The Quad is at risk of losing its strategic focus

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Biden is saddling the group with a distracting global agenda

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Quad leaders chat in Tokyo on May 24: Joe Biden has coaxed the group into adopting an expansive agenda. © Reuters

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.”

India has a stake in Taiwan’s defense

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Chinese territorial claims in Himalayas are much bigger than the island

Indian military trucks move toward forward areas in Ladakh in September 2020: New Delhi is helping Taiwan’s defense by tying down a complete Chinese theater force.   © Reuters

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Chinese military drills are rarely empty shows of force.

In 2020, China’s unusually large winter exercises on the Tibetan Plateau became the launchpad for stealthy land grabs in the northernmost Indian territory of Ladakh. This triggered a military standoff between the two Asian giants at multiple sites across a long and inhospitable stretch of the Himalayas, leading to deadly clashes and China’s first combat casualties since its 1979 invasion of Vietnam.

This month’s live-fire military drills around Taiwan, which effectively simulated an air and sea blockade, demonstrated China’s combat capability to accomplish President Xi Jinping’s “historic mission” of absorbing the island democracy.

The drills allowed Chinese troops to practice enforcing a quarantine around Taiwan that would result in its gradual economic strangulation, suggesting Xi may prefer a strategy of calibrated squeeze to force the island to unify with China.

In a reminder that any Chinese operation to cut off access to Taiwan would likely intrude into Japanese airspace and perhaps pull Tokyo into a war over the island, five Chinese missiles sent over Taiwan during the drills landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Taiwan, Imperial Japan’s first colony, is, after all, geographically an extension of the Japanese archipelago.

Could Chinese aggression against Taiwan also embroil India? It is important to remember that Chinese and Indian forces have remained on a war footing along the vast glaciated heights of the Himalayas for more than two years now, with tens of thousands of troops on each side facing off in the biggest military buildup ever in this area.

Given Xi’s efforts to regularize and intensify coercive pressure on Taiwan, joint U.S.-India military exercises planned for October in an area at an altitude above 3,000 meters in the Himalayas have assumed greater significance.

As if to signal that Beijing could potentially face a second front if it were to move against Taiwan, the latest edition of the annual U.S.-India high-altitude, cold-climate drills is being held barely 100 kilometers from the Chinese frontier, closer than ever before.

Taiwan, a technological powerhouse with the world’s 22nd-largest economy by gross domestic product, plays an important, if indirect, role in Asian security: its autonomous existence ties up a sizable portion of China’s armed forces.

India likewise is helping Taiwan’s defense by tying down a complete Chinese theater force, which could otherwise be employed against the island.

Given the looming specter of a sharp uptick in Chinese aggression, deterring an attack on Taiwan has become more pressing than ever. Philip Davidson, testifying to Congress last year when he was leading the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said he believed a Chinese invasion could be launched by 2027.

U.S. intelligence now reportedly believes that Xi could move against Taiwan much earlier, specifically within the two-year window between the Chinese Communist Party congress due to take place in the next couple months and the 2024 U.S. presidential election.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s abandonment of Afghanistan to a terrorist militia a year ago and his growing involvement in the Ukraine war after failing to deter a Russian invasion of that country have left Washington in a weakened position. Xi’s designs on Taiwan have been further encouraged by the failure of Western sanctions to force Russia to retreat from Ukraine.

The fall of Taiwan to Beijing would significantly advance China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia and upend the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, not least by enabling China to break out of the so-called first island chain that encloses its coastal seas from the Japanese archipelago southward.

But the largest Asian territory Beijing covets is the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is almost three times as large as Taiwan. Beijing’s maps already show it as part of China.

After Beijing began giving its own names to places inside Arunachal Pradesh last year, the staid foreign ministry in New Delhi hit back with uncharacteristic firmness, calling it “a ridiculous exercise to support untenable territorial claims.”

Against the background of China’s designs on Arunachal Pradesh and perhaps even Okinawa, it is imperative that India and Japan step up consultations with each other, as well as with Taipei and Washington, on how they could contribute to shoring up Taiwan’s defenses and deterring a Chinese attack.

While India would not get directly involved in defending Taiwan, it could potentially play a useful role in activating another front against China in the event of a Taiwan Strait crisis, but only in close collaboration with the U.S.

India holds more annual military exercises with the U.S., its largest trading partner and an increasingly important strategic partner, than with any other country. But Biden has still not uttered a single word about the last 28 months of Himalayan border aggression by China. Nor has the Biden administration shown urgency in fortifying Taiwan’s defenses.

To be sure, America’s role is central to Taiwan’s autonomous future. A U.S. that fails to prevent Taiwan’s subjugation would be widely seen as unable or unwilling to defend any other ally.

The status quo on Taiwan is more likely to be preserved if the U.S. coordinates its island-related defense plans with Japan, India and Australia, including how to respond to potential Chinese moves to restrict access to Taiwan, whether physically or digitally. The only thing that can deter China from aggression against Taiwan is the expectation that it would incur high concrete costs.

Will Taiwan be the next Ukraine on Biden’s watch?

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hill

President Biden has still to grasp that Taiwan is far more important than Ukraine to the future of American power in the world. Yet the likelihood is growing that, on Biden’s watch, Chinese President Xi Jinping would move on Taiwan, just as Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.

In a forewarning of that, China has recently started claiming that it owns the critical international waterway, the Taiwan Strait. Just as it did earlier in the South China Sea — the strategic corridor between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, through which one-third of global maritime trade passes — Xi’s regime is seeking to advance its expansionism by laying an expansive claim to the Taiwan Strait, which, by connecting the South and East China Seas, serves as an important passage for commercial shipping as well as foreign naval vessels. 

The new claim signals that Xi is preparing to move on Taiwan at an opportune time — an action that would involve exercising maritime domain control.

By forcibly absorbing Taiwan, China would drive the final nail in the coffin of America’s global preeminence. A takeover of Taiwan would also give China a prized strategic and economic asset.

The defense of Taiwan has assumed greater significance for international security because three successive U.S. administrations have failed to credibly push back against China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, relying instead on rhetoric or symbolic actions.

Biden, rather than working to deter and thwart a possible Chinese attack on Taiwan, is seeking to shield his tentative rapprochement with China, which has been forged through a series of virtual meetings with Xi and by offering Beijing important concessions. This explains why Biden publicly pushed back against a Taiwan visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

It is important to remember that, much before Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden had begun to ease pressure on China. He effectively let Xi’s regime off the hook for both covering up COVID-19’s origins and failing to meet its commitments under the 2020 “phase one” trade deal with Washington. Biden also dropped fraud charges against the daughter of the founder of the military-linked Chinese tech giant Huawei. U.S. sanctions over China’s Muslim gulag remain essentially symbolic.

And now Biden is planning to roll back tariffs on Chinese goods, which will further fuel China’s spiraling trade surplus with America. After swelling by more than 25% last year to $396.6 billion, the trade surplus with the U.S. now makes up almost three-quarters of China’s total global surplus. 

The mammoth surplus is helping to keep the Chinese economy afloat at a time when growth has slowed almost to a halt, triggering rising unemployment and mortgage and debt crises. The situation has been made worse by Xi’s lockdown-centered, zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19, which is breeding anger and resistance amid a property implosion.

Xi’s growing domestic troubles at a critical time when he is seeking a norm-breaking third term as Communist Party chairman heighten the risk of the Chinese leader resorting to nationalist brinkmanship as a distraction. After all, initiating a foreign intervention or crisis to divert attention from domestic challenges is a tried-and-true technique of leaders of major powers.

In his latest virtual meeting with Biden on July 28, Xi sharply warned against U.S. interference in the Taiwan issue, saying that those who “play with fire will perish by it.” Biden, by contrast, struck a defensive tone, reaffirming the U.S. commitment to a one-China policy and reassuring Xi that American “policy has not changed and that the United States strongly opposes anyone who will change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Having swallowed Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party seems itching to move on Taiwan, a technological powerhouse that plays a central role in the international semiconductor business. Annexing Taiwan will make China a more formidable rival to America and advance its goal of achieving global preeminence by the 100th anniversary of communist rule in 2049. 

Against this background, Biden’s conciliatory approach toward China threatens to embolden Xi’s designs against Taiwan.

Taiwan’s imperative is to expand its global footprint in order to help safeguard its autonomous status. Instead of aiding that effort, Biden inexplicably excluded that island democracy from his recently unveiled Indo-Pacific Economic Framework — an economic platform that seeks to promote cooperation among its member-states.

Biden’s pursuit of a rapprochement with China also explains his administration’s proposal to roll back tariffs on Chinese products, an action that would break his promise not to unilaterally lift tariffs unless Beijing’s behavior improved.

Not once, not twice, but at least three times Biden has said in recent months that he is willing to get militarily involved to defend Taiwan, only to have his senior officials walk back his comments on every occasion. The last time when he sowed international confusion afresh, Biden himself walked back his Taiwan comments, telling reporters a day later, “My policy has not changed at all.”

In seeking to placate China, Biden is sending out contradictory signals, leaving Taiwan vexed and confused.

Instead of privately advising Pelosi against visiting Taiwan, Biden gratuitously told a reporter that “the military” thinks a Pelosi visit to Taiwan is “not a good idea right now.” Pelosi then told the media, “I think what the president is saying is that maybe the military was afraid our plane would get shot down or something like that by the Chinese.”

The president’s unusual remark conveyed American weakness by implying that the U.S. military was not capable of securing the flight path of the Pelosi-carrying military aircraft to Taiwan or effectively responding to any Chinese provocation. The comment also encouraged Xi’s regime to escalate its bullying threats to stymie a Taiwan visit by the person second in line to the U.S. presidency.

More fundamentally, if Biden fears a Pelosi visit to Taipei would set back his nascent rapprochement with China and ignite new tensions, it raises serious doubts whether he will have the political will to help defeat a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

Xi is also likely encouraged by Biden’s failure to force Russian forces to retreat from Ukraine, despite Washington spearheading unprecedented Western actions against Russia, including weaponizing finance, slapping wide-ranging sanctions and arming Ukraine with a plethora of sophisticated weapons.

With Biden’s poll numbers already in the tank, the president is likely to emerge further weakened from the approaching midterm election. By contrast, a strengthened Xi securing a precedent-defying third term is likely to be bolder and more assertive in pursuing his geopolitical ambitions.

Instead of ordering a full-scale invasion, Xi may begin to slowly throttle Taiwan so as to force it to merge with China. A strangulation strategy would likely include blockading the Taiwan Strait (which will close off Taiwan’s main port, Kaohsiung) and seeking to cut off Taiwan’s undersea cables, internet connections and energy imports.

Make no mistake: Xi perceives an advantageous window of opportunity to accomplish what he has called a “historic mission” to incorporate Taiwan. And, in the style recommended by ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, Xi’s aggression will likely begin with stealth, deception, surprise and innovative methods.

For Xi, taking Taiwan is essential to achieving larger strategic goals, including making China a world power second to none by displacing America from regional and global order.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press). Follow him on Twitter @Chellaney.

The Fall of the House of Rajapaksa

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Through a combination of authoritarianism, nepotism, cronyism, and hubris, the Rajapaksa family weighed down Sri Lanka’s economy with more debt than it could possibly bear. The country’s next leaders will have to address shortages of basic necessities, rebuild a wrecked economy, and reestablish the rule of law.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

For much of nearly two decades, the four Rajapaksa brothers and their sons have run Sri Lanka like a family business – and a disorderly one, at that. With their grand construction projects and spendthrift ways, they saddled Sri Lanka with unsustainable debts, driving the country into its worst economic crisis since independence. Now, the dynasty has fallen.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was instrumental in establishing the Rajapaksa dynasty. After becoming president in 2005, he ruled with an iron fist for a decade, attacking civil liberties, expanding presidential powers (including abolishing term limits), and making bad deal after bad deal with China. Throughout this process, he kept his family close, with his younger brother Gotabaya holding the defense portfolio.

But in 2015, Mahinda narrowly lost the presidential election, and the Rajapaksas were briefly driven from power. During that time, parliament restored the presidential term limit, ruling out another Mahinda presidency. Yet the family quickly devised a plan to restore their dynasty: Gotabaya would renounce his US citizenship and run for president.

Gotabaya was well-positioned to win. After all, he had been defense secretary in 2009 when Mahinda ordered the final military offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels, bringing a brutal 26-year civil war to a decisive end. With that, the Rajapaksa brothers emerged as heroes among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority.

To be sure, the final offensive killed as many as 40,000 civilians and sparked international accusations of war crimes. The United Nations described it as a “grave assault on the entire regime of international law.” According to Sarath Fonseka, the wartime military commander, Gotabaya ordered the summary execution of surrendering rebel leaders. In California, where he was previously domiciled, Gotabaya faces civil charges over alleged war crimes.

But the Rajapaksa brothers simply presented themselves as hardheaded custodians of Sinhalese interests. And, thanks largely to his ethno-nationalist credentials, Gotabaya won the 2019 election – at which point he immediately appointed Mahinda as his prime minister. Mahinda then appointed his two sons, his other two brothers, and a nephew as ministers or to other government positions.

The same year, 277 people were killed, and hundreds more wounded, in bombings carried out by Islamist extremists on Easter Sunday. The attack highlighted tensions that had been simmering since 2009: though the military offensive marginalized the Hindu-majority Tamils, the war’s end sowed the seeds of religious conflict between the Buddhist-majority Sinhalese and Sri Lanka’s Muslims, who constitute one-tenth of the country’s population. The Easter Sunday terrorist bombings provided new ammunition for the Rajapaksas to whip up Sinhalese nationalism.

Beyond deepening ethnic and religious fault lines, Gotabaya followed his brother in establishing an imperial presidency, exemplified by the passage in 2020 of a constitutional amendment expanding the president’s power to dissolve the legislature. And he helped to push Sri Lanka further into the economic death spiral that his brother had helped create, not least through his dealings with China.

During Mahinda’s rule, as China shielded the Rajapaksas from war-crime charges at the UN, it won major infrastructure contracts in Sri Lanka and became the country’s leading lender. Debt to China piled up, incurred largely over the construction of monuments to the Rajapaksa dynasty in the family’s home district of Hambantota.

Examples include “the world’s emptiest” airport, a cricket stadium with more seats than the district capital’s population, and a $1.4 billion seaport that remained largely idle until it was signed away to China in 2017 on a 99-year lease. The most extravagant China-backed project is the $13-billion “Port City,” which is being built on land reclaimed from the sea close to the center of the capital, Colombo.

China’s modus operandi is to cut deals with strongmen and exploit their countries’ vulnerabilities to gain a strategic foothold. China’s larger aims in Sri Lanka were suggested in 2014, when two Chinese submarines made separate unannounced visits to Colombo, docking at a newly built container terminal owned largely by Chinese state companies.

So, China gained leverage over a country located near some of the world’s most important shipping lanes, and Sri Lanka became increasingly mired in debt, including “hidden debt” to China from loans whose public disclosure was prohibited by their terms. But hubris prevented the Rajapaksas from recognizing the looming crisis. On the contrary, they enacted a sweeping tax cut in 2019 that wiped out a third of the country’s tax revenues.

Then the pandemic hit, crushing the tourism and garment industries – Sri Lanka’s two main foreign-exchange earners. More recently, the war in Ukraine, by triggering soaring international energy and food prices, helped to drain Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves, creating fuel, food, medicine, and electricity shortages. It was the final straw for many Sri Lankans, who took to the streets in droves.

On May 9, Mahinda reluctantly resigned from his post as prime minister, in an effort to appease protesters. But protests continued to rage, culminating in the storming of the seaside presidential palace by demonstrators. Gotabaya fled minutes earlier before conveying his decision to resign.

Within Sri Lanka, photos of protesters lounging on the president’s bed and cooking in his backyard have become a symbol of people’s power. But they should also serve as a warning to political dynasties elsewhere in the world, from Asia to Latin America. When a family dominates a government or party, accountability tends to suffer, often leading to catastrophe. This can cause even the most entrenched dynasty to fall – and swiftly.

There is also a lesson for other heavily indebted countries. Unless they take action to make their debts sustainable, they could quickly be overwhelmed by crisis.

As for Sri Lanka, its next leaders will have to address shortages of basic necessities, rebuild a wrecked economy, reestablish the rule of law, and hold responsible those who caused the current disaster. But in a country where politics is a blood sport, one should not underestimate the challenge of overcoming the Rajapaksas’ corrosive legacy.

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, 2022.

India’s front-line battle against autocracy more important than ever

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Chinese troops dismantling their bunkers at Pangong Tso region in Ladakh in February 2021: China has turned other captured areas into permanent all-weather military encampments. © AP

The risk of renewed skirmishes with China is growing

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Two years after nighttime hand-to-hand combat with Indian troops resulted in China’s first combat deaths since its 1979 Vietnam invasion, the Chinese and Indian militaries remain locked in multiple standoffs over some of the most inhospitable terrains on Earth.

The war in Ukraine may be obscuring China’s border conflict with India, including the largest Himalayan buildup of rival forces in history. But as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reminded the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last weekend, “we see Beijing continue to harden its position along the border that it shares with India.”

With tens of thousands of Chinese and Indian troops facing off against each other, the risks of renewed skirmishing, if not outright war, are significant.

The clashes of June 15, 2020, were the bloodiest of a series of skirmishes or scuffles that began more than six weeks earlier after China, taking advantage of India’s preoccupation with enforcing the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdown, stealthily infiltrated key border areas in the high-altitude Indian region of Ladakh and established heavily fortified bases there.

The surprise encroachments were not nearly as clever a plan as Chinese President Xi Jinping probably thought when he gave his go-ahead. Far from handing China an easy win, they have plunged Sino-Indian relations to a nadir, kept the border crisis simmering and made the fact of a major Indian military buildup inevitable.

The June 15, 2020, clashes not just marked a watershed in India-China relations; they also stood out for their savagery. With a 1996 bilateral agreement prohibiting the two countries’ soldiers from using guns at the border in peacetime, encroaching Chinese soldiers employed metal fence posts and clubs wrapped in barbed wire in a post-sunset ambush attack on an Indian army patrol.

Some Indian soldiers were beaten to death, others were thrown from the soaring cliffs into the fast-flowing Galwan River before Indian reinforcements arrived and fought pitched hand-to-hand battles with the intruders under a moonlit sky.

After the hours-long fighting, India quickly honored its 20 fallen soldiers as martyrs and then established a war memorial to commemorate their sacrifices. But China has still not disclosed its death toll, which U.S. intelligence reportedly placed at 35 and Russia’s government-owned Tass news agency estimated at 45. More than eight months after the clashes, Beijing announced posthumous awards for four Chinese soldiers without revealing the full death toll.

This should not be a surprise, as the Chinese Communist Party rarely reveals the full truth: it disclosed the Chinese death toll from the 1962 war with India more than three decades later in 1994 after significantly lowering the figure.

With the world’s most powerful propaganda machine, the CCP seeks to manufacture reality. While releasing a propaganda video of the clashes, it jailed at least six Chinese bloggers for criticizing its death toll cover-up, with one blogger who had 2.5 million followers on Weibo sentenced to eight months in prison. More recently, it picked the military commander who led the ambush attack as a torchbearer of the Beijing Winter Olympics, provocatively feting him as a hero.

The border crisis has also cast an unflattering light on India, which has instituted no inquiry into why its army was taken unawares by the multiple Chinese intrusions, some of them deep into Indian territory.

India is the world’s third-largest defense spender after the U.S. and China, with the army continuing to appropriate the lion’s share of the defense budget. Yet over the years, the Indian army has repeatedly been caught napping by the cross-border actions of China and Pakistan.

Indeed, it has become somewhat of a tradition in India that, whenever an adversary springs a military surprise, the army generals take cover behind the political leaders, and the ruling politicians hide behind the generals, allowing accountability to go unenforced.

Chinese forces braved harsh weather to intrude into forbidding landscapes, just before thawing ice reopened access routes. But the Indian army ignored warning signs from China’s heightened military activities near the frontier, including an unusually large, wintertime troop exercise that became the launchpad for the aggression.

Yet not a single Indian army commander was relieved of his command for the fiasco. Worse still, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has maintained a conspicuous silence on the military crisis for the past two years.

Instead, Modi has put faith in negotiations, with Beijing using endless talks to string India along while frenetically building new warfare infrastructure that General Charles A. Flynn, head of the U.S. Army Pacific, recently called “eye-opening” and “alarming.”

While withdrawing from some positions it seized, China has turned other captured areas into permanent all-weather military encampments, with large combat-ready forces and newly built roads and heliports that allow front-line positions to be quickly reinforced with fresh troop inductions.

Xi’s aim against India, as in the East and South China Seas, is for China to ultimately win without fighting by employing coercion under the shadow of its deployed military might. To Modi’s credit, India appears determined to frustrate that goal, vowing to sustain the military standoffs, despite the risk of a full-scale war, until China rolls back its encroachments.

India, the world’s largest democracy, is on the front-lines of the battle between democracy and autocracy. If China is able to coerce India into submission, it will open the path for the world’s biggest autocracy to gain supremacy in Asia and reshape the international order in its favor. No wonder Secretary Austin said in Singapore that India’s “growing military capability and technological prowess can be a stabilizing force in the region.”

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

India should invite Myanmar’s foreign minister to ASEAN meet

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Giving Naypyitaw the cold shoulder is not in New Delhi’s interests

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Min Aung Hlaing is greeted by an Indonesian official upon arrival at the airport on the outskirts of Jakarta in April 2021: The presence of the Senior General at the leaders’ meeting in Jakarta emphasized the ASEAN family.   © Indonesian Presidential Palace/AP

India not only shares long land and maritime borders with Myanmar, but it also sees the country as a strategic corridor to Southeast Asia. Given the porous state of the frontier and the cross-border movement of people and guerrillas — some trained and armed by China — close counterinsurgency cooperation with Myanmar is vital for India’s security.

Yet, as the host of the June 16-17 Association of Southeast Asian Nations-India foreign ministers’ meeting, New Delhi is giving Myanmar the cold shoulder.

Falling in line with double standards practiced by the U.S., India will host the foreign minister of Thailand, where the army chief who staged a coup in 2014 remains in power in civilian garb, but not Myanmar’s foreign minister after the military there seized power 16 months ago.

The military has long dominated politics in Myanmar and Thailand. But Washington, while seeking to isolate and squeeze Myanmar, has deepened cooperation with the Thai government, despite its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, including use of lese-majeste laws to imprison anyone deemed to have insulted the king.

The 10-nation ASEAN has traditionally favored a policy of engagement and noninterference, which explained the presence of Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing at its April 2021 leaders’ meeting in Jakarta that emphasized “the ASEAN family.” But later, wilting under stepped-up U.S. pressure, ASEAN excluded him from its annual summit last October.

Here is the irony: In the name of promoting democratic rights, U.S. President Joe Biden’s Myanmar policy has sought to win the cooperation of ASEAN, most of whose member states are under authoritarian rule.

They include Brunei, an absolutist monarchy; communist-ruled Vietnam and Laos; Singapore, governed by only one party since independence; and Cambodia, where the ruling party holds all the parliamentary seats.

Indeed, Biden invited only three ASEAN states — Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia — to his democracy summit last December, while at his recent special summit with ASEAN leaders, Myanmar was represented by an empty chair.

The bigger paradox centers on India, whose security over the years has come under pressure from specious U.S. distinctions between “good” and “bad” terrorists and “good” and “bad” autocrats.

For example, despite Pakistan’s politically dominant military maintaining a close nexus with terrorist groups, Washington still retains that state as a “major non-NATO ally,” a special status conferred on 17 other countries but not India.

Yet, by not inviting Myanmar’s foreign minister to a meeting during the officially proclaimed India-ASEAN Year of Friendship, New Delhi is giving credence to Washington’s geopolitically driven distinction between Myanmar and the other ASEAN states.

In justifying Myanmar’s foreign minister’s exclusion, India’s foreign ministry has sought to hide behind the U.S.-shaped ASEAN stance of inviting a nonpolitical Myanmar representative. In response to India inviting just its top foreign ministry bureaucrat, Myanmar will likely boycott the New Delhi meeting, as it has done with other ASEAN meetings since last October.

More fundamentally, Biden’s sanctions against Myanmar affect that country’s neighbors in the same way the U.S., already confronting a southern border crisis, would be affected if it sought to punish and isolate Mexico. Still, without consulting Myanmar’s neighbors that face an influx of refugees, Biden has stepped up his sanctions drive against Myanmar, even as he eases sanctions pressure on Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Biden’s use of economic and political levers to help unseat Myanmar’s military regime has only worsened the situation in that strategically located country, emboldening some opponents to take up arms and hardening the military regime’s crackdown while exacerbating cross-border impacts.

And just as the deepening U.S. involvement in the Ukraine conflict to help inflict a strategic defeat on Russia is beginning to fracture European unity, Biden’s uncompromisingly punitive approach toward Myanmar has hopelessly divided ASEAN, unraveling its long tradition of a consensus-based decision making.

Meanwhile, in less than six months, a feckless India has gone from sending its foreign secretary to Myanmar to meet the military ruler to excluding that country’s foreign minister from its upcoming meeting with ASEAN.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s yielding to U.S. pressure has already undercut India’s once-growing relationship with a key neighbor, Iran. The U.S. used its Iran sanctions to deprive India of cheaper oil and turn it into the world’s largest importer of American energy — a development that allowed India’s rival, China, to become Iran’s almost exclusive buyer of oil at a hefty discount, as well as becoming top security partner and investor.

Now Modi could be making a similar mistake with Myanmar, which China views as its gateway to the Indian Ocean. Myanmar has historically been a peaceful neighbor for India, never posing a threat to its security. But the Modi government’s snub could jeopardize Indian projects in Myanmar and counterinsurgency cooperation.

Biden’s Myanmar policy has had the perverse effect of weakening America’s hand while strengthening China’s. And by nudging India into giving Myanmar the cold shoulder, Biden is pushing that resource-rich nation into China’s arms.

Modi, for his part, is forgetting that a country that allows its policies toward its own neighbors to be influenced by a distant power will inevitably be seen as weak.

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

The Clash of Asia’s Titans

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Chinese President Xi Jinping has picked a border fight that he cannot win, and transformed a previously conciliatory India into a long-term foe. This amounts to an even bigger miscalculation than Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s failure to see it coming.

BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

With global attention focused on Russia’s war in Ukraine, China’s territorial expansionism in Asia – especially its expanding border conflict with India – has largely fallen off the international community’s radar. Yet, in the vast glaciated heights of the Himalayas, the world’s demographic titans have been on a war footing for over two years, and the chances of violent clashes rise almost by the day.

The confrontation began in May 2020. When thawing ice reopened access routes after a brutal winter, India was shocked to discover that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had stealthily occupied hundreds of square miles of the borderlands in its Ladakh region. This triggered a series of military clashes, which resulted in China’s first combat deaths in over four decades, and triggered the fastest-ever rival troop buildup in the Himalayan region.

India’s counterattacks eventually drove the PLA back from some areas, and the two sides agreed to transform two battlegrounds into buffer zones. But, over the last 15 months, little progress has been made to defuse tensions in other areas. With tens of thousands of Chinese and Indian troops standing virtually at attention along the long-disputed border, a military stalemate has emerged.

But stalemate is not stagnation. China has continued to alter the Himalayan landscape rapidly and profoundly in its favor, including by establishing 624 militarized border villages – mirroring its strategy of creating artificial militarized islands in the South China Sea – and constructing new warfare infrastructure near the frontier.

As part of this effort, China recently completed a bridge over Pangong Lake – the site of past military clashes – that promises to strengthen its position in a disputed area of India’s Ladakh region. It has also built roads and security installations on territory that belongs to Bhutan, in order to gain access to a particularly vulnerable section of India’s border overlooking a narrow corridor known as the “Chicken Neck,” which connects its far northeast to the heartland.

All of this, China hopes, will enable it to dictate terms to India: accept the new status quo, with China keeping the territory it has grabbed, or risk a full-scale war in which China has maximized its advantage. China’s expansionism relies on deception, stealth, and surprise, and on apparent indifference to the risks of military escalation. The aim of its brinkmanship is to confound the other side’s deterrence strategy and leave it with no real options.

China learned from its strategic folly of invading Vietnam in 1979 and has become adept at waging asymmetric or hybrid warfare, usually below the threshold of overt armed conflict. This enables it to advance its strategic objectives, including land grabs, incrementally. Coercive bargaining and overt intimidation also help to overcome resistance.

This salami-slicing strategy has already enabled Chinese President Xi Jinping to redraw the geopolitical map in the South China Sea. And the terrestrial application of this approach being deployed against India, Bhutan, and Nepal is proving just as difficult to counter. As India is learning firsthand, countries have virtually no options other than the use of force.

One thing is certain: simply hoping that China will stop encroaching on Indian territory will do India little good. After all, India got into this situation precisely because its political and military leadership failed to take heed of China’s military activities near the frontier. On the contrary, while China was laying the groundwork for its territorial grabs, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was bending over backwards to befriend Xi. In the five years before the first clashes flared in May 2020, Modi met with his Chinese counterpart 18 times. Even a 2017 standoff on a remote Himalayan plateau did not dissuade Modi from pursuing his appeasement policy.

Seeking to protect his image as a strong leader, Modi has not acknowledged the loss of Indian territories. India’s media enables this evasion by amplifying government-coined euphemisms: China’s aggression is a “unilateral change of status quo,” and the PLA-seized areas are “friction points.” Meanwhile, Modi has allowed China’s trade surplus with India to rise so rapidly – it now exceeds India’s total defense budget (the world’s third largest) – that his government is, in a sense, underwriting China’s aggression.

But none of this should be mistaken for unwillingness to fight. India is committed to restoring the status quo ante and is at its “highest level” of military readiness. This is no empty declaration. If Xi seeks to break the current stalemate by waging war, both sides will suffer heavy losses, with no victor emerging.

In other words, Xi has picked a border fight that he cannot win, and transformed a conciliatory India into a long-term foe. This amounts to an even bigger miscalculation than Modi’s policy incoherence. The price China will pay for Xi’s mistake will far outweigh the perceived benefits of some stealthy land grabs.

In a sense, China’s territorial expansionism represents a shrewder, broader, and slower version of Russia’s conventional war on Ukraine – and could provoke a similar international backlash against Xi’s neo-imperial agenda. Already, China’s aggression has prompted Indo-Pacific powers to strengthen their military capabilities and cooperation, including with the United States. All of this will undercut Xi’s effort to fashion a Sino-centric Asia and, ultimately, achieve China’s goal of global preeminence.

Xi might recognize that he has made a strategic blunder in the Himalayas. But, at a time when he is preparing to secure a precedent-defying third term as leader of the Communist Party of China, he has little room to change course, and the costs will continue to mount.

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, 2022.

The Quad’s moment of truth has arrived

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Biden’s empty Taiwan rhetoric reveals Quad’s core weakness

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Anthony Albanese, Joe Biden, Fumio Kishida and Narendra Modi at the Prime Minister’s Office of Japan in Tokyo on May 24: The Quad’s moment of truth has arrived.   © Reuters

Nearly five years after it was resurrected from a decadelong dormancy, and then integrated as a strategic coalition of the Indo-Pacific’s leading democracies, the Quad is struggling to make a difference in a region whose rising economic and geopolitical heft promises to reshape the international order.

Amid the deepening global fallout from the Ukraine war and the NATO-Russia proxy coflict, this week’s Quad summit in Tokyo showed that the group comprising the U.S., India, Japan and Australia has its work cut out if it is to make a meaningful impact, which will be measured in terms of deliverables, rather than the number of times its leaders get together and make promises.

While the Quad is trying to get its act together, the geostrategic dynamics are changing rapidly in the Indo-Pacific, where the world’s fastest economic growth is incongruously juxtaposed with fast-rising naval capabilities and the most dangerous strategic hot spots.

Intended to serve as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism, from the South and East China Seas to the Himalayas, the Quad has done little to rein in China’s unilateral moves to alter the regional status quo, with Beijing’s wide-ranging security accord with the Solomon Islands just the latest example.

In Tokyo, U.S. President Joe Biden stole the summit’s thunder with various pre-summit announcements or assertions, including unveiling his administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework — an economic platform that seeks to promote cooperation among its 13 member-states on global issues such as supply chains, clean energy and digital rules, but without reducing trade barriers or tariffs.

Biden’s indication that the U.S. would use force to defend Taiwan grabbed global headlines, yet, paradoxically, Biden has gradually been easing pressure on China. Examples include letting China off the hook over the COVID-19 origins, dropping U.S. fraud charges against the daughter of the founder of China’s Huawei Technologies, and allowing Beijing to escape scot-free over its failure to meet commitments in the so-called Phase One trade deal with Washington.

Further, Biden revealed in Tokyo that he was considering rolling back trade tariffs on Chinese products, an action that would break his promise not to unilaterally lift tariffs unless Beijing’s behavior improved.

Not once, not twice, but three times Biden has said in recent months that the U.S. will militarily defend Taiwan, only to have his senior officials walk back his comments on every occasion. A day after sowing international confusion afresh, Biden himself walked back his Taiwan comments, telling reporters, “My policy has not changed at all.”

Lost was the exclusion of Taiwan from Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, with the White House offering no explanation for omitting the global semiconductor hub.

The defense of Taiwan has assumed greater significance for Indo-Pacific security, given that three successive U.S. administrations have failed to credibly push back against China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, relying instead on rhetoric or symbolic actions. Beijing’s swallowing of Hong Kong also has essentially been cost-free.

All of this has renewed questions about the Quad’s strategic direction and mission. While it remains integral to the U.S. strategy of a free and open Indo-Pacific, Biden’s September 2021 launch of the AUKUS alliance with Australia and Britain signaled the Anglosphere is back and confirmed a shift in the Quad’s focus under him to everlasting universal challenges, from climate change and cybersecurity to global health and resilient supply chains.

Biden, after taking office in January last year, initiated the practice of Quad leaders holding summit meetings, with the Tokyo meeting representing the fourth such summit in just 14 months. But under Biden’s leadership, the group has also taken on an expansive agenda.

Given its small size, the Quad is in no position to deal with larger international challenges. Yet the first Quad summit in March 2021, held virtually, launched working groups on climate change, vaccines and critical and emerging technologies.

When the Quad leaders met in person at the White House last September, three more working groups were established on cybersecurity, infrastructure and space. With the Quad unable to meet its own target of delivering one billion Indian-manufactured doses of COVID-19 vaccines to the developing world by the end of this year, this raises the danger that the group will underdeliver on other core promises.

This week’s summit in Tokyo was a reminder that a very broad and ambitious agenda not only dilutes the Quad’s Indo-Pacific focus but also makes it more difficult to produce results.

The leaders’ joint statement was heavy with pious declarations about cooperating on issues extending from peace and security to climate, space, global health security and cybersecurity, but light on concrete plans, including on combating what it acknowledged were “coercive, provocative or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo” in the region.

The Quad’s moment of truth has arrived. The group today faces a clear choice: start translating its rhetoric into action by leveraging its members’ strengths, or risk becoming a mere talking shop. Given that the Quad is now more integrated than ever, it ought to focus on deliverables to help underscore its strategic value.

Unless the Quad gets cracking, an illiberal hegemonic order in Asia could emerge, creating significant risks for international security and global markets.

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

The Quad at a Crossroads

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The Indo-Pacific’s four leading democracies can hold as many leaders’ summits as they want, but without a clear strategic vision – and an agenda to match – they will have little impact. The group’s purpose is to act as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism and ensure a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

When the Quad was first conceived as a strategic coalition of the Indo-Pacific’s four leading democracies, many doubted that it would amount to much. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi mocked it as a “headline-grabbing idea” that would dissipate “like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean.” But continued Chinese expansionism, combined with former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s determination to build broad resistance to it, has produced an increasingly consolidated group, with real potential to bolster regional security. The question is whether it will deliver.

One thing is certain: all four Quad members – Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – are essential to realize the vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” introduced by Japan in 2016 and affirmed by the US in 2017. While the Quad took some time to get off the ground – it was resurrected during US President Donald Trump’s administration but leaders’ summits began only after Joe Biden took office – it has gained considerable momentum. Its members have held three summits since last year (two of them virtual) and are set to meet in person in Tokyo on May 24.

But the Quad still has a long way to go, not least because its members’ own actions are undercutting its strategic rationale – the need to prevent China from upending security in the Indo-Pacific. A key problem is that all four countries have allowed themselves to be seduced by the Chinese narrative that economic relations can be separated from geopolitics.

China’s trade surplus, which reached a record $676.4 billion last year, is now the main engine of its economy. Without it, Chinese growth would likely stall, especially as President Xi Jinping strengthens state control over private companies. This would also hinder China’s ability to invest in its military and finance its aggressive maneuvers in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

And yet the US and India are major contributors to China’s trade surplus. The US leads the way: its trade deficit with China swelled by more than 25% in 2021, to $396.6 billion, and now comprises over 58% of China’s total surplus. India’s trade deficit with China – which hit $77 billion in the 12 months through this March – exceeds its defense budget, even as the two countries are locked in a dangerous military confrontation on their long Himalayan frontier.

China’s stealth encroachments on some Indian border areas in 2020 triggered deadly clashes, setting in motion a buildup of forces and border infrastructure that continues to this day. This should have been a wake-up call for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had been so committed to appeasing China that he was blindsided by its aggression. But India’s large and growing trade deficit with China suggests that he is still asleep.

Australia and Japan have similarly built up significant dependency on Chinese trade. China accounts for nearly one-third of Australia’s international trade and is Japan’s largest export market. Moreover, both countries are members of the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. For them, enabling China to shape trade rules in the Indo-Pacific is apparently a small price to pay for the economic benefits of increased regional commerce.

Rather than continuing to underwrite China’s economic and geopolitical power, the Quad should be making economic cooperation – including increased trade among its members – a central feature of its agenda. Unfortunately, though Biden has pledged to unveil an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework covering everything from infrastructure to the digital economy, his administration’s unwillingness to commit more resources to the region or offer regional partners better access to US markets severely limits the initiative’s potential. Moreover, Biden has pushed an expansive Quad agenda covering topics that have nothing to do with the group’s core objectives – everything from climate change to COVID-19 vaccine delivery to supply-chain resilience.

America’s deepening proxy conflict with Russia further muddies the strategic picture. Biden is the third successive US president to commit to shifting America’s primary strategic focus to Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific. But the Ukraine war – which he believes “could continue for a long time” – may well cause him, like his predecessors, not to complete that pivot.

The war might also spur Biden to take a more conciliatory approach to China. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden had begun to ease pressure on China. He effectively let China off the hook for both obscuring COVID-19’s origins and failing to meet its commitments under the 2020 “phase one” trade deal with the US. He also dropped fraud charges against the daughter of the founder of the military-linked Chinese tech giant Huawei. US sanctions over China’s Muslim gulag remain essentially symbolic.

Now, as Biden attempts to ensure that Xi does not offer Russian President Vladimir Putin an economic lifeline, thereby neutralizing the impact of Western sanctions, he is likely to adopt an even more conciliatory approach. Already, the US Trade Representative has reinstated exemptions from Trump-era tariffs on 352 products imported from China. And now the White House is considering a broader reduction of tariffs on non-strategic goods from China.

The Quad can hold as many leaders’ summits as it wants, but without a clear strategic vision – and an agenda to match – it will have little impact. The group’s purpose is to act as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism and ensure a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. At its May 24 summit, all other issues should take a backseat to this objective.

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, 2022.

China continues its territorial advances in Asia

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Chinese troops at their mountaintop bunkers in Ladakh’s Pangong region in February 2021: what stands out is the speed and scale with which China is redrawing facts on the ground without firing a shot.   © AP

Strategy relies on a steady progression of actions to outmaneuver rival states

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is helping to obscure China’s expansionism in Asia, where it continues to redraw its land and maritime borders and exert growing pressure on Taiwan. Unlike Russia’s frontal military assault, China’s preferred mode of expansionism is salami-slicing, or altering the status quo in its favor, little by little.

In the latest example, the Chinese government’s news website Tibet.cn reported earlier this month that the People’s Liberation Army had quietly completed the 624 villages that China had set out to build in disputed or captured Himalayan border areas.

China’s militarized villages in the Himalayan borderlands, that India, Bhutan and Nepal consider to be within their own national boundaries, are the equivalent of its artificial islands that it is turning into forward military bases in the South China Sea.

What is remarkable about its village-building spree in the Himalayas is that China has reportedly managed to complete it despite the specter of armed conflict raised by its ongoing military confrontation with India. The Indian and Chinese militaries have remained locked in multiple Himalayan standoffs for the past 23 months after China stealthily encroached on some key border areas in the northernmost Indian territory of Ladakh, leading to the first deadly Chinese-Indian military clashes since 1975.

Recent talks to defuse the military crisis, including between military commanders and later between the foreign ministers, made little headway. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s New Delhi trip on Mar. 25 was the highest-level visit between the two countries since the standoffs in the frigid Himalayan heights began.

Effective control is the most vital element of a strong territorial claim in international law. This explains why establishing new facts on the ground, whether in the form of high-altitude artificial villages with planted settlers or human-made islands, is integral to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s territorial aggrandizement.

Xi’s expansionism has not spared even tiny Bhutan, with a population of barely 800,000. In disregard of a 1998 bilateral treaty that obligated its parties “not to resort to unilateral action to alter the status quo of the border,” several of China’s militarized villages have come up in Bhutan’s northern and western borderlands.

More broadly, China’s territorial revisionism follows a cabbage strategy: gradually wrapping a claimed or contested area in multiple layers of security, like the concentric leaves of a cabbage, thereby denying access to any rival.

Just like the concentric layers of occupation around the South China Sea islands by Chinese fishing boats, coastguard ships and naval ships, expansionism in the Himalayas has involved bringing in people from afar to settle in desolate, previously uninhabited areas, with civilian militias, paramilitary police and regular PLA forces forming multilayered security.

China’s strategy of territorial creep relies on a steady progression of actions to outmaneuver a rival state, in keeping with the ancient Chinese game of Go, in which the goal is to incrementally gain more territory through unrelenting attacks on the opponent’s weak points. Before initiating a jurisdictional claim through a rising tempo of incursions, Beijing has a history of constructing a dispute.

In the East China Sea, China succeeded in getting the world to recognize the existence of a dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands by steadily increasing the frequency and duration of its intrusions into their territorial waters and airspace and by popularizing the islands’ Chinese name Diaoyu.

Chinese marine surveillance ship cruising in the East China Sea near Senkaku Islands in February 2021. (Photo by Hitoshi Nakama)   © Kyodo

Even as Beijing started dispatching armed ships and larger vessels, Japan has recoiled from purely defensive steps like building a lighthouse on the Senkakus. Indeed, no Japanese defense minister has conducted an aerial survey of the uninhabited Senkakus in order not to provoke China.

By keeping opponents off-balance, Xi’s strategy bears all the hallmarks of brinkmanship, including reliance on stealth, surprise and an indifference to the risks of military escalation. Camouflaging offense as defense, it casts the burden of starting a war on the other side.

In international law, a territorial claim must be based on continuous and peaceful exercise of sovereignty over the territory concerned. But even after an international arbitral tribunal’s 2016 ruling invalidated its territorial claims in the South China Sea, Beijing imposed “might makes right” in that region.

In more recent years, however, China has increasingly employed new domestic law both as a cover for unlawful actions and to underpin its territorial claims in international law. Through domestic legislation, Xi has sought to legitimize Chinese actions ranging from the human-made militarized islands and new administrative districts in the South China Sea to the Himalayan border villages.

China’s shadowy expansionism in the Himalayas extends far beyond the 624 border villages whose construction a 2017 Chinese government document unveiled. To project power and enable more rapid movement of troops, weaponry and equipment, Beijing has pursued frenzied construction of new military infrastructure, including in disputed borderlands. New Chinese roads through Bhutanese territory have opened an axis against India’s most vulnerable point — the Siliguri Corridor, which connects the country’s far northeast to the Indian heartland.

What stands out is the speed and scale with which China is redrawing facts on the ground without firing a shot. China’s territorial creep is contributing to increasing insecurity in Asia, the world’s most dynamic region economically.

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