Just as it appeared that China and India had reached a détente after weeks of military escalation at their Himalayan border, Chinese troops have reportedly killed at least 20 Indian soldiers, and may have suffered their own casualties. The first deadly border clash since the mid-1970s shows just how fraught relations between the world's two most populous countries are becoming. And while the geopolitical dangers are obvious and severe, the crisis also presents the US with an opportunity to forge the strong relationship with India it has desired for more than two decades.
The current conflict began several weeks ago when the Chinese moved thousands of troops into the Galwan valley in Ladakh, along what is known as the Line of Actual Control. (I've always been struck by that oddly worded term — what is the alternative, the Line of Fake Control?)
The proximate cause was India's decision to build a road leading to a forward air base. China responded by building up forces, bringing in heavy equipment (excavators, troop carriers and possibly artillery), and building a new tented barracks to support them. In doing so, the Chinese soldiers entered a part of the region that had long been regarded as Indian by both sides.
India responded to the incursion by reinforcing its troops along the 2,000-mile border. Complicating the situation, neighboring Nepal and Pakistan have been strengthening their relationships with China, and the Nepalese are disputing Indian claims along their shared border.
No matter which side stands down first, the truth is that the Chinese escalation was a decisive move, one reflecting Beijing's growing strategic objectives not only at the "top of the world," but globally. Does any of this matter to a distracted US? It should, because the stakes are far higher than just lines on a map demarking barren lands 14,000 feet above sea level.
I discussed the longstanding border controversy with India's national security adviser several years ago at the Munich Security Conference. He called it a "festering sore." India believes China occupies nearly 40,000 square kilometers of its territory, seized in a 1962 war which India lost decisively. The sense of humiliation lingers, and such Chinese incursions have shown that India has few real options to force Beijing to withdraw from areas it claims.
China and India had another standoff in 2017, lasting a couple of months, in the nearby Doklam plateau. China won by pressing ahead and building a military base. The two nations have been involved in on-again, off-again talks for years, but the current attitude from Beijing is a new level of aggressiveness.
This all fits with larger Chinese strategic and tactical moves that began in early 2020, as the world's focus moved to the novel coronavirus. We have seen Chinese maritime activity in the South China Sea become increasingly aggressive — buzzing US naval forces, sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat, damaging a Malaysian oil rig — and diplomatic and rhetorical pressures are increasing against Taiwan.
China is using economic and humanitarian aid incentives to solidify the One Belt, One Road trade initiative across South Asia, particularly in Pakistan. Beijing is also now turning a small island in the Maldives into a base for military air operations, just as it has with artificial islands it created in the South China Sea.
And, most strikingly, China has cracked down hard on protesters in Hong Kong by passing a law which would in effect give a free hand to Beijing's toughest security forces in the former British colony.
All of this can be read in three ways. First, as an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to increase feelings of nationalism — directed against not only India, but other nations in the region and the US In part, the party reasons, this will distract its population from the likely economic effects of the global slowdown looming from the coronavirus.
Second, it solidifies President Xi Jinping's status as a capable and decisive leader, building on the "success" Beijing claims it had in dealing with the virus.
Finally, at a geostrategic level, the moves in the Himalayas are an attempt by China to pressure India to stay at an arm's distance from the US Yes, there's a chance that may backfire: India may move toward America in the aftermath of the bloody border incident. But the Chinese generally have confidence in their hard power, and haven't liked the growing sense of rapprochement between the US and India over the past five years. One Belt, One Road has one big problem: India, which sits athwart the trade lanes China wants to use to dominate in the 21st century. In that sense, the Himalayan dispute is about control of the Indian Ocean.
The US has limited capital to engage in this particular dispute. Although President Donald Trump offered to mediate in a recent tweet, the chances of China accepting such assistance are negligible. A better approach is for the US to continue moving closer to India, making it clear to Beijing that it will not allow New Delhi to be pressured out of greater alignment with Washington.
Most important is to end the dispute over trade tariffs that began with Trump's mishandled efforts to relieve US trade deficits. On the military side, a good first step would be inviting India, which has ambitious goals at sea, to be a full participant in the biennial Rim of the Pacific naval exercises. How about an Indian-led flotilla with US, Japanese and Australian warships as a centerpiece to the event?
Stronger ties with India have to be part of a larger strategy for the region. The US should continue to explore ways to get closer to Taiwan, and apply appropriate sanctions to Beijing over actions in Hong Kong. Freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea should continue. Washington needs to build a solid bloc of opposition to China's military and economic coercion, involving not only India but Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore and other partners.
The tensions at the top of the world are important and dangerous, but solving them has to be part of the larger approach the US takes with China.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired US Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement."