China’s bullying of tiny Bhutan risks South Asian stability

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David and Goliath struggle exposes Beijing’s expansionist intent

The Merak village, Eastern Bhutan, pictured from the footpath heading towards Sakteng in May 2015: Xi Jinping’s expansionism has not spared China’s smallest neighbor.   © Corbis/Getty Images

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

China has failed to settle the frontier with its tiny neighbor Bhutan, despite holding talks with Bhutan since 1984. Now, after nearly four decades, it is trumpeting a newly signed memorandum of understanding with the kingdom to “expedite” the border negotiations.

The MOU cannot obscure the fact that China has in recent years incrementally encroached on Bhutan’s territory, one of the world’s smallest and least-populated nations, with just 778,000 people. Such aggression violates a 1998 bilateral treaty committing China and Bhutan “not to resort to unilateral action to alter the status quo of the border.”

Druk Yul, or the land of the thunder dragon, as Bhutan is known, lies sandwiched between the elephant of India and since 1950 when Beijing swallowed Tibet, whose religion and culture has greatly influenced Bhutan, the giant Chinese dragon on the other side.

Despite popularizing the concept of gross national happiness as a measure of development, Bhutan’s own happiness is coming under pressure from Chinese aggression under President Xi Jinping, who is implementing the expansionist agenda that Mao Zedong left unfinished.

While China under Mao more than doubled its size, making it the world’s fourth-largest country by area, Xi’s expansionism has not spared China’s smallest neighbor.

Several newly built Chinese villages, unnoticed by the world, have cropped up inside internationally recognized Bhutanese territory, demonstrating how Xi has taken his South China Sea strategy to the Himalayas. With the villages have come planted settlers, roads and military infrastructure.

China’s program to build militarized villages in Himalayan borderlands it claims, or has seized, from Bhutan, Nepal and India gained momentum after Xi in 2017 called on Tibetan herdsmen to settle in frontier areas and “become guardians of Chinese territory.”

Establishing such facts on the ground has become integral to Xi’s strategy of territorial aggrandizement because international law recognizes civilian settlements as evidence of a country’s effective control over an area. This explains why artificial villages have been created in inhospitable Himalayan terrain, just like the human-made islands in the South China Sea.

Satellite images reveal new Chinese villages on land in Bhutan’s west and north. After the Colorado-based Maxar Technologies disclosed one such village named Pangda, Chinese state media claimed it was on Chinese territory.

Meanwhile, China has built military roads through Bhutanese territory to open a new axis against India’s most vulnerable point — the Siliguri Corridor, which connects its far northeast to the heartland. Known as the Chicken Neck, the corridor, at the intersection of Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, is barely 22 kilometers wide at its narrowest point.

Not content with such stealth encroachments, Xi’s regime has upped the ante by opening a new territorial front against Bhutan. Out of the blue, China last year laid claim to Bhutan’s rhododendron-laden Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, which spreads across 741 sq. kilometers and is known for its unique flora and fauna, including endangered species such as the red panda, Himalayan serow, gorals, capped langurs, Himalayan black bear and barking deer.

The new claim to Bhutan’s easternmost territory is unusual because China has no common border there, it being a region that can only be accessed through the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. This is the first time since the end of World War II that one country has laid claim to another state’s territory that can only be accessed via a third nation.

In doing so, Beijing has sought to simultaneously advance its designs against Bhutan and India. Its maps already show the entire area of Arunachal Pradesh — more than two times larger than Bhutan — as being part of China. To be sure, this is not the first time that Xi’s regime has targeted Bhutanese territory to bolster China’s military advantage over India.

In 2017, China occupied most of Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau overlooking India’s Chicken Neck, following a 73-day military standoff with India, the de facto guarantor of Bhutanese security. In fact, China is currently locked in another standoff with Indian forces that was triggered more than 19 months ago by Chinese encroachments on India’s northernmost territory of Ladakh, located almost 1,500 kilometers to Bhutan’s west.

Beijing has long pressed Bhutan to open diplomatic relations with it and accused India of blocking the kingdom from establishing such ties. In the absence of diplomatic relations, China has used the protracted border talks as a channel of communication with Bhutan on issues extending beyond their shared boundary.

Indeed, China’s new claim to the wildlife sanctuary appears aimed at intensifying its discussions with Bhutan to woo the kingdom away from India’s embrace. This may also explain the new MOU, whose text has not been released thus far. Chinese state media reports suggest that the MOU is more about getting Bhutan to establish diplomatic ties with China than about settling the border.

Xi, however, is giving Bhutan ample reason to resist subordination to China. The MOU was signed at a virtual event by the Bhutanese foreign minister and an assistant Chinese minister, as if Bhutan were a client state.

More fundamentally, by employing its South China Sea tactics to unilaterally change facts on the ground, China is presenting a territorial and military fait accompli to a helpless Bhutan.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

App bans not enough. India must start imposing calibrated costs on China

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

In 1962, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) set out to “teach India a lesson” by waging a surprise war. Now, by stealthily encroaching on border areas in Ladakh and then deepening and broadening the border crisis, it seems intent on making a permanent enemy of China’s largest neighbour.

From building a new axis against India’s so-called chicken-neck to advancing its “salami slicing” through militarized border villages, the CCP has steadily upped the ante. Its latest provocation is a “Land Borders Law”, primarily aimed at furthering its Himalayan expansionism.

Instead of mutually settled borders, the new law enables unilaterally imposed borders. Furthermore, the law’s assertion of absolute sovereignty over cross-border waters means that China has a declared right to divert as much of the shared waters of the Tibet-originating rivers as it wishes, regardless of downstream impacts.

Yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government still employs euphemisms to describe China’s 19-month-long aggression: “unilateral change of status quo” for land-grabs; “friction points” for seized areas; and “full restoration of peace and tranquillity” for rollback of the intrusions.

To Modi’s credit, though, India has refused to buckle. India has more than matched China’s military deployments and said bilateral ties cannot return to normal until China disengages and deescalates at the border.

China’s frenzied construction of new military infrastructure along the border, however, signals its intent to hold on to its gains of aggression and turn the once-lightly-patrolled frontier into a perennially hot border. The lengthy negotiations since mid-2020 have only worked to China’s advantage, enabling it to buy time and consolidate its land-grabs and build new military facilities and fibre optic networks along the frontier.

Had India done to China what China has done to it (seize territories through furtive aggression), the CCP dictatorship would have come down on it like a ton of bricks. Yet India has remained loath to impose biting trade and diplomatic sanctions, including as a means to address the largely one-sided trade and contain China’s influence operations.

India’s actions last year — from banning Chinese mobile apps to restricting Chinese companies’ access to Indian government contracts — may have helped assuage public anger at home over the aggression but did little to influence China’s behaviour. China’s exports to India are booming amid its aggression, allowing it to have its cake and eat it too. It is a “win-win” for China; it is literally winning twice.

By refraining from imposing substantive costs, India has allowed the military confrontation to remain a low-risk strategy for China. The multiple standoffs help China to keep India off-balance and stretched. Rather than India, it is China that is imposing costs, including forcing the diversion of greater Indian resources for frontier defence.

Meanwhile, India’s dual blunder in vacating the strategic Kailash Heights and accepting Chinese-designed “buffer zones” in three Ladakh areas has further emboldened China’s intransigence. Beijing has peremptorily dismissed India’s call for a return to the pre-April 2020 positions as “unreasonable and unrealistic”.

It is past time India sheds its risk aversion to build leverage over China. A calibrated imposition of progressively escalating costs has become imperative.

China’s trade with India may be modest as a percentage of its global trade, but its large trade surplus with India contributes significantly to its overall trade surplus. China’s bilateral trade surplus this year is set to nearly equal India’s total defence spending. The CCP has long waged economic war against India through product dumping to kill Indian manufacturing.

India must start employing tariff and non-tariff trade restrictions to curb non-essential imports from China. Indeed, China’s aggressive mercantilism has made trade diversification and import substitution more exigent. While China restricts market access to Indian firms, Chinese tech companies, for example, remain active in India’s lucrative cloud-computing space.

China’s challenge to its territorial integrity must prompt India to finally honour then-Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s 2014 promise to link its one-China policy to Beijing’s adoption of a one-India policy. Geopolitically, Taiwan should be to India what Pakistan is to China. If China swallows Taiwan, it will advance its hegemonic ambitions and become a more pressing military threat to India. Indian policy ought to subtly shift from a one-China stance to a “one China, one Taiwan, one Tibet” posture in practical but undeclared terms.

It is also time for New Delhi to downsize China’s large diplomatic presence in India, starting by shutting its Kolkata consulate, given the CCP’s designs on the Siliguri Corridor and the inflow of Chinese arms to insurgents. Modi’s predecessor played into China’s hands by letting it re-establish its Kolkata consulate without India reciprocally being allowed to reopen its Lhasa consulate, which Beijing shut in 1962.

The CCP is seeking to wear India out in order to impose a territorial and military fait accompli. A punitive Indian diplomatic and economic campaign can help internationally spotlight CCP’s strategic miscalculation in taking on India.

The writer is a geostrategist.

The steadily increasing risk of war between China and India

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Chinese troops pictured in Ladakh along the India-China border on Feb.15: China’s Land Borders Law effectively negates the possibility of peacefully resolving its territorial disputes with India.   © Indian Army/AP

Beijing’s use of domestic law underpins its international expansionism

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

The spotlight on the growing Chinese military threat against Taiwan has helped obscure China’s more serious military confrontation with India along an extended, mountainous frontier.

Although the intensifying multiple military standoffs between nuclear-armed titans China and India have grabbed few headlines, the risk of renewed border skirmishing, if not outright war, is increasing. Indeed, the Pentagon’s newly released annual report on China says the Chinese military is bracing for a two-front war scenario — “any escalation of border tensions with India, as well as preparing to support a Taiwan contingency.”

A reminder of the looming risks is China’s latest provocation — the enactment of a Land Borders Law — which appears primarily aimed at advancing its territorial revisionism in the Himalayas.

The law effectively negates the possibility of peacefully resolving its territorial disputes with India. Instead of mutually settled borders, the law enables unilaterally imposed borders.

The ongoing military standoffs began more than 18 months ago when a shocked India discovered that China had stealthily encroached on several key border areas in the northernmost Indian territory of Ladakh. The discovery led to the first deadly Chinese-Indian military clashes since 1975, including China’s first combat deaths in decades.

Unlike China’s expansionism elsewhere, including swallowing Hong Kong and redrawing maritime frontiers in the South China Sea without firing a shot, its Himalayan aggression has run into armed resistance. India has not only more than matched Chinese military deployments, but in recent days, it test-fired a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile as a warning shot to China and conducted daring border paratrooper exercises simulating territory capture behind enemy lines.

The deepening military stalemate at the Himalayan border led Beijing to enact its new Land Borders Law, which gives its imprimatur to assertive actions along land frontiers. Those actions emulate China’s aggressive moves in the East and South China Seas, including an intensifying campaign against the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands, claimed by Beijing as the Diaoyu, through aerial and maritime incursions.

The Land Borders Law, which India’s foreign ministry slammed as a “unilateral move,” extends to transboundary river waters. According to Chinese state media, the law upholds China’s “legitimate rights and interests” over the Tibet-originating transboundary rivers like the Brahmaputra and Mekong.

The law’s assertion of full sovereignty over cross-border waters means that China has a declared right to divert as much of the shared waters as it wishes, regardless of downstream impacts. Nikkei Asia has reported in an online article, “China law tightens land borders amid regional tensions,” that Beijing is toying with the idea of limiting the volume of cross-border water flows to India during conflicts, by citing the “protection and reasonable use” stipulation of its Land Borders Law.

In fact, underscoring its readiness to weaponize even the sharing of water data on upstream river flows, China in 2017 inexplicably refused to supply hydrological data to India in violation of the terms of two bilateral agreements. The one-year data denial 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 Land Borders Law is just the latest example of how an increasingly aggressive China is using domestic law to underpin its expansionism. Beijing, for example, used a new national security law to crush Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and bring the city into political lockstep with the Chinese Communist Party in breach of China’s United Nations-registered treaty with Britain.

The Land Borders Law came just months after China’s new Coast Guard Law took effect. Several countries, including Japan, the United States, the Philippines and Vietnam, have raised concerns about the Coast Guard Law, which clearly violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

But just as the Coast Guard Law is aimed at accelerating China’s maritime militarization, the Land Borders Law will speed up its militarization of the Himalayas. And just as the Coast Guard Law authorizes the use of lethal force in disputed waters claimed by China, the land law permits the use of force in defending and furthering Chinese claims to contested lands.

Simply put, Beijing enacts domestic law to violate international law. China’s success in unraveling Hong Kong’s autonomy through a national security law could inspire it to enact a Taiwan-specific legislation or activate its 2005 Anti-Secession Law against that island democracy.

By employing domestic law as a cover for unlawful actions, China illustrates that international law is powerless against the powerful, especially scofflaw states. But China’s expansionism often breaches international law with the aim, ironically, of asserting its own claims and rights under international law.

Examples include China’s human-made militarized islands in the South China Sea and its current militarized village-building spree in disputed Himalayan borderlands in order to extend or consolidate its control over strategically important areas that India, Bhutan and Nepal maintain fall within their national boundaries.

Effective control is the sine qua non of a strong territorial claim in international law. Armed patrols do not prove effective control, but civilian settlements do. So, the Chinese Communist Party is callously uprooting Tibetan nomads and forcing them to settle in its artificial new Himalayan border villages, where ethnic Han Chinese party members serve as resident overseers.

Whether China can legitimize unlawful actions retroactively in this manner is a moot point. But lawfare, or the misuse and abuse of law for political and military ends, is a key component of China’s asymmetrical or hybrid warfare.

This blends conventional and irregular tactics with incremental territorial encroachment — salami-slicing — psychological manipulation, disinformation and coercive diplomacy to help advance its expansionism.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

Saving Tibet

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Chinese President Xi Jinping seems eager for Taiwan to go the way of once-autonomous Tibet, which was gobbled up by Mao Zedong’s regime in the early 1950s. This would constitute the biggest threat to world peace in a generation, and the United States cannot afford to allow it.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

China’s coercive expansionism may be taking its most dangerous turn yet. Recently, record-breaking numbers of Chinese military planes have entered Taiwan’s “air defense identification zone,” where the island’s authorities assert the right to demand that aircraft identify themselves. China’s muscle-flexing sends a clear message: it is serious about incorporating the island – and “reunifying” China – potentially by force.

Though the international community has been reluctant to challenge the Chinese claim that Taiwan has “always been” part of China, the claim is dubious, at best, and based on revisionist history. For most of its history, Taiwan was inhabited by non-Chinese peoples – Malayo-Polynesian tribes – and had no relationship with China. Geographically, Taiwan is closer to the Philippines than to the Chinese mainland.

It was not until the seventeenth century that significant numbers of Chinese began to migrate to Taiwan, encouraged by the island’s Dutch colonial rulers, who needed workers. Over the next 100 years, the ethnic Chinese population grew to outnumber Taiwanese natives, who were increasingly dispossessed, often violently. During this period, Taiwan came under the Qing Dynasty’s control. But it was not until 1887 that Taiwan was declared a province of China.

Barely eight years later, China ceded Taiwan to Japan in perpetuity, following its defeat in the Sino-Japanese War. Taiwan remained under Japanese colonial rule until 1945 – Japan officially renounced its sovereignty over it in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty – and has been self-governing ever since. In other words, for the last 126 years, Taiwan has been outside China’s lawful control.

Today, Taiwan has all the attributes of a robust independent state, and most Taiwanese want it to stay that way. But Chinese President Xi Jinping appears eager to annex the island, as Mao Zedong’s regime did to Tibet in the early 1950s, in the name of “reunification.” A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would constitute the biggest threat to world peace in a generation.

Beyond compromising freedom of navigation in a crucial region, a Chinese takeover of Taiwan would upend the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, not least by enabling China to break out of the “first island chain” that runs from the Japanese archipelago, through Taiwan, the Philippines, and on to Borneo, enclosing China’s coastal seas. It would also irreparably damage America’s reputation as a reliable ally. If the United States cannot (or will not) prevent Taiwan’s subjugation, why should anyone else count on US protection?

The risks are particularly acute for Japan, whose southernmost islands are adjacent to Taiwan. As then-Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso observed in July, “Okinawa could be next.” Unable to rely on the Americans, Japan would likely remilitarize and even acquire nuclear weapons. Other US allies – such as South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand – would likely be brought into China’s sphere of influence.

Yet the US does not seem particularly committed to preventing a Chinese takeover of Taiwan and the subsequent collapse of the half-century-old Asian security order. This is exactly what Xi is counting on. Successive US administrations have let him get away with countless expansionist maneuvers – from militarizing the South China Sea to demolishing Hong Kong’s autonomy – as well as cultural genocide in Xinjiang. Why should Taiwan be any different?

US President Joe Biden’s recent shift to a more conciliatory approach toward China has probably bolstered Xi’s confidence further. Xi currently may be focused on China’s 17-month-long military confrontation with India in the Himalayas, where Chinese territorial encroachments have triggered a massive buildup of forces along the inhospitable frontier. But, if some resolution can be found that reduces tensions in the Himalayas, it would free up Chinese capabilities to deal with the fallout of any Taiwan-related operation.

At that point, the only thing that would deter China from attempting to recolonize Taiwan would be the knowledge that it would incur high concrete – not just reputational – costs. Biden must therefore make it crystal clear to Xi that the US would mobilize its own military resources to defend Taiwan.

But will he? The US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific – a policy document declassified by President Donald Trump’s administration before leaving office – recommends that America help Taiwan develop “asymmetric” capabilities against China. Such a strategy has recently been backed by some former American government and military officials. As retired Admiral James Stavridis puts it, just as a porcupine’s quills protect it from larger predators by making it difficult to digest, weapons like anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles would turn any invasion of Taiwan into a bloody, protracted, and costly guerrilla campaign.

It is true that bolstering Taiwan’s defenses is crucial to avert Chinese amphibious and airborne operations. But even if the US and Taiwanese governments reached an agreement on an asymmetric strategy, it would take several years to build a “porcupine Taiwan” capable of choking the Chinese dragon. This process would include training a large civilian corps to mount sustained guerrilla attacks on invaders.

Until then, in keeping with the central paradox of deterrence, the only way to discourage aggression by a revisionist power is for the status quo power to threaten to go to war. That is how the US kept West Berlin – which had a political status even more precarious than Taiwan’s – free throughout the Cold War.

The worst stance the US could take would be to oppose a Chinese takeover of Taiwan without credibly signaling a genuine willingness to defend the island militarily. Such an approach could encourage Xi, who has grown accustomed to acting with impunity, to order a surprise invasion. With that, the Indo-Pacific order would be overturned, dealing a mortal blow to America’s global preeminence.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2021.

Can Japan really trust America?

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Taiwan tensions underscore Tokyo’s growing sense of insecurity

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a joint news conference with Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on April 16, 2021. © Reuters

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Japan, America’s most pivotal ally in Asia, faces pressing security challenges due to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s expansionist policies, which appear to be driven by an increasing appetite for taking risks.

After accelerating a provocative campaign of aerial and maritime incursions designed to challenge Japanese control of the disputed Senkaku Islands, Xi has also set his sights on absorbing Taiwan, which, geographically, is an extension of the Japanese archipelago.

Stepping up China’s military intimidation of Taiwan — Imperial Japan’s first colony — Xi recently vowed to crush any attempt to thwart his “historic mission” to incorporate the island democracy.

No country will be more threatened by China’s invasion of Taiwan than Japan, a peaceful nation that has not fired a single shot since World War II. Indeed, as Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso recently said, Japan would regard such an invasion as an existential threat to its security, making it likely that it would join the U.S. in defending Taiwan. That prompted Chinese Communist Party organs to threaten “Japan’s survival” with military reprisals, including through “continuous” nuclear bombing.

There are more American soldiers permanently stationed in Japan than in any other foreign country, with about 54,000 military personnel spread across over 80 U.S. military facilities on Japanese soil as part of a long-standing mission to keep the peace in the Pacific. A 1960 bilateral security treaty also commits America to defend Japan in the event of an attack.

So, what explains Japan’s growing sense of insecurity?

To start with, China’s official military spending has expanded to four times that of Japan over the last eight years. The gap is even wider because China’s official budget hides significant parts of its defense spending, with external organizations estimating actual Chinese military expenditure to be up to 40% higher.

Furthermore, Japan’s population, totaling just 8.7% of China’s, is not just aging but shrinking. This unfavorable demographic trend accentuates Japan’s security concerns, including how to effectively police a vast exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which, with 6,852 islands, is larger than China’s.

Add to the picture America’s unpredictability, which causes unease in Tokyo and explains why successive Japanese prime ministers have repeatedly sought U.S. assurances that the Senkaku Islands are covered by the 1960 treaty.

The Senkakus are part of the Ryukyu island chain centered on Okinawa, which the U.S., after World War II, occupied for two decades longer than the rest of Japan. Even after returning Okinawa in 1972, the U.S. for years rebuffed Japan’s pleas to abandon its neutral stance on the Senkaku issue.

America eventually discarded its neutrality, but the first caveat-free U.S. assurance on the Senkakus did not come until Donald Trump’s presidency. U.S. President Joe Biden recently provided a Trump-type unambiguous assurance when he met Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, with their joint statement reaffirming that “Article V of the [1960] Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.”

But can Japan really trust America’s security guarantee? The U.S., despite a mutual defense treaty with Manila, has sat back and watched China’s incremental encroachments in the Philippines’ maritime backyard, starting with the 2012 capture of Scarborough Shoal. The lack of U.S. response to the Scarborough capture came as a wake-up call for Tokyo.

When China in 2013 unilaterally established an air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering the Senkakus, Japan received a second wake-up call. Washington, instead of demonstrating its disapproval by postponing then-Vice President Biden’s trip to Beijing, advised U.S. commercial airlines to respect China’s ADIZ.

Such fecklessness has allowed China to turn its contrived historical claims to the South China Sea into reality without penalty. The crackdown in Hong Kong further highlights how an emboldened Xi is changing the status quo.

The U.S., however, is still following its old diplomatic playbook, despite its relative decline. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, during his recent visit to New Delhi, sought Indian help in Afghanistan but said nothing about China’s aggression against India that has turned the Himalayas into Asia’s biggest flashpoint.

Japan faces a clear choice: bolster its security or come under siege. Yet, paradoxically, a key obstacle to Tokyo building formidable military capabilities to independently deter China is the U.S.-imposed constitution. No other country in the world is bound by the kind of constitutional restrictions, including a prohibition on acquiring offensive capabilities, that the occupying U.S. imposed on a vanquished Japan.

Such constitutional constraints militate against U.S. interests today. After all, a more confident and secure Japan that can deter China on its own will aid regional security, including preventing Xi’s regime from seizing Taiwan. The U.S. must make amends by encouraging constitutional reform to “normalize” Japan’s security posture and help transform that country into a militarily independent power like Britain and France but without nuclear weapons.

Japan, while maintaining its security alliance with Washington, must build robust capabilities, including the ability to carry out offensive cyber and naval operations, so that it can, if necessary, defend itself alone. The worst option would be to take periodic comfort in U.S. security reassurances, like a spouse going through a midlife crisis seeking repeated assurances as to their partner’s commitment.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

China’s hostility ensures the rise of a more antagonistic India

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Military standoffs along the Himalayan border enter 15th month and continue to intensify

An Indian army convoy travels towards Leh through Zoji La, a high mountain pass bordering China in Ladakh on June 13: India has shifted its military posture from defense to potential offense.   © Getty Images

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently said that China should strive to “make friends” rather than enemies and be seen as a “credible, lovable and respectable” power. But Xi’s own draconian, expansionist actions at home and abroad continue to undermine China’s global image.

In Asia, Xi’s aggressive revisionism and coercion have roiled relations with countries extending from Japan and the Philippines to Vietnam and Bhutan. But the international focus on Xi’s growing intimidation of Taiwan and his campaign to bring Hong Kong into political lockstep with Beijing have also drawn attention away from his other muscular actions, especially his bare-knuckle treatment of India.

Nowhere is the damage — and the yawning gap between Xi’s rhetoric and action — more apparent than in China’s relations with New Delhi, which are today at a nadir.

China’s protracted military standoffs with India along the Himalayan border have just entered the 15th month, and continue to intensify, with both countries recently deploying additional forces and new weapons, raising the risk that another skirmish could spark a war.

The current standoffs began after India’s shocked discovery that the People’s Liberation Army had stealthily encroached on and occupied key frontier areas in its northernmost region of Ladakh, where the Himalayas meet the Karakoram Range.

The PLA’s deception might have caught India off guard, but the aggression — a territorial grab as well an attempt to cut India down to size and thereby underpin China’s regional supremacy — was a serious strategic miscalculation on Xi’s part.

Refusing to accept a changed territorial status quo, India has put up stiff military resistance, more than matching China’s deployments and ruling out normalizing bilateral ties until China rolls back its encroachments. Xi’s aggression has only made certain the rise of a more antagonistic India.

This was apparent from a news report last week that India, by deploying 50,000 additional forces and augmenting its force level against China to about 200,000, has shifted its military posture from defense to potential offense. Indeed, India’s primary military focus has moved from Pakistan to China, although it cannot wish away the specter of a two-front war against both its closely aligned foes.

Picking a border fight with India makes little strategic sense, as it is a battle neither nuclear power can possibly win. The aggression initially triggered a series of border clashes in May and June 2020 that made China realize that its army, with little combat experience since the disastrous 1979 Chinese invasion of Vietnam, must avoid all close combat with battle-hardened Indian troops.

The worst clash resulted in many fatalities on both sides. Xi was so embarrassed by China’s first combat deaths in over four decades that, whereas India quickly honored its 20 fallen as martyrs, Beijing has still not disclosed the Chinese death toll, other than belatedly honoring four slain soldiers and one wounded officer earlier this year.

But the regime has arrested at least six Chinese bloggers for saying that China is hiding the real death toll from that clash, in which U.S. intelligence reportedly placed Chinese fatalities at 35. One of the bloggers, who had 2.5 million followers on Weibo, was recently sentenced to eight months in prison.

Since those clashes, China has sought to forestall further fighting at close quarters, including by mutually establishing buffer zones in two of the confrontation sites and by deploying new weapons like self-propelled mortars for hit-and-run firing positions. And, in a tacit admission that Han Chinese soldiers need to be better trained for high-altitude Himalayan warfare, it has been raising new border militias made up of local Tibetan youths.

The clashes were a reminder that, without the element of surprise, China is not in a position to get the better of India when it comes to actual combat.

More fundamentally, Xi has realized the hard way that it was much easier to launch aggression than it has been to scale things back. China is now locked in an uneasy military stalemate with India. If Xi attempts to break the stalemate with a war, he is unlikely to secure a decisive win. The war itself is more likely to end in a bloody stalemate, with heavy losses on both sides.

The reputational costs of that would be far higher for the stronger military and economic power, China, than for India.

The current stalemate indeed sends out the message that China’s capability and power have come under open challenge from India. And, in a reflection of Xi’s counterproductive policies, India seems more determined than ever to counter Chinese power and work with like-minded powers such as the U.S., Japan and Australia to limit China’s international influence.

Despite the deepening chill over Hong Kong’s media, a recent article in the South China Morning Post chided China for alienating India, saying, “If Beijing is serious about not pushing New Delhi further away or even turning India into a permanent enemy, it should begin by setting aside grievances on the border issue and ending the standoff.”

The problem is that Xi, having placed the China-India relationship on a knife’s edge, has boxed himself into a corner with nowhere to go.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

China rubs its hands amid international divide over Myanmar

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Punitive sanctions policies should be recalibrated

Indonesian President Joko Widodo speaks during a news conference after attending the ASEAN leaders’ summit in Jakarta on Apr. 24: the carefully nuanced statement represented a rebuff to the U.S.-led approach to isolate Myanmar.   © Reuters

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

International calls for the restoration of democracy in strategically located Myanmar obscure an important divide between that country’s neighbors and the West.

The sanctions-centered approach of the United States and the European Union has sought to punitively isolate Myanmar, while neighboring countries favor a policy of constructive engagement with the military junta.

After a gradual, decadelong democratization process, Myanmar’s military, or Tatmadaw, seized power on Feb. 1 and began cracking down on those peacefully protesting the coup. The continuing unrest has carried important international implications, including the flight of political dissidents and ordinary refugees to neighboring countries.

The cross-border impacts explain why neighbors view engagement as essential, including urging Myanmar’s military rulers to address the domestic unrest through political reconciliation.

Myanmar’s land frontiers are porous, with cross-border ethnic linkages with communities in India and Thailand making the transboundary movement of people common. Trade, investment and counterinsurgency cooperation also link Myanmar with the countries that surround it.

Can anyone imagine the U.S. seeking to isolate and squeeze its southern neighbor Mexico? U.S. President Joe Biden, in fact, is relying on the Mexican government to address the present border crisis precipitated by the tide of mainly Central American refugees trying to enter the U.S. since he took office.

Likewise, it is inconceivable that Myanmar’s immediate neighbors, saddled with a refugee influx since the coup, would embrace the punitive approach adopted by the U.S. and the EU. Yet, the Biden administration initiated a sanctions campaign against Myanmar without consultations with neighboring countries.

There is truth in the common diplomatic view that the farther a country is from Myanmar, the more likely it will favor a punitive approach, while those nearby will keep the channels of communication open through calibrated engagement. The history of sanctions shows that punitive actions have rarely worked without some form of engagement.

In this light, the presence of junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing at the Apr. 24 in-person Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Jakarta — and the carefully nuanced summit statement on Myanmar that emphasized the “ASEAN family” — represented a rebuff to the U.S.-led approach to isolate Myanmar.

According to the five-point consensus that emerged from the summit, ASEAN will mediate to help resolve the crisis. This is, however, easier said than done. ASEAN, for example, has failed to resolve the crisis in Thailand, where the leader of the 2014 coup remains ensconced in power — in civilian garb — by cracking down on pro-democracy protesters, including using a feared lese-majeste law to imprison those who insult the royal family.

More broadly, the retreat of the Myanmar spring exemplifies how democracy is under siege around the world. The wave of rollback of democracies highlights the growing threat from a fusion of autocratic politics and crony, state-guided capitalism.

Today, all the countries of continental Southeast Asia — Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam — are under authoritarian rule, like their giant northern neighbor, China. In fact, only two of ASEAN’s 10 members are true democracies with judicial independence and free media.

Still, Myanmar’s generals are discovering the hard way that rolling back democratic freedoms once people take them as their right carries enduring challenges. Although Myanmar had been under military rule for 50 of its 73 years since independence, the continuing protests show that many of its citizens are unwilling to accept a return to military rule.Anti-coup protesters in Mandalay, pictured on May 16: the continuing protests show that many of its citizens are unwilling to accept a return to military rule.    © Myitkyina News/Reuters

Only the military can return Myanmar to the path of democratization. After all, it was the military that voluntarily ushered in the country’s democratic transition that began in 2011. It is thus critical for outside states, including in the West, to maintain lines of communication with Myanmar’s top generals.

One of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries, Myanmar has long been an easy sanctions target because it has remained a weak, divided state torn by ethnic insurgencies. Its failure to construct an inclusive national identity has allowed old ethnic rivalries to fester, stifling the resource-rich country’s potential.

As past experience has shown, however, an uncompromisingly harsh approach toward Myanmar has had the perverse effect of weakening America’s hand while strengthening China’s.

China values Myanmar as a strategic gateway to the Indian Ocean. Like India, Myanmar has long complained about the flow of Chinese arms to guerrilla groups, accusing Beijing of backing several of them as levers against it. The nationalistic military is wary of reliance on China. But international isolation could leave it with no choice.

As Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told Nikkei’s Future of Asia 2021 conference earlier this month: “If I don’t rely on China, who will I rely on? If I don’t ask China, who am I to ask?” Cambodia is a cautionary tale of how international isolation pushes an economically vulnerable nation into China’s arms. Myanmar could be next, unless the U.S. recalibrates its sanctions policy.

The international divide over how to deal with Myanmar also represents a division between Western and Asian values. In contrast to the West’s interventionist impulse and democratic evangelism, the Asian way of standing up for one’s principles and beliefs does not extend to imposing them on others through coercive activism.

Today, with little prospect that the West could engineer a color revolution in Myanmar, friendly conversations with that country’s generals to persuade them to halt their crackdown and release political prisoners are likely to make more headway toward influencing future events than the current heavy-handed approach.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

Why is China making a permanent enemy of India?

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Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Chinese troops dismantle bunkers in the Pangong Tso region, Ladakh, along the India-China border on Feb. 15: there are fears China will spring further military surprises.   © Indian Army/AP

When India, currently fighting a devastating second COVID wave, was similarly distracted a year ago with enforcing the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdown, China took advantage to stealthily infiltrate key border areas in India’s high-altitude Ladakh region.

As thawing ice reopened access routes after the brutal Himalayan winter, a shocked India discovered that the People’s Liberation Army had occupied hundreds of sq. kilometers of the borderlands, fortified by heavily armed bases. The discovery triggered the first deadly clashes in the region since 1975.

The intruding PLA forces remain well dug in, with Beijing in no mood to roll back its encroachments or accept further buffer zones of the kind established in two other confrontation areas to avert further armed clashes.

With tens of thousands of Chinese and Indian troops facing each other in multiple areas, the standoffs constitute the longest period of military confrontation since China imposed itself as India’s neighbor in the early 1950s by occupying then-autonomous Tibet. Even China’s 1962 military attack on India — the only foreign war that communist-ruled China has won — only lasted 32 days.

Now, with India battling a sudden COVID explosion, there are fears China will spring further military surprises. This thought recently prompted India’s army chief to visit the front lines in Ladakh to review operational preparedness.

Meanwhile, China’s aggression has cast an unflattering light on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who failed to foresee the aggression coming largely because he was focused on befriending China. Meeting President Xi Jinping 18 times over the previous five years, Modi was blinded to the various warning signs, including China’s combat exercises and new military installations along the Himalayan frontier.

Since China’s land grabs, the otherwise voluble Modi has been quiet, neither mentioning China by name in any of his public remarks nor acknowledging the loss of territories. Worse still, no army commander has been held accountable for the costly security lapses that resulted in India being caught napping. Nor did the defense minister accept moral responsibility and resign.

India’s efforts to obfuscate the truth in order to save face, including its euphemism for seeking China’s withdrawal from the borderlands — “full restoration of peace and tranquility in the border areas” — have become grist for the Chinese propaganda mill. Indian media coverage is rife with officially coined euphemisms, with areas seized by the PLA routinely reported as “friction points.”

All of which is emboldening China’s intransigence. In seeking to advance its “10 miles forward, five miles back” strategy, Beijing recently suggested the two countries should meet each other “halfway.” Meeting halfway would be a “win-win” for China; it would literally win twice.

Not only would China retain its core land grabs, it would force India to legitimize their Chinese capture. This approach illustrates Beijing’s definition of “give and take” — the other side gives and China takes.

To Modi’s credit, India has refused to buckle. India has more than matched China’s Himalayan military deployments, and has made clear that bilateral ties cannot return to normal as long as there is, to quote Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, “friction, coercion, intimidation and bloodshed on the border.”

This month India excluded Chinese manufacturers from its fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless network trials. And, unlike the 15 tons of medical supplies it rushed to Wuhan at the height of the pandemic there, India has declined to reciprocally take any such Chinese official assistance during its current COVID surge.

The long-term implications, however, are ominous. Consider, for example, China’s frenzied construction of new military infrastructure along the inhospitable border. This big buildup either signals that Beijing sees war as likely, or that it intends to ramp up sustained pressure on India over the long-term.

More fundamentally, China’s actions, including the forward deployment of artillery, missiles and bombers, threaten to turn what was once a lightly patrolled frontier into a perennially hot border. The Tibetan Plateau has become a vast military base for China, which also enjoys the advantage of a relatively flat terrain against India.

For India, a hot border means the diversion of even greater resources for frontier defense, including raising additional mountain-warfare forces. Such a scenario will not only make it more difficult for India to focus on its broader strategic competition with China, but will also further strengthen China’s Pakistan alliance.

Tying India down along the long Himalayan frontier could even help China secure a greater foothold in the Indian Ocean. Opening a maritime front against India would mean that country’s strategic encirclement.

It is possible, however, that — like with the 1962 war — China’s actions could prove singularly counterproductive. That war shattered Indian illusions about China and set in motion India’s shift away from pacifism. In 1967, while still recovering from the 1962 war and another war with Pakistan in 1965, India gave China a bloody nose in military clashes along the Tibet-Sikkim border.

In terms of territory gained, China’s Ladakh aggression may have been a success. But politically, it has proved self-damaging, driving India closer to Washington and making a major Indian military buildup inevitable. Relations between Beijing and New Delhi are at a nadir.

This seems a replay of 1962, when China set out, in the words of then-Premier Zhou Enlai, to “teach India a lesson.” China won the war but lost the peace. The difference now is China is making a permanent enemy of its largest neighbor.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

China’s Unrestricted War on India

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China’s shadow war seeks to employ all available means short of open war to curtail Indian ambitions and strike at core Indian interests. India, however, has yet to start countering such warfare.

Residents light a candle during a power cut in Mumbai, India, October 2020
Niharika Kulkarni / Reuters

By Brahma Chellaney

Foreign Affairs journal

On October 12, 2020, the electricity went out in India’s biggest city. Mumbai faced its worst power cut in decades, with businesses crippled, the stock market shut down, thousands of commuters stranded, and hospitals scrambling to ensure backup supply for their COVID-19 patients. Major outages are not altogether uncommon in India, but Mumbai had prided itself on its recent record of reliable electricity for its residents. The disruption left authorities in the western state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, searching for answers.

Indian officials revealed in March that they might have found the cause of the power cut: a foreign cyberattack that targeted the servers of state power companies. They did not name a particular culprit, but the implication was clear. Chinese hackers, officials suggested, had trained their sights on bringing down Mumbai’s electric grid—and they had succeeded.

In its bid to gain Asian hegemony, China views India as a major obstacle. This possible cyberattack came at a time of mounting military tensions, with confrontations flaring last year at numerous points along the rugged, disputed border between the two countries. Beijing’s ability to pressure its neighbor extends beyond the conventional battlefield and increasingly includes unconventional forms of warfare (or “unrestricted war,” as the title of a book by two Chinese military officers put it) to achieve expansionist and coercive objectives. Through unrestricted war—which includes its “salami slicing” strategy (or how it aggressively seizes parcels of disputed territory without providing a cause for war), cyberwarfare, debt-trap diplomacy, environmental degradation, and the spread of misinformation—China has redrawn the geopolitical map of the South China Sea without incurring any international costs. Beijing hopes to use the same methods to box India in.

WAR BY OTHER MEANS

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding this year, has ruled China continuously for more than seven decades, making it the longest-serving political party in power in modern history. Its success attests to the ruthlessness with which it has pursued its objectives at home and abroad. Mao Zedong led the party to power, and Deng Xiaoping made the country richer. Now, President Xi Jinping’s ambition is to turn China into a hegemonic global leader. Such is the essence of what Xi calls the “Chinese dream.”


The CCP pays lip service to equality and reciprocity in international relations, but in fact China under Xi seeks to subordinate small nations. Nowhere is this truer than in Southeast Asia, where China has used a two-pronged, unconventional strategy to help it both dominate the South China Sea and control the transboundary flow of the Mekong River, the region’s lifeline. Chinese forces have constructed artificial islands in the South China Sea and unilaterally claimed disputed waters. China’s 11 megadams on the Mekong equip it with the power to turn off the tap for much of continental Southeast Asia, making downstream countries dependent on Chinese goodwill for access to water.

With a similar multidimensional strategy, China also hopes to contain its two potential peer rivals in Asia, India and Japan. The CCP has adopted a strategy of indirect war against India and Japan, with the aim of fencing in the two powers. The strategy’s first phase involved building Pakistan as a nuclear and conventional-military counterweight to India and aiding North Korea’s initial development of weapons of mass destruction. In more recent years, China has focused on an escalating campaign of deception, stealth, and concealment. At the center of this campaign is territorial revisionism, with China flexing its muscles by asserting its claim to lands or islands administered by its two neighbors.

The indirect-war elements are conspicuous in China’s actions against India. China has steadily brought Indian security under pressure through unconventional instruments, including cyberattacks, its reengineering of the cross-border flows of rivers, and its nibbling away at disputed Himalayan territories. It seeks to employ all available means short of open war to curtail Indian ambitions and strike at core Indian interests.

THE SHADOW WAR

China relishes plausible deniability in its involvement in cyberwarfare against its rivals. India claims that state-sponsored Chinese hackers have repeatedly targeted its critical infrastructure, including power grids. A U.S.-based cybersecurity firm found that a China-linked group called RedEcho was behind a surge in attacks on India’s power infrastructure in 2020, but Chinese officials insisted the allegations were false and that, in any case, it is “very difficult to trace the origin of a cyberattack.”

The cyber-tactics run parallel to more traditional conflicts. Last May, a shocked India discovered that Chinese forces had stealthily occupied mountaintops and other strategic vantage points in the northern border region of Ladakh. Tensions quickly rose, with more than 100,000 war-ready Chinese and Indian troops locked in multiple Himalayan military standoffs. And as frontier skirmishes intensified, China ramped up its cyberwar on Indian power grids.

In June, clashes between Chinese and Indian forces left dozens of soldiers dead. That month also saw at least 40,300 attempts to inject malware into Indian networks. Indian officials understood these efforts as a stern warning from Xi regime’s: if India did not stand down in the border confrontation, China would turn off the lights across vast expanses of the country. India surged troops to the border in the following months, and in October, Mumbai went dark.

More recently, Chinese cyberattackers have homed in on India’s pharmaceutical industry. China’s attempts to steal American data on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments have been well publicized, but recent Chinese cyberattacks on two of India’s leading vaccine makers have received little attention. The hackers attempted to pilfer blueprints of the two COVID-19 vaccines at the heart of India’s current immunization campaign. India supplies more than 60 percent of the world’s vaccines against various diseases and is currently employing that manufacturing heft to export millions of COVID-19 shots every week.

RIVERS RUN THROUGH IT

China controls many of the rivers that flow from the Himalayas into the Indian subcontinent, and through them it can wield tremendous leverage. China has weaponized these waters in the past. In 2017, India announced that it would boycott the inaugural summit of Xi’s signature project, the vast infrastructure investment program known as the Belt and Road Initiative. (India was the first country to criticize the BRI for lacking transparency and pursuing neocolonial aims, a stance the United States later adopted.) China retaliated by abruptly withholding hydrological data it once shared on the transboundary flows of rivers originating in Tibet. It resumed sharing the data in 2018, but only after the suspension had already hampered India’s early-warning systems for flooding, resulting in preventable deaths in the downstream Indian state of Assam.

China dominates Asia’s water map with its control over the water-rich Tibetan Plateau, a region the country annexed in the early 1950s. China, however, still refuses to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any downstream country. (Even historic rivals India and Pakistan have a water-sharing treaty.) In March, China’s rubber-stamp parliament ratified the CCP decision to dam the Brahmaputra River just before it enters India. This mammoth dam will allow China to effectively control a vital resource for millions of people outside its borders. Chinese upstream activities in the past have triggered flash floods in Indian border states and polluted the Brahmaputra’s main artery, the once pristine Siang. The newly approved megaproject, whose construction in an area known for frequent seismic activity could make it a ticking “water bomb” for downstream communities, will generate almost three times as much electricity as China’s Three Gorges Dam, currently the world’s largest dam.

The country located farthest downstream, Bangladesh, will probably bear the brunt of the megaproject’s environmental havoc. This could trigger a new exodus of refugees to India, already home to millions of Bangladeshi migrants. The dam will allow China to further manipulate transboundary river flows and leverage its long-standing claim to the adjacent Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is almost three times the size of Taiwan.

ENDLESS WAR

In the disputed Himalayan borderlands, China has mixed conventional and unrestricted tactics. For example, China has set out to quietly build some 624 villages in the region so as to unilaterally change facts on the ground. Such military-designed border villages are the Himalayan equivalent of China’s artificially created islands in the South China Sea. By bringing people from afar to settle in desolate, uninhabited border regions, China is seeking to achieve twin objectives: to absorb disputed areas and to legitimize its grabs under international law, which customarily has recognized settlements as evidence of effective control.

The village-building spree, coupled with the frenetic construction of new military facilities along the border, is a classic example of the CCP’s indirect war, which blends irregular tactics with conventional methods. The irregular aggression, known also as “gray zone” warfare because it straddles the line between war and peace, aims to subdue the foe through exhaustion while simultaneously falling short of precipitating an actual shooting war. Even against a significant military power such as India, China has demonstrated how such hybrid warfare can incrementally advance its expansionist objectives without crossing the threshold of overt armed conflict.

China may not want to risk outright war with India or its other rivals, but it remains absolutely willing to flout its legal obligations. Its withholding from India of data about rivers breached two bilateral accords that required China to transfer to India hydrological and meteorological data daily during the dangerous flood season. The CCP ceases to see international agreements as binding when they are no longer politically convenient, a fact apparent from its obliteration of Hong Kong’s autonomy in violation of a United Nations–registered treaty. China grabbed Indian territory in 2020 in Ladakh and massed troops at the border in brazen disregard of bilateral agreements to maintain peace and tranquility.

Many of the CCP’s external actions may appear small in isolation, but they are significant when taken together. It is thus perilous for any target country to consider Chinese moves individually rather than collectively. No country has been able to figure out how to counter the CCP’s aggressive behavior under Xi—not even the United States, as China’s cost-free expansion in the South China Sea illustrates.

The CCP has repeatedly outfoxed and outmaneuvered India. Given that China made its territorial grabs in Ladakh without firing a shot, India has no credible option to restore the status quo ante without provoking a war. China is constantly searching for opportunities to take bits of territory and catch its opponent by surprise, without taking overt warlike actions. Unless India is willing to turn the tables on the CCP with its own hybrid warfare that targets China’s weak spots, including in Tibet, and unless the world’s democratic powers form a united front against Xi’s expansionism, China’s unrestricted war will continue to destabilize Asia and undermine international security.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY is a geostrategist and the author of Water, Peace, and War.

© Foreign Affairs, 2021.

The Quad: Hype vs. Reality

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Brahma Chellaney, India Today

Barely six months ago, China dismissed the idea that an international coalition against it will emerge, saying “that day will never, ever come.” But, thanks to China’s aggressive expansionism and renegade actions, that day is coming, with the Quad likely to be at the core of a broader international coalition. China has fuelled the Quad’s development, with its military aggression in Ladakh helping to move India closer into this strategic grouping.

It is precisely this border aggression that has lent new momentum to the Quad’s evolution toward a concrete formal security arrangement. India holds the key to the Quad’s direction and future because the US, Australia and Japan already are tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves.

Shocked by China’s furtive territorial encroachments in Ladakh, India shed its reticence and undertook several steps, including concluding mutual logistics support accords with Australia and Japan, signing the last of four “foundational” agreements that the US maintains with all its close defence partners, and playing host to the first-ever Quad military drills by letting Australia re-join the Malabar exercise. Boosting broader military interoperability, India is now participating in Quad-plus naval exercises, such as “Sea Dragon” that involved Canada and the upcoming “La Pérouse” with France.

With India’s closer integration, the Quad is beginning to blossom. However, there is no plan to turn the Quad into a military alliance, let alone an Indo-Pacific version of NATO. In fact, the Quad members’ security interests are not entirely congruent. The security threat China poses is much more acute and immediate for India and, to some extent, Japan than for the distant US and Australia.

The Quad — like the US Indo-Pacific policy — is focused on the maritime domain. But the ongoing Himalayan military standoffs at multiple points highlight China’s land-based threat against India. The only Quad member to share a land border with China is India, a position that allows Beijing to quickly ratchet up aggressive actions against India. In fact, India is the sole Quad state to have faced war with China in the post-World War II period.

With Australia, Japan and the US all focused on the seas, India is the only Quad member that maintains a land-based defence posture. Indeed, the US has never considered a land war against China. America’s main objective is non-military — to counter China’s geopolitical, ideological and economic challenges to its global pre-eminence.

Against this background, public discourse in India shouldn’t get ahead of the operational and functional instruments of strategic collaboration. It is important to understand both the Quad’s utility and its limitations. The Quad certainly cannot mitigate India’s security challenges. Unlike Japan and Australia, India is not under the US security (and nuclear) umbrella. The US, in any case, has a record of disregarding even its treaty-based obligations toward its allies. It was the US silence over China’s mid-2012 capture of the disputed Scarborough Shoal from American ally, the Philippines, that emboldened China to embark on an island-building programme and redraw the South China Sea’s geopolitical map.

India must deal with Chinese belligerence essentially on its own. To be sure, the China-India power asymmetry is widening. But aggregate military and economic capabilities alone do not determine any war’s outcome. History is replete with examples of the weaker side vanquishing the stronger opponent. India, with the world’s most-experienced army in hybrid mountain warfare, focuses on defence, which is easier than offense. Recognizing India’s battle-hardened air and ground forces, China has sought to achieve its territorial and other objectives by stealth. India’s main weakness, which puts it perennially at the receiving end, is a risk-averse political and military leadership.

Still, it is imperative that the Quad gain strategic heft so as to bring an expansionist China under pressure. By cooperating in military, economic and technological realms and coordinating their responses to China’s aggressive actions, the Quad members can put discreet checks on the unbridled exercise of Chinese power. India, by working closely with the other Quad members on matters of mutual interest, will be able to punch above its economic and military weight.

Brahma Chellaney is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

© India Today, 2021.