Editor's Note: Below is a complimentary research note written by National Security analyst Lt. General Dan Christman. To access our Macro Policy research please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Events in Asia over the last two weeks - first near the Korean DMZ, and then on the India-China border – have raised the geopolitical temperatures.
Despite the Pyongyang bombast in the wake of its demolition of the North-South liaison office that lay hard by the Demilitarized Zone, the likelihood remains small that Kim Jong Un will escalate tensions to include armed conflict; he and his regime have backed off the rhetoric considerably.
The China-India story is different; at this point, despite the return by China of captured Indian soldiers and reported meetings of military leaders commanding border troops, there's no reason to believe that Beijing is eager to end the crisis any time soon.
Indeed, satellite images over the last week show Chinese military construction intensifying where the clashes occurred – a Himalayan equivalent of South China Sea sovereignty claims.
As the media has emphasized, the casualties on the tense India-China border area are the first in 45 years. But why the Chinese heavy hand?
One guess: President Xi Jinping senses weakness in India and with Prime Minister Narendra Modi especially; Xi smells a strategic opportunity as India struggles to cope with COVID 19 and an economic slide.
Further, the Chinese president, plus his inner circle, and increasingly the entire Chinese diplomatic corps, are acting like, and popularized as, “Wolf Warriors” – after Hollywood-style Chinese super-hero films of the same name: aggressive, pushing back hard in international fora.
As one analyst said recently in Foreign Policy magazine, Chinese leaders “are under pressure to be performatively nationalistic.” Vietnam, Malaysia, Hong Kong, The Philippines, Australia, and Taiwan have all experienced the “Warrior” effects. Now India.
But while Xi and Chinese leaders’ political motivations may be opaque, the military aspects of this latest clash are easier to assess:
First, one gets the clear sense that the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) wanted to change “facts on the ground” and seize the (tactical) high ground – to dominate key roads and other infrastructure that India was building nearby, and to secure their own tenuous road network linking the western province of Xinjiang to Tibet.
Further, and reading between the lines of news reports, the PLA, anticipating a dust-up, didn’t just move troops into the contested zone; they sent highly trained paratroopers – conditioned in hand-to-hand combat. (The protocol on “no-use of weapons” in the contested border area has been strangely honored for decades.) Best guess is that the Indian border troops were simply over-matched and out-muscled.
Second, on the Indian response: 15 months ago, when yet another Kashmir blow-up occurred with Pakistan, the two sides exchanged meaningless air attacks.
But should Modi try an air attack here, the Chinese response will not be “meaningless!” Expect an Indian response nevertheless, one likely to be directed more at trade and business (e.g., constraining Chinese inbound investment, banning purchases of Huawei 5G) than military; a preview was provided a week ago when India banned popular Chinese apps like TikTok.
In the end, what happened high in the Himalayas over the last weeks is set to change for decades India’s views on its strategic alignment. After a generations-long foreign policy of “non-alignment,” established by PM Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1940’s, New Delhi has, since the 1990’s, moved slowly, glacially, to a warmer outlook toward the west.
Presidents Clinton, Bush43, Obama and Trump have each worked the India relationship, to help foster this change.
China’s actions over the last month may turn out to be the best accelerator Washington could have dreamed of - to finally welcome the world’s largest democracy as a genuine strategic partner.
What could undercut the dream? White House anti-India actions taken on narrow trade or immigration grounds. The president sadly took just this route last week by sharply limiting work visas of the type favored by Indian engineers - the H-1B. It was a “shoot in the foot” moment.
And if this is followed by other White House moves disconnected from larger strategic considerations, it will boost Xi Jinping’s execution of HIS encompassing “China Dream” and alienate New Delhi from the U.S. at the most inopportune moment. Xi is breathing easier.