Chinese territorial claims in Himalayas are much bigger than the island
Chinese military drills are rarely empty shows of force.
In 2020, China’s unusually large winter exercises on the Tibetan Plateau became the launchpad for stealthy land grabs in the northernmost Indian territory of Ladakh. This triggered a military standoff between the two Asian giants at multiple sites across a long and inhospitable stretch of the Himalayas, leading to deadly clashes and China’s first combat casualties since its 1979 invasion of Vietnam.
This month’s live-fire military drills around Taiwan, which effectively simulated an air and sea blockade, demonstrated China’s combat capability to accomplish President Xi Jinping’s “historic mission” of absorbing the island democracy.
The drills allowed Chinese troops to practice enforcing a quarantine around Taiwan that would result in its gradual economic strangulation, suggesting Xi may prefer a strategy of calibrated squeeze to force the island to unify with China.
In a reminder that any Chinese operation to cut off access to Taiwan would likely intrude into Japanese airspace and perhaps pull Tokyo into a war over the island, five Chinese missiles sent over Taiwan during the drills landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Taiwan, Imperial Japan’s first colony, is, after all, geographically an extension of the Japanese archipelago.
Could Chinese aggression against Taiwan also embroil India? It is important to remember that Chinese and Indian forces have remained on a war footing along the vast glaciated heights of the Himalayas for more than two years now, with tens of thousands of troops on each side facing off in the biggest military buildup ever in this area.
Given Xi’s efforts to regularize and intensify coercive pressure on Taiwan, joint U.S.-India military exercises planned for October in an area at an altitude above 3,000 meters in the Himalayas have assumed greater significance.
As if to signal that Beijing could potentially face a second front if it were to move against Taiwan, the latest edition of the annual U.S.-India high-altitude, cold-climate drills is being held barely 100 kilometers from the Chinese frontier, closer than ever before.
Taiwan, a technological powerhouse with the world’s 22nd-largest economy by gross domestic product, plays an important, if indirect, role in Asian security: its autonomous existence ties up a sizable portion of China’s armed forces.
India likewise is helping Taiwan’s defense by tying down a complete Chinese theater force, which could otherwise be employed against the island.
Given the looming specter of a sharp uptick in Chinese aggression, deterring an attack on Taiwan has become more pressing than ever. Philip Davidson, testifying to Congress last year when he was leading the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said he believed a Chinese invasion could be launched by 2027.
U.S. intelligence now reportedly believes that Xi could move against Taiwan much earlier, specifically within the two-year window between the Chinese Communist Party congress due to take place in the next couple months and the 2024 U.S. presidential election.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s abandonment of Afghanistan to a terrorist militia a year ago and his growing involvement in the Ukraine war after failing to deter a Russian invasion of that country have left Washington in a weakened position. Xi’s designs on Taiwan have been further encouraged by the failure of Western sanctions to force Russia to retreat from Ukraine.
The fall of Taiwan to Beijing would significantly advance China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia and upend the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, not least by enabling China to break out of the so-called first island chain that encloses its coastal seas from the Japanese archipelago southward.
But the largest Asian territory Beijing covets is the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is almost three times as large as Taiwan. Beijing’s maps already show it as part of China.
After Beijing began giving its own names to places inside Arunachal Pradesh last year, the staid foreign ministry in New Delhi hit back with uncharacteristic firmness, calling it “a ridiculous exercise to support untenable territorial claims.”
Against the background of China’s designs on Arunachal Pradesh and perhaps even Okinawa, it is imperative that India and Japan step up consultations with each other, as well as with Taipei and Washington, on how they could contribute to shoring up Taiwan’s defenses and deterring a Chinese attack.
While India would not get directly involved in defending Taiwan, it could potentially play a useful role in activating another front against China in the event of a Taiwan Strait crisis, but only in close collaboration with the U.S.
India holds more annual military exercises with the U.S., its largest trading partner and an increasingly important strategic partner, than with any other country. But Biden has still not uttered a single word about the last 28 months of Himalayan border aggression by China. Nor has the Biden administration shown urgency in fortifying Taiwan’s defenses.
To be sure, America’s role is central to Taiwan’s autonomous future. A U.S. that fails to prevent Taiwan’s subjugation would be widely seen as unable or unwilling to defend any other ally.
The status quo on Taiwan is more likely to be preserved if the U.S. coordinates its island-related defense plans with Japan, India and Australia, including how to respond to potential Chinese moves to restrict access to Taiwan, whether physically or digitally. The only thing that can deter China from aggression against Taiwan is the expectation that it would incur high concrete costs.