Treat China’s border clash with India as a clarion call
The confrontation is yet another example of Beijing testing the limits
The writer, a former US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, is co-founder of WestExec Advisors India and China engaged in their first deadly border skirmish since 1975 this week. Twenty Indian soldiers were killed in a clash with Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley, a disputed Himalayan border region. The news reminded me of working at the Pentagon a decade ago, leading the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, an assessment of US defence strategy and priorities. It was clear to us even then that “the rise of China, the world’s most populous country, and India, the world’s largest democracy” would “continue to shape an international system that is no longer easily defined”. The recent violence comes just weeks after Chinese soldiers crossed the contested “line of actual control” between the two countries. It is not the first time India and China have faced off over disputed borders, but this moment feels different.
It comes as both countries are grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, as case counts rise dramatically in India, and as China reimposes restrictions in Beijing after a new outbreak. It is also the most serious stand-off since China became a major power. China’s military expenditures have grown from roughly even in 1989 with India’s to more than triple in size in 2019. The dispute underscores wider trends in the Indo-Pacific and should serve as a wake-up call for the region. First, China’s approach to this latest dispute is yet another sign of the country’s growing assertiveness. Beijing has regarded the decade since the 2008 financial crisis as a period of American decline and Chinese “strategic opportunity”. It has used coercive measures to enforce excessive maritime claims, pursued an expansive global infrastructure development strategy, modernised its armed forces, and executed a multibillion-dollar state-directed campaign to develop (and steal) key emerging technologies.
This more aggressive China has forced US foreign policy experts to largely abandon a decades-long consensus that Washington could influence Beijing to become a “responsible stakeholder” in global affairs. Today, the watchword in Washington is “strategic competitor.” In this context, the Sino-Indian border confrontation is yet another example of Beijing testing the limits of how far it can go while India and the US are preoccupied with the pandemic and its devastating economic impact. Such opportunism is not new, but the crisis has put China’s aggressiveness in starker relief. Its vessels have collided with foreign ships in the South China Sea. Japan protests that its vessels are being harassed in the East China Sea. Chinese aircraft have encroached upon Taiwan, and Beijing has promulgated a new national security law for Hong Kong that seriously erodes its liberties. If China truly wants to portray itself as a “responsible great power” it must start acting like one and put aside its longstanding reluctance to resolve territorial disputes through good-faith negotiations and compromise. Second, the Sino-Indian dispute illustrates the stakes of competition in the Indo-Pacific. As a senior US state department official has said, the dispute is a “reminder that Chinese aggression is not always just rhetorical”. An Indo-Pacific dominated by China and its “might makes right” approach would be a vastly different place than the region today. China’s excessive maritime claims have clearly shown that freedom of navigation is one norm that is vulnerable to Chinese incursions. The dispute with India now shows that the inviolability of borders and the norm of peaceful resolution of disputes are also at risk. Third, the dispute should serve as yet another wake-up call to accelerate and deepen security co-operation among like-minded states.
While geopolitics in the region is often portrayed as a bilateral contest between the US and China, in reality there is a collection of democracies whose interests increasingly converge. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Japan, the US, India and Australia is a particularly good example on which we could build. Launched in 2007 and revitalised in 2017, “the Quad” has deepened the diplomatic and security ties among leading democracies. Recent co-operation includes a deal by India and Australia to access each other’s military bases, a visiting forces agreement between Australia and Japan, and India’s consideration of inviting Australia to join military exercises with the US and Japan.
The incident at Galwan should serve as a clarion call to these major democracies, and other countries who are anxious about Chinese intentions and capabilities, to strengthen their bilateral and multilateral security co-operation. In principle, it is a moment that demands US leadership to convene and mobilise the region’s democracies. In practice, however, that may have to wait for a new occupant in the White House. International order is not self-organising. A security environment conducive to democracies flourishing is not a birthright. It is a cherished legacy of sacrifices by the US, its allies and its partners that can only be preserved if the region’s democracies recognise and take steps to protect their common interests and values. Without such a strategy, China will continue pushing boundaries, posing unacceptable risks to international order. Josh Hochman, an associate at WestExec Advisors, co-wrote this piece