China is Paying a High Price for Provoking India


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.

An Indian Army convoy on its way to the frontlines on September 7, 2020. (Photo via Getty Images)


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.

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, 2020.

With China’s aggression, India finds history repeating itself


A common Indian refrain today is that China has betrayed India’s friendship. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Did India really draw enduring lessons from 1962? If so, how does it explain being “stabbed in the back” again by China?

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Successive Indian governments have put more faith in diplomacy than the armed forces in achieving security objectives. Diplomacy can accomplish little in the absence of strategic vision and resolve or adequate leverage. The diplomatic blunders of 1948 (Kashmir dispute’s internationalization), 1954 (Panchsheel Agreement’s acceptance of the “Tibet region of China”), 1960 (Indus Waters Treaty), 1966 (Taskhent) and 1972 (Simla) have imposed enduring costs.

Worse still, India has learned little from its past, which explains why history repeats itself. Today, with China’s multi-thrust aggression, which caught India napping, history is repeating itself, underscored by a common Indian refrain that Beijing has betrayed India’s friendship.

China’s latest “stab in the back” raises key questions, not about the communist dictatorship in Beijing (which has made a practice of employing deception, concealment and surprise in peacetime), but about India. What explains India’s “hug, then repent” proclivity over the decades that highlights the aphorism, “act in haste, repent at leisure”? Why has India repeatedly cried betrayal, not by friends, but by adversaries in whom it reposed trust?

Why has Indian diplomacy, time after time, rushed to believe what it wanted to believe? Or what makes India keep repeating the cycle of bending over backward to court a foe and then failing to see aggression coming (as in Kargil, Pathankot or Doklam)? More fundamentally, why does India stay at the receiving end of its foes’ machinations and always play the victim? For example, why has it never repaid China with its own “salami slicing”?

One reason history repeats itself is that virtually every Indian prime minister, although unschooled in national security at the time of assuming office, has sought to reinvent the foreign-policy wheel, rather than learn from past blunders. Another reason is that Indian intellectuals and journalists generally shrink from closely scrutinizing foreign-policy moves.

Overselling outcomes of summit meetings with China from 1988 to 2019 for leadership glorification has led to India’s worst China crisis after the 1962 war. For example, five separate border-management agreements were signed at summits between 1993 and 2013, with each accord hailed in India (but not China) as a major or historic “breakthrough.”

Now India admits China has trashed all those agreements with its aggression. Yet India still plays into China’s hands by clinging to the accords and by agreeing recently in Moscow to build on them through new confidence-building measures (CBMs).

China is showing it is a master in protracting negotiations so as to buy time to consolidate its territorial gains, while exploring the limits of its adversary’s flexibility and testing its patience. For Beijing, any agreement is designed to bind not China but the other side to its terms. It is seeking fresh CBMs to make India respect the new, Chinese-created territorial status quo and to restrict India from upgrading its border infrastructure.

China’s foreign minister claims the “consensus” reached at Moscow is to “meet each other halfway.” Meeting China halfway will validate its “10 miles forward, 5 miles back” strategy, with China gaining half but India losing half. This illustrates Beijing’s definition of “give and take” — the other side gives and China takes.

Yet India has placed its faith in diplomacy ever since it discovered China’s intrusions in early May. It reined in its armed forces from taking counteractions until recently. Had it permitted proactive countermeasures earlier, once sufficient acclimatized troops and weapons capability were in place, China’s territorial gains would have been more limited.

China used the talks with India to make additional encroachments, especially on the critical Depsang Y-Junction, which controls access to several areas. Of all the land grabs China has made, the largest is in Depsang, the sector of utmost importance to Indian defences. Yet this encroachment has received little attention.

In fact, some are drawing a false equivalence between the Chinese and Indian military actions to obscure the reality. While China has seized several areas that traditionally were under Indian patrolling jurisdiction, India has occupied its own unmanned mountain heights in one area in order to pre-empt another Chinese land grab.

The defence minister’s statement in Parliament, however, shows the government remains loath to admit that China has encroached on Indian areas. Shielding the government’s image, alas, comes first. This explains why India hasn’t labelled China the aggressor, leaving the field open for China to repeatedly call India the aggressor.

Having redrawn the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in several Ladakh sectors, including Pangong, Gogra-Kongka La, Hot Springs and Galwan, China is now seeking to replace the term LAC with the looser expression “border areas.” It had its way in the Moscow agreement, which repeatedly mentions “border areas,” not LAC (a line unambiguously marked in Indian military maps and up to which Indian forces are supposed to defend all territory).

All the boundary-related bilateral accords and protocols are LAC-centred. But China, signalling its aggressive designs, stopped referring to the term LAC in recent years. Instead it is quietly treating the LAC as a line to actually control by changing facts on the ground.The Moscow agreement’s use of the vague term “border areas” helps to obscure China’s encroachments and creates space for continued Chinese salami slicing.

In this light, diplomacy is unlikely to deliver the status quo ante India seeks. In fact, China seems intent on continuing, below the threshold of armed conflict, coercive military pressure along the entire frontier from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh until India acquiesces to its demands, including reconciling to the new status quo.

Will China’s win-without-fighting warfare campaign help create a new India steeped in realism and determined to break the cycle of history repeating itself? At a minimum, it promises to shake up India’s business-as-usual approach to national security.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2020.

The Taliban loves China’s money, but can it forget its Muslim gulags?


Beijing has nurtured long-standing ties with the Taliban to help Pakistan call the shots in Afghanistan.

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

On the day two airplanes crashed into New York’s World Trade Center in 2001, Chinese officials signed an economic and technical cooperation accord with Afghanistan’s then-ruling Taliban, in the latter’s capital, Kandahar. The 9/11 attacks led the United States, in partnership with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, to launch a military campaign that ousted the Taliban regime.

Now, China is again courting the Taliban to further its regional interests, centered primarily on safeguarding its Belt and Road projects, extracting mineral resources in Afghanistan, and preventing a surge of violent jihadism in Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities have detained more than a million Muslims for “re-education” in the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds in the post-World War II period.

The U.S. plan to exit Afghanistan has added greater urgency to China’s efforts to cozy up to the Taliban. Chinese officials have stepped up contacts with Taliban representatives as President Donald Trump’s administration has steadily cut U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to 8,600 and closed several bases.

Trump, calling the U.S. military involvement in war zones “the single biggest mistake in the history of our country,” has said that there would be fewer than 5,000 American troops in Afghanistan by U.S. election day in November. The Pentagon, however, says further troop withdrawals would depend on the Taliban’s honoring of its peace deal with the U.S.

In order to win the Taliban’s cooperation, China is reportedly offering to build roads in Taliban-controlled territories, as well as a number of energy projects, including generating electricity.

Here’s the paradox: Communist China has little in common with the Taliban, a hard-line Islamist militia known for brutal, medieval practices and for demolishing the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan. In fact, China’s concern over Islamic extremism has driven it to take unparalleled steps, including the large-scale deprogramming of Islamic identities in a bid to forcibly assimilate its Muslim population into the dominant Han culture.

Yet China has nurtured long-standing ties with the Taliban — created and armed by Pakistani intelligence — to help Pakistan call the shots in Afghanistan. While the Taliban was in power, China established economic ties with it and launched flights between Kabul and Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

Pakistan, which Beijing considers its client-state, has helped facilitate Chinese-Taliban ties. Indeed, the Taliban’s top leadership, as well as its command and control apparatus, have been ensconced in Pakistan since it was ousted from power in 2001. This allowed China, after 9/11, to quietly continue a relationship with the Taliban.

Such long-standing ties with the Taliban, and a strong strategic nexus with Pakistan, have helped China avert any major terrorist strike on its projects in Afghanistan, including the large Aynak copper mine it secured in 2007. By contrast, Indian infrastructure projects and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan have repeatedly come under terrorist attack.

China’s latest overtures to the Taliban underscore its concern that the U.S. military withdrawal could foster greater violence and instability in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt, which has long been a terrorism nucleus. Beijing wants to safeguard its heavy investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the supposed crown jewel of its Belt and Road Initiative. It also wants to ensure the Taliban do not aid Uighur militants.

America’s Faustian bargain with the Taliban was sealed in February with Pakistan’s active support. The fact that no counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when the militants have enjoyed cross-border havens compelled the Trump administration to sue for peace in order to end the longest war in U.S. history.

Less known is that China also played a part in the peace effort by encouraging the Taliban to enter into a deal with the U.S. Indeed, even before Trump took office, Beijing offered to mediate and help revive the stalled talks between the U.S. and the Taliban.

In return, the U.S. last year heeded Beijing’s call to designate the Balochistan Liberation Army, the main separatist group in Pakistan’s sprawling Balochistan province, as a terrorist organization. The U.S. justified its designation on the grounds that the BLA was striking Chinese targets in Balochistan, which is home to the Chinese-run Gwadar port and a potential Chinese naval base.

Since then, relations between Beijing and Washington have deteriorated to a point approaching a new Cold War. Making matters worse, the U.S.-Taliban agreement appears to be tottering, with Washington accusing the Taliban of repeatedly violating the accord’s terms, including by launching rockets last month at two military bases used by American forces and by stepping up terror attacks on Afghan government forces. Hopes of a U.S.-moderated peace settlement in Afghanistan have dimmed.

Against this background, China, despite its ties with the Taliban, is likely to find it difficult to advance its interests in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt.

Several factors threaten to act as spoilers to China’s regional ambitions, including sharpening geopolitics, a resurgent Taliban — some of whose local commanders appear to be operating independently — and the role of non-Taliban militant groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan that are the nemesis of Pakistani intelligence. Irrespective of the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, a complete American withdrawal from Afghanistan now looks uncertain.

In this conservative region, China’s Muslim gulag and other harsh anti-Islamic measures in Xinjiang are likely to fuel grassroots resentment against it, increasing the vulnerability of its projects.

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

© The Nikkei Asian Review, 2020.

China’s expansionist agenda takes shape on the Indian border


BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Special to The Globe and Mail

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.

An Indian army convoy drives towards Leh, on a highway bordering China, on June 19, 2020, in Gagangir, India. YAWAR NAZIR/GETTY IMAGES

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.

A model head in the likeness of Chinese President Xi Jinping is hung upside down from a building by Tibetan activists during a protest in Dharmsala, India, on July 23, 2020. ASHWINI BHATIA/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

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.

China Alone


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.

U.S President Donald Trump does a fist bump with Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, during a trilateral meeting on the first day of the G20 summit on June 28, 2019 in Osaka, Japan. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)


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.

© Project Syndicate, 2020.

China’s expansionism enters dangerous phase



China’s expansionist drive, from the East and South China seas to the Himalayas and the southern Pacific, is making the Indo-Pacific region more volatile and unstable. Along with the spread of the Wuhan-originating coronavirus, this has also given rise to growing anti-China sentiment.

China’s border aggression against India since April dovetails with a broader strategy of territorial aggrandizement that it has pursued in the period since its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam. That strategy, centered on winning without fighting, has driven its bullet-less aggressions, from seizing Johnson Reef in 1988 and Mischief Reef in 1995, to occupying the Scarborough Shoal in 2012. And since launching major land reclamation in 2013, China has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a shot.

However, China’s aggression in the northern Indian region of Ladakh – a high-altitude territory where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has occupied several vantage points – differs from its previous territorial grabs since the 1980s 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. 

China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea, for example, has centered on capturing disputed but unoccupied shoals and reefs and then using construction activities to turn them into militarized artificial islands.   

In 2017, the PLA similarly captured the unoccupied and desolate Himalayan plateau of Doklam, which one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, claims as its territory. The occupation came soon after China ended a more than 10-week-long troop standoff on the plateau with India, Bhutan’s de facto security guarantor. 

China’s aggression has also extended to persistent nibbling at its neighbors’ border territories. Bite by bite, China has been eating away at its neighbors’ borderlands. In Nepal, ruled by a pro-Beijing communist government, a recently leaked internal report warned that the country was losing border territories to China’s construction projects, which it said were also changing the course of rivers. 

In the East China Sea, 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 indicating that the U.S. alliance system is not an answer to its muscular revisionism. 

But even by the PLA’s longstanding practice of “salami slicing,” its recent aggression against India signals that China’s territorial expansionism has entered a dangerous new phase. In an operation backed by tens of thousands of troops in the rear, the PLA brazenly seized border areas that were under another country’s military control or patrolling jurisdiction.

Deception and surprise are integral to the Chinese strategy even in peacetime. The aggression in Indian Ladakh came just six months after Chinese President Xi Jinping declared on Indian soil that “China-India relations have entered a new phase of sound and stable development,” thus allowing both sides to “focus on friendship and cooperation.” 

Xi caught India off-guard by striking when that country was wrestling with the outbreak of the coronavirus by enforcing the world’s strictest lockdown. China intruded into areas located even beyond its own artificially drawn claim lines that it has published in the past.

This helps to highlight China’s increasing territorial predation under Xi. Beijing has repeatedly shown that it can make a new territorial claim or disturb the status quo anywhere at any time. 

For example, Beijing has asserted a new claim since July to Bhutan’s eastern region, which shares a border only with India. Through the new claim, China has sought to simultaneously advance its designs against India and Bhutan, which popularized the concept of “Gross National Happiness” as a measure of development.

Recently, Chinese state media suddenly discovered that Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains historically “belong to China.” Earlier in May, the state-run media claimed that Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak on the Nepal-Tibet border that symbolizes Nepalese sovereignty, was wholly in China. 

Last month, a Chinese government ship conducted marine research activity in the exclusive economic zone of Okinotori Island, Japan’s southernmost point. When Tokyo protested, Beijing asserted that “Japan’s unilateral claim [to an EEZ] has no legal basis” as Okinotori was not an island but just rocks. 

The Chinese Communist Party’s old practice is to stealthily occupy another nation’s territory and then claim the area was part of China since ancient times. Having recently caught India napping by encroaching, among others, on the Tibet-bordering Galwan Valley in Ladakh, China now claims that the entire valley’s sovereignty “has always belonged to China.” 

China, however, became India’s neighbor only in 1951 after the CCP under Mao Zedong gobbled up the traditional buffer Tibet. The fall of Tibet increased China’s landmass by more than one-third. It also gave China common borders with India, Nepal, Bhutan and northernmost Myanmar. 

Xi has sought to take off from where Mao left. Simply put, Xi is working on Mao’s unfinished agenda of territorial expansionism. 

This explains the multiple fronts Xi has opened in the pursuit of his “Chinese dream” of making China the world’s foremost power by the 2049 centenary of communist rule. The fronts he has opened extend from Hong Kong and Taiwan to the South and East China seas and the Himalayas. 

As long as Xi perceives the strategic benefits as outweighing the international costs, he will persist with his campaign of expansionism. But he is already sowing the seeds of an international backlash. Such a pushback will likely constrict China’s choices, making his “Chinese dream” more difficult to realize.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, an independent think tank, and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).

© The Hill, 2020.

India faces crunch time as China digs in


Claims lines in Ladakh historically.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2020.

Japan must curb Chinese aggression surrounding the Senkaku Islands


Tokyo should respond to future incursions by disabling ships and detaining crew

A Chinese fishing boat, left, cruises next to Japan Coast Guard vessel in the East China Sea in February 2013; a Chinese strike against the Senkaku Islands could come when Japan least expects it.   © 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters/Reuters

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

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.”

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2020.

China’s Five-Finger Punch


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 titlerenmin 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.

© Project Syndicate, 2020.

China Leverages Tibetan Plateau’s Water Wealth


Brahma Chellaney, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs

While the international attention remains on China’s recidivist activities in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where it continues to incrementally expand its strategic footprint, Beijing is also quietly focusing its attention on the waters of rivers that originate in the resource-rich, Chinese-controlled territory of Tibet.

China has long pursued a broader strategy to corner natural resources. This has driven its expanding presence in faraway places, including Africa and Latin America. China’s newer obsession is freshwater, a life-creating and life-supporting resource whose growing shortages are casting a cloud over Asia’s economic future.

Peace and security in Asia both hinge on China’s willingness to embrace rules-based cooperation, which includes ceasing activities that threaten to turn internationally shared river-water resources into a Chinese political weapon. These activities range from building cascades of large dams on international rivers before they leave Chinese-controlled territory to the denial of or delayed transfer of hydrological data to downstream neighboring countries.

Most of Asia’s great rivers originate on the Tibetan Plateau. From there, they flow to a dozen countries, including mainland China. With its lofty terrain, featuring the world’s tallest mountain peaks and largest concentration of glaciers and riverheads, the Tibetan Plateau influences atmospheric circulation — and therefore climate and weather patterns — across the Northern Hemisphere.

Today, China has turned this ecologically -fragile plateau, which it invaded and occupied from 1950 to 1951, into the center of its mining and dam-building activities. With the plateau warming more than three times faster than the global average according to Chinese data, glacial recession, especially in the eastern Himalayas, and the thawing of Tibet’s permafrost (or permanently frozen ground) have accelerated.

More consequential for downstream countries is the fact that China, by building giant dams and other diversion structures on international rivers that start in Tibet, is becoming Asia’s upstream water controller. This action is arming Beijing with increasing leverage over the countries critically dependent on river flows from the Tibetan Plateau.

Take the Mekong River, continental Southeast Asia’s lifeline. A new study in the United States confirms what many in the region know — that China is damming the Mekong to environmental hell. According to the study, China’s cascade of upstream mega-dams, by limiting downstream flows, is causing recurrent droughts in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam by limiting downstream flows. Using a natural-flow data model, the study found that the 11 eleven Chinese mega-dams currently in operation on the Mekong are causing severe drought and devastation downstream. Yet an undeterred China is building more giant dams on the Mekong just before the river crosses into Southeast Asia. This study by the Eyes on Earth research and consulting company was conducted with funding from the State Department’s Lower Mekong Initiative.

It is not just the Mekong: China is constructing dams on multiple international rivers just before they leave its territory. China’s efforts to reengineer cross-border natural flows are roiling its relations with downstream neighbors. Its occupation of the sprawling Tibetan Plateau enlarged its landmass by more than one-third and fundamentally altered Asia’s geostrategic realities. It made China the neighbor of India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Furthermore, China gained a throttlehold on the headwaters of Asia’s major river systems.

Tibet — the world’s highest and largest plateau — is also a treasure-trove of mineral resources, holding China’s biggest reserves of 10 ten different metals and serving as the world’s largest lithium producer. Today, Tibet is the focal point of China’s mining and damming activities, which threaten the plateau’s fragile ecosystems and endemic species. Tibet also remains at the center of the China-India divide, fueling territorial disputes, diplomatic tensions, and feuds over river-water flows. Among the rivers China’s dam builders are targeting is the Brahmaputra, the lifeblood for Bangladesh and northeastern India. A series of dams are coming up on the Brahmaputra, known as Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet.

Beijing’s unilateralist actions extend beyond dam building. In 2017, China refused to supply hydrological data to India in violation of the terms of two bilateral agreements, underscoring its readiness to weaponize the sharing of water data on upstream river flows. The data denial was said to be intended to punish India for boycotting China’s inaugural Belt and Road summit and for a military standoff between the two countries that year on the small, but strategically important, Himalayan plateau of Doklam. The withholding of data crimped India’s flood early-warning systems. That, in turn, resulted in preventable deaths as the monsoon-swollen Brahmaputra overran its banks, leaving a major trail of destruction, especially in India’s Assam state.

The Siang, the main artery of the Brahmaputra river system, represents another example of China’s unilateralist actions on internationally shared waters. In 2017, the Siang’s water turned dirty and gray as the stream entered India from Tibet. This raised concern that China’s upstream activities could be threatening the Siang in the same way Beijing has polluted its own domestic rivers, including the Yellow, the cradle of the Chinese civilization. Nearly three years later, the water in the once-pristine Siang has still not fully cleared.

According to Aquastat, a database of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 718 billion cubic meters of surface water a year flows out of the Tibetan Plateau and the Chinese-administered regions of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia to neighboring countries. Of that amount, 48.33 percent% runs directly into India. In addition, Nepal’s Tibet-originating rivers drain into India’s Gangetic basin. This might suggest that no country is more vulnerable than India to China’s current focus on building cascades of large dams on international rivers. In reality, as China’s frenzied damming of the Mekong illustrates, its small, economically vulnerable neighbors are the most susceptible to its upstream hydroengineering activities. The greatest impact of the Brahmaputra’s damming, for example, will be borne not by India but by Bangladesh, which is located furthest downstream.

For years, China has been the global leader in dam building. It already boasts slightly more than half of the globe’s approximately 58,000 large dams. Yet its “dam rush” persists. The more dams it builds on international rivers, the greater becomes its capacity to use transboundary waters as a tool of coercive diplomacy against its neighbors. Every new dam, by augmenting China’s capacity to regulate transboundary flows, increases the potential use of shared waters as a political weapon by augmenting China’s capacity to regulate transboundary flows. This concern is underscored by China’s refusal to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any neighboring country. Even India and Pakistan have a water-sharing treaty.

China’s present path will likely lead to greater environmental degradation on the Tibetan Plateau, exacerbating Asia’s water challenges. Asia is the world’s largest and most-populous continent, with three-fifths of the global population, yet it has the lowest per capita freshwater availability — less than half the global average of 5,829 cubic meters.

At a time of increasing water stress in Asia, the growth of water nationalism as a driver of China’s policy highlights the linkage between water and peace. Cooperative institutional mechanisms and sustainable resource utilization constitute the building blocks of water peace.

If China does not abandon its current approach in favor of institutionalized cooperation with co-basin states, the prospects for a rules-based order in Asia could perish forever, while the likelihood of downstream countries facing a drier future would increase. Asia will be able to shape water for peace only if China comes on board by embracing transparency and collaboration, centered on water sharing, uninterrupted hydrological-data flow, and dispute-settlement mechanisms.

. . .

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, an independent think tank, and the author of nine books, including Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Georgetown University Press), the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 2020.