Originally published at Project-Syndicate | April 21st, 2023
By standing up to Chinese territorial encroachments, India has openly challenged Xi Jinping’s expansionism in a way that no other world power has done. The current military stalemate in the Himalayas serves as yet another reminder that Xi has picked a border fight with India that he cannot win.
NEW DELHI – Three years after China stealthily began encroaching on India’s territory in the Himalayas, no end is in sight for the two countries’ border standoff. While the rival military buildups and intermittent clashes have received little attention in the West, the escalating border confrontation has set in motion a long-term rivalry that could reshape Asian geopolitics.
By locking horns with China despite the risk of a full-scale war, India has openly challenged Chinese power in a way no other world power, including the United States, has done in this century. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s strategic overreach has caused India to shift away from its previous appeasement policy and accelerate its military buildup, turning a potential partner into an enduring foe, while appearing determined to forestall a Sinocentric Asia.
Similarly, Xi’s muscular revisionism and geopolitical ambitions have forced Japan and Australia to readjust their strategic frameworks and work to counter China’s expansionism in the Indo-Pacific. By drawing up plans to double defense spending by 2027, Japan has effectively abandoned its pacifist postwar national-security policy. Australia, for its part, has renounced its previous hedging approach and joined the AUKUS defense pact with the US and the United Kingdom.
China’s attempt in spring 2020 to occupy hundreds of square kilometers in the icy borderlands of India’s northernmost Ladakh region, at a time when India was enforcing the world’s strictest national lockdown, amounted to a cynical effort to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to further Xi’s strategic aims. But Xi miscalculated when he assumed that China could force India to accept the new status quo as a fait accompli. Since then, India has more than matched China’s military deployments, fueling the largest-ever military buildup in the Himalayas, one of the world’s most inhospitable regions.
With India refusing to buckle, Xi has sought to overwhelm its defenses by opening up a new front in the eastern Himalayas, more than 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) from China’s 2020 land grabs. In December 2022, a Chinese incursion into the strategically crucial border state of Arunachal Pradesh was repelled by Indian forces, reportedly with help from US intelligence.
In an effort to strengthen its territorial claim and provoke India, China has Sinicized the names of sites in Arunachal Pradesh. Calling Arunachal Pradesh “South Tibet,” the Chinese government has asserted that the sprawling state – more than twice the size of Taiwan – is “Chinese territory” and that Sinicizing Indian lands is its “sovereign right.”
All this has given India a stake in Taiwan’s continued autonomous status. If Taiwan were to fall to China, the Austria-sized Arunachal Pradesh could become the Chinese government’s next target for “reunification.” China’s annexation of Tibet in 1951 proved to be one of the most significant geopolitical developments in post-World War II history, giving China common borders with India, Nepal, Bhutan, and northwest Myanmar. A Chinese takeover of Taiwan could lead to a similar geopolitical reordering, enabling Chinese naval forces to break out of the “first island chain” and easily access the Pacific.
China’s claim that Taiwan has “always been” part of China is historically dubious. Taiwan did not become a Chinese province before the late nineteenth century, and China lost control of the island just eight years later, when the Qing Dynasty ceded it to Japan in perpetuity following its defeat in the 1895 Sino-Japanese War. But in laying claim to Taiwan, Xi is working to complete Mao Zedong’s expansionist vision of a “Greater China.”
Similarly, Tibet is the key to Chinese expansionism in the Himalayas despite the fact that it was a part of China only when China itself was occupied by outsiders like the Mongols and the Manchus. Because it cannot claim any Han-Chinese connection, its territorial claims in the Himalayas rest on alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links. Even tiny Bhutan has not been spared; China has been nibbling away at its borderlands.
Against this backdrop, India’s willingness to stand up to China is crimping Xi’s expansionist agenda. As Admiral Michael M. Gilday, the US Navy’s chief of naval operations, put it last year, India presents China with a “two-front” problem. “They [Indians] now force China to not only look east, toward the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, but they now have to be looking over their shoulder at India,” he said.
Moreover, the Sino-Indian rivalry has flared up at a time when China’s economy is running into long-term constraints, including a shrinking and rapidly aging population and slowing productivity growth. By contrast, India, which has one of the world’s youngest populations with a median age of 28.4, is reaping a demographic dividend. While its GDP is still smaller than China’s, it is the world’s fastest-growing major economy.
Given that its military is the world’s most experienced in hybrid mountain warfare, India has an edge in the high-altitude Himalayan environment. Moreover, in contrast to India’s all-volunteer military, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army largely relies on conscripts who ostensibly “volunteer” for two years of service after they reach the age of 18. That helps explain why China has chosen to engage in stealth encroachments rather than direct combat.
The current military stalemate in the Himalayas serves as yet another reminder that Xi has picked a border fight with India that he cannot win. With the US-China rivalry deepening, the last thing China needed was to make a permanent enemy of its largest neighbor. Ultimately, bringing India and America closer could prove to be Xi’s lasting legacy – an unintended consequence that threatens to undermine his regime’s aggressive irredentism.
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 Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).