Chinese Aggression in the Himalayas: The Sign of a Powerful China | Daniel Hawker

The killing of twenty Indian soldiers on 15 June in the Galwan Valley by a Chinese military squad has sparked international coverage, being the first loss of life in the area in 45 years. A major setback to recent measures to de-escalate tensions, this skirmish, although not the first of its kind, is the first to result in fatalities (on both sides, although Chinese officials haven’t yet released the casualty figures).

The deaths come at a time when tensions between the neighbouring countries are rapidly escalating; in the past few weeks, both Chinese and Indian troops (who rarely carry weapons for fear of provoking the other side) have engaged in brawls, detained troops from the other side and deployed additional troops and advanced military equipment in the western part of the Himalayas, which includes the Galwan Valley.

The international community, and India in particular, have placed the blame solely with China. A statement by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs stating:

On 15 June 2020, a violent face-off happened as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo there.

The area in which the fighting took place is known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which has been the subject of border agreements in the recent past; both nations signed agreements in 1993, 1996 and 2005, which defined the activities permitted and not permitted along the LAC. As laid out in the first agreement, signed in September 1993, both sides entered understanding the five key principles: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; mutual non-aggression; non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence; and with a view to maintaining peace and tranquillity in the long unstable region. This final point ought to be explained in more detail.

Whilst the two nations remained close throughout the 1950s, relations between China and India began to deteriorate over the unresolved state of their joint Himalayan border. The borderlines, which were drawn by British surveyors were and still remain, both unclear and heavily disputed, with China claiming more than ninety thousand square kilometres in the eastern part of the mountain range disputed by Delhi, and another thirty-eight thousand square km in the west. With this untidy map-drawing, the status of Himalayan kingdoms, such as Tibet, Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal, was also called into question. These ever-increasing tensions eventually escalated into the Sino-Indian War of 1962, lasting just over 1 month, resulting in roughly two thousand dead and a decisive Chinese victory. 

It was the view of the leadership of China’s Communist Party that China’s victory in the war would ensure peace between the two nations, believing the conflict to be necessary to solve the problem. ‘Our conflict with India is one finger out of ten’ argued Mao Zedong. ‘Nine fingers are friendship.’ No doubt that Mao saw this war as a knife with which to hack off India’s one problematic digit – the only one that posed a problem to his Communist authoritarian regime.

Just 2 days after the war had officially begun, it had been made clear by the Chinese government that India was, in their view, solely to blame for the conflict in the area – during a meeting on October 22, 1962, Chinese vice-minister Zhang Hanfu said to the Soviet ambassador, Stepan Chervonenko; “It was India that rejected peace talks to resolve the Simo-Indian border issue, while China consistently adhered to a peaceful solution.” Aside from engaging them in military conflict, China has backed Pakistan (India’s greatest rival) in its own disputes with India, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative has stirred Indian fears, as well as the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Ever since the war ended in November 1962, troops from both countries have patrolled the mountains with skirmishes being fairly infrequent. If they do occur, brawls usually consist of fist-fights or rock throwing – the use of guns in these skirmishes is a significant development.

Tensions have rapidly escalated in the past few years; troops from both countries have been gathering, at a time of the year when melting snow makes the territory more accessible. There have been standoffs before, the most serious of which occurring in 2017 when Indian troops stopped the Chinese military from building a road at the trijuncture with Bhutan – but no-one was killed.

Every year, India counts the ‘transgressions’ of Chinese troops in the Himalayas, the data apparently showing the tensions to be easing and the violence to be quietening down; despite rising from two hundred and seventy three in 2016 to four hundred and twenty six in 2017, they then proceeded to drop down to three hundred and twenty six. This attack marks a clear turning point – as Brahman Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre of Policy Research in New Delhi puts it; “On a political level, China-India relations will not be the same again”.  Essentially, this is unlikely to be the last time that China uses its military to assert its authority in this region, and around the globe. 

These recent attacks in the region reveal what Xi Jinping, the President of China, aims to do in terms of his foreign policy; use whatever means necessary to secure whatever areas he believes belong to China, from Hong Kong to the South China Sea. This was further highlighted in a statement made by the People’s Liberation Army (the Chinese armed forces): ‘The sovereignty of the Galwan River Valley has always been ours. The Indian border troops went back to their word, seriously violating the agreements… We demand that India strictly restrain the front-line troops, immediately stop all violations and provocations, and together return to the correct track of dialogue.”  

These skirmishes have long been the subject of many talks and various warnings from the Chinese government; China is fearful of India’s growing ties with the United States – in fact, President Donald Trump recently offered to mediate peace talks, no doubt still feeling like a true negotiator from his time with Kim Jong-Un in 2018. His offer was rejected.

With the use of the Chinese military against a foreign country for the first time in the 21st Century, President Xi is testing the limits of India, seeing how far he can reasonably push them before they snap. In doing so, he’s also testing the limits of the international community, and how and whether they will respond to China’s increasing rise to power. In this time of COVID-19, I believe that the global community tangled up in dealing with the pandemic to see to China’s antics. But this won’t be the last time China will test the world; the current situation of their full annexation of Hong Kong from the British will be a key moment in determining how we deal with China’s increasing authority on the world stage.

China has made clear that it’s prepared to fight to get what it wants, not just in the Himalayas, but around the globe. For example in the South China Sea, an area which is currently claimed by six nations (China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan – or as China sees it, Taipei – Malaysia and Brunei) has been the centre of political tension for years, but these tensions have recently grown dangerous. China, with by far the largest claim, has backed this with the building of new islands as well as regular and stringent naval patrols. They’ve also issued threats to the UK over Huawei and infrastructure projects, sunk Vietnamese fishing vessels (funnily enough in the South China Sea) and curtailed the import of beef from four Australian beef processing firms. 

Throughout much of the world, Chinese firms (under the supervision of the Communist government) are taking on massive infrastructure projects in an attempt to strengthen diplomatic ties with other nations – to make them susceptible to Chinese control. This has been most successful in many African countries, with Chinese funding being responsible for the construction of railway lines, universities, hospitals and stadiums across the continent. In fact, thanks to China, Africa has become the fastest urbanising region of the world, with many predicting it is well on its way to becoming a $5 trillion economy. China is now Africa’s biggest trade partner, with trade between the two topping $200 billion every year. 

In terms of what China gets from this massive investment in  Africa, you need only look to Africa’s abundant natural resources – over a third of China’s oil and a fifth of their cotton comes from Africa, so it is in China’s long-term geo-economic and political interest to continue to preserve and strengthen ties with the world’s hottest continent.

These African projects are doing only good for the continent’s economy, but the world must be wary of China’s attempts to arrange more and more regions under their sphere of influence. Chinese investment in Africa is part of the larger Belt and Road initiative, unveiled in 2013, it is a global strategy involving infrastructure developments and investments in nearly 70 countries and international organisations. The initiative, estimated to cost approximately $1 trillion (£760bn), has raised the concerns of many governments who are unsure of whether they’ll be able to repay their loans to China after this project is complete, with many of the world’s poorest nations already owing over half their debt to China.

Whatever move China makes, be it military action in the mountains, investment in African infrastructure or naval patrols in the South China Sea, one fact is crystal clear; China is prepared both to play the long game and to get their hands dirty, even bloody, in order to get what they want. The key question is, for how long will we let them continue this? Will the world see China’s actions for the power-play they represent, or will we sit by and not intervene? Only time will tell. Either way, politicians and business leaders need to be prepared, when the pandemic has been resolved, to face a more confident, and infinitely more dangerous Chinese regime. 

Photo by camera_eyes on Flickr.

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