Xi Jinping’s secrecy-shrouded, July 21 to 23 visit to Tibet — the first officially acknowledged trip to the politically troubled “roof of the world” by a Chinese president in three decades — helped shine a spotlight on China’s ongoing military confrontation with India.
The two nuclear-armed titans have been locked for 15 months in intensifying military standoffs at multiple sites along their long and disputed Himalayan frontier.
China’s state media, reporting the visit only after Xi returned home, said the Chinese leader met with Tibet-based commanders and officers of the People‘s Liberation Army (PLA) and called for strengthening “war preparation.” In fact, Xi began his visit with an overnight stopover at a forward PLA base located barely 15 kilometers from the heavily militarized border with India.
Xi has shown an increasing appetite for taking risks, with a recent, publicly released U.S. intelligence report saying his regime is seeking to “compel regional neighbors to acquiesce to Beijing’s preferences.” Xi’s muscular revisionism is apparently driven by his belief that China has a strategic window of opportunity that it must seize before it closes.
Nowhere is the damage from Xi’s aggressiveness more apparent than in China’s relations with India, which today are at a nadir. The rival induction this year of tens of thousands of additional troops and new weapons along the inhospitable Himalayan frontier has raised the risk of local skirmishes triggering a war.
The protracted military standoffs constitute the longest period of military confrontation since China imposed itself as the neighbor of India, Bhutan and Nepal in the early 1950s by occupying the then-autonomous Tibet. Even the 1962 China-India war lasted only 32 days.
The massive Indian and Chinese buildups have been accompanied by frenzied construction, especially by China, of new military infrastructure in the borderlands, including war-fighting facilities. The once-lightly patrolled frontier is set to turn into an enduringly hot border.
The military confrontations began in May 2020, when thawing ice reopened access routes at the end of the brutal Himalayan winter. A shocked India then discovered that China had stealthily intruded into and occupied several key border areas in the northernmost Indian territory of Ladakh.
The discovery led to the first deadly Sino-Indian military clashes since 1975, including China’s first combat deaths in decades, and the still-continuing standoffs.
Xi’s aggression was designed not only to grab territory; it was also a form of colonial-style gunboat diplomacy aimed at cutting India down to size and demonstrating China’s Asian supremacy. Xi believed that, if China used deception and surprise to catch India off guard and create new fait accompli, it would make smaller Asian states fall in line.
Xi’s strategic miscalculation, however, has been laid bare by the vigorous Indian military response, with India more than matching China’s deployments and shifting its border strategy from defense to potential offense. In fact, the clashes with the battle-hardened Indian forces made China realize that its army, with little combat experience since its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam, must avoid further close combat.
This has led to a weird paradox: At a time when Xi, with his hard-line ethnic-assimilation policy, is working to stamp out Tibetan culture and identity, China has in recent months been raising new border forces against India made up of local Tibetan youths by coercing Tibetan families to let the PLA recruit one of their sons. China has also deployed mobile weapons for hit-and-run operations, like self-propelled mortars.
Xi may have his hands full with seeking to tame, among others, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and India. Yet, such is his expansionist itch that he has opened yet another front by furtively grabbing land in Bhutan, one of the world’s smallest nations.
With India, however, China finds itself locked in a tense military stalemate. If Xi attempts to break the stalemate with a war, he is unlikely to secure a decisive win. The war itself is more likely to end in a bloody stalemate, with heavy losses on both sides.
Xi’s aggression, by breaching bilateral border-peace agreements, has already made the rise of a more antagonistic and militarily stronger India a certainty. India now appears more determined than ever to counter Chinese power and work with like-minded powers in Asia, North America and Europe to limit China’s international influence.
Despite Xi’s draconian actions in Hong Kong, that city’s South China Morning Post, in a recent article, chided China for alienating India, saying, “If Beijing is serious about not pushing New Delhi further away or even turning India into a permanent enemy, it should begin by setting aside grievances on the border issue and ending the standoff.”
Xi, however, has boxed himself into a corner with nowhere to go, other than to the border for a short visit. He can neither back down nor wage open war.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.” (Georgetown University Press)
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