While the international attention remains on China’s recidivist activities in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where it continues to incrementally expand its strategic footprint, Beijing is also quietly focusing its attention on the waters of rivers that originate in the resource-rich, Chinese-controlled territory of Tibet.
China has long pursued a broader strategy to corner natural resources. This has driven its expanding presence in faraway places, including Africa and Latin America. China’s newer obsession is freshwater, a life-creating and life-supporting resource whose growing shortages are casting a cloud over Asia’s economic future.
Peace and security in Asia both hinge on China’s willingness to embrace rules-based cooperation, which includes ceasing activities that threaten to turn internationally shared river-water resources into a Chinese political weapon. These activities range from building cascades of large dams on international rivers before they leave Chinese-controlled territory to the denial of or delayed transfer of hydrological data to downstream neighboring countries.
Most of Asia’s great rivers originate on the Tibetan Plateau. From there, they flow to a dozen countries, including mainland China. With its lofty terrain, featuring the world’s tallest mountain peaks and largest concentration of glaciers and riverheads, the Tibetan Plateau influences atmospheric circulation — and therefore climate and weather patterns — across the Northern Hemisphere.
Today, China has turned this ecologically -fragile plateau, which it invaded and occupied from 1950 to 1951, into the center of its mining and dam-building activities. With the plateau warming more than three times faster than the global average according to Chinese data, glacial recession, especially in the eastern Himalayas, and the thawing of Tibet’s permafrost (or permanently frozen ground) have accelerated.
More consequential for downstream countries is the fact that China, by building giant dams and other diversion structures on international rivers that start in Tibet, is becoming Asia’s upstream water controller. This action is arming Beijing with increasing leverage over the countries critically dependent on river flows from the Tibetan Plateau.
Take the Mekong River, continental Southeast Asia’s lifeline. A new study in the United States confirms what many in the region know — that China is damming the Mekong to environmental hell. According to the study, China’s cascade of upstream mega-dams, by limiting downstream flows, is causing recurrent droughts in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam by limiting downstream flows. Using a natural-flow data model, the study found that the 11 eleven Chinese mega-dams currently in operation on the Mekong are causing severe drought and devastation downstream. Yet an undeterred China is building more giant dams on the Mekong just before the river crosses into Southeast Asia. This study by the Eyes on Earth research and consulting company was conducted with funding from the State Department’s Lower Mekong Initiative.
It is not just the Mekong: China is constructing dams on multiple international rivers just before they leave its territory. China’s efforts to reengineer cross-border natural flows are roiling its relations with downstream neighbors. Its occupation of the sprawling Tibetan Plateau enlarged its landmass by more than one-third and fundamentally altered Asia’s geostrategic realities. It made China the neighbor of India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Furthermore, China gained a throttlehold on the headwaters of Asia’s major river systems.
Tibet — the world’s highest and largest plateau — is also a treasure-trove of mineral resources, holding China’s biggest reserves of 10 ten different metals and serving as the world’s largest lithium producer. Today, Tibet is the focal point of China’s mining and damming activities, which threaten the plateau’s fragile ecosystems and endemic species. Tibet also remains at the center of the China-India divide, fueling territorial disputes, diplomatic tensions, and feuds over river-water flows. Among the rivers China’s dam builders are targeting is the Brahmaputra, the lifeblood for Bangladesh and northeastern India. A series of dams are coming up on the Brahmaputra, known as Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet.
Beijing’s unilateralist actions extend beyond dam building. In 2017, China refused to supply hydrological data to India in violation of the terms of two bilateral agreements, underscoring its readiness to weaponize the sharing of water data on upstream river flows. The data denial was said to be intended to punish India for boycotting China’s inaugural Belt and Road summit and for a military standoff between the two countries that year on the small, but strategically important, Himalayan plateau of Doklam. The withholding of data crimped India’s flood early-warning systems. That, in turn, resulted in preventable deaths as the monsoon-swollen Brahmaputra overran its banks, leaving a major trail of destruction, especially in India’s Assam state.
The Siang, the main artery of the Brahmaputra river system, represents another example of China’s unilateralist actions on internationally shared waters. In 2017, the Siang’s water turned dirty and gray as the stream entered India from Tibet. This raised concern that China’s upstream activities could be threatening the Siang in the same way Beijing has polluted its own domestic rivers, including the Yellow, the cradle of the Chinese civilization. Nearly three years later, the water in the once-pristine Siang has still not fully cleared.
According to Aquastat, a database of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 718 billion cubic meters of surface water a year flows out of the Tibetan Plateau and the Chinese-administered regions of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia to neighboring countries. Of that amount, 48.33 percent% runs directly into India. In addition, Nepal’s Tibet-originating rivers drain into India’s Gangetic basin. This might suggest that no country is more vulnerable than India to China’s current focus on building cascades of large dams on international rivers. In reality, as China’s frenzied damming of the Mekong illustrates, its small, economically vulnerable neighbors are the most susceptible to its upstream hydroengineering activities. The greatest impact of the Brahmaputra’s damming, for example, will be borne not by India but by Bangladesh, which is located furthest downstream.
For years, China has been the global leader in dam building. It already boasts slightly more than half of the globe’s approximately 58,000 large dams. Yet its “dam rush” persists. The more dams it builds on international rivers, the greater becomes its capacity to use transboundary waters as a tool of coercive diplomacy against its neighbors. Every new dam, by augmenting China’s capacity to regulate transboundary flows, increases the potential use of shared waters as a political weapon by augmenting China’s capacity to regulate transboundary flows. This concern is underscored by China’s refusal to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any neighboring country. Even India and Pakistan have a water-sharing treaty.
China’s present path will likely lead to greater environmental degradation on the Tibetan Plateau, exacerbating Asia’s water challenges. Asia is the world’s largest and most-populous continent, with three-fifths of the global population, yet it has the lowest per capita freshwater availability — less than half the global average of 5,829 cubic meters.
At a time of increasing water stress in Asia, the growth of water nationalism as a driver of China’s policy highlights the linkage between water and peace. Cooperative institutional mechanisms and sustainable resource utilization constitute the building blocks of water peace.
If China does not abandon its current approach in favor of institutionalized cooperation with co-basin states, the prospects for a rules-based order in Asia could perish forever, while the likelihood of downstream countries facing a drier future would increase. Asia will be able to shape water for peace only if China comes on board by embracing transparency and collaboration, centered on water sharing, uninterrupted hydrological-data flow, and dispute-settlement mechanisms.
. . .
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, an independent think tank, and the author of nine books, including Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Georgetown University Press), the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.
FIGHTING TWO BATTLES simultaneously — one against Chinese aggression in Ladakh and another against the China-originating coronavirus — India finds itself at a critical juncture in its post-Independence history. How India emerges from the dual crises will not only decide Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political future but, more importantly, have an important bearing on the country’s future trajectory and international standing.
The bare fact is that China’s stealth aggression in the second half of April caught India napping, with the armed forces discovering the intrusions in early May. In a swift operation that must have been planned months ahead, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forcibly changed the status quo by encroaching into disputed and undisputed border areas of Ladakh. This came at a time when a distracted India was wrestling with the coronavirus outbreak by enforcing the world’s strictest lockdown.
Since the 1980s, China has been eating away — bite by bite — at India’s Himalayan borderlands, even as successive Indian prime ministers have pursued a policy of appeasement toward Beijing. India is now reaping the bitter fruits of such appeasement.
In comparison to China’s intrusions in the past years, its latest aggression is unprecedented. The well-coordinated encroachments were strategically geared to creating new facts on the ground by grabbing vantage locations, with the intent to secure militarily commanding positions and render Indian defences vulnerable. This was underscored by the PLA’s occupation of the key strategic heights around Lake Pangong, in the area stretching from Fingers 4 to 8, and by its encampments atop Galwan Valley’s ridges that overlook India’s newly built Darbuk-Shyok-DBO highway. That highway is a key supply route to India’s most-forward military base located near the Karakoram Pass.
Although China provoked bloody clashes at the Sikkim-Tibet border in 1967 and triggered border skirmishes in 1986-87 by crossing the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Samdurong Chu, this year has marked the first time that it has opened military pressure points against India in peacetime all along the Himalayan frontier. To mount pressure on India, China not only has amassed forces along the Himalayan frontier but also provoked a series of clashes with Indian troops, even along Sikkim’s 206-kilometer border with Tibet.
China sees conflict as inevitable
Although China has risen from a backward, poor state to a global economic powerhouse, the key elements in its statecraft and strategic doctrine have not changed. Since the Mao Zedong era, China has adhered to the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu’s advice, “The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy.” This has meant exploiting the opponent’s weaknesses and camouflaging offense as defence. “All warfare,” Sun Tzu also famously said, “is based on deception.”
Communist China has repeatedly used force since 1950. This happened even under Deng Xiaoping, who sought to “teach a lesson” to Vietnam in 1979, in the style of Mao’s 1962 war on India. Whenever China has used force, it has been in the form of military pre-emption, executed through deception, concealment and surprise. Its latest aggression against India had all these elements.
The Chinese system sees conflict as inherent in China’s efforts to resolutely achieve its rightful place in the world and to assert its territorial claims and broader strategic interests. Beijing is thus ever willing to create or manage conflict. From employing its trade muscle to inflict commercial pain on countries that challenge it to exploiting its monopoly on the global production of a vital resource like rare-earth minerals, China has staked out a muscular, conflict-making role. As a Global Timeseditorial on June 22 said in relation to India, “The border dispute has made it clear that China is not afraid of conflicts when it comes to territorial issues.”
Against this background, a China-India agreement to de-escalate tensions will offer Beijing an opportunity to escalate its game of deception, with the aim of buying time and consolidating its hold on the newly encroached areas. China usually takes one step at a time in its relentless push to expand its land and sea frontiers. In the coming years, it could seek to replicate its Pangong territorial grab in other strategic Ladakh areas, such as Depsang, Demchok and Chumar.
In fact,India’s perennially reactive mode has long allowed the PLA to keep the initiative in the Himalayas. The PLA began honing its “salami tactics” in the Himalayas in the 1950s, when it sliced off the Switzerland-size Aksai Chin plateau from Ladakh. Later China inflicted a humiliating defeat on India in the 1962 war, securing peace, as a state mouthpiece crowed in 2012, on its own terms.
Today, China pursues a “cabbage” approach to borders, cutting off access to an adversary’s previously controlled territory and gradually surrounding it with multiple security layers. China has been gradually subverting the status quo in the South and East China Seas, its border with India, and even the flows of international rivers — all without firing a single shot.
Operating in the threshold between peace and war, China has pursued increasingly persistent efforts to intrude into India’s desolate borderlands. Yet India has silently faced China’s bulletless war for territory without a concrete counter-strategy to impose costs for such revisionism. As China’s coercive power grows, it is likely to increasingly employ its capabilities not to wage full-scale military conflict with another country but to alter the territorial status quo in its favour short of overt war and to narrow the other side’s options.
China’s stealth wars have already become a leading cause of geopolitical instability in Asia. India is a principal target of such stealth wars. China has been posing new challenges to India, ratcheting up strategic pressure on multiple flanks, including by reviving old territorial claims and constantly expanding its claim lines in the Himalayas. Given that the two countries share the world’s longest disputed land border, India is particularly vulnerable to direct military pressure from China. Indeed, the largest territory that China seeks, Arunachal Pradesh, is almost three times as large as Taiwan.
The Himalayan frontier is vast, inhospitable and difficult to patrol, giving an advantage to a determined aggressor. Kiren Rijiju, India’s then Minister of State for Home Affairs, told Parliament in 2014 that, on average, China was launching at least one stealth border transgression into Indian territory every day. According to Rijiju, PLA troops were intruding into vacant border spaces with the objective of occupying them.
China’s high-altitude territorial incursions gained momentum after then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003 surrendered India’s Tibet card by formally recognizing Tibet as part of China. Beijing exploited Vajpayee’s yearning for a successful China visit by extracting concessions that presented India as seemingly willing to accept a Sino-centric Asia. For the first time, India used the legal term “recognize” — in a joint document signed by the heads of the two countries — to accept what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.”
Vajpayee’s gratuitous concession on Tibet — a large historical buffer between the Indian and Chinese civilizations that the Chinese communists annexed in 1950-51 — acted as a spur to China’s creeping aggression. It was in the period after India’s Tibet cave-in that the Chinese coined the term “South Tibet” for the Austria-size Arunachal Pradesh. The cave-in also set in motion stepped-up Chinese incursions and other border transgressions, with such scofflaw actions steadily increasing in the period from 2005 to 2020, as India’s own figures underscore.
In the Himalayas, like in the South China Sea, China has in some instances employed civilian resources as the tip of its intrusion strategy. While China’s naval forces in the South China Sea have followed Chinese fishermen to carve out space for occupying reefs, in the Himalayan region, the PLA has used specially recruited Han Chinese herders and grazers to encroach on some Indian frontier areas. Once such civilians settle on the infiltrated land, PLA troops gain control of the area, thus paving the way for the establishment of more permanent encampments or observation posts. To be sure, PLA troops have also directly infiltrated and occupied unguarded areas.
Thanks to such PLA tactics, India has over the years lost considerable land in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. In Ladakh, for example, PLA’s nibbling at Indian territories has resulted in its capture of Chumar’s Tia Pangnak and Chabji Valley and an ancient trading centre, Doom Cheley. China has been able to advance its territorial aggrandizement along the Himalayan frontier (and in the South China Sea) without the need for missiles or bullets.
Yet, without realizing it, successive Indian prime ministers have aided or condoned China’s terrestrial aggression. In fact, their naïve statements have encouraged greater Chinese incursions. Take Modi, who prioritized resetting ties with China after becoming prime minister in 2014 without any prior national experience.
In 2017, Modi said that, although China and India are at odds over their borders, it was remarkable that “in the last 40 years, not a single bullet has been fired because of [it].” The Chinese foreign ministry responded by praising Modi’s “positive remarks.” Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, for his part, used to claim that, in their 5,000-year history, India and China fought only one war, in 1962. What this rose-tinted history failed to acknowledge was that China and India became neighbours only after China completed its capture of Tibet in 1951.
India’s accommodating rhetoric has helped China’s designs to such an extent that the phrase Modi coined, “inch toward miles,” as the motto of India-China cooperation actually reflects the PLA strategy of incremental encroachments. While India-China cooperation has yet to inch toward miles, the PLA has been busy translating Modi’s slogan into practice.
Slippery slope of appeasement
When China caught India’s undermanned and ill-equipped army napping by launching a surprise, multi-pronged military attack across the Himalayas on October 20, 1962, the humiliation that ensued marked a tectonic moment in India’s post-independence history. Taking an enemy by surprise confers a significant tactical advantage in war, and the Chinese invasion inflicted an immense psychological and political shock on India that greatly magnified the initial military advances that China achieved.
Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai publicly said that the war was intended “to teach India a lesson.” China’s blitzkrieg created gloom and a defeatist mindset in India, and forced its army to retreat to defensive positions. India even shied away from employing its air power for fear of unknown consequences, although the Chinese military lacked effective air cover for its advancing forces. India’s then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, publicly bemoaned that China had “returned evil for good.” It was Nehru’s persistent appeasement toward China that set in motion the events leading to the 1962 Chinese invasion.
India’s defeat led to profound developments. It hastened the death of Nehru and set in motion fundamental changes in the country’s policy and approach, including the launch of military modernization. Yet, by the late 1980s, appeasement returned as the leitmotif of India’s China policy. Today, nearly 58 years after 1962, Indian appeasement toward China has again resulted in developments inimical to India’s security. War clouds have suddenly appeared. India has largely forgotten the lessons of 1962, including the costs of reposing faith in China’s words.
Appeasement is a slippery, treacherous slope. Once a nation embarks on appeasement, it slips into a self-perpetuating trap. Every prime minister after Indira Gandhi has kowtowed to China. Indian appeasement resumed with Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 Beijing visit and deepened with Vajpayee’s 2003 surrender of India’s Tibet card. Modi, for his part, has taken appeasement to a new level.
The paradox is that, in the post-Indira Gandhi period, every time India has stood up to China, it has been followed by New Delhi’s kowtow to Beijing. The Sumdorong Chu confrontation was followed by Rajiv Gandhi’s paying of obeisance to Beijing. In 2017, Indian forces resolutely halted PLA’s effort to build a road to the Indian border through the uninhabited Doklam plateau that India’s ally, Bhutan, regards as its own territory. This action was followed by Modi’s kowtow to China.
It was Modi, as Chinese President Xi Jinping later revealed, that proposed an annual “informal” bilateral summit — a proposal that led to the so-called Wuhan process. Xi gladly accepted Modi’s proposal of early 2018 because high-level meetings aid China’s “engagement with containment” strategy toward India.
Worse still, Modi initiated this process despite China’s seizure of Doklam. After the 73-day troop standoff at the southwestern edge of Doklam ended with an agreement to disengage, China launched frenzied construction of military fortifications and seized control of almost the entire plateau, other than the corner where the faceoff had occurred. By the time Modi decided to travel to Wuhan, the Doklam plateau, which previously had no permanent military structures or permanent force deployments, was teeming with Chinese barracks, helipads, ammunition dumps and other facilities, as satellite images underscored.
The myth of Doklam victory that Modi sold Indians to bolster his image proved costly for India, as China’s 2020 aggression has highlighted. Despite being Bhutan’s de facto security guarantor, India failed to defend that tiny nation’s territorial sovereignty. China’s Doklam capture has shattered Bhutanese faith in India’s security assurances, making Thimphu more eager to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing.
Meanwhile, with his leverage weakened, Modi’s effort at rapprochement with Beijing quickly slid into overt appeasement. In early 2018, his government halted any official contact with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. This compounded Vajpayee’s Tibet cave-in. Officials were directed to stay away even from the March 2018 events marking the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India.
The following month, the Wuhan summit produced little more than Indian government-sponsored media hype. In fact, no sooner had the summit ended than significant differences emerged on how India and China interpret even the key understandings reached at Wuhan. For example, India said the two leaders “issued strategic guidance” to their respective militaries to avoid further border friction. But China’s statement made no mention of that. India, which has chafed against the increasingly lopsided trade with China, said agreement was reached at Wuhan to strengthen trade and investment in a “balanced and sustainable manner.” But that crucial phrase was missing from Beijing’s version.
Such differences were no surprise. Like all previous India-China summits since 1988, the Wuhan summit was long on political theatre, such as shows of amity, but short on concrete results to fundamentally change the bilateral dynamics. As if to pander to India’s proverbial weakness — confounding symbolism with substance — Xi focused more on diplomatic stagecraft, including receiving Modi with a very long red carpet, taking the Indian leader on a lakeside walk and a boat ride, and engaging in long handshakes while voicing hope the summit would “open a new chapter in bilateral ties.”
Wuhan was followed in October 2019 by an equally unremarkable Modi-Xi summit in Mamallapuram, near Chennai. Yet Modi hailed both summits as harbingers of a new strategic convergence with China. If anything, his “Wuhan spirit” and “Chennai connect” lullabies — like Nehru’s Hindi-Chini bhai bhai lullaby — lulled India into a dangerous complacency.
Against this background, is it any surprise that military tensions between India and China are rising again amid an intense geopolitical rivalry? There is still no clearly defined Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Himalayas separating the rival armies. Such a situation has persisted despite regular Chinese-Indian talks since 1981. In fact, these talks constitute the longest and most futile negotiating process between any two countries in modern world history.
China has taken India round and round the mulberry bush for 39 years in the negotiations on resolving the larger boundary question. The negotiations began as “senior-level talks” in 1981 before being relabelled as “joint working group” talks in 1988 and then as “talks between special representatives” in 2003. With new each label, India has sought to wipe the slate clean, underscoring its unwillingness to learn from its unpalatable past experiences. For example, India today cites 22 rounds of talks thus far between the special representatives, but without mentioning the earlier border negotiations, as if they didn’t happen.
More significantly, China has made it clear that it has little interest in resolving the boundary question. An unsettled border aids China’s “salami slicing” strategy and also helps it to exert direct military pressure on India whenever it wants. During a 2010 visit to New Delhi, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stated bluntly that sorting out the border disputes “will take a fairly long period of time.” In fact, after Vajpayee’s 2003 Tibet cave-in, China stopped talking about clarification of the LAC.
Since 2008, thanks to Beijing, references to clarification of the LAC finds no mention in official bilateral documents. Yet successive Indian governments have played into China’s hands by carrying on with the useless negotiations.
The same is the story with India’s investment of considerable political capital in establishing a border-management framework with China over the past 27 years. Five border-management agreements were signed between 1993 and 2013. Each was signed with great fanfare at a summit, and each was hailed in India (but not in China) as a major or historic “breakthrough.” This shows how successive Indian prime ministers have got a free pass from the country’s pliant media and feckless analysts, thus exacerbating India’s China challenge.
The last accord, the 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), was a textbook example of appeasing an aggressor and whetting the belligerent’s appetite for swallowing territory. Beijing wanted a new accord to wipe the slate clean over its breaches of the border-peace agreements signed earlier. With the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yearning to showcase the “success” of the summit, India acceded to the habitual violator’s call for new border rules. And Singh, with the help of the planeload of journalists he usually took on any overseas visit, marketed his China trip as a major success.
BDCA’s provisions were vaguely worded, allowing China — a master at reinterpreting texts — to cast the burden of compliance mainly on India. In fact, whereas China has flouted the letter and spirit of every bilateral accord, India has been strictly adhering to the various agreements’ provisions to such an extent that it has even gone beyond their literal meaning, resulting in the preventable deaths of 20 Indian soldiers at the hands of the PLA on June 15.
The 1996 accord’s provision not to use firearms within two kilometres of the LAC (Article VI) relates to peacetime border-policing situations, including cases where rival border patrols run into each other. It does not relate to aggression by one side against the other. What India has faced since April in eastern Ladakh is China’s pre-emptive military strike. Had Article VI been correctly read earlier as applicable only to border policing, India would not have lost 20 soldiers. The 20 were brutally murdered by PLA troops armed with improvised weapons, before Indian soldiers avenged the killings by inflicting heavy PLA casualties.
Today, thanks to China’s brazen aggression, the vaunted border-management framework lies in tatters. The aggression has highlighted the worthlessness of the Indian investment in such agreements. Yet, after telling his Chinese counterpart that China’s aggression broke “all our agreements,” Indian External Affairs S. Jaishankar, in the same telephonic conversation, oddly reposed faith in those very “bilateral agreements and protocols” for de-escalation! This raises a fundamental question: Will India ever learn?
Since 1988, the more India has sought to appease China, the greater has been the perceptible hardening of China’s stance toward it. This hardening is reflected in developments beyond the bilateral domain, including Chinese strategic projects in other countries that neighbour India and the PLA’s troop presence in the Pakistani-held Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). With its troops present near the Pakistan-occupied J&K’s frontier with Ladakh, China is seeking to ramp up pressure on both Indian flanks in Ladakh.
More fundamentally, the strategic rivalry between the world’s largest autocracy and its biggest democracy has also sharpened, despite their fast-rising trade. Trade is the only area in which bilateral relations have thrived, with China managing to more than double its trade surplus with India on Modi’s watch to over $60 billion per year. China’s booming trade surplus, however, has failed to moderate or restrain its behaviour.
Modi’s alternate reality
Since the time Modi served as Gujarat’s chief minister, he has tended to view China not as it is but as he would like it to be. After he became prime minister, he went out of his way to befriend China. He postponed a Japan visit by several weeks so that his first meeting with an important world leader was with Xi. By delisting China as a “country of concern,” Modi further opened up the Indian economy to Beijing but ended up facilitating greater Chinese dumping.
Even by his penchant for springing surprises, Modi’s recent televised speech at the end of the June 19 all-party meeting was a stunner. As if underline a surreal alternate reality, Modi declared: “Nobody has intruded into our territory, nor is any intruder present, and nor is any post of ours under someone else’s occupation.” His speech became an instant propaganda coup for China, with its state media saying his words signalled to Beijing that Modi doesn’t want “further conflict with China” because, as the Global Times warned, “India will be more humiliated than” in 1962.
Modi effectively scored a self-goal damaging to India’s diplomatic and strategic interests. If India is unwilling to call China out on its aggression and intrusions, how does it expect any other major power to come to its support by criticizing China’s aggression? More importantly, by obscuring the truth on China’s encroachments, India is playing right into Beijing’s hands. China, the master of propaganda, will use Modi’s own words to tell the world that there was no aggression from its side, while continuing to consolidate its new territorial gains in Ladakh.
The supposed “clarification” issued by Modi’s office on his speech raised more questions than it answered, worsening the confusion. Without denying Modi’s key words, it said: “What is Indian territory is clear from the map of India.” The official Indian map extends to areas where PLA forces are currently arrayed against India. The Chinese cannot be faulted if they interpret Modi’s words as signalling that India, in reality, no longer considers the Chinese-occupied areas, including Aksai Chin, as its own.
Modi’s speech, in fact, illustrated how India relives history. Nehru kept obscuring China’s encroachments in the 1950s until he was caught in a trap that led to the 1962 humiliation. Now, despite the availability of satellite imagery in the digital era, Modi has likewise sought to cloak Chinese intrusions. Instead of drawing lessons from the Nehru era, including from how China stealthily occupied Aksai Chin, Modi delivered a speech that implicitly absolved China of its intrusions. His words can only embolden the aggressor.
Modi has cast himself as India’s “chowdikar” (protector) safeguarding the country’s frontiers from encroachers and terrorists. The fact that India was caught off-guard by the Chinese aggression is embarrassing for him. Modi wants to protect his image as a strong leader. This, unfortunately, has led him to downplay China’s aggression from the time the Indian Army discovered it. Until the PLA’s savage killing of 20 Indian soldiers lifted the lid on the Chinese aggression, Indian authorities sought to minimize the significance of China’s actions and to hide details. How can saving face at home become a bigger priority for the country’s leader than safeguarding long-term national interests?
Had Modi rallied the nation behind him as soon as the Chinese encroachments were discovered and had he ordered the armed forces to take counteraction, the PLA would not have gained time to consolidate its hold on the newly encroached areas. In the Lake Pangong region, for example, the PLA has transformed the landscape by building dozens of observation posts, bunkers and other concrete fortifications since the first clashes flared between rival troops there on May 5-6.
India has lost valuable time by doing nothing. It has been hoping against hope that China would see reason and withdraw.
Unfortunately, the Indian government even obscured the nature and significance of the clashes that occurred in the first 10 days of May, including near the Naku-la Pass, on the Sikkim-Tibet frontier. It also hid the extent of Indian casualties. In fact, the clashes were sought to be passed off as minor until revelations emerged weeks later that both sides had briefly captured each other’s soldiers and that some troops had been so seriously wounded that they required airlifting to hospitals, including in New Delhi.
Worse still, the Indian Army chief, General Manoj Naravane, personally downplayed China’s aggression. He issued a bizarre statement on May 14 that gratuitously blamed “aggressive behaviour by both sides” for the clashes, which he euphemistically called “incidents.” An Army chief blaming his own troops for “aggressive behaviour” while they confront an invading foe is unheard of.
General Naravane’s statement — apparently issued at the government’s behest — actually went to great lengths to cover up China’s aggression, including the ensuing clashes that erupted at several border points. The statement blamed the Ladakh and Sikkim border “incidents” on “differing perceptions” of the LAC’s alignment. In effect, he offered China a justification for its encroachments.
To be sure, the “differing perceptions” argument has long been proffered by successive Indian governments to obscure loss of territory or to rationalize Chinese incursions. This argument has given China, with its ever-shifting claim lines in the Himalayas, carte blanche to keep encroaching on more and more Indian areas by quoting India’s own admission that the LAC is indistinct and hazy.
General Naravane not only expounded the “differing perceptions” theory while the country was faced with its most serious China-frontier crisis in decades, but also his statement claimed that the Ladakh and Sikkim border “incidents” were “neither co-related nor do they have any connection with other global or local activities.” Why should the Indian Army chief take it upon himself to explain Chinese actions so as to paint them in better light? The fact is that the Ladakh and Sikkim border developments were indeed co-related, and were part of Xi’s larger aggressive quest for Chinese dominance.
On June 13th, a month after his first statement, General Naravane made another statement that “the entire situation along our borders with China is under control,” even as the intruding PLA troops were consolidating their hold on the areas they had infiltrated. Just two days later, the façade of “all is well” on the Himalayan borders collapsed, after the PLA’s ambush-killings triggered bloody clashes. The killing of 20 Indian soldiers, with scores more hospitalized, shocked the nation and brought the government’s handling of the situation under public scrutiny.
China’s stealth intrusions into eastern Ladakh have been followed with frenzied construction activity to consolidate its hold on the newly encroached areas and fortify its defences. Amid a Chinese military buildup along the Himalayas, Xi appointed a favourite general in early June to lead PLA forces arrayed against India. Xu Qiling, a rising PLA star and ground force commander of the Eastern Theatre Command, swapped positions with He Weidong, the ground force commander of the Western Theatre Command. Xu has the experience to lead joint ground and air operations. As if to signal that it could be readying to wage war on India, China evacuated its citizens from India in special flights from late May.
Many analysts in India and abroad have cited the Sino-Indian power asymmetry to argue that India cannot take on China. After all, China’s economic and military power is much greater than India’s. Some analysts have argued that Modi’s “no intrusion” statement reflected this reality.
War is not decided by military and economic capabilities alone. If capabilities alone determined the outcome of wars, then the stronger side would always win. But history is replete with examples of the weaker side triumphing over the more powerful opponent.
What is critical to any war’s outcome is leadership, political will, resoluteness, strategy, tactics and troop morale. History is shaped by farsighted and visionary leaders, who can change the destiny of a nation. Great leaders in history turned small island nations into global powers, while short-sighted leaders unravelled empires.
Defence generally has the advantage over offense, because it is easier to protect and hold than to advance, destroy and seize. Defensive operations in the mountains or on high-altitude plateaus, as in Ladakh, are aimed at resisting and foiling an enemy strike in order to prepare ground for a counter-attack.
India has one of the world’s largest and most-experienced mountain warfare armies. The fearlessness and bravery of its soldiers was highlighted recently by the swift costs they imposed on PLA troops in the Galwan Valley after an Indian patrol was ambushed. They demonstrated the true mark of valour when, in the face of death, they inflicted heavy Chinese casualties in hand-to-hand combat, including killing the PLA unit’s commanding officer. Intercepts of Chinese communications by US intelligence have confirmed that China lost more than twice as many soldiers as India.
The deaths represent China’s first combat troops killed in action, other than in UN peacekeeping operations, since the end of its war with Vietnam in 1979. The combat fatalities are a humiliation for China, which explains why it has hidden information on its casualties. Some on Chinese social media have criticized Xi’s regime by contrasting India’s honouring of its martyrs, including holding large public funerals, with China’s refusal to even recognize its fallen.
The Indian Army today is capable of repulsing a PLA attack and inflicting heavy losses. But there is a bigger question: Does India have the political will to impose costs on China? Despite Modi’s strongman image, India remains essentially a soft state, as his own China speech highlighted.
Shrewdly timing a pre-emptive strike that takes the opponent completely by surprise has been central to Communist China’s repeated use of force. By contrast, India — with its defensive mindset and risk-averseness under successive prime ministers — cannot even think of undertaking a pre-emptive assault. This gives China a major tactical advantage over India. As the Global Times said on June 21, China knows that India will not fire the first shot.
It will be China’s initiative to start a war against India and to end it — just like in 1962. And to achieve its objectives, China will do anything, from breaking binding agreements to employing a range of elaborate deceptions.
India needs to make a fresh start by abandoning its accommodating approach toward China that has made it look like a meek enabler. After spending so many years on the defensive, India must discard the platitudes and retake the narrative. To blunt Xi’s expansionism and to halt further Chinese encroachments, India must bare its own teeth and implement a containment strategy, including by joining hands with likeminded powers.
India must remember that when it has stood up to China, as in 1967, the bully has backed off, thus ensuring peace along the Himalayan frontier. But when India has sought to placate or appease China, the emboldened bully has stepped up its incursions and territorial aggrandizement.
In 1967, while still recovering from the major wars of 1962 and 1965, India gave China a bloody nose in the military clashes along the Sikkim-Tibet border. Those clashes were triggered by a Chinese attack much less grave than the Chinese aggression India now confronts. In 2020, can India pretend to be weaker than it was in 1967, despite building a nuclear arsenal and despite its longstanding status as one of the world’s largest importers of weapons?
President Xi Jinping, seeking to press China’s advantage while its neighbors are distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, has lately opened multiple fronts in his campaign to make China the world’s foremost power — from Hong Kong and Taiwan to the South and East China Seas to the Himalayan frontier.
The globally paralyzing pandemic has reinforced Xi’s efforts to realize his “Chinese dream” by the 2049 centenary of communist rule. Xi said in a speech at Xi’an Jiaotong University in April that “great steps in history have always emerged from the crucible of major disasters.”
This may explain why China has sought to make the most of the pandemic. From breaking Beijing’s binding commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy and attempting to police the waters off the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands to picking a nasty border fight with India by encroaching on its territory, Xi has pushed the boundaries.
His actions are helping to shift attention from China’s culpability in the global spread of COVID-19 to the threat his authoritarian regime poses to international security. But his expansive vision has also increased the risks of China succumbing to what the historian Paul Kennedy called “imperial overstretch,” or overextending itself abroad, leading to its decline and fall, like how the Soviet empire imploded.
Xi’s expansionism has sought to remake globalization on China’s terms. The overreach is best illustrated by his marquee project, the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to refashion the global economic and political order by plowing hundreds of billions of dollars into overseas projects when China has still to fully overcome poverty and underdevelopment at home.
It is an imperial project seeking to lure nations desperate for infrastructure investments into China’s strategic orbit. But instead of the “common prosperity” Xi promised, the BRI has been ensnaring vulnerable countries in sovereignty-eroding debt traps. The pandemic’s mounting economic toll makes it harder for partner countries to repay their loans.
Beijing’s refusal to grant debt relief to partner states facing bankruptcy is only highlighting its predatory lending practices. By engendering anger or resentment, the hard-line approach risks undermining China’s international image and inviting a pushback against its neocolonial policies.
More ominously, Xi’s aggressive quest for Chinese dominance has led him to open multiple political or military fronts at the same time. This has raised concern at home about China overextending itself and international alarm over the country’s trajectory. According to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the world is seeing “continually more aggressive action” by China.
Under Xi, China’s relationship with the superpower that aided its economic rise, the U.S., has given way to hostility, with a cold war on the horizon. With India, Xi seems itching to start the world’s next big conflict. The link between China and India, which make up more than a third of humanity and over a fifth of the global economy, is critical to international relations.
Meanwhile, Xi’s regime has stepped up efforts to turn internationally shared river-water resources into a political weapon by building cascades of large dams in China’s borderlands. China’s frenzied upstream damming of the Mekong River, however, is causing recurrent droughts in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
While Mao Zedong destroyed the old order and Deng Xiaoping laid the foundations of a modern Chinese economy, Xi is determined to make China the central player in international relations. Xi’s ambition, coupled with the cult of personality around him, may be blinding him to the dangers of an approach that has stretched China’s resources when its economy is slowing and working-age population declining.
Today, China remains a friendless power lacking any true seafaring strategic allies or reliable security partners. Indeed, the more powerful China has become, the more difficult it has become for it to gain genuine allies.
Can Xi make China, without any allies, the world’s leading power by relying on an open disregard of international rules and on bullying? Leadership demands more than brute might.
The assumption behind Xi’s muscular approach — that there would not be a significant geopolitical price to pay — had thus far proved right, with other powers issuing words but shying away from actions. But with the pandemic and the move to strip Hong Kong of its autonomy, Tibet-style, Xi is courting an international backlash, underlined by a spate of actions from the U.S., EU, U.K., India and Australia.
Like the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear tragedy — a prelude to the Soviet Union’s fall — the pandemic has shown how a communist regime worsens a disaster by seeking to cover up the truth about it. The pandemic, by highlighting the global costs of Xi’s increasing authoritarianism, has made it more likely that the backlash will act as a spoiler to Xi’s neo-imperial ambitions.
Countries are already reassessing their economic reliance on Beijing and seeking supply chain diversification away from China. One example is Japan’s $2.2 billion fund to help reshore manufacturing. U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has opened the path to American sanctions against Chinese officials and companies.
With other powers still wrestling with the pandemic and a protest-scarred U.S. looking weak, Xi may take more aggressive actions to flex China’s muscle. But unless he reverses course, his overreach is likely to saddle China with overwhelming costs while creating an international environment hostile to the realization of his dream.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
India extended the hand of friendship to China but was repaid with stealth aggression in Ladakh. The Chinese incursions into strategic areas presented India with a Kargil-like challenge. The aggression is not just a wake-up call for India; it could prove to be the deciding factor in fundamentally altering the country’s approach to China.
Shrewdly timing a surprise assault has been central to China’s repeated use of force, as several studies underscore. In 1962, China invaded India just as the Cuban missile crisis was bringing the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. And in April-May, as a distracted India was wrestling with the coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China encroached on Ladakh’s Galwan Valley and Hot Springs (both previously undisputed areas) and simultaneously occupied Lake Pangong’s disputed long stretch between Fingers 4 and 8.
Military strategist Sun Tzu’s advice to “plan for what is difficult while it is easy” led China to strike when India was vulnerable. India’s draconian lockdown — the world’s strictest — flattened not its coronavirus curve but its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) curve, as one industrialist has noted. India now has the worst of both worlds — spiralling infection rates and a seriously-damaged economy, crimping its military options. China, which signalled a bellicose intent by conducting Himalayan military drills since the beginning of this year, seized the opening from the Indian Army’s lockdown-driven deferment of its annual Ladakh exercise, which creates acclimatised troop reserves before late spring unfreezes ingress routes.
Caught off-guard, India faces difficult options while battling the pandemic. India, however, is unlikely to put up with China’s encroachments, which explains its counterforce build-up in eastern Ladakh, despite the viral risks to troops. This week’s mutual pullback of troops at three of the four confrontation sites reduces the threat of war but doesn’t diminish China’s act of belligerence. The 2017 Doklam disengagement is a reminder that China doesn’t deviate from what it has set out to achieve: No sooner had the standoff ended than China began frenzied construction of permanent military structures and occupied almost the entire Doklam.
Let’s be clear. China’s latest aggression is very different from its Ladakh intrusions in the Depsang Plains (2013) and Chumar (2014) that had narrow tactical objectives. For example, it withdrew from Chumar after making India demolish local defensive fortifications.
The latest well-planned encroachments seem strategically geared to altering the frontier by grabbing vantage locations, whose control will place the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in a commanding position. By building bunkers and other concrete structures, such as between Pangong’s Fingers 4 and 8, PLA has signalled its intent to retain key land grabs.
With PLA forces already present in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir near its frontier with Ladakh, China is seeking to ramp up pressure on both Indian flanks in Ladakh. The encroachments raise the spectre of PLA in a war cutting through northern Ladakh and physically linking up with Pakistan to put India under siege.
China’s aggression potentially signifies a geostrategic sea change. China is seeking to buy enough time through negotiations with India to consolidate its hold on key encroached areas. In this light, Beijing is seeking to string India along. If China vacates occupied land after extracting a price, it won’t be vantage points overlooking enemy positions but marginal territory.
As Mao Zedong admitted, China undertakes negotiations to “buttress its position” and “wear down the opponent”. China has taken India round and round the mulberry bush for 39 years in the negotiations on resolving the larger boundary question. The negotiations began as “senior-level talks” in 1981 before deceptively being relabelled as “joint working group” talks in 1988 and then as “talks between special representatives” in 2003.
India also invested considerable political capital in establishing a border-management framework with China through five different agreements, each signed with great fanfare at summits between 1993 and 2013. However, by brazenly flouting the accords’ basic principles through its encroachments, China has gravely fractured the framework.
In the way it has profoundly changed the status quo in the South China Sea without firing a shot, China is seeking to complete its thus far bullet-less aggression against India by forestalling through negotiations an Indian counter-offensive or an Indian tit-for-tat grab of Chinese-claimed territory elsewhere. So, it is saying the two sides must ensure “differences do not escalate into disputes”. In plain language, China is asking India to stomach its aggression or else the situation will cease to be, in its words, “stable and controllable”.
With its aggression, however, China has brought its relations with India to a tipping point. By opening several international fronts, including one against India, Chinese President Xi Jinping may be biting off more than he can chew. He will discover India is no pushover. By awakening India to China’s threat, Xi’s aggression eventually will prove costly for China, which is already staring at a cold war with the United States.
Far from submitting to China’s aggression, India will make necessary readjustments in its foreign and defence policies with the aim of imposing costs and thwarting Beijing’s larger hegemonic objectives. After all, how India emerges from its military stand-off with China will have an important bearing on its international standing and on Asian security.
According to a Chinese proverb, “To feed the ambition in your heart is like carrying a tiger under your arm.” By starting a conflict with India to advance his larger neo-imperial ambitions, Xi has increased the odds that the tiger under his arm will bite him.
Last month’s swift and well-coordinated incursions by People’s Liberation Army troops into the icy borderlands of India’s Ladakh region were likely the product of months of preparation. The aggression – and the fact that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t see it coming – shows just how miserably his China policy has failed.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is “not in a good mood,” US President Donald Trump recently declared, as he offered to mediate India’s resurgent border conflict with China. After years of bending over backward to appease China, Modi has received yet another Chinese encroachment on Indian territory. Will this be enough to persuade him to change his approach?
While India was preoccupied with the COVID-19 crisis, China was apparently planning its next attempt to change the region’s territorial status quo by force. Last month’s swift and well-coordinated incursions by People’s Liberation Army troops into the icy borderlands of India’s Ladakh region were likely the product of months of preparation. The PLA has now established heavily fortified camps in the areas it infiltrated, in addition to deploying weapons on its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), within striking distance of Indian deployments.
China’s “unexpected” maneuver should not have been unexpected at all. Last August, China’s government vigorously condemned India’s establishment of Ladakh – including the Chinese-held Aksai Chin Plateau – as a new federal territory. (China seized Aksai Chin in the 1950s, after gobbling up Tibet, which had previously served as a buffer with India.) And the PLA had been conducting regular combat exercises near the Indian border this year.
Deception, concealment, and surprise often accompany China’s use of force, with Chinese leaders repeatedly claiming that military preemption was a defensive measure. Its latest assault on India – which China claims is the actual aggressor – was taken straight from this playbook.
Yet Modi did not see the Chinese incursions coming. His vision seems to have been clouded by the naive hope that, by appeasing China, he could reset the bilateral relationship and weaken China’s ties with Pakistan, another revisionist state that lays claims to sizable swaths of Indian territory.
The China-Pakistan axis has long generated high security costs for India and raised the specter of a two-front war. That is why some Indian leaders have pursued a “defensive wedge strategy,” in which the status quo power seeks to drive a wedge between two allied revisionist states, so that it can focus its capabilities on the more threatening challenger.
In 1999, the first prime minister from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, sought to win over Pakistan by visiting the country on the inaugural trip of a new bus service from Delhi to Lahore. Vajpayee was rewarded for his “bus diplomacy” with a stealth invasion by Pakistan’s powerful military of the Indian border zone of Kargil. This triggered a localized war, in which both sides lost several hundred soldiers before the status quo ante was restored.
Unlike Vajpayee, Modi has focused his attention on China – with similarly disastrous results. In fact, soon after becoming prime minister in 2014 – and just hours before hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping for a summit meeting – he learned that PLA troops had elbowed their way into southern Ladakh’s Chumar area, which lies along the LAC, and built a temporary road there.
The summit was portrayed as a success, even though the Chinese did not withdraw until weeks later, after India agreed to demolish local defensive fortifications. This was the beginning of a policy not of reconciliation, but of appeasement, the costs of which continue to mount.
On a trip to Beijing the next year, Modi surprised his own administration by announcing a decision to issue electronic tourist visas to Chinese nationals upon their arrival in India. He also delisted China as a “country of concern,” in an effort to court Chinese investment. Instead, the move opened India up to even more dumping by Chinese firms. On Modi’s watch, China has more than doubled its trade surplus with India to $60 billion per year – nearly equal to India’s annual defense spending.
Meanwhile, the PLA has continued to encroach on disputed territories. In mid-2017, Indian troops were pushed into another standoff with the PLA – this time, at Doklam, a small and desolate Himalayan plateau where Chinese-ruled Tibet meets the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim and the Kingdom of Bhutan. Indian troops stood up to the Chinese, as the PLA attempted to build a road to the India border through the uninhabited plateau that Bhutan, an Indian ally, regards as its own territory. The standoff lasted 73 days, before China and India agreed to disengage.
India declared the Doklam disengagement a tactical victory. But over the next several months, China steadily expanded its troop deployments by building permanent military structures, thereby gaining control of much of Doklam. Despite being the de facto guarantor of Bhutan’s security, India failed to defend the tiny country’s territorial sovereignty.
Yet Modi maintained India’s appeasement policy. In 2018, his government backed away from official contact with the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s India-based government-in-exile. At the same time, as Xi later revealed, Modi proposed an annual “informal” bilateral summit – a proposal Xi gladly accepted, because high-level meetings aid China’s “engagement with containment” strategy toward India. Two such summits have now been held, as well as 14 other meetings between the two leaders.
And what has Modi gotten for his troubles? China has stepped up its territorial revisionism, while raking in growing profits from the bilateral economic relationship (though, to be sure, India did recently tighten its policy on foreign direct investment, so that any flows from China must be pre-approved).
Modi has himself to blame for this state of affairs. With his excessive personalization of policy and stubborn strategic naiveté, he has shown himself not as the diplomatically deft strongman he purports to be, but as a kind of Indian Neville Chamberlain. Unless he learns from his mistakes and changes his policy toward China, India’s people – and territorial sovereignty – will pay the price.
The global backlash against China over its culpability for the international spread of the deadly coronavirus from Wuhan has gained momentum in recent weeks. And China itself has added fuel to the fire, as exemplified by its recent legal crackdown on Hong Kong. From implicitly seeking a political quid pro quo for supplying other countries with protective medical gear, to rejecting calls for an independent international inquiry into the virus’s origins until a majority of countries backed such a probe, the bullying tactics of President Xi Jinping’s government have damaged and isolated China’s communist regime.
The backlash could take the form of Western sanctions as Xi’s regime seeks to overturn Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” framework with its proposed new national-security laws for the territory, which has been wracked by widespread pro-democracy protests for over a year. More broadly, Xi’s overreach is inviting increasing hostility among China’s neighbors and around the world.
Had Xi been wise, China would have sought to repair the pandemic-inflicted damage to its image by showing empathy and compassion, such as by granting debt relief to near-bankrupt Belt and Road Initiative partner countries and providing medical aid to poorer countries without seeking their support for its handling of the outbreak. Instead, China has acted in ways that undermine its long-term interests.
Whether through its aggressive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy – named after two Chinese films in which special-operations forces rout US-led mercenaries – or military-backed expansionist moves in China’s neighborhood, Xi’s regime has caused international alarm. In fact, Xi, the self-styled indispensable leader, views the current global crisis as an opportunity to tighten his grip on power and advance his neo-imperialist agenda, recently telling a Chinese university audience that, “The great steps in history were all taken after major disasters.”
China has certainly sought to make the most of the pandemic. After buying up much of the world’s available supply of protective medical equipment in January, it has engaged in price-gouging and apparent profiteering. And Chinese exports of substandard or defective medical gear have only added to the international anger.
While the world grapples with COVID-19, the Chinese military has provoked border flare-ups with India and attempted to police the waters off the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands. China has also recently established two new administrative districts in the South China Sea, and stepped up its incursions and other activities in the area. In early April, for example, a Chinese coast guard ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat, prompting the United States to caution China to “stop exploiting the [pandemic-related] distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.”
Meanwhile, China has made good on its threat of economic reprisals against Australia for initiating the idea of an international coronavirus inquiry. Through trade actions, the Chinese government has effectively cut off imports of Australian barley and blocked more than one-third of Australia’s regular beef exports to China.
Whereas Japan readily allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct a full investigation into the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster – a probe that helped the country to improve safety governance – China strongly opposed any coronavirus inquiry, as if it had something to hide. In fact, some Chinese commentators denounced calls for an inquiry as racist.
But once a resolution calling for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the global response to COVID-19 gained the support of more than 100 countries in the World Health Organization’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly, Xi sought to save face by telling the assembly that “China supports the idea of a comprehensive review.” At the last minute, China co-sponsored the resolution, which was approved without objection.
The resolution, however, leaves it up to the WHO’s controversial director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to launch the review “at the earliest appropriate moment.” Tedros, who has been accused of aiding China’s initial COVID-19 cover-up, may decide to wait until the pandemic has come “under control,” as Xi has proposed.
Make no mistake: the world will not be the same after this wartime-like crisis. Future historians will regard the pandemic as a turning point that helped to reshape global politics and restructure vital production networks. Indeed, the crisis has made the world wake up to the potential threats stemming from China’s grip on many global supply chains, and moves are already afoot to loosen that control.
More fundamentally, Xi’s actions highlight how political institutions that bend to the whim of a single, omnipotent individual are prone to costly blunders. China’s diplomatic and information offensive to obscure facts and deflect criticism of its COVID-19 response may be only the latest example of its brazen use of censure and coercion to browbeat other countries. But it represents a watershed moment.
In the past, China’s reliance on persuasion secured its admission to international institutions like the World Trade Organization and helped to power its economic rise. But under Xi, spreading disinformation, exercising economic leverage, flexing military muscle, and running targeted influence operations have become China’s favorite tools for getting its way. Diplomacy serves as an adjunct of the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus.
Xi’s approach is alienating other countries, in the process jeopardizing their appetite for Chinese-made goods, scaring away investors, and accentuating China’s image problem. Negative views of China and its leadership among Americans have reached a record high. Major economies such as Japan and the US are offering firms relocation subsidies as an incentive to shift production out of China. And India’s new rule requiring prior government approval of any investment from China is the first of its kind.
China currently faces the most daunting international environment since it began opening up in the late 1970s, and now it risks suffering lasting damage to its image and interests. A boomerang effect from Xi’s overreach seems inevitable. A pandemic that originated in China will likely end up weakening the country’s global position and hamstringing its future growth. In this sense, the hollowing out of Hong Kong’s autonomy in the shadow of COVID-19 could prove to be the proverbial straw that breaks the Chinese camel’s back.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the global geopolitical landscape, including triggering a growing backlash against China. The world wants to know why and how a local outbreak in Wuhan turned into a global pandemic that has already killed more than a quarter of a million people. The incalculable human and economic toll continues to mount.
An independent international inquiry will give China a chance to clear the air with the rest of the world. But the Chinese Communist Party vehemently opposes such a probe, viewing it as a mortal threat.
Against this background, the forthcoming session of the World Health Assembly (the decision-making body of the World Health Organization) is shaping up as a test of China’s ability to block an independent investigation into the origins and spread of the new coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan. The European Union is the latest to state that it will back a resolution at the assembly calling for an independent review.
Getting to the bottom of how the COVID-19 virus flared and spread is essential for designing rapid-response efforts to prevent a future local outbreak from spiraling into another pandemic. After all, this is not the first deadly disease to spread globally from China. A Chinese coverup of the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak triggered the world’s first 21st-century pandemic. Even the WHO agrees on the need for an investigation, with its representative in China saying that knowing the origins of the COVID-19 virus is “very important” to prevent “reoccurrence.”
U.S. President Donald Trump has offered China an incentive for cooperation by contrasting a mistake with willful action: “If it was a mistake, a mistake is a mistake. But if they were knowingly responsible, yeah, I mean, then sure there should be consequences.” Beijing, however, has shied away from answering even basic questions.
For example, why did China stop domestic flights from Wuhan from Jan. 23, yet allowed some international flights to continue operating from there, such as charter flights? It aided the international spread of the virus by continuing to encourage foreign travel from other Chinese cities until late March. Also, by the time it belatedly locked down Wuhan, about 5 million of its residents, according to the mayor, had already left the city, with an unknown number flying overseas from other Chinese cities. Simply put, infected travelers from Wuhan seeded outbreaks in many countries.
Another key question is why China has clamped down on further research by Chinese scientists into the virus’s origins. It instituted a new policy mandating prior vetting after several Chinese research papers highlighted dangerous work on bat coronaviruses, with one study concluding that “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.”
In fact, authorities shut a Shanghai laboratory for “rectification” a day after its Jan. 12 publication of the coronavirus genome opened the global path to diagnostic tests. China, significantly, has still not shared any live virus sample with the outside world, “making it impossible to track the disease’s evolution,” to quote U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Moreover, China has not given foreign experts access to any facility or location where the virus may have originated, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology. China’s infamous “batwoman,” Shi Zhengli, was leading lab experiments there in manipulating natural coronaviruses from bats.
The dangerous research may explain why China, instead of sharing coronavirus samples with the outside world, chose to destroy its lab samples, according to Pompeo and the Beijing-based Caixin Global news site. U.S. intelligence has confirmed that it is investigating whether the pandemic was “the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.” Pompeo says there is already “enormous evidence” indicating that the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab.
In January, while China was playing down the contagion’s threat, it was quietly engaged in a frenzied import of medical gear — from personal protective equipment to masks. According to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security intelligence report dated May 1, China “intentionally concealed the severity” of the outbreak to facilitate its hoarding. By the time the virus seriously hit Europe, China had bought up much of the global supply of protective gear, including 56 million respirators and masks in the last week of January alone.
Now, China has stepped up a crackdown at home to keep what happened at Wuhan under wraps. According to one account, grieving relatives and their lawyers have been threatened by police and volunteers “who tried to thwart the state’s censorship apparatus by preserving reports about the outbreak have disappeared.”
Just think: If China was not guilty of any coverup, wouldn’t it be welcoming the growing international calls for an independent inquiry and offering to provide assistance to such a probe? Instead, Beijing seems to be showcasing its guilt by belligerently rejecting the pleas for an inquiry. It insists the world must avoid “pointing fingers, demanding accountability and other non-constructive approaches.”
Australia, for example, has come under China’s withering attack for proposing that WHO member nations support an independent inquiry into the origins and spread of the coronavirus. The Chinese ambassador to Australia, calling Australia’s proposal “dangerous,” threatened punishment through Chinese boycotts of Australian wine, beef, tourism and education sectors.
Meanwhile, as the Group of Seven countries, India and others seek a review and reform of the WHO, China’s decision to give an additional $30 million to the agency appears aimed at frustrating such calls. International rules mandate that countries notify the WHO of “a public health emergency of international concern within 24 hours of assessment.” China’s glaring failure to do so has led to calls for introducing WHO inspectors with the power to enter a country to probe a disease outbreak in the style of weapons inspectors.
Make no mistake: Money alone can neither aid China’s strategy to deflect blame for the global crisis nor help defuse the backlash against it. Its carrot-and-stick approach of mixing financial inducements with threats will only fuel greater mistrust of Beijing.
In fact, the pandemic has made the world arrive at its moment of truth: It must break China’s stranglehold on vital supply chains, including by incentivizing foreign manufacturers to move out of China, or else risk a situation in which Beijing weaponizes its leverage.
China’s mercantilist expansionism has led to a spate of new regulations in the EU, Australia, Germany, Spain and Italy. But India’s recent new rule mandating prior scrutiny of Chinese investment in any form — and across all sectors — is the first of its kind. Another major recent move is by Japan, which has set aside $2.2 billion of its pandemic-linked economic support package for a specific purpose: To help Japanese firms shift manufacturing out of China.
Today, the world is looking for answers that only a thorough inquiry can reveal. If China refuses to join such a probe, it will encourage important economies to start distancing themselves from it, through new tariffs, nontariff barriers, relocation of manufacturing and other policy moves. Such systematic “decoupling,” by undermining the communist monopoly on power, would be the CCP’s worst nightmare come true.
Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).
China insists it has been fully transparent and hidden nothing on the killer coronavirus, whose international spread from Wuhan has turned into the greatest global disaster of our time. So why is Beijing rancorously opposing an independent international inquiry into the origins and spread of the coronavirus?
The lethal virus emanated from China, leading to a paralyzing pandemic. The mounting socioeconomic costs of the unparalleled global crisis will remain immeasurable. In this light, is it unreasonable that the world wants to know how and why it happened?
Investigating the pandemic’s genesis is critical for another reason — this is not the first deadly disease to spread globally from China. A Chinese coverup of the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak triggered the world’s first 21st-century pandemic. Getting to the bottom of how the latest pathogen flared and spread is essential for designing rapid-response efforts to prevent a future local disease outbreak from spiraling into yet another pandemic.
Even the World Health Organization (WHO) agrees. This is the organization whose repeated deference helped Beijing to cover its tracks, prompting President Donald Trump to say recently that the WHO “should be ashamed of themselves because they are like the public-relations agency for China.” In fact, several countries seeking an inquiry want the investigation to focus on the pandemic-related roles of both China and the WHO.
The WHO representative in China has said the “origins of virus are very important” to prevent “reoccurrence.” Yet Beijing has shut out even the WHO from its COVID-19 investigations.
Trump has offered China an incentive for cooperation by contrasting a mistake with willful action: “If it was a mistake, a mistake is a mistake. But if they were knowingly responsible, yeah, I mean, then sure there should be consequences.” Beijing, however, has shied away from answering even basic questions.
For example, why did China stop flights from Wuhan to the rest of the country from January 23, yet allowed some international flights from Wuhan, including charter flights, thus facilitating the international spread of the virus? Or why did it recently clamp down on further research by Chinese scientists into the virus’s origins? It instituted a new policy mandating prior vetting after several Chinese research papers highlighted dangerous work on bat coronaviruses, with one study concluding that “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.”
In fact, authorities shut a Shanghai laboratory a day after its January 12 publication of the coronavirus genome opened the global path to diagnostic tests. China has not shared any live virus sample with the outside world, “making it impossible to track the disease’s evolution,” to quote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Moreover, China has not given foreign experts access to any facility or location where the virus may have originated, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The infamous “batwoman,” Shi Zhengli, was leading lab experiments there in manipulating natural coronaviruses from bats.
The dangerous research may explain why China, instead of sharing any coronavirus sample with the outside world, chose to destroy its lab samples, according to Pompeo and the Beijing-based Caixin Global news site. U.S. intelligence has confirmed that it is investigating whether the pandemic was “the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
Just think — if China was not guilty of any coverup, wouldn’t it be welcoming the growing international calls for an independent inquiry and offering to provide assistance to such a probe? Such an inquiry would give China a chance to clear the air with the rest of the world.
Instead, Beijing seems to be showcasing its guilt by belligerently rejecting the pleas for such an inquiry, including by the European Commission president. China says such calls are destined to fail because the world, in the words of its foreign ministry, must avoid “pointing fingers, demanding accountability and other non-constructive approaches.”
Australia is Exhibit A. The country is more economically tied with China than with its security patron, the United States, which explains why it has long hedged its bets. Yet Australia has come under China’s withering attack for merely proposing that WHO member-nations support an independent inquiry into the origins and spread of the coronavirus. Australia said it will push for such an investigation at the WHO assembly (the decision-making body) when it convenes for its annual meeting on May 17.
In response, the Chinese ambassador to Australia has lashed out at his host country, threatening punishment through Chinese boycotts of Australian wine, beef and tourism and education sectors. Australia, however, is not the only country to call for a probe. Sweden, for example, has echoed Australia’s call.
Meanwhile, as the Group of Seven (G7) countries, India and others seek a review of and to reform the WHO, China’s decision to give an additional $30 million to the agency appears aimed at frustrating such calls. International rules require countries to notify the WHO of “a public health emergency of international concern within 24 hours of assessment.” China’s glaring failure to do so has led to calls for introducing WHO inspectors with the power to enter a country to probe a disease outbreak in the style of weapons inspectors.
Make no mistake: Money alone can neither aid China’s strategy to deflect blame for the current crisis nor help defuse the increasing global backlash against it. Its carrot-and-stick approach of mixing financial inducements with threats will only fuel greater mistrust of Beijing.
China is genuinely worried that, once the crisis passes, battered countries or communities may seek a reckoning, including by suing it for damages. Trump has said that his administration is looking at a “very substantial” compensation claim against China. Against this background, Beijing has aggressively sought to rebrand itself as the world’s counter-pandemic leader, while trying to rewrite the outbreak’s history.
But calls are growing louder across the world to publicly hold China accountable for the pandemic’s mounting human and economic toll. The only way China can silence such calls and begin to repair the serious damage to its image is through an independent international inquiry.
If it blocks such a probe, China will pay enormous costs — not as reparations but by compelling other major economies to restructure their relationships with it, a process that ultimately would end its status as the global hub of vital supply chains. China’s mercantilist expansionism has already led to a spate of new regulations in the European Union, Australia, Germany, Spain and Italy. But India’s recent new rule mandating prior scrutiny of Chinese investment in any form – and across all sectors – is the first of its kind. Another major recent move is by Japan, which has set aside $2.2 billion to help Japanese firms shift manufacturing out of China.
If China refuses to come clean, important countries are likely to start economically distancing themselves from it, through new tariffs, non-tariff barriers, relocation of manufacturing and other policy moves. Eventually, such action could undermine the communist monopoly on power in China.
Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).
If the World Health Organization is to spearhead international health policy and respond to disease outbreaks effectively, it must pursue deep reforms aimed at broadening its jurisdiction and authority. That won’t happen unless and until the WHO rebuilds its credibility, beginning with new leadership.
The COVID-19 pandemic, much like a major war, is a defining moment for the world – one that demands major reforms of international institutions. The World Health Organization, whose credibility has taken a severe beating of late, is a good place to start.
The WHO is the only institution that can provide global health leadership. But, at a time when such leadership is urgently needed, the body has failed miserably. Before belatedly declaring the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11, the WHO provided conflicting and confusing guidance. More damaging, it helped China, where the crisis originated, to cover its tracks.
It is now widely recognized that China’s political culture of secrecy helped to turn a local viral outbreak into the greatest global disaster of our time. Far from sounding the alarm when the new coronavirus was detected in Wuhan, the Communist Party of China (CPC) concealed the outbreak, allowing it to spread far and wide. Months later, China continues to sow doubt about the pandemic’s origins and withhold potentially life-saving data.
The WHO has been complicit in this deception. Instead of attempting independently to verify Chinese claims, the WHO took them at face value – and disseminated them to the world.
In mid-January, the body tweeted that investigations by Chinese authorities had found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus. Taiwan’s December 31 warning that such transmission was likely happening in Wuhan was ignored by the WHO, even though the information had been enough to convince the Taiwanese authorities – which may have better intelligence on China than anyone else – to institute preventive measures at home before any other country, including China.
The WHO’s persistent publicizing of China’s narrative lulled other countries into a dangerous complacency, delaying their responses by weeks. In fact, the WHO actively discouraged action. On January 11, with Wuhan gripped by the outbreak, the WHO said that it did “not recommend any specific health measures for travelers to and from Wuhan,” adding that “entry screening offers little benefit.” It also advised “against the application of any travel or trade restrictions on China.”
Even after China’s most famous pulmonologist, Zhong Nanshan, confirmed human-to-human transmission on January 20, the WHO continued to undermine effective responses by downplaying the risks of asymptomatic transmission and discouraging widespread testing. Meanwhile, China was hoarding personal protective equipment – scaling back exports of Chinese-made PPE and other medical gear and importing the rest of the world’s supply. In the final week of January alone, the country imported 56 million respirators and masks, according to official data.
By the time the WHO finally labeled the epidemic a public-health emergency on January 30, travelers from China had carried COVID-19 to far-flung corners of the world, including Australia, Brazil, France, and Germany. Yet, when Australia, India, Indonesia, Italy, and the US imposed restrictions on travel from China, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus roundly criticized the actions, arguing that they would increase “fear and stigma, with little public-health benefit.”
At the same time, Tedros extolled Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “very rare leadership” and China’s “transparency.” The bias has been so pronounced that Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso recently noted that, for many, the WHO is looking more like the “CHO” – the Chinese Health Organization.
Yet, despite the WHO’s repeated deference to China, the authorities there did not allow a WHO team to visit until mid-February. Three of the team’s 12 members were allowed to visit Wuhan, but no one was granted access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the high-containment laboratory from which a natural coronavirus derived from bats is rumored to have escaped. In fact, a study conducted at the South China University of Technology in Guangzhou with support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China concluded in February that “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan” working on bat coronaviruses.
China did not always enjoy deferential treatment from the WHO. When the first twenty-first-century pandemic – severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) – emerged from China in 2002, the agency publicly rebuked the Chinese authorities for concealing vital information in what proved to be a costly cover-up.
Why has the WHO changed its tune? The answer is not money: China remains a relatively small contributor to the WHO’s $6 billion budget. The issue is the WHO’s leadership.
Tedros, who became the agency’s first non-physician chief in 2017 with China’s support, was accused of covering up three cholera outbreaks while serving as Ethiopia’s health minister. Nonetheless, few would have imagined that, as WHO chief, the microbiologist and malaria researcher would be complicit in China’s deadly deception.
The WHO’s faltering response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak underscored the imperative for reforms before Tedros was at the helm of the agency. But, rather than overseeing the needed changes, Tedros has allowed political considerations to trump public health.
As the costs of the mismanagement continue to mount, a reckoning is becoming all but inevitable. An online petition calling for Tedros to resign has garnered almost a million signatures. More consequential, President Donald Trump’s administration has suspended the WHO’s US funding, which accounts for 9.2% of its budget.
The world needs the WHO. But if the agency is to spearhead international health policy and respond to disease outbreaks effectively, it must pursue deep reforms aimed at broadening its jurisdiction and authority. That won’t happen unless and until the WHO rebuilds its credibility beginning with new leadership.
The staggering costs the world is bearing for the spread of the killer coronavirus from China promise to shake up the international order. China, for its part, faces lasting damage to its image. After all, if China had acted promptly and decisively, the Covid-19 outbreak could have been confined to its central Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital. Instead, China’s initial, weeks-long coverup helped spawn the greatest global disaster of our time, sending the world hurtling toward a recession.
China is actually a repeat offender: It unleashed in a similar manner the world’s first 21st-century pandemic, SARS. The Communist Party of China (CPC) treated the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan in November as a political embarrassment rather than a public health emergency, delaying the start of containment measures until January 23. The CPC not only turned a local outbreak into a global pandemic but also, by falsifying China’s Covid-19 data, it has staged a second coverup that has impeded an effective global response to the disease.
The pandemic has highlighted that only by loosening China’s grip on global supply chains – beginning with the pharmaceutical sector – can the world be kept safe from Beijing’s machinations. Japan has already earmarked $2.2 billion to help Japanese manufacturers shift production out of China, while White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow says the US could lure American firms to move back to the US by paying their full moving costs.
China, meanwhile, has launched a public-relations blitzkrieg to rewrite the pandemic’s history and rebrand itself as the world’s counter-pandemic leader, including by exporting medical equipment to stricken countries and claiming to have won the Covid-19 battle at home. However, in a double whammy, China not only triggered the pandemic but also accentuated the devastation in some countries by exporting millions of flawed test kits and substandard personal protective equipment and face masks for health workers.
In fact, by blocking a mere discussion on the pandemic at the UN Security Council while it served as its president in March, China underlined its guilt. If India had unleashed this pandemic through a coverup, China would have been in the lead to hold a Security Council discussion and to inflict punishment with UN sanctions. But, as underscored by Chinese state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi’s telephone call, it sought India’s help to ward off international censure.
Transparency is essential to make us all safer. One country’s authoritarianism and opacity have contributed to spiralling coronavirus infections and deaths, mammoth economic losses, and a mounting social and psychological toll across the world.
The pandemic has also dented the World Health Organization’s credibility. Instead of providing global health leadership, the WHO under Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has become part of the problem by putting politics ahead of public health. Indeed, by disseminating China’s false narrative and dubious figures, the WHO lulled other nations into a dangerous complacency, thereby delaying national responses by multiple weeks.
Tedros, who uses his first name, was accused of covering up three cholera epidemics while serving as his country’s health minister. But who could have imagined that, as the WHO chief, he would do something even worse – lend a helping hand to China’s COVID-19 dual coverup? Nothing better illustrates the WHO’s credibility problem than the Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso’s statement that many people worry that the agency’s acronym may need to change from WHO to “CHO” (“Chinese Health Organization”).
US President Donald Trump’s decision to halt US funding, which makes up nearly 10% of the WHO’s $6 billion annual budget, puts pressure on the agency to clean up its act. To restore its credibility, the WHO needs fresh leadership that can independently coordinate international health policy, including by reversing the Tedros-initiated politicisation of global health.
By affecting people everywhere, the pandemic is truly more global in its impacts than either of the two world wars. But like the world wars, this once-in-a-century pandemic is a defining moment that promises to introduce profound changes in societies and economies.