The past fortnight provided further indications of how dangerous and uncertain the next few months and, possibly, years will be. China-India tensions along the Line of Actual Control have escalated in the past two weeks, with a looming possibility of an armed conflict in the near future.
Another war in the Himalayas?
This week, Chinese and Indian troops traded accusations blaming the other side for firing gun shots at a contested spot near the Pangong Lake in Ladakh, the first time that firearms have been used along the LAC since 1975. As Abhijnan Rej points out, the latest skirmishes portend ‘the end of the road for a diplomatic solution to the ongoing crisis’, even as foreign ministers of the two countries are due to meet in Moscow today.
Earlier this fortnight, there were reports that India had successfully thwarted an attempt by the PLA to gain control over the southern bank of the Pangong Lake, opening up yet another front in the latest crisis which has been festering since May this year. India is also reported to have deployed its Special Frontier Force, a secretive guerrilla force comprising Tibetan refugees, to launch a military operation possibly on the Chinese side of the LAC. As Euan Graham notes, the ongoing dispute between China and India is ‘Currently, the most important international security flashpoint. In its own terms and for what it says about China’s broader behaviour.’
The Tibet ‘card’?
The use of Tibetan guerrilla forces by India has also renewed debate about the so-called ‘Tibet card’ in Sino-Indian ties, and New Delhi’s inclination to use it. Senior BJP leaders attended the funeral of an SFF personnel who died during a covert operation in the region last week, sending a huge diplomatic signal to China. Tibet continues to be China’s Achilles heel, with President Xi Jinping addressing a high-level meeting on Tibet last week and calling for the need to ‘solidify border defences and ensure frontier security’ and ensure ‘national security and enduring peace and stability’ in the region. Notably, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a rare visit to the autonomous region last month.
Meanwhile, there are worrying reports that the PLA have abducted five Indian citizens belonging to the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China contests as its own, calling it ‘South Tibet’. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian denied having any information about it, and reiterated Beijing’s claim on the Indian state, calling the abductees Chinese citizens. There are also concerns that China is aiding insurgents in India’s north-eastern states.
Aussie journalists evacuated from China
Sino-Australian relations are also likely to remain in the deep freeze for the foreseeable future. Australia has had to evacuate two of its journalists from China to prevent them from being detained by Chinese authorities this week after it was revealed that Chinese-Australian journalist Cheng Lei had been arrested on ‘national security’ grounds last month. ABC journalist Bill Birtles and Michael Smith from the Australian Financial Review, the last two mainland-China correspondents from Australian media organisations, were flown into Sydney on Tuesday this week after facing harassment from Chinese law enforcement authorities.
Both journalists had to seek refuge in Australian diplomatic missions after being told by the Chinese police that they were forbidden to leave the country because of their links to the Cheng case. They were finally allowed to leave after an interrogation by the Ministry of State Security and after intense diplomatic wrangling by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Marise Payne issued a statement assuring that DFAT was providing consular assistance to Cheng and other Australians in detention in China. What’s clear now though is that there are serious questions and heightened anxiety around the safety of Australians in China, including in Hong Kong.
At the time of writing, it has come to light that the Australian government has revoked visas of Chinese media officials and academics who are alleged to have been linked to a staffer of NSW politician Shaoquett Moselmane, and who is under investigation for failing to disclose his affiliation to the Chinese state apparatus.
An Australia-India-France trilateral
Last evening, foreign secretaries and officials of Australia, India and France held their first-ever meeting to formalise their cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region, and present yet another avenue for minilateral collaboration in the Indo-Pacific. The three sides focused on the strategic challenges in the region and discussed possibilities of cooperation in the context of the pandemic. Significantly, this trilateral firmly entrenches France as an Indo-Pacific power with an active interest in the IOR. Moreover, it adds to the burgeoning middle power relationship between India and Australia, which now cooperate in several such minilateral settings, including in a new Australia-India-Indonesia initiative.
US military base in Palau?
The Pacific island nation of Palau has reportedly invited the US to build a military base there- a request made during US Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s visit to the country last month. Palau’s President Tommy Remengesau has also requested for US Coast Guard support to patrol the nation’s exclusive economic zone. The US has a ‘compact of free association’ with Palau and is responsible for its defence. Palau is one of the few remaining Pacific Island nations that is still to recognise the People’s Republic of China and maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan instead. It is thus, under immense pressure, bordering on coercion, from China to change its diplomatic stance.
China’s new data security initiative
This week, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi launched a global initiative to create new standards on data security to combat US efforts to isolate Chinese technology. This comes after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the Clean Network Program, which aims to exclude all Chinese telecoms, apps, cloud providers, etc. from US and other countries’ internet infrastructure, effectively splitting the world’s internet. China’s initiative would promote cyber sovereignty and ensure an open, safe and stable flow of information, according to Beijing.
Prime Minister Abe’s departure and some Quad news
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced this fortnight that he would step down from his position before the 2021 election, due to a chronic health condition. He will remain in office until his successor is appointed. While the hunt for his successor is underway, analysts are unanimous in their assessment of his enduring legacy and contribution towards building a rules-based order in the region, most significantly through the concept of the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’. Abe is also credited with founding the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in 2007 and rejuvenating it in 2017.
Speaking of the Quad, it’s being reported that a ministerial-level Quad meeting is going to be held next month, which will include foreign ministers and national security advisors of the US, Japan, Australia and India. US Deputy Secretary of State Steve Beigun’s remarks about the Quad at the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum caused quite an unnecessary stir this fortnight when analysts interpreted him as saying that the US wished to formalise the multilateral arrangement into a NATO-like alliance.
However, his remarks were far more nuanced and recognised the limitations to institutionalising a multilateral structure of this nature in Asia. Importantly, he stressed that the China threat cannot be the sole glue to bind the Quad nations together and that the ‘…purpose here can be to create a critical mass around the shared values and interests of those parties in a manner that attracts more countries in the Indo-Pacific…to be working in a common cause or even ultimately to align in a more structured manner with them.’
Significance for Australia
The situation on the LAC between India and China remains precarious and there are serious concerns that it could escalate into a military conflict at any juncture, given the ineffectiveness of diplomatic engagement and the undefined nature of the LAC itself. That both countries seem to have broken all norms of engagement in place since the initiation of confidence-building measures in the 1990s is a cause for major worry.
Australia would be watching the situation closely as it has an active interest in ensuring the maintenance of peace and the continuation of diplomatic dialogue between the two sides. An outbreak of war in the Himalayas between the two nuclear Asian giants could prove to be disastrous, especially in the run up to a US presidential election. The PLA’s behaviour at the LAC and its wolf warrior approach to diplomacy is sure to contribute to Australians’ worsening perceptions of China.
Moreover, the treatment of Australian journalists Birtles and Smith, and the detention of yet another Chinese-origin Australian is going to prove even more detrimental to Sino-Australian ties, given everything that has happened in the past 3 years. Also, the loss of Australian eyes and ears on the ground in China during a period of serious crisis in the relationship is disappointing to say the least. Finally, Prime Minister Abe’s departure from the international stage, while unlikely to alter the geopolitical balance or cause a dent to Tokyo’s goodwill in the region, is nonetheless going to leave a void of leadership in an era when strong, responsible and visionary leaders are most needed.
Aakriti Bachhawat is a Researcher with the Defence and Strategy team at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and Research Assistant at the Griffith Asia Institute.