THE DEADLY CLASHES between Chinese and Indian forces have led to a military face-off along their disputed Himalayan border. Several rounds of talks have produced an agreement on disengagement of forces deployed in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. Still, there is no agreement on de-escalation that will result in the withdrawal of forces, heavy armour, tanks and artillery deployed close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Neither side rules out the possibility of a limited war. The worst-case scenario is a two-front war involving three nuclear-armed adversaries—China and Pakistan on one side and India on the other.
Exposing and exploiting vulnerabilities of enemies is part of traditional Chinese statecraft. Beijing has deep mistrust of India’s strategic ambitions, seeing its southern rival as a potential peer competitor that must be kept in check. An unsettled border provides China the strategic leverage to keep India uncertain about its intentions and nervous about its capabilities, while demanding New Delhi’s ‘good behaviour’ on issues of concern to Beijing. Despite tectonic shifts in world politics, the basic elements of China’s ‘contain India’ policy—encircle, entangle and envelop—to pre-empt India’s rise as a peer competitor, have not changed.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political consolidation in Kashmir and Ladakh threatens China’s western expansion (for example, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) through Pakistani-held Kashmir. Besides, Chinese leaders and diplomats have discerned a certain degree of assertiveness and overconfidence in their Indian counterparts missing under previous governments. Beijing sees India as a ‘spoiler state’—backed by the US, Japan and others—seeking to sabotage Chairman Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’ and overturn the regional balance of power. As in the 1950s, India is once again seen as a growing, ambitious power courted by the West with whom China will have to have a day of reckoning.
The well-planned intrusions by Chinese soldiers at multiple points across the LAC are from the old playbook. Forces are deployed cunningly at a time and place of Beijing’s choosing when the enemy is down or distracted, assuring surprise and overwhelming force. My book China and India: Great Power Rivals, published a decade ago, had discussed the possibility of bite-sized territorial grabs by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA): ‘The irony is that China and India could stumble into another war in the future for the same reasons that led them to a border war half a century ago in 1962.’ Plus ça change.
Even as the whole world is reeling from the death and devastation caused by the virus, Beijing has unleashed its military from the Himalayan borders to Indonesia’s Natuna island waters, from the East China Sea to the South China Sea to assert and reinforce Beijing’s spurious sovereignty claims. Beijing’s strategic opportunism and attempts to shift the territorial status quo amidst a global pandemic have reinforced historic fears about the Middle Kingdom’s ‘insatiable lust for territory’ and its image as a perennial ‘creeping aggressor’. Despite a 6.3 per cent contraction in China’s economy in the first quarter, Beijing has increased military spending by 6.6 per cent.
Apparently, Beijing sees the narrow ‘strategic window of opportunity’ closing due to the global backlash against China post-Covid-19. Xi seems in a rush to realise his ‘Chinese Dream’ and lock in China’s geostrategic gains. In a speech in April 2020, he said: “Great steps in history have always emerged from the crucible of major disasters.”
Every crisis has unintended consequences. The US could benefit from the Sino-Indian conflict in the Himalayas. As in India, more than two-thirds of the American public holds a negative view of China across the political spectrum. China is perceived as a hostile power. There is a widespread sense of betrayal and backstabbing. Cooperation and engagement have given way to talk of containment and competition. Sino-American relations were in a downward spiral even before the global health and economic crises erupted. A degree of ‘decoupling’ was already underway, caused by a trade and technology war, ideological hostility and geopolitical competition. President Donald Trump’s characterisation of the novel coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” has sharpened the divide. The world’s two largest economies are locked in a new cold war.
The US and allies would now find New Delhi much more receptive to militarising the Quad and expanding it to include likeminded ‘China-wary’ countries—South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and New Zealand. Already, following the India-Australia virtual summit and the conclusion of a logistics pact, Delhi is stepping up naval cooperation with Canberra
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In the new cold war between China and America, India has emerged as a frontline state. Chinese state media has been voicing its strong opposition to Delhi’s growing tilt towards Washington in recent years. In April, Beijing watched warily the convening of an informal US-led grouping (comprising India, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand), dubbed the ‘Quad Plus’, to coordinate their responses to the pandemic.
The Chinese military’s ‘maximum pressure at multiple points’ strategy vis-à-vis its southern rival is clearly aimed at the Finlandisation of India in Cold War 2.0. Beijing seeks to deny India a peaceful environment essential to realising its economic developmental goals that would narrow the power gap with China. When Japan and the US offered financial assistance to help their companies relocate manufacturing out of China post-Covid-19, the Chinese media poured scorn on the Indian Government’s plans to benefit from ‘Chiexit’ (the exit of Western and Japanese multinational corporations). The coronavirus and massive military mobilisation to counter the Chinese military buildup in Ladakh have now dealt a body blow to Modi’s goal of a $5-trillion economy by 2024.
An inevitable consequence of Chinese strategic opportunism and irredentism will be the forging of a tighter US-India military bond. Just as the Ussuri river clashes in 1969 brought the US and China closer into a pact against the common Soviet threat, the Galwan Valley clashes in Kashmir are likely to bring the US and India together to counter the common threat. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced that “the Chinese threat to India and Southeast Asia is one of the reasons the US is reducing its troop presence in Europe”. Trump has offered US mediation in the Sino-Indian military standoff. However, mediation is not an option, deterrence is.
The US has deployed three carrier battle groups in the Pacific to deter China in the South China Sea and to resist Xi’s Taiwan temptations. Mark Meadows, the White House Chief of Staff, told Fox News: “Our military might stands strong and will continue to stand strong, whether it’s in relationship to a conflict between India and China or anywhere else.” The US could deter the outbreak of a two-front war involving three nuclear powers (China and Pakistan on one side and India on the other) by dispatching an aircraft carrier battle group to the eastern Indian Ocean near the Malacca Straits—if events were to spiral out of control. Should Washington dispatch an aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal to deter escalation and in a show of support for India—America’s new partner in Asia—Richard Nixon would surely turn in his grave, but Henry Kissinger would redeem himself. (During the 1971 India-Pakistan war, the Nixon-Kissinger duo had dispatched an aircraft carrier to deter India and to express solidarity with America’s newfound partner China.) In return, the US could gain significant insights into the Chinese military’s tactical and operational planning, force mobilisation and logistics. Washington would also find a larger market in India for advanced military technology and weapons sales as Delhi seeks to reduce hardware dependence on Moscow. The rapid mobilisation of the Chinese military across several zones in a very short period of time points to the need for augmenting space-based and high-altitude ground-based ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) systems and sensors.
China’s military moves in the Himalayas present an opportunity for Washington to show solidarity with its new strategic partner and operationalise the military dimension of the Quad in defence of its Indo-Pacific strategy. Plans to fortify the US naval, air and ground-based operations throughout the region will gain momentum. The US navy has stepped up the frequency of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the East and South China Seas to disabuse Beijing of the notion that these are China’s internal or territorial waters. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act is likely to sanction the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) to reassure US allies and partners and help build their deterrent capabilities. The US Indo-Pacific Command plans to spend $20 billion to more fully disperse troops, roll out new advanced weaponry, deploy long-range cruise and ballistic missile systems to close a missile gap with China and create a network of joint training ranges across the Indo-Pacific.
Furthermore, the US and allies would now find Delhi much more receptive to militarising the Quad and expanding it to include likeminded ‘China-wary’ countries (South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and New Zealand). Already, following the India-Australia virtual summit and the conclusion of a logistics pact, Delhi is stepping up naval cooperation with Canberra in the eastern Indian Ocean (centred round India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Australia’s Cocos islands). An invitation to Australia to join the US-India Malabar naval exercise is the next logical step. In a clear signal to Beijing, the Japanese and Indian navies conducted a joint naval exercise in late June while the US has offered to train fighter jet pilots from India, Japan and Australia at the Anderson Air Force Base in Guam. There is also talk of broadening intelligence cooperation amongst Five Eyes (America, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand) to include Japan and India. The US has already been sharing intelligence with India on the PLA’s capabilities and strengths and weaknesses of new military hardware as well as doctrine in order to provide a holistic picture of the battlefield operating environment. That is, security concerns about Chinese aggressive behaviour regarding territorial disputes will lead the Quad to cooperate in unprecedented ways to ensure that the Western Pacific and the northern Indian Ocean do not fall under Chinese hegemony.
At the ideational level, in the broader contest of values and visions, China’s vision of a power-and-hierarchy-based order is pitted against the law-and-rule-based vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). The concerns and anxieties about Beijing’s mercantilist policies, unresolved territorial and maritime disputes and strategic mistrust of China have spurred India, Japan and the US to draft their own infrastructure initiatives in a bid to prevent more countries in the Indo-Pacific from falling under Beijing’s sway. Washington would gain Delhi’s support in reforming old institutions such as the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization, and forming new ones. The proposal to transform the G-7 into D-10 (a concert of 10 democratic nations) is a case in point. China’s attempts to establish a Sino-centric unipolar order are likely to be frustrated by the Quadrilateral grouping of democracies and others whose interests lie in keeping the Indo-Pacific multipolar where Chinese power is balanced by continued US power and presence and those of other Asian states.
Last but not least, Xi’s signature initiative, One Belt One Road (OBOR), will face new hurdles from the Quad-Plus grouping. Even before the pandemic, the OBOR projects seemed to have lost sheen. The Quad countries are coordinating on tactics and strategy to offer an alternative vision of development finance to ensure that the end of China’s century of humiliation does not usher in a century of humiliation for poor and small developing counties led by corrupt, unsavoury regimes. As Pompeo remarked: “We are banding together with the likeminded nations like Australia, India, Japan and South Korea to make sure that each Indo-Pacific nation can protect its sovereignty from coercion. It’s part of a greater commitment to a free and open order.”
The collateral damage from the Sino-Indian conflict would manifest itself in several forms. A major rupture in Sino-Indian and Chinese-American relations would crystallise fluid, soft-balancing relationships into hard alignments. The days of ‘Chindia’, ‘Chimerica’, ‘South-South Cooperation’ or ‘Asian Century’ and, more importantly, unregulated globalisation are definitely over. Should there be a war in the Himalayas, China could emerge as a much weakened and isolated power in a multipolar world with a more regulated or guided globalisation. Prolonged economic slowdown caused by the pandemic and/or war, potentially made worse by the ‘Chiexit’ (the exodus of MNCs from China), could even threaten the stability of China’s one-party regime.
Just as the post-World War II era was very different from the pre-World War II order and the post-Cold War order was different from the Cold War order, the post-Wuhan world order will be markedly different from the pre-Wuhan one. Meanwhile, the risk of miscalculation lies with the Chinese military overestimating its strength—and the rest of the world underestimating Beijing’s ambitions, power and purpose. With ‘Chindia’ on a war footing and decoupling economically, the much-touted ‘Pacific Century’ is likely to be neither pacific nor Asian, but just another bloody century.