demonstration of nuclear forces, or the threat of their use, to shake and frighten an adversary or limit and constrain his military activities,” writes Dean Cheng, a researcher on Chinese military and security issues, in NL ARMS Netherlands Military Studies Annual Review 2020
Cheng further explains how the Chinese concept of deterrence differs from the classical definition of IR.
“It is noteworthy that the Chinese writings explicitly note the importance not only of ability and will, but also of the communication of these two elements to those one wishes to deter,” he adds in his chapter. An overview of Chinese thinking on deterrence in the book.
China’s recent investment in improving its nuclear weapons technology, including hypersonic weapons, should be read in the context of this strategy. The Chinese term wēi she is crucial in conceptualizing the intended purpose of a missile test or demonstration of nuclear capability. Therefore, the Chinese missile forces carry out demonstration tests to deter potential aggressors and, at the same time, force them to change their behavior.
In the 2005 edition of The science of military strategy, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) generals Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi describe the Chinese understanding of deterrence as follows: “Deterrence plays two basic roles, one is to deter the adversary from doing something by deterrence, the other is to persuade the adversary of what should be done by deterrence, and both require the adversary to submit to the will of the deterrent.
China has multiplied deterrent signaling channels with the rise of new media platforms, including WeChat and Weibo. As part of the traditional crisis signal scenario, China has used official state media in the past, including People’s Daily, Daily PLA, and China Daily.
RAND Corporation researcher Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga and others argue that Chinese state media’s use of WeChat and Weibo is far more crucial to understanding China’s deterrence signals.
“In July 2016, after losing an international arbitration case over the international legality of its maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea, Chinese Air Force H-6K bombers flew over Scarborough Shoal, the one of the sources of the dispute with the Philippines and disseminated the information first on its official social media account on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter,” write Beauchamp-Mustafaga et al in the article titled “Deciphering Chinese deterrence signals in the new era.
The PLA used a similar approach in the 2017 Doklam clash.
“The PLA exercises on the Tibetan Plateau were a demonstration of its capabilities, mobilization and readiness, and they were intended to show China’s military superiority, weaken the morale of the Indian army and deter further aggression from India,” wrote Beauchamp-Mustafaga et al.
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Taiwan visit hints at future actions
The military activity disclosed by Beijing following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan may give us some clues as to what kind of crisis signal Beijing may use in the future. Responses to Pelosi’s visit began popping up on Chinese social media before more authoritarian state media stepped in to spread the word. The latter increased his use of social media platforms ahead of the launch of large-scale military exercises around Taiwan – including the PLA’s DF-15 missile launch.
The PLA used social media platforms to send crisis signaling messages during Pelosi’s visit and later clarified the threats in official state media articles.
“Their actions are very dangerous and will inevitably lead to serious consequences. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army is on high alert and will launch a series of targeted military operations to counter it, defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and thwart outside interference and separatist attempts to ” independence of Taiwan,'” said Wu Qian, spokesperson for the ministry. of National Defense on August 2. The ministry’s messages first appeared on Weibo and WeChat.
Annual drills and weapon test signaling are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from actual crisis signaling. China openly announces the military exercises in Ladakh and Tibet, and communication channels have multiplied beyond the official media. Crisis signaling in the context of Ladakh is much more focused compared to Doklam, where Beijing has not fully achieved its goal – but wants to do so with the current stalemate.
Beijing’s strategy in Ladakh appears to be both to discourage India’s growing parity with building new infrastructure projects in the regions and to coerce New Delhi into accepting the new status quo. Another aspect of Beijing’s coercive approach is to get the Narendra Modi government to change its behavior from aligning itself with the US and the Quad.
When Chinese diplomats say the India-China border dispute has been “normalized” as the PLA continues to conduct missile tests and military exercises, the strategy is to exert maximum pressure to force the adversary to accept the conditions on the table. There are limits to what diplomacy can accomplish; Beijing approaches the crisis with a strategic objective vis-à-vis India. Creating the rationale for the dispute over parts of the Ladakh region as a “sovereignty issue,” mentioned by Chinese state media, may set a precedent for future conflict.
Reading the signals is key to deciphering Beijing’s deterrence strategy and future course of action along the Line of Actual Control.
The research for the column by the author forms part of a dissertation submitted to the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. The author is a freelance columnist and journalist. He is currently pursuing an MA in International Politics with a focus on China at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a Chinese media reporter at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)