Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including Water: Asia’s New Battleground.
As the past weekend’s latest skirmishes between rival troops underscore, relations between the demographic titans, China and India, have hit a low not seen since their 1962 war. The two countries have forward-deployed tens of thousands of troops and are now locked in a tense military standoff along one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders, which is as long as the distance between Toronto and Los Angeles.
The clash of the titans, triggered by a series of furtive Chinese encroachments on key vantage points in India’s northernmost borderlands, has received limited international attention. However, the spectre of further troop clashes or a 1962-style Himalayan war continues to loom, despite continuing bilateral efforts to disengage rival forces.
The confrontation highlights Chinese President Xi Jinping’s muscular revisionism, which has led him to open multiple fronts simultaneously – from the South and East China seas and the Himalayas to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Mr. Xi’s expansionism hasn’t spared the tiny country of Bhutan.
While India was wrestling with the outbreak of the Wuhan-originating coronavirus by enforcing the world’s strictest lockdown, China carried out swift and well co-ordinated incursions into the borderlands of India’s high-altitude Ladakh region from late April. Deception and surprise are integral to the Chinese strategy, even in peacetime. The aggression in Ladakh came just six months after Mr. Xi declared on Indian soil that “China-India relations have entered a new phase of sound and stable development.”
China’s intrusions into Ladakh differ from its previous Asian territorial grabs under Mr. Xi in one key aspect. China went beyond its usual practice of occupying vacant border spaces by snatching territories from right under another country’s nose.
The territorial expansion in the South China Sea by China, for example, has centred on capturing disputed but unoccupied shoals and reefs and then using construction activities to turn them into militarized artificial islands. Since Mr. Xi ordered the launch of major land reclamation in 2013, China has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a shot.
In 2017, China captured the unoccupied and desolate Himalayan plateau of Doklam, which Bhutan claims as its territory. The occupation came soon after China ended a more than 10-week-long troop faceoff on the plateau with India, Bhutan’s de facto security guarantor.
This summer, Mr. Xi’s communist regime laid claim to another 11 per cent of Bhutan territory, in an area that can be accessed only through India’s Arunachal Pradesh state (which Chinese maps already show as part of China). The move thus sought to advance Mr. Xi’s efforts against both Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.
In the East China Sea, meanwhile, China has stepped up incursions into the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands’ territorial waters and airspace, with the aim of weakening Japan’s control and strengthening its own sovereignty claims. By bringing Japan’s security increasingly under pressure, China is signalling that the U.S. alliance system is not an answer to its aggressive revisionism.
Against this background, Mr. Xi’s aggression against India appears to mark the start of a more daring new phase in his expansionism. As U.S. national security advisor Robert O’Brien has said, “the Chinese have been very aggressive with India” lately.
The Chinese encroachments have led to multiple rounds of clashes with Indian troops in Ladakh. The deadliest occurred on June 15, leaving 20 Indian soldiers, and an unknown number of Chinese troops, dead. While India honoured its fallen as martyrs, China still refuses to divulge its losses. U.S. intelligence agencies believe China suffered more casualties than India.
Mr. Xi’s Himalayan expansionism has sought to take off from where Mao Zedong left. Mao considered Tibet (which he annexed in 1951) to be China’s right-hand palm, with five fingers – Bhutan, Nepal and the three Indian territories of Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. The five fingers were also to be “liberated.” In fact, Mao’s 1962 war against India helped China to gain more territory in Ladakh, after it earlier grabbed a Switzerland-sized chunk, the Aksai Chin plateau.
As long as Mr. Xi, like Mao, perceives the strategic benefits as outweighing the international costs, he will persist with his campaign of expansionism.
But by seeking to start the world’s next big conflict with India, Mr. Xi is likely to end up pushing that country closer to the United States and creating an adversarial bloc around China. Already, international attitudes toward Mr. Xi’s regime have hardened and many countries and companies have begun re-evaluating China-dependent supply chains for essential goods.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.