China’s land grab in Bhutan is the new face of war

In quietly seizing a chunk of land from its small Himalayan neighbour, Beijing is displaying the favoured tactic of countries that want to alter the international order, but aren’t ready to confront it head-on.

The land grab in question was revealed by researchers last week in Foreign Policy magazine. Over several years, China has sought to fortify its Tibetan border — and gain leverage on South Asian rival India — by stealthily constructing a complex of roads, villages and security installations on land that belongs to Bhutan.

It’s unclear whether the Bhutanese government realised that the People’s Liberation Army had effectively invaded a small, remote part of its territory, or if it knew but was powerless to respond.

What is clear is that the Chinese presence isn’t going anywhere. Beijing has executed a fait accompli by creating facts on the ground. It’s an increasingly familiar manoeuvre: This is the nature of territorial aggression in the modern world. It wasn’t always this way. Before 1945, it was more common to see the outright, blatant conquest of entire nations. Just think of how many times Poland was wiped off the map by stronger powers.

Since World War II, however, only a single internationally recognised country — South Vietnam — has disappeared because of military aggression.

When North Korea tried to conquer South Korea, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq temporarily swallowed Kuwait, the international community led by Washington restored the status quo.

Some scholars argue that a revolution in international law made the world safer for the weak. In nominally outlawing war, they contend, the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 turned the moral tide against aggression.

In truth, the key was the post-World War II Pax Americana, rooted in military alliances and forward deployments that delivered unprecedented security to key regions of the globe.

To allow unchecked military aggression, US President Harry Truman explained to Congress in 1947, was to cast the world back into the dark anarchy that had just produced a cataclysm.