The world has been spinning faster than usual in 2020. At the start of the year, everyone was (rightly) concerned about the prospects of a Third World War breaking out after US President Donald J. Trump rightly assassinated Iranian Qods Force commander, General Qassem Soleimani. Then there was the pandemic caused by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus from Wuhan, China (which increasingly appears to be from a Chinese lab).
In response, the world was forced to endure a crippling shutdown–which led to a new economic recession that borders on becoming a Great Depression. Meanwhile, the United States looks as though it is on the brink of a Marxist insurrection after the brutal killing of an African-American suspect, George Floyd, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
All of these are things that have been tracked and monitored closely. We’ve talked them over nearly to death. But what few appear interested in following are the things that exist just below the proverbial radar. That used to be the job of the media. Alas, here we are.
For the last couple of weeks, Chinese and Indian forces have maneuvered themselves into a warlike posture over territory high in the mountainous region separating India’s northern border from China’s southern periphery. This is all in response to the ongoing tensions between the United States and China. Although not an explicit ally of the United States, India is increasingly oriented toward American foreign policy (which, I believe is good for everyone).
In 2017, China and India almost went to war over the same patch of land. Thankfully, at the time, the two powers stood down. In 1962, China and India did fight a nasty war over this area. In both 1962 and 2017, though, India came out more damaged than they should have. Now 20 Indian troops have been murdered by their Chinese rivals. India’s military is now ratcheting up the pressure. As the two powers jockey closely for conflict over this rough patch of land, the world wonders: what will happen next?
China and India both are nuclear armed powers with advanced militaries (that are only getting more lethal). Over the last decade, both powers have striven to modernize both their economies and their militaries. China looks with suspicion at India because China seeks to be the dominant force in what the United States now calls the Indo-Pacific. Beijing envisions that its navy will dominate not only the East and South China Seas but also the Indian Ocean. This is why China has partnered so closely with Indian rival Pakistan and why China is lacing the east coast of Africa with naval and Air Force bases…it’s all about dominating the Indian Ocean. For its part, India has invested heavily in its own navy and is seeking to place sophisticated satellites in orbit (like the RISAT-IIB) to allow for greater over-the-horizon operations.
More importantly, the territory in dispute is not as important as to what the territory allows access to. The reason that this territory is so important is because it will allow either side to have control over water rights in the Tibetan Plateau. For decades, Beijing has striven to bring the unruly Tibet region to heel; they’ve invested heavily in infrastructure that would link the distant region to China’s national infrastructure and they’ve flooded Tibet with ethnic Han Chinese citizens to out populate the Tibetans in their own land. Control of precious water resources for Tibet, Beijing believes, will be key to finally ending any dreams of Tibetan independence.
That’s precisely what their fight with India is about. India also needs and wants control over this area. Plus, as tensions between Beijing and New Delhi have heated up, Indian strategists have also ruminated over the possibility that India could recognize Tibetan independence. China fears this. Especially now as the COVID-19 outbreak has damaged the political and economic order of China–thereby threatening the political control of Xi Jinping and his Communist Party.
China is in a position where it cannot back down and it won’t. India also should not back down, but it’s pathway forward is less clear. What’s needed is a US diplomatic intervention. Japan, Australia, and Taiwan have all recognized the threat that China’s rise poses to their democratic regimes. Further, India is encountering firsthand the threat that China poses to their regime, the fourth-largest democracy in the world. As both sides move closer to war–nuclear war possibly–American and international leaders should realize the threat will not dissipate over time. This is about a fundamental resource: water. He who controls the water will rule the vital Tibetan Plateau.
Plus, China cannot be seen by the world now as bowing to international pressure. Xi needs a victory. For all of China’s recent aggressive actions in the South China Sea and threatening posture toward Taiwan, the fact remains that China’s navy is still relatively weak compared to that of either Japan or the United States (or Australia). China remains a continental power. Therefore, a conflict with India, Beijing’s strategists likely think, would redound to China’s favor and give the CCP the propaganda victory it needs today to show that it is strong and standing up to “splittism.”
India must not compromise now. In fact, it must fully embrace American efforts to establish the Quad Alliance (Japan, Australia, India, and the US) to buffer China’s rise. Now is the time. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration cannot be distracted with the ridiculousness occurring in the United States right now. If it does not lead and make it clear to Beijing that they will not be able to push over India and rewrite the regional order, China’s regime will be empowered at the expense of nearby democracies and it will weaken America’s overall strategic position.
My colleague, Jeffrey Borneman, has written extensively on his theory of MDEF/W. That stands for Metals, Defense, Energy, and Food. I like to add Water to that acronym. He correctly asserts that whichever country can dominate these five sectors the most will be an overall dominant nation going forward. China understands this. Russia does too. As does India. That is why the current spat between China and India is so key. And that is why this is the greatest threat to world peace near-term. Washington cannot afford to ignore this problem–and President Trump, who has made standing up to China a key priority for his administration, must lead in this regard and ensure that India maintains its access to the water in the region and nuclear war between China and India is avoided.