China have a number of foreign policy issues confronting them not least of which is the emerging cold war between China and the United States. Meanwhile, on China’s southwest border in the Himalayas, the world’s two most-populous countries are keen to portray themselves as leading powers in the 21st century.
For sixty years the Chinese and Indian militaries have periodically clashed over the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Himalayas but in May 2020, Chinese and Indian troops engaged in aggressive skirmishes following Chinese incursions. The fighting was largely contained to fists, clubs and throwing rocks with injuries totalling about 100 across both sides.
Unsurprisingly, both India and China reinforced their positions and a vicious hand-to-hand confrontation occurred on 15/16 June 2020. India subsequently reporting 20 deaths of Officers and men. China has not confirmed their casualties but many reports suggest a number that broadly matches the Indian figure.
Sporadic engagements have followed since including the alleged firing of shots by India (which they deny) to the use of a ‘microwave’ weapon used by China that sends a high-frequency blast through Indian soldiers, forcing them back from two strategic hilltops.
To keep the pressure up, reports of Chinese cyber-attacks on Indian infrastructure increased from July 2020. The Indians suspect that a severe electricity blackout in Mumbai in October 2020 was caused by a malware attack and at least 12 Indian government organisations, mainly power utilities, were reported to have been attacked by February 2021.
For the time being however, things have settled with China and India having recently agreed to pull back troops along the disputed Himalayan border. A demilitarised zone will be created after the troops and artillery withdraw and the area will not be patrolled by either although soldiers from both sides will still be in rifle range of each other.
Many of the meetings to resolve the dispute between the Chinese and Indians occurred in Moscow as Russia, an ally to both nations, doesn’t want to be placed in an uncomfortable position if the fighting escalates. Despite this latest truce, the relationship between India and China is very fragile and further confrontations are a distinct possibility.
The confrontations prompted the resurgence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) comprising the United States, India, Japan, and Australia due to mounting alarm about the rise of China and the security threat it poses to the international order and the Indo-Pacific in particular.
For clarity, the Quad is not a mutual assistance military treaty like NATO. Instead, it establishes a basis for regular defence co-operation through naval exercises and the sharing of intelligence and military logistics. But, the alliance also focuses on a rules-based order and an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific including trade, technology and global supply chains.
In time, membership of the Quad may see the inclusion of Canada, France, New Zealand and potentially the United Kingdom and Germany into a broader alliance that has an enhanced military raison d’etre in the Indo-Pacific region. Proponents of a more militaristic Quad sometimes refer to it as an ‘Asian NATO” and point to the inclusion of South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines who have expressed an interest. It is difficult to imagine all the SE Asian nations coming together to form a military alliance to buttress China but mutual fear and/or distrust of the CCP may make for strange bed-fellows.
For now, the Quad does not represent a containment of China’s actions but it is clear that many nations are sufficiently alarmed at China’s activities and bully-boy approach. With their border quarrel with India to the southwest, a simmering cold war with the US, Taiwan issues, containment of Hong Kong democracy, South and East China Sea disputes and a potentially enhanced Indo-Pacific military bloc under the Quad, China have a raft of foreign policy issues. If that wasn’t enough, their potential entanglement with the Taliban in Afghanistan also carries significant risks.
Wolf warrior diplomacy, trade hostility, cyber-attacks and other aggressions do not appear to be yielding the results President Xi anticipated.