U.S. President Joe Biden’s last-minute cancellation of his planned appearance at a Quad summit in Australia will strengthen the perception that the war of attrition in Ukraine is deflecting Washington’s attention from mounting security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.
Citing the imperative of cutting a deal with congressional leaders to avert a looming U.S. debt default, Biden also scrapped plans to stop in Papua New Guinea for what was to be the first visit by a U.S. president to a Pacific Island nation.
The dual cancellations will reinforce questions about America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific, which is shaping up as the world’s economic and geopolitical hub.
If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken the foundations of the international order, as many observers contend, a Chinese takeover of Taiwan would usher in a new global order by ending America’s preeminence and irreparably damaging the U.S.-led alliance system. Yet the Biden administration remains overly focused on European security.
Biden’s planned Pacific tour next week had promised to put the international spotlight back on the Indo-Pacific and would have signaled that Washington had not taken its eye off the region despite America’s increasing involvement in the Ukraine war in terms of providing weapons, training and battlefield targeting data to Kyiv.
Only China can be pleased by Biden’s decision to simply return to the White House after the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima, Japan.
Just as China is the sole country really benefiting from the conflict in Ukraine, Biden’s scrapped visits are likely to bolster Chinese ambitions in the Pacific while setting back Washington’s efforts to contain Beijing’s growing influence. Using its economic power and the world’s largest naval fleet, China has been making rapid inroads among Pacific island nations.
Biden’s canceled visits serve as a fresh reminder that hyperpartisan politics and hardened polarization in the U.S. are crimping the country’s foreign policy. Indeed, America’s partisan divide has a direct bearing on its foreign policy priorities, with Republicans most concerned about China and Democrats about Russia, according to opinion polls.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi plans to proceed without Biden to Papua New Guinea for a summit with Pacific island leaders, and then to go on to Australia.
India has been steadily expanding its outreach to strategically located Pacific nations, stepping up foreign aid and establishing the Forum for India-Pacific Island Cooperation. Meanwhile, around 24,000 people have registered to welcome Modi to Stadium Australia in Sydney next Tuesday.
More broadly, the Quad summit’s cancellation could not come at a worse time for a grouping that is already at a crossroads.
The Quad was resurrected during U.S. President Donald Trump’s term but summits among its leaders began only after Biden took office in 2021. Despite this increased engagement, the Quad’s challenges have been growing due to the absence of a clearly defined strategic mission for the group.
Biden is the third straight U.S. president to commit to shifting America’s primary strategic focus to Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific. But the deepening U.S. involvement in the Ukraine conflict, coupled with the possibility that the war could drag on for a long time, suggests that he, too, could fail to genuinely make a pivot.
As if that were not bad enough, Biden has saddled the Quad with an increasingly expansive agenda that dilutes its Indo-Pacific strategic focus.
Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy, unveiled last year, underlined how the Quad has turned its attentions to everlasting universal challenges ranging from climate change and cybersecurity to global health and resilient supply chains. Such an ambitious agenda has little to do with the Quad’s original core objectives, including acting as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism and ensuring a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
By pursuing a strategy to bleed Russia in Ukraine, Biden may be weakening a major adversary, but he is also sapping America’s strength.
The war is revealing Western military shortcomings, with weapons in short supply, critical munitions depleted, and U.S. capacity to restock insufficient. More fundamentally, it is distracting America from growing Indo-Pacific challenges.
The last thing Chinese President Xi Jinping wants is an end to the Ukraine war because that would leave the U.S. free to focus on the Indo-Pacific.
Indeed, before moving on Taiwan, Xi could seek to further deplete U.S. weapons arsenals through indirect arms shipments to Russia that could force the West to send more supplies to Ukraine. To a limited extent, Xi is already aiding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war by supplying drones, navigation equipment, jamming technology, fighter-jet parts and semiconductors to sanctioned Russian entities.
Against this backdrop, the Ukraine war is accentuating the Quad’s challenges, even while its leaders continue to regularly hold discussions, including an expected gathering on the sidelines of the G-7 summit in Hiroshima where Modi and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will appear as special guests.
To acquire clear strategic direction and meaning, the Quad must focus on dealing with Indo-Pacific challenges, not global ones. Without a distinct strategic vision and agenda, the Quad will have little impact and just be an ineffective talking shop.
Brahma Chellaney is professor emeritus of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a former adviser to India’s National Security Council. He is the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”
By standing up to China, India has openly challenged Xi Jinping’s expansionism in a way that no other world power has done. The current military stalemate in the Himalayas serves as yet another reminder that Xi has picked a border fight with India that he cannot win.
Three years after China stealthily began encroaching on India’s territory in the Himalayas, no end is in sight for the two countries’ border standoff. While the rival military buildups and intermittent clashes have received little attention in the West, the escalating border confrontation has set in motion a long-term rivalry that could reshape Asian geopolitics.
By locking horns with China despite the risk of a full-scale war, India has openly challenged Chinese power in a way no other world power, including the United States, has done in this century. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s strategic overreach has caused India to shift away from its previous appeasement policy and accelerate its military buildup, turning a potential partner into an enduring foe, while appearing determined to forestall a Sinocentric Asia.
Similarly, Xi’s muscular revisionism and geopolitical ambitions have forced Japan and Australia to readjust their strategic frameworks and work to counter China’s expansionism in the Indo-Pacific. By drawing up plans to double defense spending by 2027, Japan has effectively abandoned its pacifist postwar national-security policy. Australia, for its part, has renounced its previous hedging approach and joined the AUKUS defense pact with the US and the United Kingdom.
China’s attempt in spring 2020 to occupy hundreds of square kilometers in the icy borderlands of India’s northernmost Ladakh region, at a time when India was enforcing the world’s strictest national lockdown, amounted to a cynical effort to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to further Xi’s strategic aims. But Xi miscalculated when he assumed that China could force India to accept the new status quo as a fait accompli. Since then, India has more than matched China’s military deployments, fueling the largest-ever military buildup in the Himalayas, one of the world’s most inhospitable regions.
With India refusing to buckle, Xi has sought to overwhelm its defenses by opening up a new front in the eastern Himalayas, more than 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) from China’s 2020 land grabs. In December 2022, a Chinese incursion into the strategically crucial border state of Arunachal Pradesh was repelled by Indian forces, reportedly with help from US intelligence.
In an effort to strengthen its territorial claim and provoke India, China has Sinicized the names of sites in Arunachal Pradesh. Calling Arunachal Pradesh “South Tibet,” the Chinese government has asserted that the sprawling state – more than twice the size of Taiwan – is “Chinese territory” and that Sinicizing Indian lands is its “sovereign right.”
All this has given India a stake in Taiwan’s continued autonomous status. If Taiwan were to fall to China, the Austria-sized Arunachal Pradesh could become the Chinese government’s next target for “reunification.” China’s annexation of Tibet in 1951 proved to be one of the most significant geopolitical developments in post-World War II history, giving China common borders with India, Nepal, Bhutan, and northwest Myanmar. A Chinese takeover of Taiwan could lead to a similar geopolitical reordering, enabling Chinese naval forces to break out of the “first island chain” and easily access the Pacific.
China’s claim that Taiwan has “always been” part of China is historically dubious. Taiwan did not become a Chinese province before the late nineteenth century, and China lost control of the island just eight years later, when the Qing Dynasty ceded it to Japan in perpetuity following its defeat in the 1895 Sino-Japanese War. But in laying claim to Taiwan, Xi is working to complete Mao Zedong’s expansionist vision of a “Greater China.”
Similarly, Tibet is the key to Chinese expansionism in the Himalayas despite the fact that it was a part of China only when China itself was occupied by outsiders like the Mongols and the Manchus. Because it cannot claim any Han-Chinese connection, its territorial claims in the Himalayas rest on alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links. Even tiny Bhutan has not been spared; China has been nibbling away at its borderlands.
Against this backdrop, India’s willingness to stand up to China is crimping Xi’s expansionist agenda. As Admiral Michael M. Gilday, the US Navy’s chief of naval operations, put it last year, India presents China with a “two-front” problem. “They [Indians] now force China to not only look east, toward the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, but they now have to be looking over their shoulder at India,” he said.
Given that its military is the world’s most experienced in hybrid mountain warfare, India has an edge in the high-altitude Himalayan environment. Moreover, in contrast to India’s all-volunteer military, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army largely relies on conscripts who ostensibly “volunteer” for two years of service after they reach the age of 18. That helps explain why China has chosen to engage in stealth encroachments rather than direct combat.
The current military stalemate in the Himalayas serves as yet another reminder that Xi has picked a border fight with India that he cannot win. With the US-China rivalry deepening, the last thing China needed was to make a permanent enemy of its largest neighbor. Ultimately, bringing India and America closer could prove to be Xi’s lasting legacy – an unintended consequence that threatens to undermine his regime’s aggressive irredentism.
China appears to be building a military listening post on Great Coco Island, which sits between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea just north of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago where India has multiple naval and air force facilities and about 210 kilometers southwest of the mouth of Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River.
Such a spy station could be used to carry out maritime surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence collection against India — and would highlight how U.S.-led sanctions are exacerbating regional-security challenges by pushing military-ruled Myanmar into China’s strategic lap.
Great Coco Island, measuring nearly 8 sq. kilometers and home to around 1,500 people, is one of three main islands in Myanmar’s Coco group, which also includes several small islets. The Coco Islands are separated from India’s North Andaman Island by the 20-km wide Coco Channel.
Beijing and Naypyitaw have each denied Chinese involvement in militarizing the Coco Islands. However, satellite images of an expanded airstrip, new aircraft hangars, a large pier and a radar station with a protective dome indicate that military infrastructure is rapidly going up on Great Coco, previously home to rudimentary infrastructure.
In recent months, India has confronted Myanmar with satellite imagery and other intelligence about assistance being provided by China for building military and dual-use facilities on Great Coco. Chinese military engineers and other personnel have been spotted there, Indian officials say.
A causeway is under construction at the southern end of Great Coco to connect it with a neighboring island, where the clearing of forested land suggests a further extension of facilities.
China has a record of issuing denials while expanding its strategic footprint through stealthy but incremental moves. It set up its first overseas military base in Djibouti while insisting it had no such plan.
A more striking example is how China turned its artificially created islands in the South China Sea into forward military bases soon after President Xi Jinping, standing with then-U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House Rose Garden in 2015, said, “China does not intend to pursue militarization.”
The U.S. believes that China is working to establish an international network of logistics and base infrastructure while concealing the terms of its agreements with host nations and the intended purpose of dual-use facilities that it finances, possibly including a naval outpost in Cambodia. Facilities under scrutiny include commercial ports in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, and Gwadar, Pakistan that have been taken over by Chinese state-owned companies.
China’s large spy ships, which serve as mobile listening and tracking platforms, are also playing a role. One such ship, the Yuan Wang 5, docked at Hambantota International Port last August despite Indian protests. The Yuan Wang 6 appeared in the Indian Ocean in December when New Delhi tested the Agni 5 intercontinental ballistic missile.
Myanmar’s junta, faced with crippling Western sanctions and foreign-backed armed resistance to its rule, has neither the capability nor the motivation to build sophisticated maritime reconnaissance and surveillance facilities on remote Great Coco on its own. At a time when it is struggling to retake control of large swaths of the country, the last thing it would do is build a spy station directed at friendly India, which has refused to join the American-led sanctions campaign.
But Beijing has the means, strategic impetus and ambition to set up facilities to monitor Indian activities, including naval communications and movements, satellite launches and tests of missiles which often splash down in the Bay of Bengal. China has long had interest in the Coco Islands, with talk of building a signals-intelligence facility there first surfacing in the early 1990s.
U.S.-led sanctions against Myanmar are now working to China’s advantage just as they did for nearly a quarter of a century before Obama’s historic Myanmar visit in 2012 heralded a change of policy. In response to the military’s February 2021 seizure of power, U.S. President Joe Biden promptly reimposed sanctions without heeding the history of how China had earlier become Myanmar’s dominant trading partner and investor.
The militarization of the Coco Islands will extend China’s growing penetration of Myanmar, which serves Beijing as a strategic gateway to the Indian Ocean, an important source of natural resources and a major market for its arms exports.
To bypass the narrow Malacca Strait between Peninsular Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Beijing has been investing heavily in the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. The initiative includes a deep-sea port at Kyaukpyu and seeks to facilitate direct energy imports overland into Yunnan province.
In the past, the Coco Islands were administratively grouped with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but British colonial authorities split off the Cocos after the killing of a British lighthouse keeper by an Indian in 1877, reassigning responsibility to their outpost in Rangoon, now Yangon.
In 1942, the island groups were reunited by invading Japanese forces, who soon passed control to Indian nationalist forces fighting for independence from British rule. But upon independence in 1947, the Indian government did not assert control over the Cocos which then stayed with Burma as it too moved toward independence from the U.K.
Spread across 750 km, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands give India commanding oversight over a key stretch of the main sea lanes that connect East Asia with Europe and the Middle East. The islands’ strategic importance in relation to the Malacca Strait explains why the Indian military’s only tri-service command is headquartered there.
China’s strategic foothold on the Coco Islands, if confirmed, will not only weaken this Indian advantage but also create a new maritime threat to India.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s trip this coming weekend to New Delhi, close on the heels of Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese’s own India tour, is indicative of growing strategic cooperation among the Indo-Pacific region’s major democracies.
Just as Germany’s rapid rise prior to World War I led to the Triple Entente among France, Britain and Russia, China’s aggressive expansionism has given the key Indo-Pacific democracies strong impetus to work together as a countervailing coalition.
The Quad, though without the form of a formal alliance, represents an emerging entente among the Indo-Pacific region’s four leading democracies: Australia, India, Japan and the U.S.
More fundamentally, the Indo-Pacific power balance will be determined, first and foremost, by events in East Asia and the Indian Ocean. This in turn makes the Japan-India relationship central to the region’s power equilibrium and stability.
Unlike the U.S. and Australia, India and Japan, which share frontiers with China, have seen their security come under direct pressure from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s muscular revisionism.
Kishida has pledged to double defense spending over the next five years following his government’s release of a new National Security Strategy which concluded that the country faces “the most severe and complex security environment since the end of World War II.”
This would potentially give Japan the world’s third-largest military budget, after the U.S. and China.
India, now No. 3 in defense spending, has been locked in a tense, 34-month military standoff with China along their disputed Himalayan border after being taken unawares by stealth incursions into Ladakh, its northernmost territory. India-China relations are at their lowest level in decades as clashes continue to erupt intermittently.
By locking horns with Beijing despite the risk of full-scale war, India may have openly challenged Chinese capability and power in a way no other power has done yet in this century.
Yet there is growing recognition in New Delhi and Tokyo — this year’s Group of 20 and Group of Seven presidents, respectively — that no single democratic power can impose sufficient costs on Xi’s regime for its maritime and territorial revisionism, much less compel Beijing to change course.
In this light, Japan and India, which are China’s main peer rivals in Asia and are strategically located on its opposite flanks, aim to frustrate Beijing’s ambition to achieve hegemony in Asia by forging deepening strategic and economic bonds.
By working together to constrain Chinese behavior without provoking escalation or open conflict, Japan and India can also help stabilize Asian power dynamics.
To be sure, Japanese and Indian defense priorities are not the same.
As an island nation, Japan has traditionally focused on maritime defense, a posture reinforced by the growing frequency of China’s forays into the territorial waters and airspace around the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing calls the Diaoyu.
China’s “gray zone” tactics just below the threshold of armed conflict have been so successful in the South China Sea that it is seeking to replicate them against Japan in the East China Sea.
India, faced with the strengthening China-Pakistan strategic nexus, maintains a land-based defense posture. It is the only Quad member to have gone to war with China in the post-World War II period.
There are important parallels between the way Xi’s regime is pursuing its territorial revisionism against Japan and India, including following a strategy of attrition, friction and containment to weigh them down and strengthen its own claims of sovereignty over disputed areas.
Against this backdrop, Japan and India share common strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific region. An economically ascendant India and a politically rising Japan are both seeking to uphold the present Asian order. After all, the alternative would be a Sinocentric Asia inimical to their interests.
Unlike China, India and Japan are not seen as hungry for the land and resources of others. Indeed, Japan has not fired a shot in anger since its defeat in World War II, while India’s rise has not been accompanied by greater assertiveness toward its neighbors.
In fact, Japan-India cooperation is driven by complementary interests, the absence of historical baggage or disputes, and a shared vision for a rules-based order free from unilateralism or coercion.
To underpin a liberal and values-based order, the two countries in 2017 created the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, but it remains much smaller than China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. In India’s politically sensitive northeast region, sandwiched between Chinese-ruled Tibet, Myanmar and Bangladesh, Japan is the only foreign government that New Delhi has allowed to participate in infrastructure projects.
Impediments to speedier development of India-Japan collaboration are essentially bureaucratic and cultural: Ethnically and linguistically diverse India contrasts starkly with comparatively homogenous Japan, some of whose companies struggle to navigate New Delhi’s bureaucracy and regulatory environment.
The stakes could not be higher for India and Japan. Without building a de facto alliance that puts discreet checks on the exercise of Chinese power, the two are likely to bear the brunt of Beijing’s revisionist policies.
Japan and India need to quietly move from emphasizing shared values to jointly advancing shared interests, including thwarting China’s effort to establish itself as the hegemon of an illiberal regional order. Their close strategic collaboration can help lay the foundation for what late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called a “democratic security diamond” in the Indo-Pacific region.
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a former adviser to India’s National Security Council. He is the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”
To Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s credit, India has more than matched China’s Himalayan military deployments, refusing to put up with its furtive territorial encroachments of April 2020 in eastern Ladakh. So, why has the robust Indian military response failed to persuade China to defuse the almost 33-month frontier crisis or deter it from opening new fronts, like when it attempted to intrude into Tawang last month?
The answer to this question is in the newly released bilateral trade figures, which show that China’s trade surplus with India has jumped nearly 50% in just one year — from $69.38 billion in 2021 to $101.02 billion in 2022. This means that the Indian trade deficit with just one country, China, now accounts for about 64% of India’s total global trade deficit.
Another paradox is that China’s bilateral trade surplus has been ballooning since it launched its border aggression, surpassing by 2021 India’s total defence budget (the world’s third largest). China’s international trade surplus is now the main engine of its slowing economy, allowing it to finance its aggressive manoeuvres in the Himalayas and other Indo-Pacific theatres. And India last year contributed 11.51% to China’s overall trade surplus of $877.6 billion.
In effect, India is underwriting China’s economic and geopolitical power. This shows how India, instead of establishing disincentives to Chinese military belligerence, has handed Beijing a potent incentive to sustain its aggression.
To emerge as a global power, India must become a manufacturing powerhouse so that factory work helps lift Indian youths out of poverty. But the avalanche of imports from China has already devastated a key job creator — the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) industry. Opening the floodgates to “Made in China” is also decimating the “Make in India” initiative.
By refusing to cut even non-essential imports from China, including of cheap, substandard goods, India not only harms its economic interests, but also allows its recalcitrant adversary to have its cake and eat it too.
The Modi government’s reluctance to leverage India’s buying power is just one facet of its increasingly confusing China policy. It has also been loath to impose any diplomatic costs. Indeed, it has scrupulously refrained from naming and shaming China for its expansionist creep, even as Beijing has raked up the Kashmir issue at the UN Security Council.
Importantly, the government still uses euphemisms to describe the military crisis: “unilateral change of status quo” for China’s aggression; “friction points” for captured areas; and “full restoration of peace and tranquillity” for rollback of the Chinese intrusions and military deployments.
Soft-pedalling the aggression, unfortunately, only aids China’s strategy of downplaying the severity of the border crisis so as to shield its booming trade surplus and deflect global attention from its use of force to change the territorial status quo. The Chinese aggression also draws encouragement from India’s disinclination to impose meaningful costs on Beijing, with New Delhi restricting its retaliation to largely symbolic actions, such as banning Chinese mobile phone apps.
Despite tens of thousands of Indian troops in the Himalayas hunkered down for the brutal winter, the government seems keen to host Chinese President Xi Jinping for two separate summits this year — the G-20 Summit and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit. A Xi visit could catalyse efforts to ease the military crisis. But Beijing is likely to leverage the importance of a Xi visit for either summit to mould the terms of any such deal.
This kind of a scenario could compound India’s dual blunder in vacating the strategic Kailash Heights and accepting Chinese-designed “buffer zones” in three separate Ladakh areas. The Galwan, Pangong and Gogra-Hot Springs “buffer zones” have come up largely on lands that were under India’s exclusive patrolling jurisdiction, with Indian forces retreating further back into Indian territory.
China is playing the long game in the Himalayas through its frenzied buildup of warfare infrastructure. Its new security installations, roads, helipads, electronic warfare facilities, dual-use border villages and other assets position it strongly in the long run. Just as China has shown little interest over the decades in settling the border dispute, its frenetic buildup of new border infrastructure suggests that it wants, not peace and tranquillity, but a “hot” frontier to bog India down.
So, no deal linked to a Xi visit is likely to truly restore border peace. In fact, India’s approach of letting China reap rewards of aggression has made restoration of status quo ante in eastern Ladakh illusory, with a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece dubbing a return to the April 2020 positions as “unrealistic fantasies” in India.
It is not too late for Indian decision-makers to grasp China’s true intentions, and recognize that deterrence can never be effective without a comprehensive approach that extends beyond military-power projection to the use of all available tools, including economic leverage, to impose costs.
While Japan’s move toward rearmament is welcome, the embrace of Tomahawk missiles and hypersonic weapons alone will not force China to stop waging hybrid warfare. Japan must also find ways to frustrate China’s furtive efforts to alter the regional status quo while avoiding the risk of open combat.
For decades, Japan has based its international clout on economic competitiveness, not military might. But, with China’s lengthening shadow darkening its doorstep, Japan now seems to be abandoning its pacifist postwar security policy – which capped defense spending at about 1% of GDP and shunned offensive capabilities – in favor of assuming a central role in maintaining security in the Indo-Pacific region.
Last month, Japan unveiled a bold new national-security strategy, which includes a plan to double defense expenditure within five years. That spending – amounting to some $320 billion – will fund Japan’s largest military build-up since World War II, and implies the world’s third-largest defense budget, after the US and China. Importantly, the new strategy includes acquisition of preemptive counterstrike capabilities, such as Tomahawk cruise missiles from the United States, and the development of its own hypersonic weapons.
Japan began laying the groundwork for this shift under former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, who was assassinated last July. On Abe’s watch, Japan increased defense spending by about 10%, and, more significantly, reinterpreted (with parliament’s approval) the country’s US-imposed “peace constitution” to allow the military to mobilize overseas for the first time since WWII. Abe also sought to amend Article 9 of the constitution, which renounces “the threat or use of force” by Japan, but his efforts were stymied by popular protests.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has not run into the same resistance. On the contrary, opinion polls show that a majority of Japanese support the military build-up. A similar shift has taken place in Kishida himself, who was widely considered a dove when he was foreign minister – a label that he publicly embraced.
The impetus for this shift is clear. In 2013, the year Xi Jinping became China’s president, Japan’s national-security strategy called China a strategic partner. According to the updated strategy, by contrast, China represents “an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge in ensuring the peace and security of Japan.” China’s incremental but unrelenting expansionism under Xi has rendered Japan’s pacifist stance untenable.
This is more apparent than ever in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has intensified fears that China could pursue a military option against Taiwan, which is effectively an extension of the Japanese archipelago. Last August, five of the nine missiles China fired during military exercises in the waters around Taiwan landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Japan understandably views Taiwan’s security as vital for its own.
Japan is not the only once-conciliatory power to respond to Xi’s muscular revisionism with a newfound determination to bolster its defenses and forestall the emergence of a Sinocentric Indo-Pacific. Australia and India have embarked on the same path.
Moreover, a similar trend toward militarization has emerged among Japan’s Western allies. Germany, another pacifist country, has pledged to boost its defense spending to 2% of GDP (the same level Kishida is targeting) and accept a military leadership role in Europe. The United Kingdom has already surpassed the 2%-of-GDP level, yet aims to double its defense spending by 2030. The US has just hiked its already-mammoth military spending by 8%. And Sweden and Finland are joining a reinvigorated NATO.
While Japan’s rearmament is more widely accepted than ever – and for good reason – it is unlikely to be enough to deter China’s expansionist creep. After all, despite having the world’s third-largest defense budget, India has been locked in a military standoff with China on the disputed Himalayan border since 2020, when stealth encroachments by the People’s Liberation Army caught it by surprise. Clashes continue to erupt intermittently, including just last month.
Unlike Russia, which launched a full frontal assault on Ukraine, China prefers salami tactics, slicing away other countries’ territories with a combination of stealth, deception, and surprise. The PLA’s so-called “Three Warfares,” which focus on the psychological, public-opinion, and legal aspects of conflict, has enabled China to secure strategic victories in the South China Sea – from seizing the Johnson South Reef in 1988 to occupying the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 – while barely firing a shot.
Because China generally avoids armed conflict, it incurs minimal international costs for its actions, even as it unilaterally redraws the geopolitical map of the South China Sea and nibbles away at Bhutan’s borderlands, one pasture at a time. The government in Beijing managed to decimate Hong Kong’s autonomy without facing significant Western sanctions.
All this impunity has only emboldened Xi, who is now seeking to replicate the South China Sea strategy in the East China Sea by escalating maritime and aerial incursions to strengthen its claims to the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands. It has even tried to police the waters off the Senkakus.
Japan’s response to China’s provocations has so far remained restrained, to say the least: no Japanese defense minister has so much as conducted an aerial inspection of the Senkakus, lest it anger China. Yet Japan’s embrace of Tomahawk missiles and hypersonic weapons does not necessarily represent an effective means of resisting China’s hybrid warfare, either. For that, Japan must find ways to frustrate China’s furtive efforts to alter the status quo while avoiding the risk of open combat.
Japan’s push to become more self-reliant on defense should be welcomed. Improved defense capabilities will translate into a more confident and secure Japan – and a more stable Indo-Pacific. But if Japan is to “disrupt and defeat” threats, as the national-security strategy puts it, Japanese leaders must move proactively to beat China at its own game.
The latest border clash between Chinese and Indian troops on Dec. 9 took place nearly 2,000 kilometers from the sites of previous skirmishes. This underscores the enduring costs of Beijing’s stealthy land grabs along India’s borderlands and how much those encroachments have spurred military buildups and tensions along the two nations’ entire long Himalayan frontier.
When asked to comment on the fighting four days after this month’s clash, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said: “As far as we know, the China-India border areas are generally stable. The two sides have maintained smooth communication on boundary-related issues through diplomatic and military channels.”
This is in keeping with a strategy described in the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual China military report, which stated that Beijing has “sought to downplay the severity of the crisis … to prevent the standoff from harming other areas of its bilateral relationship with India.”
Through its aggressive revisionism, however, China has set in motion forces that are likely to come back to haunt its own long-term interests.
Its increasingly muscular approach and border provocations are beginning to shake India out of its complacency and trigger much-needed modernizations of the country’s military, including major investments in counterintervention capabilities, greater missile power and formation of additional mountain-warfare forces.
Yet in the short term, China’s efforts to silo the border crisis are showing some signs of success.
For example, China’s large trade surplus with India has continued to surge since the military confrontation began in May 2020 when Indian troops discovered the incursions by the Chinese military.
Indeed, India’s trade deficit with China is now the world’s third-largest such imbalance and has even overtaken New Delhi’s 5.25 trillion rupee ($63.45 billion) defense budget in size. After reaching $77 billion in the Indian financial year that ended in March, the bilateral deficit is projected to cross $88 billion this fiscal year.
In effect, India is underwriting Beijing’s economic and military power even as its forces seek to contain creeping Chinese expansionism.
The latest clashes were sparked by a Chinese attempt to seize mountaintop positions in Tawang, the birthplace of a previous Dalai Lama and a district of the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing has been calling “South Tibet” since 2006. Tawang controls access to Bhutan’s Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, which China has claimed since mid-2020.
By playing down the military confrontation, Beijing has been able to maintain the veneer of stable diplomatic relations with India. This was underscored by smiling pictures of Chinese President Xi Jinping interacting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the recent Group of 20 summit in Bali, although the two did not hold a private meeting, as each did with other leaders.
Xi’s larger objective is to avoid driving New Delhi closer to Washington and making a U.S.-India strategic alliance a reality.
Yet Beijing’s aggression has prodded New Delhi into concluding the last of four foundational defense-related agreements that Washington regularly puts in place with military allies and has also breathed new life into the Quad arrangement with Washington, Canberra and Tokyo, with India’s annual Malabar war games now including all three partners.
For New Delhi, soft-pedaling Chinese border aggression is a way to save face. Modi, while openly challenging China’s capability and power by resolutely sustaining the military standoff, does not want to draw public attention to Beijing’s territorial grabs, as they took his government by complete surprise.
Indeed, Modi has made no comment on the land grabs. His government last week thwarted a discussion in parliament on the latest border clash, telling lawmakers to be content with a brief statement from the defense minister.
India failed to foresee the territorial losses largely because Modi had been focused on befriending Beijing to chip away at the China-Pakistan axis. As part of that effort, Modi met with Xi 18 times over the five years before the 2020 encroachments and missed warning signs, including Chinese combat exercises and frenzied military-infrastructure construction along the two nations’ frontier.
As an old adage goes, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The dogged courtship of Mao Zedong by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first post-independence prime minister, helped create New Delhi’s China problem. On Nehru’s watch, China annexed buffer state Tibet to impose itself as India’s neighbor and then began encroaching on Indian territories before launching a border war in the Himalayas in 1962.
Today, China may have reason to gloat over what it calls “recovery momentum” in ties with India. Far from launching a diplomatic offensive to spotlight Chinese aggression, New Delhi remains reticent about naming and shaming Beijing even as its rival has spotlighted issues involving Kashmir at the U.N. Security Council.
The Modi administration, in fact, still uses euphemisms to describe the Himalayan crisis, or what it calls a “unilateral change of status quo” involving “friction points” that should be resolved by the “full restoration of peace and tranquility.”
New Delhi has also shied away from imposing meaningful costs on Beijing, including by exercising its trade leverage. While New Delhi has banned numerous Chinese mobile phone apps, restricted Chinese companies’ access to Indian government contracts and launched tax and customs probes against Chinese phone makers, this has been no more than an annoyance for Beijing.
Deterrence, to be effective, must extend beyond military strength to the use of all available tools.
More fundamentally, why should salami-slicing be the prerogative of only the Chinese side? Why does India not pay China back in the same coin?
India’s overly defensive, risk-averse approach, including a reluctance to impose costs, is aiding China’s strategy of having its cake and eating it too.
India’s shortcomings, however, cannot obscure China’s glaring shortsightedness. Xi’s aggression against India promises to prove costly for China in the long run.
Xi has picked a border fight with India that China cannot win. While the Chinese military relies heavily on conscripts, India, with an all-volunteer force, has the world’s most-experienced troops for hybrid mountain warfare. A war between these two nuclear-armed giants would likely end in a bloody stalemate.
Worse still, Xi’s strategic miscalculation promises to turn a once-conciliatory neighbor into a long-term foe determined to forestall a Sinocentric Asia.
Brahma Chellaney is professor emeritus of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a former adviser to India’s National Security Council. He is the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tenure has already been marked by high ambition and aggression, including territorial and maritime expansionism. Xi’s vision, the “Chinese dream,” is to make China the world’s leading power by 2049, the centenary of communist rule.
But Xi—who has just crowned himself China’s new emperor and elevated his favourite “yes” men to the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party’s highest decision-making body—may be biting off more than he can chew. His third term is likely to take a toll on China’s economy and international standing while leading the country to a major war over Taiwan.
Xi’s decade-long reign has already turned China into a wrathful, expansionist power that pursues “wolf warrior” tactics and debt-trap diplomacy and flouts international law at will. Two successive US administrations have described as genocide and crimes against humanity Xi’s Xinjiang gulag, the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi period. About a million Muslims continue to languish in Xi’s gulag, without Xi or China facing tangible Western sanctions.
The international costs of Xi’s increasing authoritarianism are apparent from the devastating consequences of the China-originating Covij-19 pandemic, which officially has killed more than 6.5 million people worldwide. Nearly three years on, the world still does not know whether Covid-19 began as a natural spillover from wildlife or was triggered by the accidental leak of a lab-enhanced virus in Wuhan city. What is apparent, though, is that Xi’s regime lied about the initial spread of the disease, hid evidence of human-to-human transmission, and silenced doctors who sought to warn about the emergence of a novel coronavirus.
More ominously, a massive cover-up in China to obscure the genesis of the virus suggests the world may never know the truth. Beijing has refused to cooperate with international investigations, characterising them as “origin-tracing terrorism,” and instead peddled conspiracy theories.
Xi, meanwhile, has accelerated national production of nuclear warheads so rapidly that the Pentagon, in just one year, revised up its estimate of the number of such weapons China will deploy by 2030 from 400 to more than 1,000. China has already fielded its first operational hypersonic-weapons system and “intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force,” according to a Pentagon report. The unprecedented speed and scale of the nuclear build-up is linked to Xi’s international expansionism, including seeking China’s global primacy by 2049.
But thanks to Xi’s actions, China’s global image has been badly dented, forcing the country to increasingly rely on its coercive power. A 2021 global survey found that unfavourable views of China were at or near historic highs in most advanced economies.
Yet, instead of undertaking a course correction, Xi is doubling down on his scofflaw actions, as underscored by China’s stepped-up bullying of Taiwan. After Beijing’s success in swallowing Hong Kong, redrawing the geopolitical map of the South China Sea and changing the territorial status quo in the Himalayan borderlands with India, Nepal and Bhutan, Taiwan is likely to be Xi’s next target.
Xi’s unbridled authority, however, does not augur well for international security and China’s own future. In fact, in a forewarning that Xi could lead China into a war, the customary phrase ‘peace and development remains the theme of the era’ was absent from his speech as well as report to the party Congress
It speaks for itself that, even before Xi secured a precedent-defying third term as the country’s leader at the recent party congress, his record in power was drawing comparisons to the past century’s most brutal rulers.
For example, Robert O’Brien, national security adviser to then-US President Donald Trump, last year equated Xi to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Some others have compared Xi to Adolf Hitler, even coining the nickname “Xitler.”
Xi, for his part, has cultivated a Mao Zedong-style personality cult and embarked on completing the expansionist agenda that the communist China’s founder left unfinished. Indeed, Xi has sought to model himself on Mao, the 20th century’s top butcher.
Like Mao Zedong Thought, Xi Jinping Thought has been enshrined in China’s constitution and made the central doctrine guiding the Communist Party. Also like Mao, Xi is now reverently referred to as renminlingxiu, or “people’s leader.”
China’s new Mao, while ideologically committed to classical Marxism-Leninism, as his speech at the opening of the party congress underscored, is apparently seeking to build fascism with Chinese characteristics.
A critical element of Xi’s strategy to realise the Chinese dream has been the “One Belt, One Road” project, renamed as the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, under which China has considerably invested in infrastructure projects abroad, with the goal of bringing countries firmly into China’s orbit. What Xi has called “the project of the century” has no parallel in modern history. The BRI is more than 12 times the size of the Marshall Plan, America’s post-World War II initiative to aid the reconstruction of Western Europe’s devastated economies.
Although the BRI has of late faced increasingly strong headwinds over partner countries’ debt-trap concerns, compelling Beijing to scale back the initiative, its significant and lasting impact should not be underestimated. The BRI, however, also remains a symbol of China’s imperial overreach, with Xi stretching the country’s resources to help advance his aggressive foreign policy.
Xi’s strategic overreach in international relations actually mirrors his domestic overreach, including imposing mass lockdowns and quarantines as part of a zero-Covid policy that has exacted major economic and social costs. Xi’s domestic overreach has extended to tightening the reins on the private sector, including the tech industry, as China increasingly becomes a state-driven economy that prioritises politics and national security over growth. Although China’s economic rise was driven by its embrace of a free market, Xi’s speech at the party congress emphasised Marxism more than markets.
According to a Chinese proverb, “To feed the ambition in your heart is like carrying a tiger under your arm.” The further Xi pushes his neo-imperial agenda, the more likely it is to bite him.
What Xi’s third term could bring
It is scarcely a surprise that Xi has tightened his grip on power by securing a ground-breaking third term as the country’s president following the week-long party congress. If there was any surprise at the party congress, it was the ease with which Xi has stacked the powerful Politburo Standing Committee with his acolytes and brought other loyalists or protégés to leadership positions, effectively creating a one-man rule under the Communist Party flag.
Surrounded by a closed circle of “yes” men who will be competing among themselves to show how loyal they are, the president will likely be told only what he would like to hear. As the American writer Walter Lippmann once warned, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
Xi’s centralisation of authority means he will have a freer hand to speed up China’s rise as a military and technological superpower, while crushing all dissent at home and accelerating the Sinicisation of ethnic minorities, especially Tibetans and Uighurs. With his unchecked power, Xi can now do whatever he wants.
So, unlike in the past when he could blame others for mistakes, Xi will find it more difficult to palm off responsibility for problems. After all, Xi reigns supreme and unchallenged, without any heir apparent.
In his speech to the party congress, Xi left little doubt that he wants China to become a world power second to none, including by reducing its reliance on Western know-how and emerging as a leading technology power in its own right. Citing a host of perceived dangers, he also vowed to continue expanding the country’s already formidable national-security apparatus.
Xi’s unbridled authority, however, does not augur well for international security and China’s own future. In fact, in a forewarning that Xi could lead China into a war, the customary phrase “peace and development remains the theme of the era” was absent from his speech as well as report to the party congress. Instead, Xi darkly warned of “dangerous storms” on the horizon.
Domestic politics in any country, including in a leading democracy like the US, has a bearing on its foreign policy. This is especially so in the case of the world’s largest autocracy, China. Under Xi, China has discarded Deng Xiaoping’s dictum, “Hide your strength, bide your time.” Instead, China has increasingly taken pride in baring its claws. This trend is likely to become even more pronounced in Xi’s third term.
Surrounded by a closed circle of ‘yes’ men who will be competing among themselves to show how loyal they are, the president will likely be told only what he would like to hear. As the American writer Walter Lippmann once warned, ‘where all think alike, no one thinks very much’
At home, Xi’s surveillance state will likely grow by leaps and bounds. Already, China’s unrivalled surveillance, censorship and propaganda systems can control or construct a narrative. But Xi is set to further expand his Orwellian surveillance state while cultivating a climate of fear.
In fact, to stamp out dissent, Xi’s regime has been whipping up ultra-nationalism by blending the digital tools of surveillance with the political tactics of the Cultural Revolution, which claimed more than a million lives. No less ominously, China’s repression and surveillance at home is a corollary of its aggressive revisionism abroad, which is largely concentrated against its neighbours.
More repression and more heavy-handedness at home are likely to be accompanied by a more aggressive military posture and a more forceful international agenda. Xi seems to believe that Chinese money can buy international acquiescence to China’s playing by its own rules, including aggressively pursuing an expansionist agenda.
With its “two steps forward, one step back” strategy, the Xi-led China will keep progressing toward its ambitious goals. Its territorial and maritime expansionism also mirrors that strategy. In this light, one can expect China to remain defiant in the face of international criticism of its renegade behaviour and actions.
Neighbouring countries will bear the brunt
The Chinese Communist Party has since its power grab in 1949 shown that it is intrinsically totalitarian, belligerent, arbitrary, expansionist and contemptuous of international law. But under Xi, the party and its rule have become more despotic, coercive, punitive and racist.
With its “tribute nation” approach to weak, vulnerable states, China seeks to influence their sovereign decisions through economic and political coercion. Indeed, Xi believes China has accumulated sufficient power to begin remaking the global order in its image, thereby reinventing itself as the mythical Middle Kingdom.
China’s territorial assertiveness and expansionism, meanwhile, have become intertwined with its national renewal. China has sought to extend its control to strategic territories and resources as part of a shrewd, high-stakes strategy to achieve political, economic, and military pre-eminence in Asia. It sees dominance in Asia as a stepping stone to supplanting the US as the world’s preeminent power.
Against this background, China’s muscular foreign policy is set to become even more assertive, with important implications for its neighbours. China will also exploit its status as the world’s unmatched hydro-hegemon to gain strategic leverage over its downstream neighbours, as the Mekong River Basin already exemplifies.
To stamp out dissent, Xi’s regime has been whipping up ultra-nationalism by blending the digital tools of surveillance with the political tactics of the cultural revolution, which claimed more than a million lives. No less ominously, China’s repression and surveillance at home is a corollary of its aggressive revisionism abroad, which is largely concentrated against its neighbours
The plain fact is that the rise of Xi’s neo-Maoist dictatorship will likely spell trouble for the democratic world but especially for neighbouring countries, which already are bearing the brunt of China’s recidivist policies. Indeed, Xi has shown an increasing appetite for taking major risks, as the South China Sea, the Himalayas and Hong Kong show.
Xi will continue expanding China’s influence and territorial and maritime control by stepping up pressure on other countries, a strategy that has already resulted in a fundamental change of the status quo in the South China Sea, without Beijing incurring any international costs.
Xi is now working to replicate his South China Sea strategy in the Himalayas by unilaterally changing facts on the ground, with little regard for the diplomatic and geopolitical fallout. He has not spared even Bhutan, one of the world’s smallest countries, by nibbling away at Bhutanese borderlands, one valley or pasture at a time.
China’s encroachments on several Ladakh borderlands in April-May 2020, for their part, have served as a reminder that, unlike Russia’s frontal, full-force attack on Ukraine, the Chinese Communist Party prefers a stealthy, salami-slicing approach to expand the country’s frontiers. Its tactics normally fall short of armed conflict, as a Pentagon report has noted.
The incremental, salami-slicing approach below the threshold of armed conflict explains why China’s often bulletless aggression draws little international costs. For example, without inviting any concrete Western sanctions, China has changed the status in the South China Sea and Hong Kong. What was one of Asia’s freest and most open cities, Hong Kong, has rapidly been turned into a repressive police state.
China’s salami-slicing strategy, however, did not develop under Xi. The party honed salami-slicing in the 1950s, when China sliced off the Switzerland-sized Aksai Chin plateau, which was part of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. But under Xi’s leadership, the salami-slicing strategy has progressed to a “cabbage” approach to contested or claimed borderlands, with the People’s Liberation Army stealthily cutting off access to a neighbour’s previously controlled territory and surrounding it with multiple security layers.
Looking ahead, deception, stealth and surprise will remain integral to China’s expansion of its maritime and land borders. And China will likely rely more and more on coercive bargaining, including intimidating smaller nations from defending their interests.
It is important to note that China’s military drills are rarely empty shows of force. In 2020, China’s unusually large, wintertime troop exercise near the India border became the launchpad for its stealthy land grabs in Ladakh, triggering still continuing military standoffs between the two Asian giants at multiple sites along their long and inhospitable Himalayan frontier.
The more recent live-fire Chinese military drills around Taiwan in August, by simulating an air and sea blockade, demonstrated China’s combat capability to accomplish what Xi has called a “historic mission” to absorb that island democracy. The drills allowed Chinese troops to practice enforcing a gradual economic strangulation or quarantine of Taiwan.
Taiwan could well become the next Ukraine. Xi will wait for an opportune moment before moving on Taiwan, taking by complete surprise a distracted US, which is increasingly embroiled in the Ukraine war including through transfers of sophisticated weapons and battlefield intelligence. Xi’s aggression, however, is likely to take the form of a calibrated, gradually intensifying squeeze of Taiwan, rather than a full-fledged invasion.
The White House acknowledged in August that China is pursuing a “boiling the frog” strategy against Taiwan by regularising crossings of the median line in the Taiwan Strait, stepping up coercive pressures and slowly altering the status quo.
The parable of the frog is about sensory adaptation to small changes over time: If a frog is put into a pot of boiling water, it will instantly jump out, but if it is placed in a pot of cool water that is then very slowly brought to a boil, the frog will not notice, cooking to death. Likewise, Xi pursues his expansionism incrementally, conditioning international power elites to China’s expanding footprint and preventing a concerted Western response until it becomes too late.
Yet US President Joe Biden, asked recently whether American forces would defend Taiwan if China attacked, replied, “Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.” But China, instead of launching an unprecedented attack, is more likely to slowly throttle Taiwan.
Meanwhile, Xi, far from seeking to hide China’s frenzied nuclear weapons build-up, is virtually flaunting it, as if to underline that the country’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal is driven more by political than military considerations. China’s neighbours need to pay close attention to this build-up, even though it may be primarily aimed at dissuading the US from challenging the Xi regime’s actions at home and abroad.
Just as Xi’s muscular revisionism has largely centred on Asia—from the East and South China Seas to the Himalayas—the security-related impacts (as opposed to the geopolitical implications) of the fast-growing Chinese nuclear armoury are likely to be felt principally by Asian states. With a larger nuclear arsenal, Xi could be further emboldened to step up his conventional-military tactics and hybrid warfare from behind China’s highly protective nuclear shield.
Questions are already being raised in the US about the strategic wisdom of defending Taiwan against a potential Chinese invasion, with some analysts contending that any US plan to come to Taiwan’s rescue is far too risky and that Taipei ought to do more for its self-defence. A China armed to its teeth with nuclear weapons would cast further doubt on whether the US would come to Taiwan’s defence, given the greater risks involved.
More fundamentally, if China cannot be at peace with itself, it will not be at peace with others. Xi’s lurch toward totalitarianism will foster greater discontent among the Chinese people, spawning a pressure cooker syndrome.
History is replete with examples of dictators blinded by hubris and overreach leading their countries down a disastrous path. With the last checks and balances gone, Xi’s overweening ambition, absolute power and reliance on “yes” men are likely to spell trouble for China. Under Xi, China has already damaged its international reputation and left itself with only one real lever of power: brute force. But if Xi stays on his present course, he is likely to lead China into a war.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of two award-winning books on water: Water, Peace, and War and Water: Asia’s New Battleground.
China’s relentless expansionism in the frigid high Himalayas through furtive territorial encroachments has fostered a nearly 30-month military standoff with India.
The confrontation, and the wider faceoff between the world’s two most populous nations, persists even as both militaries have pulled back recently from some front line areas to establish buffer zones so as to reduce the risk of inadvertent clashes.
China’s Himalayan encroachments are a reminder that in contrast to Russia’s full-force attack on Ukraine, Beijing prefers to act gradually with stealth, deception and surprise to expand the country’s frontiers.
This incremental, salami-slicing approach of bulletless aggression comes at little international cost. Most prominently, China has redrawn the geopolitical map of the South China Sea and maritime Southeast Asia without inviting any concrete Western sanctions.
In the Himalayas, Beijing is seeking to replicate its South China Sea strategy by unilaterally changing facts on the ground, assuming there will be little diplomatic or geopolitical fallout. It has not spared even tiny Bhutan, nibbling away at its borderlands one valley at a time.
China honed its salami-slicing strategy in the 1950s when it carved off the Aksai Chin plateau, a Switzerland-sized area originally part of the princely Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Under President Xi Jinping, this strategy has evolved into a “cabbage” approach with the People’s Liberation Army stealthily cutting off neighboring states’ access to contested territory they previously controlled and surrounding the acquired areas with multiple layers of security forces.
China’s current military standoff with India involves some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth. But no sooner had New Delhi declared a nationwide lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that emerged from China in early 2020 than the PLA clandestinely invaded the borderlands of India’s northernmost region of Ladakh, enveloping hundreds of square kilometers of territory with layers of defense lines.
Although India has responded with heavy military deployments, leading to the largest Himalayan buildup of rival forces in history, the PLA remains in control of the larger areas it grabbed in April 2020. Through lengthy negotiations, India has managed only to get China to convert its smaller encroachments into buffer zones — largely on Beijing’s terms.
The daunting challenge for a traditionally defensive India is to regain lost territory in the same way China took it — without resort to open combat. The scale of the challenge may explain why Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has agreed to the establishment of four separate buffer zones, with the latest established in September in the Hot Springs area of eastern Ladakh.
Under these deals, the rival forces have pulled back by equal distances from specified confrontation sites to create no man’s lands between them. The buffers in effect advance China’s “10 miles forward, eight miles back” strategy, forcing Indian forces to retreat further back into their own territory while illustrating what Beijing calls “meeting each other halfway.”
In the more strategically valuable areas it has seized, China has fortified front line positions by establishing permanent military bases and deploying large, combat-ready forces with tanks, artillery and cold-weather troop shelters to preclude any Indian attempt to regain lost territory through counterforce operations.
Indeed, since the faceoff began, China has expanded its frenzied buildup of military infrastructure and capabilities along its entire disputed frontier with India. New heliports and expanded air bases near the border have strengthened China’s vertical lift capability.
Modi, while seeking to befriend China after taking office in 2014, coined the phrase “inch toward miles” as a motto for bilateral cooperation. Beijing has cynically translated that slogan to incrementally advance its territorial aggrandizement in the Himalayas.
Simply put, China’s strategy is proving just as effective on land as it has been at sea. In fact, its terrestrial aggression has attracted even less international attention than its blue-water expansionism.
China’s actions in muscling into its neighbors’ territory reflect the Communist Party’s goal of achieving Asian hegemony as a stepping stone toward supplanting the U.S. as the world’s preeminent power. Advancing that ambition means asserting the country’s economic and strategic interests and territorial claims, including by rewriting history and disregarding international law.
Should Beijing next target Taiwan, its aggression is likely to take the form of a slow squeeze of the island democracy rather than a full-fledged invasion. China’s live-fire exercises around Taiwan in August simulated the steps it might take to slowly throttle the island, including by imposing a blockade.
The White House acknowledged in August that China is pursuing a “boiling the frog” strategy against Taiwan by regularizing crossings of the median line that previously restricted military activities in the Taiwan Strait, stepping up coercive pressure and slowly altering the status quo.
The parable of the frog is about sensory adaptation to small changes over time: If a frog is put into a pot of boiling water, it will instantly jump out, but if it is placed in a pot of cool water that is then only slowly brought to a boil, the frog will not notice before it is killed by the heat.
China likewise pursues its expansionism incrementally, conditioning international power elites to its expanding footprint and thwarting a concerted Western response until it is too late.
Asked recently whether American forces would defend Taiwan if China attacks, U.S. President Joe Biden replied, “Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.”
China is more likely to slowly throttle Taiwan than directly attack, however. Would Biden put up with a gradual squeeze of Taiwan?
The singular focus of the U.S. and Europe on isolating and punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine has deflected attention away from China’s creeping, covert warfare. But while Russia’s strategic ambitions are essentially limited to its near abroad, China is seeking to fundamentally alter global power dynamics.
Brahma Chellaney is professor emeritus of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and a former adviser to India’s National Security Council. He is the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”
Can the Indo-Pacific region be America’s top priority if U.S. President Joe Biden is deepening commitments and resources for Europe and the Middle East?
This question is central to the future of the Quad, the strategic coalition of leading Indo-Pacific democracies comprising India, Australia, Japan and the U.S.
High-level Quad meetings, like last week’s senior officials’ gathering in New Delhi, are becoming more frequent. The group’s four national leaders alone have held four summit meetings since Biden took office in January 2021.
The accelerating tempo of meetings, though, can obscure the fact that the Quad faces important challenges, including establishing a clear strategic mission in the Indo-Pacific region, a sprawling area shaping up as the world’s economic and geopolitical hub. The Quad may have been designed to serve as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism, but Biden has coaxed the group into adopting an expansive agenda.
To be sure, the Quad has steadily gained strength since it was resurrected in 2017 from a decadelong dormancy. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi famously mocked the Quad in 2018 as a “headline-grabbing idea” that will dissipate “like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Oceans.” But China’s increasingly muscular policies have helped the Quad to build momentum.
The waters of the Indo-Pacific have become an arena of competition for resources and geopolitical influence, which explains the Quad’s emphasis on the maritime domain. Indeed, as underscored by current concerns over Taiwan and the East and South China Seas, future Indo-Pacific crises are likely to be triggered at sea.
The Quad has also been catalyzed by the threat of an illiberal hegemonic regional order, which would pose significant risks to international security and global markets. The free and open Indo-Pacific vision driving the Quad was originally set out by Shinzo Abe, the late Japanese prime minister, and has since become shorthand for a rules-based, liberal order.
The Quad’s future, however, is fundamentally tied to American policies. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in June called America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region “the core organizing principle of American national-security policy.”
It is “our priority theater of operations,” “the heart of American grand strategy” and “our center of strategic gravity,” Austin declared.
However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing hybrid war effort led by the U.S. against Moscow are distracting America from growing Indo-Pacific challenges. America’s new strategic focus on Europe and force deployments there — along with the rise of a more robust NATO, which has named Russia as its primary adversary and China as just a “challenge” — make it harder for the U.S. to genuinely pivot to the Indo-Pacific.
In fact, as the U.S. gets more deeply involved in a proxy conflict with Russia, including supplying offensive weapons and battlefield intelligence to Ukraine, the Quad faces new uncertainties. Biden is the third straight president to commit to shifting America’s primary strategic focus to Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific. But Biden’s expressed belief that the Ukraine “war could continue for a long time” suggests that he too could fail, as Donald Trump and Barack Obama did.
The new cold war with Moscow, meanwhile, is constraining Biden from taking a tough line toward Beijing, lest it help cement the nascent China-Russia axis. China, with an economy 10 times larger than Russia’s, has the capacity to seriously undercut Western sanctions against Moscow and bail out the Russian economy. All this is reinforcing the more conciliatory approach toward Beijing that Biden has pursued since taking office.
Against this backdrop, it is scarcely a surprise that the Quad’s security agenda has begun to take a back seat.
In fact, Biden has saddled the Quad with an increasingly global agenda that dilutes its Indo-Pacific strategic focus. Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy, as unveiled in February, confirmed the Quad’s shift toward universal challenges, from global health security and climate change to cybersecurity, resilient supply chains and green shipping.
As a small group, the Quad is in no position to deal with global challenges. Yet having launched six separate working groups on climate change, COVID-19 vaccines, critical and emerging technologies, cybersecurity, infrastructure and space, the Quad is getting weighed down by an overly ambitious agenda, crimping its ability to produce results.
The danger of overcommitting and underdelivering has been highlighted by the difficulties encountered by the Quad in supplying 1 billion Indian-manufactured COVID-19 vaccine doses to the developing world by year-end as promised. Even with the support of all four members, the Quad is set to fall far short of its vaccine pledge.
Meanwhile, as the U.S. pours military resources into Europe and the Middle East, the geostrategic dynamics are changing rapidly in the Indo-Pacific, where China is working quietly to eclipse America militarily and economically. The bulk of U.S. economic and military assistance still goes to the Middle East, even as the U.S. prioritizes NATO in order to dominate European security.
The paradox in this situation is that the Quad is becoming stronger through greater engagement among its leaders and senior officials, yet the group appears in danger of losing its strategic vision and purpose. Unless its member states imbue the Quad with a clear strategic direction and meaning, it could become a showpiece or a mere U.S. tool of leverage with Beijing.
Before critics pummel the Quad for being all bark and no bite, the group must refocus its attention on the strategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.
Brahma Chellaney is professor emeritus of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and a former adviser to India’s National Security Council. He is the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”
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