Military standoffs along the Himalayan border enter 15th month and continue to intensify
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently said that China should strive to “make friends” rather than enemies and be seen as a “credible, lovable and respectable” power. But Xi’s own draconian, expansionist actions at home and abroad continue to undermine China’s global image.
In Asia, Xi’s aggressive revisionism and coercion have roiled relations with countries extending from Japan and the Philippines to Vietnam and Bhutan. But the international focus on Xi’s growing intimidation of Taiwan and his campaign to bring Hong Kong into political lockstep with Beijing have also drawn attention away from his other muscular actions, especially his bare-knuckle treatment of India.
Nowhere is the damage — and the yawning gap between Xi’s rhetoric and action — more apparent than in China’s relations with New Delhi, which are today at a nadir.
China’s protracted military standoffs with India along the Himalayan border have just entered the 15th month, and continue to intensify, with both countries recently deploying additional forces and new weapons, raising the risk that another skirmish could spark a war.
The current standoffs began after India’s shocked discovery that the People’s Liberation Army had stealthily encroached on and occupied key frontier areas in its northernmost region of Ladakh, where the Himalayas meet the Karakoram Range.
The PLA’s deception might have caught India off guard, but the aggression — a territorial grab as well an attempt to cut India down to size and thereby underpin China’s regional supremacy — was a serious strategic miscalculation on Xi’s part.
Refusing to accept a changed territorial status quo, India has put up stiff military resistance, more than matching China’s deployments and ruling out normalizing bilateral ties until China rolls back its encroachments. Xi’s aggression has only made certain the rise of a more antagonistic India.
This was apparent from a news report last week that India, by deploying 50,000 additional forces and augmenting its force level against China to about 200,000, has shifted its military posture from defense to potential offense. Indeed, India’s primary military focus has moved from Pakistan to China, although it cannot wish away the specter of a two-front war against both its closely aligned foes.
Picking a border fight with India makes little strategic sense, as it is a battle neither nuclear power can possibly win. The aggression initially triggered a series of border clashes in May and June 2020 that made China realize that its army, with little combat experience since the disastrous 1979 Chinese invasion of Vietnam, must avoid all close combat with battle-hardened Indian troops.
The worst clash resulted in many fatalities on both sides. Xi was so embarrassed by China’s first combat deaths in over four decades that, whereas India quickly honored its 20 fallen as martyrs, Beijing has still not disclosed the Chinese death toll, other than belatedly honoring four slain soldiers and one wounded officer earlier this year.
But the regime has arrested at least six Chinese bloggers for saying that China is hiding the real death toll from that clash, in which U.S. intelligence reportedly placed Chinese fatalities at 35. One of the bloggers, who had 2.5 million followers on Weibo, was recently sentenced to eight months in prison.
Since those clashes, China has sought to forestall further fighting at close quarters, including by mutually establishing buffer zones in two of the confrontation sites and by deploying new weapons like self-propelled mortars for hit-and-run firing positions. And, in a tacit admission that Han Chinese soldiers need to be better trained for high-altitude Himalayan warfare, it has been raising new border militias made up of local Tibetan youths.
The clashes were a reminder that, without the element of surprise, China is not in a position to get the better of India when it comes to actual combat.
More fundamentally, Xi has realized the hard way that it was much easier to launch aggression than it has been to scale things back. China is now locked in an uneasy military stalemate with India. If Xi attempts to break the stalemate with a war, he is unlikely to secure a decisive win. The war itself is more likely to end in a bloody stalemate, with heavy losses on both sides.
The reputational costs of that would be far higher for the stronger military and economic power, China, than for India.
The current stalemate indeed sends out the message that China’s capability and power have come under open challenge from India. And, in a reflection of Xi’s counterproductive policies, India seems more determined than ever to counter Chinese power and work with like-minded powers such as the U.S., Japan and Australia to limit China’s international influence.
Despite the deepening chill over Hong Kong’s media, a recent article in the South China Morning Post chided China for alienating India, saying, “If Beijing is serious about not pushing New Delhi further away or even turning India into a permanent enemy, it should begin by setting aside grievances on the border issue and ending the standoff.”
The problem is that Xi, having placed the China-India relationship on a knife’s edge, has boxed himself into a corner with nowhere to go.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”