The understanding reached between Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Chinese President Xi Jinping to pursue high-level contacts is unlikely to stem China’s incursions into the Senkaku territorial waters and airspace. But it will allow Xi’s regime to blend engagement with containment, including challenging Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands and strengthening Chinese claims of sovereignty over them.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s proposed visit to Tokyo will likely have the same core agenda that his recent trip to Europe had — to avert economic decoupling from China and dissuade U.S. allies from supporting Washington’s moves to impose checks on the exercise of Chinese power. China, however, is unwilling to curb its economic and territorial expansionism.
In fact, Xi continues to push the boundaries, as underscored by the multiple fronts he has opened simultaneously, including in the East and South China seas, the Himalayan frontier, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Yet, Xi has sought to portray China as a country of peace, telling the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 22, “We will never seek hegemony, expansion, or sphere of influence. We have no intention to fight either a cold war or a hot war with any country. We will continue to narrow differences and resolve disputes with others through dialogue and negotiation.”
Xi’s words rang hollow, especially as they came amid the border aggression he has launched against India since April, when the People’s Liberation Army made stealth encroachments on the highlands of Indian Ladakh. The intrusions have triggered a major India-China military standoff along one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders, which is as long as the distance between Tokyo and Hanoi.
There are important parallels between the way China is pursuing its territorial revisionism against its two main rivals in Asia, Japan and India. Indeed, China is pursuing a strategy of attrition and containment against both.
More fundamentally, Xi’s regime is pushing expansive territorial claims in Asia on the basis of revisionist history, not international law. Its weak legal case was highlighted by an international arbitral tribunal’s 2016 ruling that invalidated its claims in the South China Sea.
In international law, a territorial claim must be based on continuous and peaceful exercise of sovereignty over the territory concerned. There is absolutely no evidence that China ever had effective control over, for example, the Senkaku Islands.
In fact, China began claiming the Senkakus only after a United Nation agency’s report in 1969 referred to the possible existence of oil reserves in the East China Sea. It was not until the early 1970s that Chinese documents began applying the name “Diaoyu” to the Senkakus and claiming they were part of China.
Sinicizing the names of territories it claims is an old tactic of the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP’s record also reveals its penchant to create a dispute out of the blue by claiming that the territory it covets was part of China since ancient times.
Under Xi, China’s incursions into the Senkaku territorial waters and airspace have steadily intensified, not just in frequency but also with the entry of larger vessels and armed ships. In recent months, China has sought to even police the waters off the Senkakus.
If history is not to be repeated, Suga should draw some lessons, including from the record of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe.
The first lesson is that establishing better relations with Beijing doesn’t necessarily yield better Chinese behavior. Xi’s aggressive revisionism is unaffected by diplomatic progress.
For example, Abe’s 2018 visit to Beijing was instrumental in helping improve ties with China. Yet the ensuing diplomatic progress, far from reining in China’s aggressive actions, engendered increasing Chinese intrusions, including the longest series of incursions into Japanese waters in years.
A second lesson is that responding with notable restraint to China’s belligerence only encourages Beijing to further up the ante. Consider the startling fact that no Japanese defense minister has ever conducted an aerial survey of the Senkakus. In August, the then-defense minister, Taro Kono, decided to break that taboo but then backed off “so as not to provoke China.”
Such shrinking from purely defensive action explains why an emboldened China has stepped up incursions. Japan needs to strengthen its administrative and security control over the Senkakus.
A third lesson relates to China’s strategy. Deception, concealment and surprise are central to China’s strategy to win without fighting. It adheres to the ancient theorist Sun Tzu’s advice, “The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy.”
This approach involves taking an adversary by surprise, including seizing an opportunistic timing, and camouflaging offense as defense.
China’s war of attrition against Japan over the Senkakus has already disturbed the status quo, including by making the international community recognize the existence of a dispute and by regularizing Chinese incursions. China persists with its recklessly provocative actions, including ignoring the risk that an incident could spiral out of control.
A fourth lesson is that as long as China perceives strategic benefits as outweighing costs, Xi will persist with his strategy of attrition against Japan. Xi’s strategy is imposing greater security costs on Japan than on China.
Against this background, a Chinese strike against the Senkaku Islands could conceivably come when Japan has been lulled into complacency and least expects an attack. This is what happened to India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not see the Chinese aggression coming because his vision had been clouded by the naive hope that, by meeting Xi 18 times in about five years, he had reset the bilateral relationship.
China’s aim against Japan is to progressively alter the territorial status quo in its favor. Despite the Suga-Xi understanding, Chinese provocations could escalate.
Japan has spent years being on the defensive, allowing China to keep the initiative. It is past time for Tokyo to come out of its reactive mode and turn the tables on China’s machinations by responding assertively. It must frustrate China’s strategy of incrementally altering the status quo without incurring substantive costs.
Japan ought to look at ways to impose costs. This could include first warning Beijing that its provocative actions, such as chasing Japanese fishing vessels within Japanese territorial waters, would henceforth be firmly countered. If provocative actions persist despite the warning, the Japan Coast Guard could selectively act against some intruding Chinese state ships.
To be sure, effectively countering Chinese incursions demands more than ramming or disabling intruding ships and detaining their crews. It calls for an important shift in Japan’s policies, including building defensive facilities in the Senkakus. Japan could begin modestly by building an environmental monitoring station in the Senkakus.
China, of course, will react furiously to any Japanese counteractions. But at a time when the international environment is turning hostile to Xi’s expansionism, Japan must display strength and resolve. If not, China will bring Japanese security under increasing pressure in the coming years.
Japan has a strong case, anchored in international law, that it has exercised sovereignty over the Senkakus since 1895. But make no mistake: The future of the Senkakus will not be decided by international law, even though a just, rules-based order is essential for international peace and security.
The South China Sea is a reminder that international law is powerless against the powerful. China has turned its contrived historical claims in the South China Sea into reality and gained strategic depth, despite the international tribunal’s ruling against it.
Japan undoubtedly faces hard choices. But accommodation with an unyielding China is simply not possible.
Without concrete counteractions, Japan will increasingly find itself at the receiving end of China’s muscular revisionism. To stop its security from coming under siege, Japan must act — with calm, confidence and firmness.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.
For Xi Jinping, the COVID-19 pandemic – which has preoccupied the world’s governments for months – seemed like an ideal opportunity to make quick progress on his expansionist agenda. But by provoking India, he may have bitten off more than he can chew.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, recently declared that aggression and expansionism have never been in the Chinese nation’s “genes.” It is almost astonishing that he managed to say it with a straight face.
Aggression and expansionism obviously are not genetic traits, but they have defined President Xi Jinping’s tenure. Xi, who in some ways has taken up the expansionist mantle of Mao Zedong, is attempting to implement a modern version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states: submit to the emperor, and reap the benefits of peace and trade with the empire.
For Xi, the COVID-19 pandemic – which has preoccupied the world’s governments for months – seemed like an ideal opportunity to make quick progress on his agenda. So, in April and May, he directed the People’s Liberation Army to launch furtive incursions into the icy borderlands of India’s Ladakh region, where it proceeded to establish heavily fortified encampments.
It wasn’t nearly as clever a plan as Xi probably thought. Far from entrenching China’s regional preeminence, it has intensified the pushback by Indo-Pacific powers, which have deepened their security cooperation. This includes China’s most powerful competitor, the United States, thereby escalating a bilateral strategic confrontation that has technological, economic, diplomatic, and military dimensions. The specter of international isolation and supply disruptions now looms over China, spurring Xi to announce plans to hoard mammoth quantities of mineral resources and agricultural products.
But Xi’s real miscalculation on the Himalayan border was vis-à-vis India, which has now abandoned its appeasement policy toward China. Not surprisingly, China remains committed to the PLA’s incursions, which it continues to portray as defensive: late last month, Xi told senior officials to “solidify border defenses” and “ensure frontier security” in the Himalayan region.
India, however, is ready to fight. In June, after the PLA ambushed and killed Indian soldiers patrolling Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, a hand-to-hand confrontation led to the deaths of numerous Chinese troops – the first PLA troops killed in action outside United Nations peacekeeping operations in over four decades. Xi was so embarrassed by this outcome that, whereas India honored its 20 fallen as martyrs, China refuses to admit its precise death toll.
The truth is that, without the element of surprise, China is not equipped to dominate India in a military confrontation. And India is making sure that it will not be caught off guard again. It has now matched Chinese military deployments along the Himalayan frontier and activated its entire logistics network to transport the supplies needed to sustain the troops and equipment through the coming harsh winter.
In another blow to China, Indian special forces recently occupied strategic mountain positions overlooking key Chinese deployments on the southern side of Pangong Lake. Unlike the PLA, which prefers to encroach on undefended border areas, Indian forces carried out their operation right under China’s nose, in the midst of a major PLA buildup.
If that were not humiliating enough for China, India eagerly noted that the Special Frontier Force that spearheaded the operation comprises Tibetan refugees. The Tibetan soldier who was killed by a landmine in the operation was honored with a well-attended military funeral.
India’s message was clear: China’s claims to Tibet, which separated India and China until Mao Zedong’s regime annexed it in 1951, are not nearly as strong as it pretends they are. Tibetans view China as a brutally repressive occupying power, and those eager to fight the occupiers flocked to the Frontier Force, established after Mao’s 1962 war with India.
Here’s the rub: China’s claims to India’s vast Himalayan borderlands are based on their alleged historical links to Tibet. If China is merely occupying Tibet, how can it claim sovereignty over those borderlands?
In any case, Xi’s latest effort to gain control of territories that aren’t China’s to take has proved far more difficult to complete than it was to launch. As China’s actions in the South China Sea demonstrate, Xi prefers asymmetrical or hybrid warfare, which combines conventional and irregular tactics with psychological and media manipulation, disinformation, lawfare, and coercive diplomacy.
But while Xi managed to change the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a shot, it seems clear that this will not work on China’s Himalayan border. Instead, Xi’s approach has placed the Sino-Indian relationship – crucial to regional stability – on a knife edge. Xi wants neither to back down nor to wage an open war, which is unlikely to yield the decisive victory he needs to restore his reputation after the border debacle.
China might have the world’s largest active-duty military force, but India’s is also massive. More important, India’s battle-hardened forces have experience in low-intensity conflicts at high altitudes; the PLA, by contrast, has had no combat experience since its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam. Given this, a Sino-Indian war in the Himalayas would probably end in a stalemate, with both sides suffering heavy losses.
Xi seems to be hoping that he can simply wear India down. At a time when the Indian economy has registered its worst-ever contraction due to the still-escalating COVID-19 crisis, Xi has forced India to divert an increasing share of resources to national defense. Meanwhile, ceasefire violations by Pakistan, China’s close ally, have increased to a record high, raising the specter of a two-front war for India. As some Chinese military analysts have suggested, Xi could use America’s preoccupation with its coming presidential election to carry out a quick, localized strike against India without seeking to start a war.
But it seems less likely that India will wilt under Chinese pressure than that Xi will leave behind a legacy of costly blunders. With his Himalayan misadventure, Xi has provoked a powerful adversary and boxed himself into a corner.
As the past weekend’s latest skirmishes between rival troops underscore, relations between the demographic titans, China and India, have hit a low not seen since their 1962 war. The two countries haveforward-deployedtens of thousands of troops and are now locked in a tense military standoff along one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders, which is as long as the distance between Toronto and Los Angeles.
The clash of the titans, triggered by a series of furtive Chinese encroachments on key vantage points in India’s northernmost borderlands, has received limited international attention. However, the spectre of further troop clashes or a 1962-style Himalayan war continues to loom, despite continuing bilateral efforts to disengage rival forces.
The confrontation highlights Chinese President Xi Jinping’s muscular revisionism, which has led him to open multiple fronts simultaneously – from the South and East China seas and the Himalayas to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Mr. Xi’s expansionism hasn’t spared the tiny country of Bhutan.
While India was wrestling with the outbreak of the Wuhan-originating coronavirus by enforcing the world’s strictest lockdown, China carried out swift and well co-ordinated incursions into the borderlands of India’s high-altitude Ladakh region from late April. Deception and surprise are integral to the Chinese strategy, even in peacetime. The aggression in Ladakh came just six months after Mr. Xi declared on Indian soil that “China-India relations have entered a new phase of sound and stable development.”
China’s intrusions into Ladakh differ from its previous Asian territorial grabs under Mr. Xi in one key aspect. China went beyond its usual practice of occupying vacant border spaces by snatching territories from right under another country’s nose.
The territorial expansion in the South China Sea by China,for example, has centred on capturing disputed but unoccupied shoals and reefs and then using construction activities to turn them into militarized artificial islands. Since Mr. Xi ordered the launch of major land reclamation in 2013, China has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a shot.
In 2017, China captured the unoccupied and desolate Himalayan plateau of Doklam, which Bhutan claims as its territory. The occupation came soon after China ended a more than 10-week-long troop faceoff on the plateau with India, Bhutan’s de facto security guarantor.
This summer, Mr. Xi’s communist regime laid claim to another 11 per cent of Bhutan territory, in an area that can be accessed only through India’s Arunachal Pradesh state (which Chinese maps already show as part of China). The move thus sought to advance Mr. Xi’s efforts against both Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.
In the East China Sea, meanwhile, China has stepped up incursions into the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands’ territorial waters and airspace, with the aim of weakening Japan’s control and strengthening its own sovereignty claims. By bringing Japan’s security increasingly under pressure, China is signalling that the U.S. alliance system is not an answer to its aggressive revisionism.
Against this background, Mr. Xi’s aggression against India appears to mark the start of a more daring new phase in his expansionism. As U.S. national security advisor Robert O’Brien has said, “the Chinese have been very aggressive with India” lately.
The Chinese encroachments have led to multiple rounds of clashes with Indian troops in Ladakh. The deadliest occurred on June 15, leaving 20 Indian soldiers, and an unknown number of Chinese troops, dead. While India honoured its fallen as martyrs, China still refuses to divulge its losses. U.S. intelligence agencies believe China suffered more casualties than India.
Mr. Xi’s Himalayan expansionism has sought to take off from where Mao Zedong left. Mao considered Tibet (which he annexed in 1951) to be China’s right-hand palm, with five fingers – Bhutan, Nepal and the three Indian territories of Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. The five fingers were also to be “liberated.” In fact, Mao’s 1962 war against India helped China to gain more territory in Ladakh, after it earlier grabbed a Switzerland-sized chunk, the Aksai Chin plateau.
As long as Mr. Xi, like Mao, perceives the strategic benefits as outweighing the international costs, he will persist with his campaign of expansionism.
But by seeking to start the world’s next big conflict with India, Mr. Xi is likely to end up pushing that country closer to the United States and creating an adversarial bloc around China. Already, international attitudes toward Mr. Xi’s regime have hardened and many countries and companies have begun re-evaluating China-dependent supply chains for essential goods.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including Water: Asia’s New Battleground.
As long as the costs of expansionism remain manageable, Chinese President Xi Jinping will stay the course, seeking to exploit electoral politics and polarization in major democracies. The Indo-Pacific’s major democratic powers must not let that happen, which means ensuring that the costs for China do not remain manageable for long.
In his most recent New Year’s speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that 2020 would be “a milestone.” Xi was right, but not in the way he expected. Far from having “friends in every corner of the world,” as he boasted in his speech, China has severely damaged its international reputation, alienated its partners, and left itself with only one real lever of power: brute force. Whether the prospect of isolation thwarts Xi’s imperialist ambitions, however, remains to be seen.
Historians will most likely view 2020 as a watershed year. Thanks to COVID-19, many countries learned hard lessons about China-dependent supply chains, and international attitudes toward China’s communist regime shifted.
The tide began to turn when it was revealed that the Communist Party of China hid crucial information from the world about COVID-19, which was first detected in Wuhan – a finding confirmed by a recent US intelligence report. Making matters worse, Xi attempted to capitalize on the pandemic, first by hoarding medical products – a market China dominates – and then by stepping up aggressive expansionism, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. This is driving rapid change in the region’s geostrategic landscape, with other powers preparing to counter China.
For starters, Japan now seems set to begin cooperating with the Five Eyes – the world’s oldest intelligence-gathering and -sharing alliance, comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. A new “Six Eyes” alliance would serve as a crucial pillar of Indo-Pacific security.
Moreover, the so-called Quad – comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the US – seems poised to deepen its strategic collaboration. This represents a notable shift for India, in particular, which has spent years attempting to appease China.
As US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien recently noted, “the Chinese have been very aggressive with India” lately. Since late April, the People’s Liberation Army has occupied several areas in the northern Indian region of Ladakh, turning up the heat on a long-simmering border conflict. This has left Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with little choice but to change course.
Modi is considering inviting Australia to participate in the annual Malabar naval exercise with Japanese, American, and Indian forces later this year. Australia withdrew from the exercise in 2008 when it involved only the US and India. Although Japan’s participation was regularized in 2015, India had hesitated to bring Australia back into the fold, for fear of provoking China. Not anymore. With Australia again involved in Malabar, the Quad grouping will have a formal, practical platform for naval drills.
Already, cooperation among Quad members is gaining some strategic heft. In June, Australia and India signed the Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement to increase military interoperability through bilateral defense activities. India has a similar pact with the US and is set to sign one with Japan shortly.
Japan, for its part, recently added Australia, India, and the UK as defense intelligence sharing partners by tweaking its 2014 state secrets law, which previously included exchanges only with the US. This will strengthen Japanese security cooperation under 2016 legislation that redefined Japan’s US-imposed pacifist post-war constitution in such a way that Japan may now come to the aid of allies under attack.
Thus, the Indo-Pacific’s democracies are forging closer strategic bonds in response to China’s increasing aggression. The next logical step would be for these countries to play a more concerted, coordinated role in advancing broader regional security. The problem is that American, Australian, Indian, and Japanese security interests are not entirely congruent.
For India and Japan, the security threat China poses is much more acute and immediate, as shown by China’s aggression against India and its increasingly frequent incursions into Japanese waters. Moreover, India is the only Quad member that maintains a land-based defense posture, and it faces the very real prospect of a serious conflict with China on its Himalayan border.
The US, by contrast, has never considered a land war against China. Its primary objective is to counter China’s geopolitical, ideological, and economic challenges to America’s global preeminence. America’s pursuit of this objective will be President Donald Trump’s most-consequential foreign-policy legacy.
Australia, meanwhile, must engage in a delicate balancing act. While it wants to safeguard its values and regional stability, it remains economically dependent on China, which accounts for one-third of its exports. So, even as Australia has pursued closer ties with the Quad, it has spurned US calls to join naval patrols in the South China Sea. As its foreign minister, Marise Payne, recently declared, Australia has “no intention of injuring” its relationship with China.
If China continues pursuing an expansionist strategy, however, such hedging will no longer be justifiable. Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono recently declared that the “consensus in the international community” is that China must be “made to pay a high price” for its muscular revisionism in the South and East China seas, the Himalayas, and Hong Kong. He is right – the emphasis is on “high.”
As long as the costs of expansionism remain manageable, Xi will stay the course, seeking to exploit electoral politics and polarization in major democracies. The Indo-Pacific’s major democratic powers must not let that happen, which means ensuring that the costs for China do not remain manageable for long.
Machiavelli famously wrote that, “It is better to be feared than loved.” Xi is not feared so much as hated. But that will mean little unless the Indo-Pacific’s major democracies get their act together, devise ways to stem Chinese expansionism, reconcile their security strategies, and contribute to building a rules-based regional order. Their vision must be clarified and translated into a well-defined policy approach, backed with real strategic weight. Otherwise, Xi will continue to use brute force to destabilize the Indo-Pacific further, possibly even starting a war.
By occupying key vantage points in eastern Ladakh in an operation backed by tens of thousands of troops in the rear, China has entered a dangerous new phase in its territorial expansionism. It has brazenly seized areas that were under India’s military control or patrolling jurisdiction.
In fact, China intruded into areas located beyond any claim line it has ever published, including its 1956, 1959 and 1960 claim lines in Ladakh. Demonstrating ever-expanding claims, its forces intruded into the Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongka La region and the Depsang Y-Junction and also right up to Galwan River’s mouth and up to Pangong Lake’s Finger 4.
India, facing up to what its defence ministry calls “unilateral aggression,” has made it amply clear to China that it will settle for nothing less than a full return to status quo ante. India’s message to Beijing is that refusing to roll back its encroachments will cast a growing shadow over the bilateral relationship. Publicly, too, India has cautioned that China’s border hostilities will damage bilateral ties.
There has been no national debate, however, on India’s options to restore status quo ante. China seems determined to hold on to its territorial gains, which explains its statement that disengagement is mostly over. Indeed, it has used military and diplomatic talks to demand Indian acquiescence in the new status quo. The protracted talks have also helped it to consolidate its hold on the land grabs, including by building fortifications and installing fibre optic cables.
China has achieved its territorial gains in the same way it made territorial grabs elsewhere in Asia since the 1980s — below the threshold of armed conflict, without firing a shot. Today, it is trying to dictate a Hobson’s choice to India, like it did when it captured Doklam: Go along with the changed status quo or risk an open war. Believing time is on its side, China is seeking to wear India out in order to present a fait accompli.
Against this background, India’s options are clearly narrowing. The longer India has waited, the harder it has become to militarily push back the intruding Chinese forces and restore status quo ante. Imagine if India had dealt with China’s incursions as soon as it discovered them in early May, instead of restraining its forces and entering into unproductive talks. Indian efforts to obscure the intrusions and troop clashes only led to newer Chinese encroachments. As an August 4 defence ministry note points out, China made fresh intrusions into Kugrang, Gogra and Pangong on May 17-18.
India has the world’s most-experienced army in hybrid mountain warfare. Contrary to conventional wisdom that China holds a significant military advantage, several recent international assessments underscore that India’s air and ground forces have a qualitative edge over the People’s Liberation Army. India’s weakness is a reactive and risk-averse strategic culture.
India’s failure to employ its counterattack capability undermined its negotiating position. Instead of a “seize, hold and talk” strategy to clinch an equitable deal, India brought little to the negotiating table, thus allowing China to reinforce its bargaining power. This is apparent from China’s absurd new demands that India further retreat from Pangong and vacate the Kugrang heights.
India now faces crunch time. If it is not going to end up validating China’s forcible realignment of the Line of Actual Control, India must inflict substantive costs on the aggressor. Imposing significant economic and diplomatic costs, coupled with the application of coercive military pressure, holds the key. India must speak from a position of strength. Its professional, battle-hardened armed forces, coupled with its trade and diplomatic leverage, give it that strength.
The only way China will roll back its aggression is if India begins exacting mounting costs that make its territorial gains unbeneficial to hold. The costs India has sought to impose thus far have proved woefully inadequate to make Beijing end its aggression.
A calibrated imposition of progressively escalating costs has become imperative. Economically, India’s main steps thus far — banning Chinese mobile apps and restricting Chinese companies’ access to Indian government contracts — need to be supplemented with informal trade sanctions.Chinese exports to India are still running at more than $5 billion a month, with July witnessing a surge. Now is the time for India to leverage its buying power to correct its massive trade deficit with China.
At a time when the international environment is turning hostile to China’s ambitions, India must launch a diplomatic offensive to spotlight the Chinese aggression. India’s reticence to name and shame China seems unfathomable. Even amid its aggression, China has had no hesitation in raking up the Jammu and Kashmir issue at the United Nations Security Council.
As a warning shot across Beijing’s bow, India should rescind its 2006 decision allowing China to reopen its consulate in Kolkata, given China’s designs on the Siliguri Corridor. That decision was made despite Beijing’s refusal to let India reopen its Lhasa consulate. The Kolkata and Lhasa consulates were shut following Mao Zedong’s 1962 war against India.
Meanwhile, the highest-level visit by a US cabinet official to Taiwan since 1979 has served as an example for India to loosen its own one-China policy by living up to then Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s promise in 2014 — that the one-China policy would henceforth be predicated on China’s adoption of a one-India policy. For starters, the prime minister may like to meet the Dalai Lama and say he sought the Tibetan leader’s counsel regarding China.
India, subscribing to hard-nosed realpolitik, has no choice but to impose costs that cumulatively outweigh Beijing’s aggression gains. Without such a course, China could not only escape scot-free but also reap rewards of aggression and become a bigger threat.
Beijing’s stealth aggression against India along the Himalayan border represents a geostrategic sea change. Given China’s stepped-up incursions in or near Japanese waters, this has serious implications for Japan as well.
As part of President Xi Jinping’s aggressive expansionism, China is pursuing a strategy of attrition, friction and containment against Japan and India — its two potential peer rivals in Asia — in order to harass, encumber and weigh them down. This includes China’s efforts to police the waters off the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in recent months in order to weaken Japan’s control and strengthen its own sovereignty claims.
More broadly, Xi’s regime is pushing expansive claims on the basis of an ingenious principle — “what is ours is ours and what is yours is negotiable.” This has been underscored by China’s newly minted claim to tiny Bhutan’s eastern region, which shares a border only with India. Perhaps the only time since the end of World War II that one state has laid claim to territory that can only be accessed via another country, China has sought to simultaneously advance its designs against Bhutan and India.
And when Tokyo lodged a protest last month after a Chinese government ship conducted marine research activity in the exclusive economic zone off Japan’s southernmost point, Beijing responded that “Japan’s unilateral claim [to an EEZ there] has no legal basis.” Some in China are even questioning Japanese sovereignty over Okinawa.
China’s various territorial claims, from the East China Sea to the Himalayas, are based not on international law but on alleged history. The Chinese Communist Party’s practice is to furtively occupy another nation’s territory and then claim that the captured area was part of China since ancient times.
Japan could learn from the CCP’s practices and from India’s mistakes that made it the target of China’s latest aggression. After all, China’s strategy against Japan is fairly similar to the one it is pursuing against India.
Incremental advances by stealth below the threshold of war are integral to China’s strategy. Admiral Philip Davidson warned in 2018 before taking over as the U.S. Indo-Pacific commander that China was likely to continue “to coerce Japan without sparking a crisis or conflict.”
The first lesson for Japan is that China’s aggressive actions bear no relation to the state of bilateral ties with the country it targets, as shown by the fact that the Chinese aggression in Ladakh came just six months after Xi declared during an India visit that “China-India relations have entered a new phase of sound and stable development.”
Another sign that the CCP’s revanchism is unaffected by ostensible improvements in bilateral relations was the 2019 increase in Chinese incursions into the Senkaku territorial waters and airspace compared to the previous year.
Attempts to placate Beijing also tend to backfire. After Narendra Modi became Indian prime minister in 2014, he bent over backward to befriend China, including delisting it as a “country of concern” and halting official contact with the Dalai Lama. For nearly six years, Modi ignored all warning signs, including a rising tide of Chinese incursions, especially into Ladakh, and China’s capture of the Bhutan-claimed Doklam Plateau following a 73-day standoff with Indian troops there.
There is a cautionary tale for Japan here. Tokyo, since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2018 visit to Beijing, has emphasized improving ties with Beijing and responded with conspicuous restraint to the longest series of Chinese incursions into Japanese waters in years.
After its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam, China developed a strategy of winning without fighting. Deception, concealment and surprise have driven its bulletless aggressions, from seizing Johnson Reef in 1988 and Mischief Reef in 1995, to occupying the Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
And now China occupies several vantage points in Indian Ladakh, perhaps following ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s advice to “plan for what is difficult while it is easy” by striking when a distracted India was busy wrestling with the coronavirus outbreak.
All of which suggests that a Chinese strike against the Senkaku Islands could come when Japan least expects it.
India’s deeply rooted reactive culture has allowed China to keep the initiative, including when and how to needle India or infringe its sovereignty. Japan, too, has spent years being on the defensive and must come out of its reactive and pacifist mode to safeguard its long-term security. A more secure Japan will also help underpin peace in the Indo-Pacific region.
Today, Japan needs to deal with a more immediate challenge. Once the China-set suspension of fishing around the Senkaku Islands ends on August 16, Chinese provocations could escalate, with the possible entry of many Chinese fishing boats and Coast Guard ships. After all, China’s aim is to progressively alter the status quo in its favor.
It is past time for Tokyo to turn the tables on China’s machinations by responding assertively, including disabling Chinese state ships and detaining their crews when they engage in provocative activities, such as chasing Japanese fishing vessels. Otherwise, Japan will increasingly find itself at the receiving end of China’s muscular revisionism.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
As long as the Chinese Communist Party remains in power, it will persist with territorial expansionism and none of China’s neighbors will be safe. The Chinese communists, to use a quote from the Bible, are like “greedy dogs which can never have enough.”
As the world struggles to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, which first emerged in China, Chinese President Xi Jinping is pursuing his quest for regional dominance more aggressively than ever. From the Himalayas to Hong Kong and Tibet to the South and East China Seas, Xi seems to be picking up where Mao Zedong left off, with little fear of international retribution.
The parallels between Xi and the despots of the past are obvious. He has overseen a brutal crackdown on dissent, engineered the effective demise of the “one country, two systems” arrangement with Hong Kong, filled concentration camps and detention centers with Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang province, and laid the groundwork to remain president for life.
According to US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, “Xi sees himself as Joseph Stalin’s successor.” Many others have compared Xi to Adolf Hitler, even coining the nickname “Xitler.” But it is Mao – the People’s Republic’s founding father, and the twentieth century’s most prolific butcher – to whom Xi bears the closest resemblance.
For starters, Xi has cultivated a Mao-style personality cult. In 2017, the Communist Party of China enshrined in its constitution a new political doctrine: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” The ideology is inspired by Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, but its inclusion in the CPC’s constitution makes Xi the third Chinese leader – after Mao and the architect of China’s modernization, Deng Xiaoping – to be mentioned in the document. Last December, the CPC also conferred upon Xi a new title: renmin lingxiu, or “people’s leader” – a label associated with Mao.
Now, Xi is working to complete Mao’s expansionist vision. Mao’s China annexed Xinjiang and Tibet, more than doubling the country’s territory and making it the world’s fourth largest by area. Its annexation of resource-rich Tibet, in particular, represented one of the most far-reaching geopolitical developments in post-World War II history, not least because it gave China common borders with India, Nepal, Bhutan, and northernmost Myanmar.
In fact, Mao considered Tibet to be China’s right-hand palm, with five fingers – Nepal, Bhutan, and the three Indian territories of Ladakh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh – that China was also meant to “liberate.” Mao’s 1962 war against India helped China gain more territory in Ladakh, after it earlier grabbed a Switzerland-sized chunk, the Aksai Chin region.
This past April and May, Xi had the People’s Liberation Army carry out a series of well-coordinated incursions into Ladakh, with the intruding forces setting up heavily fortified encampments. He then deployed tens of thousands of troops along the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) with Ladakh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh.
This “incredibly aggressive action,” as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called it, led to bloody clashes in Ladakh on June 15, leaving 20 Indian soldiers, and an unknown number of Chinese troops, dead. (US intelligence agencies believe China suffered more casualties than India, but whereas India has honored its fallen as martyrs, China has refused to divulge its losses.) Despite continuing bilateral efforts to disengage rival forces, the specter of further clashes or a war continues to loom.
The CPC has not forgotten about the other two fingers, Bhutan and Nepal. Just as China and India began withdrawing troops from the site of the June 15 clashes, Beijing opened another front in its bid for territorial expansion, asserting a new claim in Bhutan.
In 2017, China occupied the Doklam Plateau – at the intersection of Tibet, Sikkim, and Bhutan, and claimed by the latter – following a 73-day military standoff with India, the de facto guarantor of Bhutanese security. Now, China is laying claim to another 11% of the tiny kingdom’s territory, in an area that can be accessed only through Arunachal Pradesh (which Chinese maps already show as part of China). The move thus advances Xi’s efforts against two of the five fingers simultaneously.
The fifth “finger,” Nepal, has been drifting away from India and toward China since it came under communist rule two and a half years ago. Indeed, China aided the Nepalese communists’ victory, including by unifying rival factions and funding their election campaign. Since then, China has openly meddled in the country’s fractious politics, in order to keep the ruling party intact, with its ambassador acting as if she were Nepal’s matriarch.
But being in China’s strategic orbit has done nothing to protect Nepal from the CPC’s territorial predation. Last month, a leaked Nepalese agricultural department report warned that China’s massive road-development projects have expanded China’s boundary into northern territories of Nepal and changed the course of rivers.
Of course, altering Asia’s water map is nothing new for China. Tibet is the starting point of Asia’s ten major river systems. This has facilitated China’s rise as a hydro-hegemon with no modern historical parallel. Today, Chinese-built mega-dams near the borders of the Tibetan Plateau give the country leverage over downstream countries.
As the hand metaphor indicates, Tibet is the key to China’s territorial claims in the Himalayan region – and not only because of geography. China cannot claim the five fingers on the basis of any Han-Chinese connection. Instead, it points to alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links, even though Tibet was part of China only when China itself had been conquered by outsiders like the Mongols and the Manchus. Chinese current claims are nothing more than a power (and resource) grab.
In other words, the five-fingers strategy, coupled with Chinese expansionism elsewhere, is all about upholding the world’s longest-running autocracy. As long as the CPC – and especially the revisionist Xi – holds a monopoly on power, none of China’s neighbors will be safe.
China’s territorial revisionism has been unrelenting. Under Mao Zedong, China more than doubled its size by annexing Tibet and Xinjiang, making it the world’s fourth largest country in area. Under Xi Jinping, China’s expansionism increasingly threatens its neighbours, big and small. Xi’s regime has just opened a new territorial front against one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, by disputing its eastern borders.
In this light, the outcome of China’s aggression against India will have an important bearing on Asian security. If the current India-China military disengagement ends up like the 2017 Doklam disengagement in making China the clear winner, an emboldened Xi regime will likely become a greater threat to neighbours.
China’s strategy after its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam has been to win without fighting. Deception, concealment and surprise have driven China’s repeated use of force — from seizing the Johnson Reef in 1988 and the Mischief Reef in 1995 to occupying the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and now vantage locations in Ladakh. It has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a shot or incurring any international costs.
China has displayed its art of deception even in its disengagement process with India. The first accord of June 6 to disengage collapsed after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) erected structures on Indian territory and then ambushed and killed Indian Army men on verification patrol. The disengagement process restarted after Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to let China off the hook with his June 19 speech at the all-party meeting. But the fresh process became a ruse for PLA to encroach on two new Indian areas — the Depsang Y-Junction; and the Galwan Valley site of the ambush killings.
India and China are now in their third disengagement series. But while the previous two abortive rounds followed military-level talks, the latest cycle is being driven politically. We now know that Modi’s July 3 Ladakh visit, and his tough words there, were essentially designed to create domestic political space for his government to seek de-escalation with China. Barely 48 hours after his visit, India and China hammered out a disengagement deal.
Will the latest deal stick? Having encroached on key areas that overlook India’s defences, PLA is sitting pretty. A full return to status quo ante as sought by India seems remote, thanks to India’s own mixed signals. Moreover, by encroaching on additional areas behind the previous disengagement facade, China has armed itself with greater leverage to impose a revised status quo, including by applying the precept that “possession is nine-tenths of the law”.
Disengagement (pullback of rival forces from close proximity), if not de-escalation (ending hostilities through demobilisation of forces), meshes well with China’s interest in presenting India a fait accompli. Removing the threat of an Indian counteroffensive or Indian tit-for-tat land grab will help China win without fighting.
This explains why China has accepted disengagement — but on its terms. This is illustrated in the Galwan Valley, where India has pulled back from its own territory and created a “buffer zone” on its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). These steps, though temporary, create a new, China-advantageous status quo that PLA could seek to enforce because it keeps India out of China’s newly-claimed zone — the Galwan Valley.
The risk that, like at Doklam, the current disengagement may not end well for India is high. Instead of demonstrating strength and resolve, India has displayed zeal to end the stand-off, despite its armed forces being mobilised for possible war.
At a time when the international environment is beginning to turn against China, India could have prolonged the stand-off until winter to compel restoration of status quo ante. But instead, it has kicked status quo ante down the road and settled merely for disengagement. This allows China to hold on to its core territorial gains and trade the marginal occupied territories for Indian concessions, as part of its well-known “advance 10 miles and retreat six miles” strategy.
Far from imposing military costs, India has shied away even from trade actions against the aggressor, as if to preserve the option of another Modi-Xi summit. India’s steps so far (banning Chinese mobile apps and announcing an intent to restrict Chinese investment in some areas) have been designed to assuage public anger at home, but without imposing substantive costs on Beijing or damaging bilateral relations.
In 1967, a weak India, while recovering from the 1962 and 1965 wars, gave China a bloody nose. But in 2017 and again now, after its soldiers displayed extraordinary bravery in tackling China’s aggression, a nuclear-armed India hastily sought disengagement. Its decision-makers remain loath to fundamentally change the China policy even when faced with aggression.
Bite by bite, China has been nibbling away at India’s borderlands, even as successive Indian prime ministers have sought to appease it. When political calculations trump military factors and a nation lives by empty rhetoric, it can win neither war nor peace.
The present path risks locking India in a “no war, no peace” situation with China and imposing mounting security costs. This path aids China’s time-tested strategy of attrition, friction and containment to harass, encumber, encircle, deceive and weigh India down.
If India wants Himalayan peace, it must make China pay for its aggression to help create a deterrent effect. The present aggression — the most serious since the 1960s — resulted from India letting China off the hook too easily in 2017, allowing it to capture Doklam. And if China emerges the winner from the current crisis, its next aggression could be worse. Only a chastened China saddled with high costs and loss of face will rein in its aggressive expansionism.
FIGHTING TWO BATTLES simultaneously — one against Chinese aggression in Ladakh and another against the China-originating coronavirus — India finds itself at a critical juncture in its post-Independence history. How India emerges from the dual crises will not only decide Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political future but, more importantly, have an important bearing on the country’s future trajectory and international standing.
The bare fact is that China’s stealth aggression in the second half of April caught India napping, with the armed forces discovering the intrusions in early May. In a swift operation that must have been planned months ahead, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forcibly changed the status quo by encroaching into disputed and undisputed border areas of Ladakh. This came at a time when a distracted India was wrestling with the coronavirus outbreak by enforcing the world’s strictest lockdown.
Since the 1980s, China has been eating away — bite by bite — at India’s Himalayan borderlands, even as successive Indian prime ministers have pursued a policy of appeasement toward Beijing. India is now reaping the bitter fruits of such appeasement.
In comparison to China’s intrusions in the past years, its latest aggression is unprecedented. The well-coordinated encroachments were strategically geared to creating new facts on the ground by grabbing vantage locations, with the intent to secure militarily commanding positions and render Indian defences vulnerable. This was underscored by the PLA’s occupation of the key strategic heights around Lake Pangong, in the area stretching from Fingers 4 to 8, and by its encampments atop Galwan Valley’s ridges that overlook India’s newly built Darbuk-Shyok-DBO highway. That highway is a key supply route to India’s most-forward military base located near the Karakoram Pass.
Although China provoked bloody clashes at the Sikkim-Tibet border in 1967 and triggered border skirmishes in 1986-87 by crossing the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Samdurong Chu, this year has marked the first time that it has opened military pressure points against India in peacetime all along the Himalayan frontier. To mount pressure on India, China not only has amassed forces along the Himalayan frontier but also provoked a series of clashes with Indian troops, even along Sikkim’s 206-kilometer border with Tibet.
China sees conflict as inevitable
Although China has risen from a backward, poor state to a global economic powerhouse, the key elements in its statecraft and strategic doctrine have not changed. Since the Mao Zedong era, China has adhered to the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu’s advice, “The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy.” This has meant exploiting the opponent’s weaknesses and camouflaging offense as defence. “All warfare,” Sun Tzu also famously said, “is based on deception.”
Communist China has repeatedly used force since 1950. This happened even under Deng Xiaoping, who sought to “teach a lesson” to Vietnam in 1979, in the style of Mao’s 1962 war on India. Whenever China has used force, it has been in the form of military pre-emption, executed through deception, concealment and surprise. Its latest aggression against India had all these elements.
The Chinese system sees conflict as inherent in China’s efforts to resolutely achieve its rightful place in the world and to assert its territorial claims and broader strategic interests. Beijing is thus ever willing to create or manage conflict. From employing its trade muscle to inflict commercial pain on countries that challenge it to exploiting its monopoly on the global production of a vital resource like rare-earth minerals, China has staked out a muscular, conflict-making role. As a Global Timeseditorial on June 22 said in relation to India, “The border dispute has made it clear that China is not afraid of conflicts when it comes to territorial issues.”
Against this background, a China-India agreement to de-escalate tensions will offer Beijing an opportunity to escalate its game of deception, with the aim of buying time and consolidating its hold on the newly encroached areas. China usually takes one step at a time in its relentless push to expand its land and sea frontiers. In the coming years, it could seek to replicate its Pangong territorial grab in other strategic Ladakh areas, such as Depsang, Demchok and Chumar.
In fact,India’s perennially reactive mode has long allowed the PLA to keep the initiative in the Himalayas. The PLA began honing its “salami tactics” in the Himalayas in the 1950s, when it sliced off the Switzerland-size Aksai Chin plateau from Ladakh. Later China inflicted a humiliating defeat on India in the 1962 war, securing peace, as a state mouthpiece crowed in 2012, on its own terms.
Today, China pursues a “cabbage” approach to borders, cutting off access to an adversary’s previously controlled territory and gradually surrounding it with multiple security layers. China has been gradually subverting the status quo in the South and East China Seas, its border with India, and even the flows of international rivers — all without firing a single shot.
Operating in the threshold between peace and war, China has pursued increasingly persistent efforts to intrude into India’s desolate borderlands. Yet India has silently faced China’s bulletless war for territory without a concrete counter-strategy to impose costs for such revisionism. As China’s coercive power grows, it is likely to increasingly employ its capabilities not to wage full-scale military conflict with another country but to alter the territorial status quo in its favour short of overt war and to narrow the other side’s options.
China’s stealth wars have already become a leading cause of geopolitical instability in Asia. India is a principal target of such stealth wars. China has been posing new challenges to India, ratcheting up strategic pressure on multiple flanks, including by reviving old territorial claims and constantly expanding its claim lines in the Himalayas. Given that the two countries share the world’s longest disputed land border, India is particularly vulnerable to direct military pressure from China. Indeed, the largest territory that China seeks, Arunachal Pradesh, is almost three times as large as Taiwan.
The Himalayan frontier is vast, inhospitable and difficult to patrol, giving an advantage to a determined aggressor. Kiren Rijiju, India’s then Minister of State for Home Affairs, told Parliament in 2014 that, on average, China was launching at least one stealth border transgression into Indian territory every day. According to Rijiju, PLA troops were intruding into vacant border spaces with the objective of occupying them.
China’s high-altitude territorial incursions gained momentum after then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003 surrendered India’s Tibet card by formally recognizing Tibet as part of China. Beijing exploited Vajpayee’s yearning for a successful China visit by extracting concessions that presented India as seemingly willing to accept a Sino-centric Asia. For the first time, India used the legal term “recognize” — in a joint document signed by the heads of the two countries — to accept what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.”
Vajpayee’s gratuitous concession on Tibet — a large historical buffer between the Indian and Chinese civilizations that the Chinese communists annexed in 1950-51 — acted as a spur to China’s creeping aggression. It was in the period after India’s Tibet cave-in that the Chinese coined the term “South Tibet” for the Austria-size Arunachal Pradesh. The cave-in also set in motion stepped-up Chinese incursions and other border transgressions, with such scofflaw actions steadily increasing in the period from 2005 to 2020, as India’s own figures underscore.
In the Himalayas, like in the South China Sea, China has in some instances employed civilian resources as the tip of its intrusion strategy. While China’s naval forces in the South China Sea have followed Chinese fishermen to carve out space for occupying reefs, in the Himalayan region, the PLA has used specially recruited Han Chinese herders and grazers to encroach on some Indian frontier areas. Once such civilians settle on the infiltrated land, PLA troops gain control of the area, thus paving the way for the establishment of more permanent encampments or observation posts. To be sure, PLA troops have also directly infiltrated and occupied unguarded areas.
Thanks to such PLA tactics, India has over the years lost considerable land in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. In Ladakh, for example, PLA’s nibbling at Indian territories has resulted in its capture of Chumar’s Tia Pangnak and Chabji Valley and an ancient trading centre, Doom Cheley. China has been able to advance its territorial aggrandizement along the Himalayan frontier (and in the South China Sea) without the need for missiles or bullets.
Yet, without realizing it, successive Indian prime ministers have aided or condoned China’s terrestrial aggression. In fact, their naïve statements have encouraged greater Chinese incursions. Take Modi, who prioritized resetting ties with China after becoming prime minister in 2014 without any prior national experience.
In 2017, Modi said that, although China and India are at odds over their borders, it was remarkable that “in the last 40 years, not a single bullet has been fired because of [it].” The Chinese foreign ministry responded by praising Modi’s “positive remarks.” Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, for his part, used to claim that, in their 5,000-year history, India and China fought only one war, in 1962. What this rose-tinted history failed to acknowledge was that China and India became neighbours only after China completed its capture of Tibet in 1951.
India’s accommodating rhetoric has helped China’s designs to such an extent that the phrase Modi coined, “inch toward miles,” as the motto of India-China cooperation actually reflects the PLA strategy of incremental encroachments. While India-China cooperation has yet to inch toward miles, the PLA has been busy translating Modi’s slogan into practice.
Slippery slope of appeasement
When China caught India’s undermanned and ill-equipped army napping by launching a surprise, multi-pronged military attack across the Himalayas on October 20, 1962, the humiliation that ensued marked a tectonic moment in India’s post-independence history. Taking an enemy by surprise confers a significant tactical advantage in war, and the Chinese invasion inflicted an immense psychological and political shock on India that greatly magnified the initial military advances that China achieved.
Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai publicly said that the war was intended “to teach India a lesson.” China’s blitzkrieg created gloom and a defeatist mindset in India, and forced its army to retreat to defensive positions. India even shied away from employing its air power for fear of unknown consequences, although the Chinese military lacked effective air cover for its advancing forces. India’s then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, publicly bemoaned that China had “returned evil for good.” It was Nehru’s persistent appeasement toward China that set in motion the events leading to the 1962 Chinese invasion.
India’s defeat led to profound developments. It hastened the death of Nehru and set in motion fundamental changes in the country’s policy and approach, including the launch of military modernization. Yet, by the late 1980s, appeasement returned as the leitmotif of India’s China policy. Today, nearly 58 years after 1962, Indian appeasement toward China has again resulted in developments inimical to India’s security. War clouds have suddenly appeared. India has largely forgotten the lessons of 1962, including the costs of reposing faith in China’s words.
Appeasement is a slippery, treacherous slope. Once a nation embarks on appeasement, it slips into a self-perpetuating trap. Every prime minister after Indira Gandhi has kowtowed to China. Indian appeasement resumed with Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 Beijing visit and deepened with Vajpayee’s 2003 surrender of India’s Tibet card. Modi, for his part, has taken appeasement to a new level.
The paradox is that, in the post-Indira Gandhi period, every time India has stood up to China, it has been followed by New Delhi’s kowtow to Beijing. The Sumdorong Chu confrontation was followed by Rajiv Gandhi’s paying of obeisance to Beijing. In 2017, Indian forces resolutely halted PLA’s effort to build a road to the Indian border through the uninhabited Doklam plateau that India’s ally, Bhutan, regards as its own territory. This action was followed by Modi’s kowtow to China.
It was Modi, as Chinese President Xi Jinping later revealed, that proposed an annual “informal” bilateral summit — a proposal that led to the so-called Wuhan process. Xi gladly accepted Modi’s proposal of early 2018 because high-level meetings aid China’s “engagement with containment” strategy toward India.
Worse still, Modi initiated this process despite China’s seizure of Doklam. After the 73-day troop standoff at the southwestern edge of Doklam ended with an agreement to disengage, China launched frenzied construction of military fortifications and seized control of almost the entire plateau, other than the corner where the faceoff had occurred. By the time Modi decided to travel to Wuhan, the Doklam plateau, which previously had no permanent military structures or permanent force deployments, was teeming with Chinese barracks, helipads, ammunition dumps and other facilities, as satellite images underscored.
The myth of Doklam victory that Modi sold Indians to bolster his image proved costly for India, as China’s 2020 aggression has highlighted. Despite being Bhutan’s de facto security guarantor, India failed to defend that tiny nation’s territorial sovereignty. China’s Doklam capture has shattered Bhutanese faith in India’s security assurances, making Thimphu more eager to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing.
Meanwhile, with his leverage weakened, Modi’s effort at rapprochement with Beijing quickly slid into overt appeasement. In early 2018, his government halted any official contact with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. This compounded Vajpayee’s Tibet cave-in. Officials were directed to stay away even from the March 2018 events marking the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India.
The following month, the Wuhan summit produced little more than Indian government-sponsored media hype. In fact, no sooner had the summit ended than significant differences emerged on how India and China interpret even the key understandings reached at Wuhan. For example, India said the two leaders “issued strategic guidance” to their respective militaries to avoid further border friction. But China’s statement made no mention of that. India, which has chafed against the increasingly lopsided trade with China, said agreement was reached at Wuhan to strengthen trade and investment in a “balanced and sustainable manner.” But that crucial phrase was missing from Beijing’s version.
Such differences were no surprise. Like all previous India-China summits since 1988, the Wuhan summit was long on political theatre, such as shows of amity, but short on concrete results to fundamentally change the bilateral dynamics. As if to pander to India’s proverbial weakness — confounding symbolism with substance — Xi focused more on diplomatic stagecraft, including receiving Modi with a very long red carpet, taking the Indian leader on a lakeside walk and a boat ride, and engaging in long handshakes while voicing hope the summit would “open a new chapter in bilateral ties.”
Wuhan was followed in October 2019 by an equally unremarkable Modi-Xi summit in Mamallapuram, near Chennai. Yet Modi hailed both summits as harbingers of a new strategic convergence with China. If anything, his “Wuhan spirit” and “Chennai connect” lullabies — like Nehru’s Hindi-Chini bhai bhai lullaby — lulled India into a dangerous complacency.
Against this background, is it any surprise that military tensions between India and China are rising again amid an intense geopolitical rivalry? There is still no clearly defined Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Himalayas separating the rival armies. Such a situation has persisted despite regular Chinese-Indian talks since 1981. In fact, these talks constitute the longest and most futile negotiating process between any two countries in modern world history.
China has taken India round and round the mulberry bush for 39 years in the negotiations on resolving the larger boundary question. The negotiations began as “senior-level talks” in 1981 before being relabelled as “joint working group” talks in 1988 and then as “talks between special representatives” in 2003. With new each label, India has sought to wipe the slate clean, underscoring its unwillingness to learn from its unpalatable past experiences. For example, India today cites 22 rounds of talks thus far between the special representatives, but without mentioning the earlier border negotiations, as if they didn’t happen.
More significantly, China has made it clear that it has little interest in resolving the boundary question. An unsettled border aids China’s “salami slicing” strategy and also helps it to exert direct military pressure on India whenever it wants. During a 2010 visit to New Delhi, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stated bluntly that sorting out the border disputes “will take a fairly long period of time.” In fact, after Vajpayee’s 2003 Tibet cave-in, China stopped talking about clarification of the LAC.
Since 2008, thanks to Beijing, references to clarification of the LAC finds no mention in official bilateral documents. Yet successive Indian governments have played into China’s hands by carrying on with the useless negotiations.
The same is the story with India’s investment of considerable political capital in establishing a border-management framework with China over the past 27 years. Five border-management agreements were signed between 1993 and 2013. Each was signed with great fanfare at a summit, and each was hailed in India (but not in China) as a major or historic “breakthrough.” This shows how successive Indian prime ministers have got a free pass from the country’s pliant media and feckless analysts, thus exacerbating India’s China challenge.
The last accord, the 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), was a textbook example of appeasing an aggressor and whetting the belligerent’s appetite for swallowing territory. Beijing wanted a new accord to wipe the slate clean over its breaches of the border-peace agreements signed earlier. With the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yearning to showcase the “success” of the summit, India acceded to the habitual violator’s call for new border rules. And Singh, with the help of the planeload of journalists he usually took on any overseas visit, marketed his China trip as a major success.
BDCA’s provisions were vaguely worded, allowing China — a master at reinterpreting texts — to cast the burden of compliance mainly on India. In fact, whereas China has flouted the letter and spirit of every bilateral accord, India has been strictly adhering to the various agreements’ provisions to such an extent that it has even gone beyond their literal meaning, resulting in the preventable deaths of 20 Indian soldiers at the hands of the PLA on June 15.
The 1996 accord’s provision not to use firearms within two kilometres of the LAC (Article VI) relates to peacetime border-policing situations, including cases where rival border patrols run into each other. It does not relate to aggression by one side against the other. What India has faced since April in eastern Ladakh is China’s pre-emptive military strike. Had Article VI been correctly read earlier as applicable only to border policing, India would not have lost 20 soldiers. The 20 were brutally murdered by PLA troops armed with improvised weapons, before Indian soldiers avenged the killings by inflicting heavy PLA casualties.
Today, thanks to China’s brazen aggression, the vaunted border-management framework lies in tatters. The aggression has highlighted the worthlessness of the Indian investment in such agreements. Yet, after telling his Chinese counterpart that China’s aggression broke “all our agreements,” Indian External Affairs S. Jaishankar, in the same telephonic conversation, oddly reposed faith in those very “bilateral agreements and protocols” for de-escalation! This raises a fundamental question: Will India ever learn?
Since 1988, the more India has sought to appease China, the greater has been the perceptible hardening of China’s stance toward it. This hardening is reflected in developments beyond the bilateral domain, including Chinese strategic projects in other countries that neighbour India and the PLA’s troop presence in the Pakistani-held Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). With its troops present near the Pakistan-occupied J&K’s frontier with Ladakh, China is seeking to ramp up pressure on both Indian flanks in Ladakh.
More fundamentally, the strategic rivalry between the world’s largest autocracy and its biggest democracy has also sharpened, despite their fast-rising trade. Trade is the only area in which bilateral relations have thrived, with China managing to more than double its trade surplus with India on Modi’s watch to over $60 billion per year. China’s booming trade surplus, however, has failed to moderate or restrain its behaviour.
Modi’s alternate reality
Since the time Modi served as Gujarat’s chief minister, he has tended to view China not as it is but as he would like it to be. After he became prime minister, he went out of his way to befriend China. He postponed a Japan visit by several weeks so that his first meeting with an important world leader was with Xi. By delisting China as a “country of concern,” Modi further opened up the Indian economy to Beijing but ended up facilitating greater Chinese dumping.
Even by his penchant for springing surprises, Modi’s recent televised speech at the end of the June 19 all-party meeting was a stunner. As if underline a surreal alternate reality, Modi declared: “Nobody has intruded into our territory, nor is any intruder present, and nor is any post of ours under someone else’s occupation.” His speech became an instant propaganda coup for China, with its state media saying his words signalled to Beijing that Modi doesn’t want “further conflict with China” because, as the Global Times warned, “India will be more humiliated than” in 1962.
Modi effectively scored a self-goal damaging to India’s diplomatic and strategic interests. If India is unwilling to call China out on its aggression and intrusions, how does it expect any other major power to come to its support by criticizing China’s aggression? More importantly, by obscuring the truth on China’s encroachments, India is playing right into Beijing’s hands. China, the master of propaganda, will use Modi’s own words to tell the world that there was no aggression from its side, while continuing to consolidate its new territorial gains in Ladakh.
The supposed “clarification” issued by Modi’s office on his speech raised more questions than it answered, worsening the confusion. Without denying Modi’s key words, it said: “What is Indian territory is clear from the map of India.” The official Indian map extends to areas where PLA forces are currently arrayed against India. The Chinese cannot be faulted if they interpret Modi’s words as signalling that India, in reality, no longer considers the Chinese-occupied areas, including Aksai Chin, as its own.
Modi’s speech, in fact, illustrated how India relives history. Nehru kept obscuring China’s encroachments in the 1950s until he was caught in a trap that led to the 1962 humiliation. Now, despite the availability of satellite imagery in the digital era, Modi has likewise sought to cloak Chinese intrusions. Instead of drawing lessons from the Nehru era, including from how China stealthily occupied Aksai Chin, Modi delivered a speech that implicitly absolved China of its intrusions. His words can only embolden the aggressor.
Modi has cast himself as India’s “chowdikar” (protector) safeguarding the country’s frontiers from encroachers and terrorists. The fact that India was caught off-guard by the Chinese aggression is embarrassing for him. Modi wants to protect his image as a strong leader. This, unfortunately, has led him to downplay China’s aggression from the time the Indian Army discovered it. Until the PLA’s savage killing of 20 Indian soldiers lifted the lid on the Chinese aggression, Indian authorities sought to minimize the significance of China’s actions and to hide details. How can saving face at home become a bigger priority for the country’s leader than safeguarding long-term national interests?
Had Modi rallied the nation behind him as soon as the Chinese encroachments were discovered and had he ordered the armed forces to take counteraction, the PLA would not have gained time to consolidate its hold on the newly encroached areas. In the Lake Pangong region, for example, the PLA has transformed the landscape by building dozens of observation posts, bunkers and other concrete fortifications since the first clashes flared between rival troops there on May 5-6.
India has lost valuable time by doing nothing. It has been hoping against hope that China would see reason and withdraw.
Unfortunately, the Indian government even obscured the nature and significance of the clashes that occurred in the first 10 days of May, including near the Naku-la Pass, on the Sikkim-Tibet frontier. It also hid the extent of Indian casualties. In fact, the clashes were sought to be passed off as minor until revelations emerged weeks later that both sides had briefly captured each other’s soldiers and that some troops had been so seriously wounded that they required airlifting to hospitals, including in New Delhi.
Worse still, the Indian Army chief, General Manoj Naravane, personally downplayed China’s aggression. He issued a bizarre statement on May 14 that gratuitously blamed “aggressive behaviour by both sides” for the clashes, which he euphemistically called “incidents.” An Army chief blaming his own troops for “aggressive behaviour” while they confront an invading foe is unheard of.
General Naravane’s statement — apparently issued at the government’s behest — actually went to great lengths to cover up China’s aggression, including the ensuing clashes that erupted at several border points. The statement blamed the Ladakh and Sikkim border “incidents” on “differing perceptions” of the LAC’s alignment. In effect, he offered China a justification for its encroachments.
To be sure, the “differing perceptions” argument has long been proffered by successive Indian governments to obscure loss of territory or to rationalize Chinese incursions. This argument has given China, with its ever-shifting claim lines in the Himalayas, carte blanche to keep encroaching on more and more Indian areas by quoting India’s own admission that the LAC is indistinct and hazy.
General Naravane not only expounded the “differing perceptions” theory while the country was faced with its most serious China-frontier crisis in decades, but also his statement claimed that the Ladakh and Sikkim border “incidents” were “neither co-related nor do they have any connection with other global or local activities.” Why should the Indian Army chief take it upon himself to explain Chinese actions so as to paint them in better light? The fact is that the Ladakh and Sikkim border developments were indeed co-related, and were part of Xi’s larger aggressive quest for Chinese dominance.
On June 13th, a month after his first statement, General Naravane made another statement that “the entire situation along our borders with China is under control,” even as the intruding PLA troops were consolidating their hold on the areas they had infiltrated. Just two days later, the façade of “all is well” on the Himalayan borders collapsed, after the PLA’s ambush-killings triggered bloody clashes. The killing of 20 Indian soldiers, with scores more hospitalized, shocked the nation and brought the government’s handling of the situation under public scrutiny.
China’s stealth intrusions into eastern Ladakh have been followed with frenzied construction activity to consolidate its hold on the newly encroached areas and fortify its defences. Amid a Chinese military buildup along the Himalayas, Xi appointed a favourite general in early June to lead PLA forces arrayed against India. Xu Qiling, a rising PLA star and ground force commander of the Eastern Theatre Command, swapped positions with He Weidong, the ground force commander of the Western Theatre Command. Xu has the experience to lead joint ground and air operations. As if to signal that it could be readying to wage war on India, China evacuated its citizens from India in special flights from late May.
Many analysts in India and abroad have cited the Sino-Indian power asymmetry to argue that India cannot take on China. After all, China’s economic and military power is much greater than India’s. Some analysts have argued that Modi’s “no intrusion” statement reflected this reality.
War is not decided by military and economic capabilities alone. If capabilities alone determined the outcome of wars, then the stronger side would always win. But history is replete with examples of the weaker side triumphing over the more powerful opponent.
What is critical to any war’s outcome is leadership, political will, resoluteness, strategy, tactics and troop morale. History is shaped by farsighted and visionary leaders, who can change the destiny of a nation. Great leaders in history turned small island nations into global powers, while short-sighted leaders unravelled empires.
Defence generally has the advantage over offense, because it is easier to protect and hold than to advance, destroy and seize. Defensive operations in the mountains or on high-altitude plateaus, as in Ladakh, are aimed at resisting and foiling an enemy strike in order to prepare ground for a counter-attack.
India has one of the world’s largest and most-experienced mountain warfare armies. The fearlessness and bravery of its soldiers was highlighted recently by the swift costs they imposed on PLA troops in the Galwan Valley after an Indian patrol was ambushed. They demonstrated the true mark of valour when, in the face of death, they inflicted heavy Chinese casualties in hand-to-hand combat, including killing the PLA unit’s commanding officer. Intercepts of Chinese communications by US intelligence have confirmed that China lost more than twice as many soldiers as India.
The deaths represent China’s first combat troops killed in action, other than in UN peacekeeping operations, since the end of its war with Vietnam in 1979. The combat fatalities are a humiliation for China, which explains why it has hidden information on its casualties. Some on Chinese social media have criticized Xi’s regime by contrasting India’s honouring of its martyrs, including holding large public funerals, with China’s refusal to even recognize its fallen.
The Indian Army today is capable of repulsing a PLA attack and inflicting heavy losses. But there is a bigger question: Does India have the political will to impose costs on China? Despite Modi’s strongman image, India remains essentially a soft state, as his own China speech highlighted.
Shrewdly timing a pre-emptive strike that takes the opponent completely by surprise has been central to Communist China’s repeated use of force. By contrast, India — with its defensive mindset and risk-averseness under successive prime ministers — cannot even think of undertaking a pre-emptive assault. This gives China a major tactical advantage over India. As the Global Times said on June 21, China knows that India will not fire the first shot.
It will be China’s initiative to start a war against India and to end it — just like in 1962. And to achieve its objectives, China will do anything, from breaking binding agreements to employing a range of elaborate deceptions.
India needs to make a fresh start by abandoning its accommodating approach toward China that has made it look like a meek enabler. After spending so many years on the defensive, India must discard the platitudes and retake the narrative. To blunt Xi’s expansionism and to halt further Chinese encroachments, India must bare its own teeth and implement a containment strategy, including by joining hands with likeminded powers.
India must remember that when it has stood up to China, as in 1967, the bully has backed off, thus ensuring peace along the Himalayan frontier. But when India has sought to placate or appease China, the emboldened bully has stepped up its incursions and territorial aggrandizement.
In 1967, while still recovering from the major wars of 1962 and 1965, India gave China a bloody nose in the military clashes along the Sikkim-Tibet border. Those clashes were triggered by a Chinese attack much less grave than the Chinese aggression India now confronts. In 2020, can India pretend to be weaker than it was in 1967, despite building a nuclear arsenal and despite its longstanding status as one of the world’s largest importers of weapons?
President Xi Jinping, seeking to press China’s advantage while its neighbors are distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, has lately opened multiple fronts in his campaign to make China the world’s foremost power — from Hong Kong and Taiwan to the South and East China Seas to the Himalayan frontier.
The globally paralyzing pandemic has reinforced Xi’s efforts to realize his “Chinese dream” by the 2049 centenary of communist rule. Xi said in a speech at Xi’an Jiaotong University in April that “great steps in history have always emerged from the crucible of major disasters.”
This may explain why China has sought to make the most of the pandemic. From breaking Beijing’s binding commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy and attempting to police the waters off the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands to picking a nasty border fight with India by encroaching on its territory, Xi has pushed the boundaries.
His actions are helping to shift attention from China’s culpability in the global spread of COVID-19 to the threat his authoritarian regime poses to international security. But his expansive vision has also increased the risks of China succumbing to what the historian Paul Kennedy called “imperial overstretch,” or overextending itself abroad, leading to its decline and fall, like how the Soviet empire imploded.
Xi’s expansionism has sought to remake globalization on China’s terms. The overreach is best illustrated by his marquee project, the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to refashion the global economic and political order by plowing hundreds of billions of dollars into overseas projects when China has still to fully overcome poverty and underdevelopment at home.
It is an imperial project seeking to lure nations desperate for infrastructure investments into China’s strategic orbit. But instead of the “common prosperity” Xi promised, the BRI has been ensnaring vulnerable countries in sovereignty-eroding debt traps. The pandemic’s mounting economic toll makes it harder for partner countries to repay their loans.
Beijing’s refusal to grant debt relief to partner states facing bankruptcy is only highlighting its predatory lending practices. By engendering anger or resentment, the hard-line approach risks undermining China’s international image and inviting a pushback against its neocolonial policies.
More ominously, Xi’s aggressive quest for Chinese dominance has led him to open multiple political or military fronts at the same time. This has raised concern at home about China overextending itself and international alarm over the country’s trajectory. According to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the world is seeing “continually more aggressive action” by China.
Under Xi, China’s relationship with the superpower that aided its economic rise, the U.S., has given way to hostility, with a cold war on the horizon. With India, Xi seems itching to start the world’s next big conflict. The link between China and India, which make up more than a third of humanity and over a fifth of the global economy, is critical to international relations.
Meanwhile, Xi’s regime has stepped up efforts to turn internationally shared river-water resources into a political weapon by building cascades of large dams in China’s borderlands. China’s frenzied upstream damming of the Mekong River, however, is causing recurrent droughts in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
While Mao Zedong destroyed the old order and Deng Xiaoping laid the foundations of a modern Chinese economy, Xi is determined to make China the central player in international relations. Xi’s ambition, coupled with the cult of personality around him, may be blinding him to the dangers of an approach that has stretched China’s resources when its economy is slowing and working-age population declining.
Today, China remains a friendless power lacking any true seafaring strategic allies or reliable security partners. Indeed, the more powerful China has become, the more difficult it has become for it to gain genuine allies.
Can Xi make China, without any allies, the world’s leading power by relying on an open disregard of international rules and on bullying? Leadership demands more than brute might.
The assumption behind Xi’s muscular approach — that there would not be a significant geopolitical price to pay — had thus far proved right, with other powers issuing words but shying away from actions. But with the pandemic and the move to strip Hong Kong of its autonomy, Tibet-style, Xi is courting an international backlash, underlined by a spate of actions from the U.S., EU, U.K., India and Australia.
Like the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear tragedy — a prelude to the Soviet Union’s fall — the pandemic has shown how a communist regime worsens a disaster by seeking to cover up the truth about it. The pandemic, by highlighting the global costs of Xi’s increasing authoritarianism, has made it more likely that the backlash will act as a spoiler to Xi’s neo-imperial ambitions.
Countries are already reassessing their economic reliance on Beijing and seeking supply chain diversification away from China. One example is Japan’s $2.2 billion fund to help reshore manufacturing. U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has opened the path to American sanctions against Chinese officials and companies.
With other powers still wrestling with the pandemic and a protest-scarred U.S. looking weak, Xi may take more aggressive actions to flex China’s muscle. But unless he reverses course, his overreach is likely to saddle China with overwhelming costs while creating an international environment hostile to the realization of his dream.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”