Aggression and expansionism are not genetic traits, but they define the tenure of President Xi Jinping. Xi is trying to implement a modern version of the tributary system used by the Chinese emperors to establish power over the Vassal states: submit to the emperor and reap the benefits of peace and trade with the empire.
For G, the Kovid pandemic — which had occupied world governments for months — seemed like an ideal opportunity to make rapid progress on his agenda. So, in April and May, he ordered the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to infiltrate the snow-covered border areas of the Ladakh region of India, setting up heavily fortified bases there.
This is not nearly as clever a plan as G probably thought. Without gaining China’s regional prominence, it has intensified the pushback of the Indo-Pacific powers, further enhancing their security cooperation. This includes China’s most powerful rival, the United States, thereby increasing bilateral strategic confrontation involving technical, economic, diplomatic and military dimensions. Fear of international isolation and supply disruptions are now looming over China.
Ji’s true miscalculation on the Himalayan border belongs to India, which has now abandoned its policy of satisfaction towards China. Not surprisingly, China is committed to the PLA’s incursions, which it continues to portray defensively: late last month, G told senior officials to “strengthen the borders” and “ensure border security” in the Himalayan region.
But India is ready to fight. In June, after the PLA attacked and killed Indian soldiers patrolling in the Galvan Valley of Ladakh, a one-handed clash led to the deaths of several Chinese troops — the first PLA troops to be killed in action outside UN peacekeeping operations in four decades. Xi was very upset with the result, with India honoring its 20 as martyrs while China refused to accept the death toll.
The truth is, without surprise, China is not ready to dominate India in the military conflict. And India will take care not to guard again. It has now matched China’s military deployments on the Himalayan border and has activated its entire logistics network to transport supplies needed to sustain troops and equipment in the coming harsh winter.
In another blow to China, Indian special forces have recently occupied strategic mountain positions in the southern part of Lake Pangong, ignoring key Chinese deployments. Unlike the PLA, which likes to occupy border areas, Indian forces have carried out their operations under the nose of China.
If this is not a sufficient insult to China, India is keenly aware that the Special Frontier Force (SFF) that led the operation has Tibetan refugees. A Tibetan soldier who died with a landmine during the operation was honored with a well-attended military funeral.
India’s message is clear: China’s claims on Tibet, which separated India and China until Mao Zedong’s takeover in 1951, were not as strong as they seem. The Tibetans see China as a brutal oppressive power, and those interested in fighting Mao came to the SFF, founded in 1962 after the war with India.
Here is the rub: China’s claims to the Indian Himalayan border areas allege that it has historical ties with Tibet. If China is just occupying Tibet, how can it gain sovereignty over those border areas?
However, G’s latest attempt to gain control over the territories has proven to be much harder to complete than to launch. As China’s actions in the South China Sea have shown, Shi prefers unequal or hybrid warfare, which combines traditional and random tactics with psychological and media manipulation, misinformation and coercive diplomacy.
Xi was able to change the geopolitical map of the South China Sea without firing a shot, making it clear that it would not work on China’s Himalayan border. China may have the largest active-duty military power in the world, but India is also huge. Most importantly, India’s war-hardening forces have experience in high-altitude low-intensity conflicts; The PLA has no combat experience since the deadly invasion of Vietnam in 1979. The war in the Himalayas will probably end with a stalemate.
G seems to be just hoping India can wear it. At a time when the Indian economy was registering its worst contraction, Ginny was forced to divert growing resources to national defense. Xi could use America’s interest in his upcoming presidential election to launch a quick, localized strike against India without starting a war.
However, it seems that India is less likely to be under Chinese pressure than G to leave the legacy of costly crimes. With his Himalayan misfortune, he provoked a powerful adversary and put himself in a corner. © 2020 / Project Syndicate
Brahma Chellani is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.