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Attention, Joe Biden: China Is Trying To Create a Crisis with India

Chengdu J-10 Fighter Jet. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Chengdu J-10 Fighter Jet. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

On January 10, 2023, the U.S. House of Representatives formally assembled the Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party that Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.) will chair. The Select Committee on China is long overdue. While previous attempts to stand up a similar committee faltered amidst House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s unease, China’s bluster against the backdrop of her Taiwan trip changed Democratic minds.

The committee has its work cut out for it. Chinese aggression is far more pervasive than many Americans recognize. Too often, China’s threats to Taiwan dominate the conversation in Washington. The United States should not take these threats lightly. China neither has a legal nor historical right to Taiwan. But they are only a small slice of China’s ongoing aggression. So too is China’s land grabs in the South China Sea, where it continues to seize and fortify Philippine and Vietnamese reefs and atolls. China employs the same strategy in the mountain highlands along its border with India where in June 2020, Chinese soldiers set upon an Indian patrol in Ladakh and beat them with rocks and clubs wrapped with barbed wire. 

China Tries to Claim Territory in India

Even the aggression in Ladakh gets more attention than the current hotspot of Chinese aggression: Arunachal Pradesh. China’s ‘salami-slicing’ is picking up speed against the small northeastern Indian state. In December 2021, China began renaming towns and villages inside India and, just as it did with its so-called “Nine-Dash Line” in the China Sea, it fabricated a historical claim out of whole cloth. More recently, it has refused to issue visas to residents of the state traveling to China to compete in athletics competitions, Beijing argues this is because they are actually from China, no matter their Indian citizenship. 

In recent months, however, China grew more aggressive militarily. On December 9, for example, the People’s Liberation Army clashed with the Indian Army near the Chumi Gyatse Falls. While the situation at the border is stable today, it remains unpredictable. That such armed clashes between two nuclear powers went largely unmentioned in the American media reflects a dangerous trend toward navel-gazing that, unfortunately, extends to the White House and Pentagon. It is important the United States remain engaged diplomatically in the Ukraine crisis, but Ukraine cannot be an excuse to ignore the rest of the world.

China Builds Into Territory

This is especially true because Chinese aggression is not over. Evidence suggests that Chinese forces continue to aim to occupy the Chumi Gyatse Falls area. Chinese construction of roads, rails, bridges, and helipads continues unabated in a region with little civilian population to support or justify such investment. To underline this point, China has both upgraded local airfields and People’s Liberation Army bases. It is hard not to catch Beijing in lies. While Chinese officials say they are building tourist infrastructure, the upgraded Chamdo Bangda “civilian” Airport just 100 miles north of Arunachal Pradesh is off-limits to tourists and, apparently, civilians. China has fortified the Linzhi Airport, just 70 miles northeast of the Tuting airstrip in the Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, with surface-to-air missile batteries. Similar SAM sites are now popping up across the length of Arunachal Pradesh’s frontier.

In other areas, China is building new villages both to force civilians to live close to the desolate frontier and also to change the demography and dilute the ethnic Tibetan presence on the Chinese side of the border. Indian sources now count over 620 new so-called Xiaokang villages as part of this Chinese policy. 

This is part of a pattern: During previous episodes of border incursions in Ladakh, China first constructed Xiaokang villages for “civilian” use, but they quickly became bases for the People’s Liberation Army, border defense, and Public Security Bureau troops. Shortly after, China launched its incursions into Indian valleys and passes, which for decades was recognized as on the Indian side of the line of actual control.

People’s Liberation Army drills in the Region

Chinese forces repeatedly drill in not only Linzhi, but also Tsona County, Dzong, and Migityun. This is dangerous as it repeats the tactics that Russian President Vladimir Putin embraced: He used the cover of military exercises to move Russian troops near the Ukrainian border. Many Russians subsequently captured by Ukrainians said they believed that even in the early hours after crossing the international border, they thought they were merely on an exercise.

Around 2,000 People’s Liberation Army troops from Lanzhou Military Region (Lendu Military Garrison) appear likely to deploy to Tsona and Yume, two villages China recently built up and militarized. This would position troops to attack both the Bum La Pass and Taksing, an Indian frontier village that China has periodically attempted to seize since 1962.

Chinese forces already appear engaged in probing patrols in the Yangtse area and along three of the main mountain roads that tie the region to its capital Itanagar and networks of villages. While on a lesser scale in terms of population, this would be the equivalent of a malevolent Canada seeking to sever I-95 to separate Portland, Maine from Boston, Massachusetts. 

Unexpected crises shape the legacy of U.S. more than platforms unveiled during campaigns. President George H.W. Bush rebuffed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. President Bill Clinton stopped ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. President George W. Bush dealt with the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks by launching invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. President Barack Obama promised to “end stupid wars” but returned the United States to Iraq after a brief exit and then engaged U.S. forces over Libya and Syria. President Donald Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic dominates his legacy and forever changed U.S. attitudes toward China. 

President Joe Biden faces a challenge perhaps greater than any president of the last 30 years: What is at stake now is a concerted effort by revisionist powers—Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran—to change the rules of the post-World War II liberal order. If Biden is to cement his legacy, he must recognize the world is not only Europe, but far greater. 

Biden and Congress admirably answered the call to Ukraine in need, but thousands of lives might have been saved and even conflict averted had the United States helped Ukraine deter invasion in the first place. China may not seek to wipe India off the map, as Russia is attempting against Ukraine; Iraq sought to do to Kuwait; and Iran hopes to do to Israel. However, China nonetheless seeks a land grab greater in area than Israel and Kuwait combined. If Biden truly is the leader of the free world and if the Quad is to mean anything, it is time to augment India’s ability to defend itself against imminent Chinese aggression. 

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A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre- and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units.

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).