In the twenty-first century the calculation that war is too costly to pursue in the conventional manner has kept large scale inter-state conflict from occurring. States are no longer willing to send tanks rolling across borders to invade neighboring countries. The military, economic, and political cost/benefit analyses simply do not justify those actions in the present state of international relations. Yet, this does not cure a state’s appetite to expand its control in favor of pursuing its national interest. However, it does shift the strategy used to expand its presence. The use of proxies to engage on behalf of a state has been documented in conflicts such as the ongoing war in Yemen. A number of states utilize this strategy to pursue plausible deniability. An alternative method to mollify the international community over aggressive actions has been increasing in prevalence – extending sovereignty over peoples or structures outside of their present jurisdiction in order to more forcefully justify the aggressor’s presence. By over-extending their claim of sovereignty, these states attempt to shift the perception of their actions from aggressors to defenders and dampen any possibility of a united front willing to confront their activities. We have seen this strategy play out in Crimea and eastern Ukraine under President Vladimir Putin in 2014, and more recently in the South China Sea and the Himalayas by President Xi Jinping.
The Russian case in Ukraine
The Russian Black Sea Fleet’s continued access to naval bases in warm-water ports in Crimea and Russia’s support for the fiercely pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych were national interests, but a traditional military incursion into Ukraine would have triggered costly consequences. Instead, Vladimir Putin began using rhetoric related to the protection of ethnic Russians in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Following violence in Kiev, Putin declared that “We understand what worries the citizens of Ukraine, both Russian and Ukrainian, and the Russian-speaking population in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine… we retain the right to use all available means to protect those people. We believe this would be absolutely legitimate.” After mass protests in Kiev and the formation of pro-Russian separatist militias in Ukraine, Putin used the doctrine of Protecting Nationals Abroad (PNA) as justification for sending military supplies to separatists and deploying “little green men” into Crimea and eastern Ukraine. But many of these people Putin claimed to protect were not citizens, but merely ethnic Russians or Russian-speaking peoples. Whether the doctrine of PNA is lawful or simply tolerated, its traditional application has been to citizens, not foreign nationals with ancestry to the state utilizing the doctrine. Nevertheless, in 2019, Putin issued a decree allowing close to 3.5 million people living in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donbass and Luhansk to obtain Russian passports and brings Putin’s actions closer to those previously allowed by the international community.
Putin did not stop at protecting ethnic Russians. He also used historical claims to justify retaking territory. In a speech to a joint session of parliament asking for the formal annexation of Crimea, Putin professed “All these years, citizens and many public figures came back to this issue, saying that Crimea is historically Russian land and Sevastopol is a Russian city. Yes, we all knew this in our hearts and minds”. Russia’s relinquishing of Crimea to Ukraine, in the process suffering a ‘historical wronging’, and its subsequent use as a rationalization to retake territory followed the framework of previous annexations. A number of international leaders compared the move to Hitler’s annexation of Sudetenland in 1938. The UN General Assembly has adopted resolutions urging Russia to withdraw military forces from Crimea and supplies from going to eastern Ukraine. A certain amount of backlash was inevitable following the annexation of territory, but Putin would have been naïve to believe that there would have been silence after such a move. However, other than remarks by world leaders and a number of U.S. and EU economic sanctions, Putin has been relatively free to pursue his interests in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. His use of the PNA doctrine and historical sovereignty over territory allowed him to keep the conflict, and ensuing fallout, below a level of escalation consistent with traditional military invasions.
China’s Mountain and Sea Strategy
While Russia has used the PNA doctrine as justification for interference into neighboring countries, China has used infrastructure. In the South China Sea, the Nine Dash Line asserted by China encompasses vast majorities of the sea that extend far beyond the usual exclusive-economic zones given to each state as a result of the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Chinese explanations for this broad claim are based on historical use of the sea by China dating back thousands of years. In modern times, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) has been constructing artificial islands in the South China Sea since 2013, allowing them to issue claims of sovereignty over disputed territory. In April, China created two new administrative districts in the South China Sea. This month, China drafted a new law that would expand the Chinese Coast Guard’s ability to enforce its sovereignty over the islands, permitting them to destroy foreign construction on islands claimed by Beijing and fire weapons on foreign ships.
China has now duplicated this strategy on land. In recent weeks, China completed the initial construction of a new village where the borders of India, Bhutan, and China meet in the Himalayan Mountains. This came after a June border clash in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas, near Kashmir, that resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese casualties. The new Chinese village is reported to be constructed within the territory of Bhutan, just south of the Doklam Plateau. Bhutan and China have been engaged in territorial disputes for nearly 35 years, much of which is focused on the western regions of Bhutan. The Doklam plateau is strategically significant for India’s continued access to its eight northeastern states, as well as their land borders with Bhutan and Myanmar. Under Chinese control, they would have the ability to block this access. The new Chinese village may only be the first in a series, much like the artificial islands, that would give China anchor points to protect the ‘sovereignty’ of Chinese territory or peoples.
These anchor points are core components to the strategy of Chinese expansion. States, including Australia, Japan, Vietnam, and Malaysia, are concerned with a resurgent China, its brazen aggression, and the potential of forceful annexation of territory. These fears present a major diplomatic challenge to China’s longer-term strategy. [[i]] Therefore, China has attached rhetoric to provocative actions in an attempt to alleviate concerns over their rise, engaging in a “rhetorical trap”. China has used rhetoric such as ‘China’s peaceful rise’ to assuage fears over actions that would otherwise seem more hostile. The rhetoric emphasizes the protection of sovereign entities, instead of engaging in military conflict on existing territory of sovereign states. This rhetoric has typically been utilized around actions in the South China Sea, but Beijing may begin using similar terminology regarding its efforts in the Himalayas.
Both the Russian and Chinese strategies are aimed at expanding territorial control without the stigma or risk of conventional conflict over existing territory, structures, or peoples. This shifts the conflict from a conventional military one to a more hybrid model that incorporates higher levels of rhetoric and international public opinion. Both the Russian and Chinese approaches try to build a framework that give them a defensive right to use force instead of an aggressive seizure of territory. While these strategies have allowed Russia and China to extend their ambitions over neighboring territories, how long will it take for their neighbors, and world leaders, to effectively respond to these enigmatic strategies… if ever?
[i] For more on the diplomatic challenges facing China in Asia over their renewed presence as a great power, Anisa Heritage and Pak K. Lee (2020) use an international order perspective to analyze the tension in the South China Sea, available here.