The strategic reach of the red dragon

The change started in May. As the harsh Himalayan winter receded, a shocked India reportedly discovered that Chinese forces had occupied hundreds of square kilometers of border areas in its northernmost region of Ladakh.

The invading forces, supported by thousands of soldiers in the rear, had seized the mountain peaks and other strategic points of view, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had established forward bases, blocking it. India’s access to areas along the disputed border which had been under its jurisdiction.

It was a cynical attempt to exploit not only the chaos and hardship caused by China’s most infamous global export, covid-19, but also the long-standing policy of appeasement of the Bharatiya Janata party-led government. .

In the previous six years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had met Chinese President Xi Jinping 18 times, hoping to foster friendlier relations (and weaken the China-Pakistan axis). This hope appears to have blinded India to China’s aggressive preparations, including combat exercises and the rampant construction of military infrastructure along the border.

In this sense, Modi repeated the mistake of the first Indian Prime Minister after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose stubborn court of Mao Zedong allowed China to annex Tibet, thus removing the territorial buffer between itself and India. Chinese encroachments culminated in the Himalayan border war of 1962, which began with a surprise attack by the PLA and ended with territorial losses for India.

This war shattered India’s illusions about China as a trusted partner and caused an abandonment of pacifism. With China’s recent Himalayan aggression, India seems to be relearning the same lesson. India has already matched Chinese troop deployments along the border and occupied strategic positions in the region. The heightened tensions sparked a series of clashes, the worst of which left 20 Indian soldiers and an undisclosed number of PLA soldiers dead in mid-June.

By transforming what was once a lightly patrolled border into a “hot” border and raising the specter of further military surprises – while deepening its strategic ties with Pakistan – China has left India with no other choice. than to considerably strengthen its strategic posture.

In fact, a significant rise in Indian military power is to be expected. This will include a huge increase in border patrols and additional mountain warfare forces. But, as Indian forces cannot guard every corner of one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders, deterrence will also be essential.

This is why India has tested a series of advanced missile systems, including a hypersonic cruise missile, a hybrid torpedo missile (which can be deployed against submarines and aircraft carriers) and an anti -radiation (designed to search for and destroy enemy air defense systems equipped with radar). This portends a substantial Indian investment in military modernization.

India’s military build-up will also include a significant expansion of its naval capability. This will allow India to adopt a much stronger maritime posture, which includes opening a front into the Indian Ocean, through which much of China’s trade (including most of its supplies) passes. energy).

But India is not facing China alone. In November, Australia, Japan and the United States joined India in the Malabar Naval Warfare Games – the first ever military exercise involving the four members of the so-called Quad, a loose strategic coalition of the four major democracies of the Indo-Pacific region. Deepening cooperation between Quads is at the heart of American Indo-Pacific policy, which emphasizes the maritime domain. Given the bipartisan consensus in the United States on the need to counter Chinese expansionism, this policy is unlikely to change significantly under the administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

A US-Indian strategic alliance has long been China’s security nightmare. Yet by repaying Modi’s peace overtures with stealth land grabs, Xi made such an alliance more likely. It was in response to China’s aggression that, in October, India finally concluded the last of four “fundamental” agreements the United States is making with its allies. The terms of the deal had been under negotiation for over a decade.

Beyond working with like-minded states diplomatically and militarily, India is trying to counter China by exposing its neocolonial activities, such as the Belt and Road Initiative. And he will likely seek to thwart Xi’s plan to capture the 442-year-old Dalai Lama institution and consolidate China’s grip on Tibet. With the current Dalai Lama having made it clear that his “reincarnation will appear in a free country,” India should tacitly help Tibetan exiles find their successor in its Himalayan Tibetan-Buddhist regions, which produced a Dalai Lama at the end of the century. Seventeenth century.

Another likely dimension of India’s new strategy in China will be to pursue a managed and selective economic decoupling. China’s trade balance with India represents its third bilateral surplus (after the United States and the European Union). Now that India recognizes the folly of relying on China for essential supplies, that is set to change.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, it has more than doubled its territory by annexing the homelands of ethnic minorities and seizing the lands of other countries. In this context, its recent encroachments on Indian territory in the Himalayas could pose a significant threat to Indo-Pacific stability.

Fortunately, the regional powers – starting with India – are backing down. With this regional resistance increasingly supported by the United States and other Western powers, Xi will most likely live to regret the decisions he made in 2020.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and member of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin

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