While the global community is preoccupied with its mortal battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s two most populous nations have been creeping toward what may become a large-scale armed conflict to determine future regional dominance in central and southeast Asia. The outcome of such a campaign could firmly seat China at the head of the highest international tier of power, yet almost no one outside of the region is talking about it.
The Chinese government under President Xi Jinping has already begun embarking on an extroverted campaign to increase China’s international influence, the likes of which are relatively unprecendent in modern Chinese history. One key component of this decades-long initiative involves major increases in both the physical and the figurative Chinese military presence in western China and in central Asia.
As a U.S. intelligence professional throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, I witnessed a dynamic surge in Chinese government efforts to secure control of the restive western Chinese regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. While those efforts at times included minor infrastructure development projects, increased domestic deployments of military and government assets, and periodic social unrest between culture groups, their scale always paled in comparison to what now appear to be the current Chinese ambitions in that region.
The difference is due to a tidal change in China’s approach and attitude toward the outside world. Traditionally known to be very self-contained and self-interested for a nation of its size, the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping announced in 2013 its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, formerly referred to in English as “One Belt One Road”), through which it intends to invest significantly in infrastructure development across more than 70 foreign countries and organizations.
While the improvements expected by such investment are largely seen as beneficial for small under-developed nations like Vanuatu, Tonga, and Fiji, the major Chinese payout resides in expanding and increasing Chinese economic and political influence over larger countries and peoples in central Asia, Africa, and Oceania. Arguably among the most key components of the initiative is the development of an overland and aerial economic corridor through western China to central Asian countries like Pakistan and Kazakhstan.
It is difficult not to see the BRI as the driving force behind China’s suddenly increased interest in the rapid development of it own western provinces and in the establishment of an aggressive presence in Kashmir and in the Himilayas. There seems little other reason why a section of China’s western border that’s never been definitively established would suddenly be the focus of active attention for the first time in almost 60 years.
In early 2020, Indian border patrol forces sounded the alarms that Chinese forces were not only regularly violating the Line of Actual Control (LAC) observed in and around the Ladakh region, but also erecting operational positions, importing equipment, and performing fortification of transportation routes over that line. Small groups of Indian troops opposed periodic Chinese incursions and, on June 15, dozens of Chinese and Indian soldiers were reportedly killed in a large hand-to-hand clash in the Galwan river valley.
The June clash in the Galwan river valley led to a significant escallation in force deployment to the area by both the Indian military and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Multiple token de-escalation talks were held over the following months, but both sides have accused each other of failing to meet various agreed stipulations. In August, the most significant military standoff of the current conflict took place at Pangong Tso/Lake. In September, in that same area, both sides accused the other of having fired warning shots, a telling sign of escalation along a border that had for decades been mutually patrolled and defended completely without the use of firearms.
Satellite imagery and regional analysis suggest that recent Chinese activity in the Ladakh border region could be an effort by China to claim and secure a convenient geopolitical trade corridor with Pakistan — a major goal in, and the crux of, the Silk Road Economic “Belt” portion of the “Belt and Road Initiative”. Directly east of the Ladakh region in a Pakistan-administered area of Kashmir, India and Pakistan traded artillery fire as recently as mid-November, costing lives on both sides, and applying additional pressure against Indian defense efforts in the potential corridor.
Conflict between India and Pakistan in the region in and around Kashmir is certainly no recent development. As such, it could be posited that Indian, rather than Chinese, ambitions could be at the core of the new regional issues between China and India. However, general international consensus (excluding China) regarding the fault of the Galwan valley LAC incursions, combined with recently increased adversarial attempts by China to exert influence in areas such as the South China Sea (another major area of focus in the BRI), consistantly suggest that the increased tensions near Ladakh originate with the Chinese.
India, which has admittedly been in active conflict with Pakistan for control over the Kashmir region on and off since 1947, is understandably reluctant to forfeit any ground in Kashmir or Ladakh. They are also especially wary of the establishment of a stronger, more convenient geographical link between Pakistan and China, two nations with each of whom India is engaged in military standoffs. To ensure it is able to provide necessary defense assets to the area, India has, throughout 2020, fortified, reconstructed, and improved land transportation routes to and around the world’s highest airbase at Daulat Beg Oldi.
Deescalation talks and a recent lull in armed skirmishes has allowed the international community to turn a relatively blind eye to tensions in the area between India and China. However, lack of a massive breakdown may be more a result of environmental conditions at the top of the world and a global pandemic elsewhere than of a situation which genuinely warrants no major concern.
The area around the Galwan valley and the Ladakh region are at such a high altitude that it takes an unusually long time for either side to deliver military equipment or to acclimate troops to the area. Winter weather causes the area to be virtually inaccessible and difficult to survive under even the best conditions. Despite boasting better equipment and technology than the rival Indian forces, and somewhere between 200,000 and 230,000 troops in the theater, China is aware that its forces lack equivalent cold weather and high-altitude training and experience to that of the Indian military forces in the region.
It only makes sense, then, that China would choose to wait out the winter weather and to have a COVID-19 vaccine in hand before fully committing to a campaign to occupy a significant swath of disputed territory in the Himilayas. That doesn’t mean it is never coming, though. The planned completion date for the BRI is 2049, so China, historically known for it’s long-term and patient agendas, is unlikely to completely abandon Ladakh plans simply due to short-term logistical and public health challenges.
Were it to eventually be completely realized, the BRI would install China in a position of direct influence unparalleled in size by any other nation. India, in particular, would be especially threatened by such a situation. Such high stakes create a scenario for two nuclear superpowers that could, at some point, potentially rival the Cuban Missile Crisis. That’s all unfolding in the frigid void at the top of the world, though, and the rest of us have been too busy dealing with COVID-19 down here to realize it.