The first shots fired in 45 years rang out across a section of the heavily-armed Himalayan border between China and India this month. The gunfire should warn not only the two nuclear powers themselves but also the wider world that Asia’s security is imperilled as anxieties build in flashpoints along China’s southern and eastern fringes.
New Delhi and Beijing agreed after the shots were fired to “quickly disengage” troops in the disputed border region in a welcome de-escalation. But tens of thousands of troops backed by heavy weaponry still guard the frontier area where 21 Indian soldiers — and an unknown number of Chinese — were killed in hand-to-hand fighting in June.
The China-India clash discredits the idea that rapid economic development and surging trade ties can quell strategic ambitions. Over the past decade, the two countries have been the world’s fastest-growing large economies. Last year they were also the world’s second and third largest military spenders after the US.
Like other Asian flashpoints, the Himalayan clash has sucked in the US. Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, in July pledged support for India’s security, called China’s role in the clashes “unacceptable” and said Indian companies should decouple from China.
Each Asian hotspot has a complex local context and history. But one overarching factor behind increasing tensions has been a toughening in Beijing’s posture, especially since Xi Jinping, China’s leader, took power in 2012. Japan is perturbed after China passed a new milestone by sending ships to waters near the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands — which China also claims and calls the Diaoyutai — for 100 consecutive days earlier this year.
Vietnam and the Philippines have led criticism this year over China’s military drills near disputed islands in the South China Sea. Tensions over Taiwan are also resurgent. China conducted military exercises near the island in August as Alex Azar, US health secretary, became the most senior Washington official to visit since 1979. The visit prompted fury in Beijing, which claims Taiwan as part of its “sacred” territory.
Beijing argues that it has been provoked, including by US president Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” in 2012, the US bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999, Japanese leaders who visit a shrine where war criminals are commemorated, India’s building of infrastructure in disputed territories and several other actions.
But China is also ramping up its assertiveness. In 2017, Mr Xi summarised the country’s progress since the 1949 revolution with the phrase “China has stood up, grown rich, become strong and . . . is moving towards centre stage”. In 2013, Beijing ditched the mantra of “keeping a low profile” that had served as its guiding philosophy in international affairs for decades. Mr Xi unveiled instead a strategy of “striving for achievement”.
Some Chinese commentators oppose the assertiveness. Some argue that with a GDP per capita of US$10,262 in 2019 — ranking 68th on the World Bank’s figures — China has not yet “become rich”. They say Beijing should reinstate its low-profile policy and focus on economic development to boost its people’s livelihood.
This view is well-advised. Beijing should realise that its extraordinary rise from deep poverty in the late 1970s to its current middle-income status has been enabled by an era of globalisation that China did much to shape. Its turn to strategic aggression is not only alienating neighbours and the US but much of the rest of the world. Such a course undermines the cause of globalisation of which it has been a leading beneficiary.