Brahma Chellaney | Open magazine
The United States and India are close friends today, but American policy has long undermined Indian security, first by arming Pakistan as a counterweight to India from the 1950s onward and then aiding China’s rise following President Richard Nixon’s opening to China. That helped create an expansionist power on India’s northern borders. As president, Donald Trump acknowledged that his predecessors “created a monster” by facilitating China’s rise.
Under President Xi Jinping, China seems determined to achieve hegemony in Asia, which explains its stealth border aggression against India in April 2020 that has resulted in continuing military standoffs along the Himalayan border. India-China relations have fallen to their lowest point in decades, with no end in sight to the border confrontation between the two countries.
Yet, amid the military standoffs, Xi’s regime persists with provocative actions against India, including seeking to open new fronts. The fact that Beijing continues to provoke India without incurring any tangible costs points to a faltering China policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Despite the imperative to create incentives and disincentives to influence China’s conduct, New Delhi has shied away from substantive action, other than reinforcing military deployments and stepping up infrastructure development along the Himalayan frontier in response to the buildup of Chinese forces. The Indian government has refused to employ economic and diplomatic cards against Beijing, let alone name and shame China for its continuing border aggression.
Unfortunately for New Delhi, American policy under President Joe Biden is likely to further embolden Xi’s regime, with China’s neighbours likely to bear the brunt of the heightened Chinese revisionism.
Biden’s preoccupation with Russia, including bleeding it on the Ukrainian battlefields, limits his administration’s strategic space to deal with the threat from a globally expansionist China. The US may still be the world’s foremost military power but it is in no position to meaningfully take on Russia and China simultaneously.
The only potential winner from the war in Ukraine is likely to be America’s main rival, China. A recent report from a Washington-based organization said that China was already the “biggest winner” from the Western sanctions on Moscow. China has become Russia’s banker and most-important trade partner. China is also building an energy safety net through greater overland oil and gas flows from Russia at heavily discounted prices, thereby setting up secure supply lines that cannot be interrupted even if it invaded or blockaded Taiwan.
Indeed, the longer and deeper the US is involved in the war in Ukraine, the greater will be the dual likelihood of Xi launching aggression against Taiwan and Washington’s strategic nightmare — a Sino-Russian strategic axis — turning into reality. By compelling Russia (now the world’s most-sanctioned country) to pivot to China, US sanctions policy is chipping away at India’s strategic interests by making it more difficult to build Asian power equilibrium.
TAIWAN, THE NEXT UKRAINE?
The big question facing the world today is whether Taiwan could become the next Ukraine. If China were to succeed in incorporating Taiwan, Chinese military and strategic pressure on India would intensify. Indeed, India could bear the brunt of the geopolitical fallout from such a development.
Just as Russian President Vladimir Putin was clear about his plans for invading Ukraine, so has Xi been explicit about absorbing Taiwan.
The live-fire Chinese military drills around Taiwan last August, by simulating an air and sea blockade, demonstrated China’s combat capability to accomplish Xi’s “historic mission” to absorb that island. The drills allowed Chinese troops to practice enforcing Taiwan’s gradual economic strangulation or quarantine, suggesting that Xi could prefer a strategy of calibrated squeeze so as to force that island democracy to merge with China.
Make no mistake: Chinese aggression against Taiwan would likely have a greater global fallout than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Conflict over Taiwan would shape the new global order. A Chinese takeover of Taiwan would upend the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, and irreparably damage America’s reputation as a reliable ally, prompting US allies to re-evaluate their alliances.
The US National Security Council has projected that China’s annexation of Taiwan “could disrupt the world economy to the tune of more than $1 trillion.” Taiwan, after all, is the world’s unrivalled superpower in semiconductors. Just the giant Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) accounts for more than 90% of the global output of the most advanced semiconductors.
Xi seems pleased that the war in Ukraine is revealing Western military shortcomings, with weapons in short supply, critical munitions being depleted, and US capacity to restock insufficient, even as the American and European political consensus on the war is weakening.
Such shortcomings could tempt Xi, before moving on Taiwan, to help further deplete US weapons arsenals through indirect arms shipments to Russia, forcing the West to increase arms supplies to Ukraine. Xi is already aiding Putin’s war to a limited extent by supplying navigation equipment, jamming technology, fighter-jet parts, and semiconductors to sanctioned Russian entities.
Those in the West that say a negotiated armistice in Ukraine would only embolden Beijing’s designs against Taiwan overlook the fact that Xi, given his own cost-free expansionism from the South China Sea to the Himalayas, does not need to learn from Russia that aggression works. As a recent report from the influential think tank Rand Corporation suggested, a protracted Ukraine war — with its constant flows of US money and weapons and dangerously elevated risk of NATO-Russia conflict — would crimp a US pivot to the growing China challenge.
Xi, after changing the territorial status quo in the South China Sea and the Himalayas, is itching to move against Taiwan. With Russia tying the US down in the European theatre, Xi has greater strategic room to forcibly incorporate Taiwan. The issue is no longer if but when Xi will move against Taiwan.
Taiwan’s autonomous existence presently ties up a sizable portion of the armed forces of China, which also faces a strong US-Japan alliance in the defence of that island.
India likewise is helping Taiwanese defences by tying down a complete Chinese theatre force, which could otherwise be employed against Taiwan. Admiral Mike Gilday, the US Navy chief, said last August that India presents China a two-front problem: “They [Indians] now force China to not only look east, toward the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, but they now have to be looking over their shoulder at India”.
Still, given the looming spectre of Chinese aggression, deterring an attack on Taiwan has become more pressing than ever. Admiral Philip Davidson, who led the US Indo-Pacific Command, told the US Congress in 2021 that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could happen by 2027. But US intelligence now reportedly believes that Xi could move against Taiwan much earlier, possibly during President Biden’s current term. As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said some months ago, China seems determined to absorb Taiwan “on a much faster timeline” than it had previously contemplated.
Biden’s surrender of Afghanistan to a terrorist militia in August 2021, and his growing involvement in the Ukraine war after failing to deter a Russian invasion of that country, have presented the US in a weakened position. Xi’s designs against Taiwan are also being encouraged by the failure of the unprecedented US-led Western sanctions to bring about economic collapse or regime change in Russia or even to force Russian forces to retreat from Ukraine. Economic war on this scale has never been waged against any country before.
Taiwan’s fall would significantly advance China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia, not least by enabling China to break out of the “first island chain” that runs from the Japanese archipelago, through Taiwan, the Philippines, and on to Borneo, enclosing China’s coastal seas.
The security implications for India of Taiwan’s annexation would be particularly ominous. The largest Asian territory Beijing covets is the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is almost three times as large as Taiwan. If Taiwan’s falls, China’s attention would shift to Arunachal Pradesh.
Against this background, it has become imperative for India, the US, Japan and Australia to step up consultations with each other, and with Taipei, on how they could contribute to shoring up Taiwan’s defences and deterring a Chinese attack on that island.
To be sure, America’s role is central to Taiwan’s autonomous future. If the US fails to prevent Taiwan’s subjugation, it would be widely seen as unable or unwilling to defend any other ally, including Japan, which hosts more American soldiers than any other foreign country.
The only thing that can deter China from attacking Taiwan is an understanding with certitude that it would incur unbearably high costs.
The enduring costs of China’s stealthy land grabs in Ladakh in April 2020 have transformed the Himalayan frontier, fostering rival military buildups and raising the risks of armed conflict. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar acknowledged recently that the India-China border situation remains “very fragile” and, with rival forces deployed in close proximity, “dangerous”, while the Army chief Gen. Manoj Pande said China is building new military infrastructure along the border “at a very hectic pace”.
More fundamentally, China’s actions, including the forward deployment of artillery, missiles and bombers, are turning what was once a lightly patrolled frontier into a perennially hot border. The Tibetan Plateau has become a vast military base for China, which enjoys the advantage of a relatively flat terrain against India.
For India, a hot border means the diversion of even greater resources for frontier defence. This development would not only make it more difficult for India to focus on its broader strategic competition with China, but also further strengthen China’s alliance with Pakistan with the shared goal to box India in and present it with a two-front war scenario.
Not content with the military standoffs in Ladakh, China has more recently built up offensive new forces along the Arunachal and Sikkim borders and in occupied Doklam. Over the past winter, it aggressively deployed thousands of additional troops along the border of Arunachal Pradesh and thousands more near India’s “chicken-neck”, a narrow, 22-kilometer-wide corridor that connects the country’s northeast to the mainland. Xi’s Lunar New Year inspection in February of the Chinese military’s combat readiness against India showed how involved he is in the Himalayan military confrontation.
Relations between Beijing and New Delhi may be at a nadir, but that hasn’t stopped Xi’s regime from continuing to provoke India. This only exposes India’s China policy as ineffectual.
In December, Chinese forces attempted to seize key mountaintop positions in the Yangtse area of Tawang, which is the birthplace of a previous Dalai Lama. Tawang controls access to Bhutan’s Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, which China has claimed since mid-2020.
China, meanwhile, has stepped up its campaign to Sinicize names of places in India’s sprawling Arunachal state. It released this month a new set of Chinese names for places in Arunachal Pradesh. Enacting a Land Borders Law in 2021 and then accelerating the Sinicization of places in Arunachal seem part of a well-thought-out revanchist strategy.
Yet India’s Ministry of External Affairs issued a tame response to Beijing’s latest provocation, that too a day late, which allowed China to hog the headlines with its action. The MEA has yet to grasp that timely communication is critical for foreign policy in an era in which social media and mass media increasingly help shape narratives. It invariably is slow to respond to China’s infowar, psy-ops or lawfare. At times it even fails to respond.
Meanwhile, China is possibly seeking to open a front against India in the Bay of Bengal by assisting Myanmar’s militarization of the Coco Islands, which are a northern extension of the Andaman and Nicobar chain. Myanmar’s military regime, increasingly isolated and squeezed by US-led Western sanctions, is in no position to build military facilities on its own on the Coco Islands. The plain fact is that Western sanctions are counterproductively pushing Myanmar into China’s arms.
Separated from India’s North Andaman Island by the 20-kilometer-wide Coco Channel, the Coco Islands were historically Indian possessions. But in 1887, after a British lighthouse keeper was killed by an Indian, the Calcutta-based British colonial authorities transferred jurisdiction of the Coco Islands to Rangoon. India gained independence before Myanmar, yet Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s government failed to assert Indian control over the Coco Islands.
The fact that Xi’s regime is seeking to open new fronts against India — from Tawang to the Coco Islands — casts an unflattering light on the Modi government’s China policy. China is also continuing to build up force levels along the Himalayas even as its military standoffs with India enter the 35th month.
To Modi’s credit, India has refused to buckle to the increasing Chinese military pressure. India has more than matched China’s Himalayan military deployments. By locking horns with China in this manner despite the risk of a full-scale war, India has openly challenged Chinese capability and power in a way no other power, including the US, has done in this century.
China’s April 2020 land-grabs in Ladakh and the consequent military standoffs have set in motion a major Indian defence buildup. India has ramped up construction of new border infrastructure, and last month appointed a committee of secretaries to fast-track all such projects.
So, why has India, despite its strong military response, failed to persuade China to end the border crisis or deter it from committing other acts of aggression?
The answer is that Indian policymakers have failed to comprehend that deterrence can never be effective without a comprehensive approach that extends beyond military-power projection to the use of all available tools, including economic and diplomatic leverage. The Modi government’s ban on numerous Chinese mobile phone apps, its restriction of Chinese companies’ access to official Indian contracts, and its launch of tax and customs probes against Chinese phone makers have been no more than an annoyance for Beijing.
India’s overly defensive, risk-averse approach, including a reluctance to impose tangible costs, is aiding China’s strategy of having its cake and eating it too.
In fact, New Delhi has allowed China’s bilateral trade surplus to far surpass India’s total defence budget (the world’s third largest). Last year, China’s trade surplus with India jumped nearly 50% — from $69.38 billion in 2021 to $101.02 billion in 2022. This means that the Indian trade deficit with just one country, China, now accounts for about 64% of India’s total global trade deficit.
China’s international trade surplus is now the main engine of its slowing economy, allowing it to finance its aggressive manoeuvres in the Himalayas and other Indo-Pacific theatres. And India last year contributed 11.51% to China’s overall trade surplus of $877.6 billion.
This shows that India, instead of establishing disincentives to Chinese military belligerence, has handed Beijing a potent incentive to sustain its aggressive behaviour and even seek to open new fronts.
India is reluctant to even impose any diplomatic costs on China. Far from launching a diplomatic offensive to spotlight the Chinese aggression, New Delhi remains reticent to name and shame China, even as Beijing has had no hesitation in raking up the Kashmir issue at the United Nations Security Council. Indeed, New Delhi maintains a normal diplomatic relationship with Beijing.
Furthermore, New Delhi still uses euphemisms to describe the Himalayan crisis: “unilateral change of status quo” for China’s aggression; “friction points” for captured areas; and “full restoration of peace and tranquillity,” or rollback of the Chinese intrusions, for bilateral relations to become “normal” again.
While publicly contending that bilateral ties cannot return to normal as long as disengagement and de-escalation don’t happen, India is pursuing normal relations with China in the economic and diplomatic realms. In effect, despite its rhetoric, India is doing exactly what China wants — separating the border confrontation from the rest of the relationship. It is thus no wonder that Beijing gloats over what it calls a “recovery momentum” in ties with India.
The long-term implications of China’s actions are ominous for Indian security. Consider, for example, China’s frenzied construction of new military infrastructure along the inhospitable Himalayan border. This big buildup either signals that Beijing sees war as likely, or that it intends to ramp up sustained pressure on India over the long-term.
Indeed, tying India down along the long Himalayan frontier could even help China secure a greater foothold in the Indian Ocean. Opening a maritime front against India, including by gaining a foothold on the Coco Islands, would complete its strategic encirclement of India.
Since Sardar Patel’s forewarning to Nehru that the Chinese communists intended to annex Tibet—a warning Nehru dismissed—India has repeatedly failed to take China’s words and moves seriously, only to pay a heavy price later. Some in India today are scoffing at China’s stepped-up campaign to Sinicize names of places in Arunachal Pradesh, terming it silly.
But there seems a method to the Chinese madness. China enacts a Land Borders Law one and a half years after its land-grabs in Ladakh and then accelerates the Sinicization of places in Arunachal, which suggests that this is part of a well-thought-out revanchist strategy.
By renaming places in Arunachal Pradesh, China is perhaps laying the groundwork for waging war to “reclaim” that region. Whether it would succeed or not in such an endeavour is a moot point, but it would be a mistake on India’s part to dismiss the Chinese move as little more than a meaningless effort to rename places under Indian control.
The 2021 Land Borders Law was enacted primarily with the aim of advancing China’s territorial revisionism in the Himalayas. The law effectively negates the possibility of peacefully resolving the territorial disputes with India. Instead of mutually settled borders, the law enables unilaterally imposed borders.
The Land Borders Law also extends to transboundary river waters. With Xi’s regime approving the construction near the India border of a “super dam” larger than even the Three Gorges Dam, this law seeks to uphold China’s “legitimate rights and interests” over the Tibet-originating cross-border rivers.
Xi is increasingly using lawfare (or the misuse and abuse of domestic law for strategic ends) to underpin China’s expansionism. Xi, for example, used a new national security law to crush Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and bring the city into political lockstep with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in breach of China’s United Nations-registered treaty with Britain.
Who predicted that Xi-led China would redraw the geopolitical map of the South China Sea without firing a single shot or without incurring any international costs? No one. It would be a serious mistake to discount the possibility of Xi launching aggression against Taiwan.
If Taiwan falls, China’s next target in the name of “reunification” would likely be Arunachal Pradesh.
Against this background, India needs to rethink and recalibrate its China policy. India needs a wiser, more forward-looking China policy that leverages Indian buying power and diplomatic strength. India should be less reactive and more proactive. For example, why should salami-slicing be the prerogative of only the Chinese side?
Given that Beijing’s claims on Indian territories are based on its occupation of Tibet, including calling Arunachal Pradesh “South Tibet”, it is self-defeating for New Delhi to still hew to the stance that Tibet is an integral part of China. New Delhi must adopt a more nuanced approach, including referring to the Himalayan border as the “Indo-Tibetan” frontier and showing in its official maps that India borders Tibet.
India also needs to find ways to stop Beijing from reaping rewards of aggression. For starters, it must address its burgeoning trade deficit with China, including by slashing non-essential imports. It is very counterproductive to India’s interests that New Delhi is effectively underwriting the economic and geopolitical power of an adversary that is playing the long game in the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean.