China’s opening gambit — to compel the international community to recognize the existence of a dispute — has been successful, and portends further disturbance of the “status quo.”
Likewise, China has been posing new challenges to India, ratcheting up strategic pressure on multiple flanks, including by reviving old territorial claims.
Given that the countries share the world’s longest disputed land border, India is particularly vulnerable to direct military pressure from China.
The largest territory that China seeks, Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims is part of Tibet, is almost three times the size of Taiwan.
In recent years, China has repeatedly attempted to breach the Himalayan frontier stretching from resource-rich Arunachal Pradesh to the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir — often successfully, given that the border is vast, inhospitable and difficult to patrol. China’s aim is to needle India — and possibly to push the Line of Actual Control (LAC) southward.
Indeed, on April 15, a platoon of Chinese troops stealthily crossed the LAC at night in the Ladakh region, establishing a camp 19km inside Indian-held territory.
China then embarked on coercive diplomacy, withdrawing its troops only after India destroyed a defensive line of fortifications.
It also handed a lopsided draft agreement that seeks to freeze the belated, bumbling Indian buildup of border defenses, while preserving China’s capability to strike without warning.
India has countered with its own draft accord designed specifically to prevent border flare-ups. However, territory is not the only objective of China’s stealth wars; China is also seeking to disturb the “status quo” when it comes to riparian relations. Indeed, it has almost furtively initiated dam projects to re-engineer cross-border river flows and increase its leverage over its neighbors.
Asian countries — together with the US — should be working to address Asia’s security deficit and establish regional norms. However, China’s approach to statecraft, in which dominance and manipulation trump cooperation, is impeding such efforts. This presents the US, the region’s other leading actor, with a dilemma: watch as China gradually disrupts the “status quo” and weakens the US’ allies and strategic partners.
Or, respond and risk upsetting its relationship with China, the Asian country most integral to its interests. Either choice would have far-reaching consequences.
Against this background, the only way to ensure peace and stability in Asia is to pursue a third option: inducing China to accept the “status quo.” That will require a new brand of statecraft based on mutually beneficial co-operation — not brinkmanship and deception.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research.