Just as it appeared that China and India had reached a détente after weeks of military escalation at their Himalayan border, Chinese troops have reportedly killed at least 20 Indian soldiers, and may have suffered their own casualties.
The first deadly border clash since the mid-1970s shows just how fraught relations between the world’s two most populous countries are becoming. The geopolitical dangers are obvious and severe.
The current conflict began several weeks ago when the Chinese moved thousands of troops into the Galwan valley in Ladakh, along what is known as the Line of Actual Control. The proximate cause was India’s decision to build a road leading to a forward airbase.
The two nations have been involved in on-again, off-again talks for years, but the current attitude from Beijing is a new level of aggressiveness
China responded by building up forces, bringing in heavy equipment (excavators, troop carriers and possibly artillery), and building a new tented barracks to support them. In doing so, the Chinese soldiers entered a part of the region that had long been regarded as Indian by both sides.
India responded to the incursion by reinforcing its troops along the 2,000-mile border. Complicating the situation, neighbouring Nepal and Pakistan have been strengthening their relationships with China, and the Nepalese are disputing Indian claims along their shared border.
No matter which side stands down first, the truth is that the Chinese escalation was a decisive move, one reflecting Beijing’s growing strategic objectives not only at the “top of the world,” but globally.
India believes China occupies nearly 40,000 square kilometres of its territory, seized in a 1962 war which India lost decisively. The sense of humiliation lingers, and such Chinese incursions have shown that India has few real options to force Beijing to withdraw from areas it claims.
China and India had another standoff in 2017, lasting a couple of months, in the nearby Doklam plateau. China won by pressing ahead and building a military base.
The two nations have been involved in on-again, off-again talks for years, but the current attitude from Beijing is a new level of aggressiveness.
This all fits with larger Chinese strategic and tactical moves that began in early 2020, as the world’s focus moved to the novel coronavirus. Chinese maritime activity in the South China Sea has increased.
China is using economic and humanitarian aid incentives to solidify the One Belt, One Road trade initiative across South Asia, particularly in Pakistan.
Feelings of nationalism
This can be read in three ways. First, as an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to increase feelings of nationalism — directed against not only India, but other nations in the region and the US.
Second, it solidifies President Xi Jinping’s status as a decisive leader, building on the “success” China had in dealing with the virus.
Finally, at a geostrategic level, the moves in the Himalayas are an attempt by China to pressure India to stay at an arm’s distance from the US. There’s a chance that may backfire: India may move toward America in the aftermath of the bloody border incident.
The Chinese generally have confidence in their hard power, and haven’t liked the growing sense of rapprochement between the US and India over the past five years.
One Belt, One Road has one big problem: India, which sits athwart the trade lanes China wants to use. In that sense, the Himalayan dispute is about control of the Indian Ocean.
The US has limited capital to engage in this particular dispute. Although Donald Trump offered to mediate in a recent tweet, the chances of China accepting such assistance are negligible. A better approach is for the US to continue moving closer to India.
Most important is to end the dispute over trade tariffs that began with Trump’s mishandled efforts to relieve US trade deficits.
The tensions at the top of the world are important and dangerous, but solving them has to be part of the larger approach the US takes with China.
James Stavridis is a retired US Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of Nato, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University