Chinese President Xi Jinping has picked a border fight that he cannot win, and transformed a previously conciliatory India into a long-term foe. This amounts to an even bigger miscalculation than Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s failure to see it coming.
BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate
With global attention focused on Russia’s war in Ukraine, China’s territorial expansionism in Asia – especially its expanding border conflict with India – has largely fallen off the international community’s radar. Yet, in the vast glaciated heights of the Himalayas, the world’s demographic titans have been on a war footing for over two years, and the chances of violent clashes rise almost by the day.
The confrontation began in May 2020. When thawing ice reopened access routes after a brutal winter, India was shocked to discover that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had stealthily occupied hundreds of square miles of the borderlands in its Ladakh region. This triggered a series of military clashes, which resulted in China’s first combat deaths in over four decades, and triggered the fastest-ever rival troop buildup in the Himalayan region.
India’s counterattacks eventually drove the PLA back from some areas, and the two sides agreed to transform two battlegrounds into buffer zones. But, over the last 15 months, little progress has been made to defuse tensions in other areas. With tens of thousands of Chinese and Indian troops standing virtually at attention along the long-disputed border, a military stalemate has emerged.
But stalemate is not stagnation. China has continued to alter the Himalayan landscape rapidly and profoundly in its favor, including by establishing 624 militarized border villages – mirroring its strategy of creating artificial militarized islands in the South China Sea – and constructing new warfare infrastructure near the frontier.
As part of this effort, China recently completed a bridge over Pangong Lake – the site of past military clashes – that promises to strengthen its position in a disputed area of India’s Ladakh region. It has also built roads and security installations on territory that belongs to Bhutan, in order to gain access to a particularly vulnerable section of India’s border overlooking a narrow corridor known as the “Chicken Neck,” which connects its far northeast to the heartland.
All of this, China hopes, will enable it to dictate terms to India: accept the new status quo, with China keeping the territory it has grabbed, or risk a full-scale war in which China has maximized its advantage. China’s expansionism relies on deception, stealth, and surprise, and on apparent indifference to the risks of military escalation. The aim of its brinkmanship is to confound the other side’s deterrence strategy and leave it with no real options.
China learned from its strategic folly of invading Vietnam in 1979 and has become adept at waging asymmetric or hybrid warfare, usually below the threshold of overt armed conflict. This enables it to advance its strategic objectives, including land grabs, incrementally. Coercive bargaining and overt intimidation also help to overcome resistance.
This salami-slicing strategy has already enabled Chinese President Xi Jinping to redraw the geopolitical map in the South China Sea. And the terrestrial application of this approach being deployed against India, Bhutan, and Nepal is proving just as difficult to counter. As India is learning firsthand, countries have virtually no options other than the use of force.
One thing is certain: simply hoping that China will stop encroaching on Indian territory will do India little good. After all, India got into this situation precisely because its political and military leadership failed to take heed of China’s military activities near the frontier. On the contrary, while China was laying the groundwork for its territorial grabs, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was bending over backwards to befriend Xi. In the five years before the first clashes flared in May 2020, Modi met with his Chinese counterpart 18 times. Even a 2017 standoff on a remote Himalayan plateau did not dissuade Modi from pursuing his appeasement policy.
Seeking to protect his image as a strong leader, Modi has not acknowledged the loss of Indian territories. India’s media enables this evasion by amplifying government-coined euphemisms: China’s aggression is a “unilateral change of status quo,” and the PLA-seized areas are “friction points.” Meanwhile, Modi has allowed China’s trade surplus with India to rise so rapidly – it now exceeds India’s total defense budget (the world’s third largest) – that his government is, in a sense, underwriting China’s aggression.
But none of this should be mistaken for unwillingness to fight. India is committed to restoring the status quo ante and is at its “highest level” of military readiness. This is no empty declaration. If Xi seeks to break the current stalemate by waging war, both sides will suffer heavy losses, with no victor emerging.
In other words, Xi has picked a border fight that he cannot win, and transformed a conciliatory India into a long-term foe. This amounts to an even bigger miscalculation than Modi’s policy incoherence. The price China will pay for Xi’s mistake will far outweigh the perceived benefits of some stealthy land grabs.
In a sense, China’s territorial expansionism represents a shrewder, broader, and slower version of Russia’s conventional war on Ukraine – and could provoke a similar international backlash against Xi’s neo-imperial agenda. Already, China’s aggression has prompted Indo-Pacific powers to strengthen their military capabilities and cooperation, including with the United States. All of this will undercut Xi’s effort to fashion a Sino-centric Asia and, ultimately, achieve China’s goal of global preeminence.
Xi might recognize that he has made a strategic blunder in the Himalayas. But, at a time when he is preparing to secure a precedent-defying third term as leader of the Communist Party of China, he has little room to change course, and the costs will continue to mount.
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.
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