Asia, Security, Top Stories, World Affairs

From India’s Himalayan Border to Our Local Cell Networks, It’s Time to Push Back Against China

High in the Himalayan mountains, Chinese soldiers ambushed Indian troops this week, resulting in a brutal battle on the Indian side of their shared border. Twenty Indians were killed, while China won’t disclose its losses. It was the deadliest confrontation on the border in over 40 years. As a result, some Indian strategists are openly discussing recognizing Taiwan and providing more visibility to the Dalai Lama, state-owned telecoms are blocking Chinese equipment from 4G upgrades, and millions of Indians downloaded an app that helps remove Chinese apps from their phones (before Google removed it). All of this comes at a time when much of the world remains angry at China’s leaders for their initial handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

This week’s apparent provocation is part of a larger recent pattern with China. From the South China Sea, to Taiwan, to Hong Kong, Beijing has been seeking to change facts on the ground in a way that benefits its own strategic and economic interests. In a recent Atlantic Council discussion of the India-China border issue (convened before the latest fighting), senior American diplomat Ambassador Alice Wells summed the situation up well: “There’s a method here to Chinese operations. [A]nd it is that constant aggression, the constant attempt to shift the norms, to shift what is the status quo, that has to be resisted.”

For decades China has tried to expand its strategic reach along its de facto south-western border through the invasion of Tibet, land swaps with Pakistan, and war with India. To this end, China treats British Empire-era maps as political props to variously brandish or dismiss, as best suits Beijing’s goals. For example, it effectively accepted the 1914-era McMahon Line delineation in its border agreement with Myanmar, but rejects it with India.

The Line of Actual Control (LAC) separating China and India runs through rugged, high-altitude terrain that has witnessed multiple conflicts going back to the 1962 India-China border war. In recent weeks, there have been Chinese incursions at several points along the LAC, reportedly involving thousands of troops. In some spots, the Chinese military is digging in on the Indian side, while expanding its already considerable support infrastructure on their side of the LAC.

Delhi is particularly concerned about Chinese advances near India’s Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) high-altitude military airfield, an essential Indian forward base that provides oversight of the strategic Karakoram Highway (KH) linking China’s western Xinjiang Autonomous Region with Pakistan, including the Gwadar Port on the Indian Ocean. It is a key component of the multi-billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

The KH route is a long-standing conduit for arms transfers. In the 1990s, China reportedly delivered unassembled M-11 missiles to Pakistan by means of this artery, possibly to avoid seaborne detection by the United States’ Navy. In 2002, American satellites spotted 12 consignments of Chinese missiles traveling from China to Pakistan on the KH. In 2005, there were intelligence reports of the Chinese army using the KH to move transporter erector launchers with short-range nuclear missiles.

Additionally, according to UK-based Indian strategic analyst Dheeraj P.C., “Traveling in the other direction, American-made weapons from Pakistan found their way to China, through the KH, where they were reverse engineered.” Additionally, he adds, “China can quickly get Pakistan to mobilize its troops using the KH. It can also mobilize its own troops in conjunction with Pakistan. The presence of [a Pakistani strategic intelligence] ISI officer in China’s Central Military Commission’s Joint Staff Department improves the possibility of a pincer movement.” Over the past few years, Pakistan and China have considerably modernized the Karakoram Highway.

The Indian border is only one of the many fronts on which China has been taking advantage of the worldwide economic downturn and political paralysis caused by COVID-19 to move aggressively—an ironic result given the source of the disease.

On the seas, Chinese forces have rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat and a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship, threatened a Philippines Navy ship, harried a Malaysian survey ship, pushed into Indonesian waters, and staged a large live-fire military exercise overtly aimed at training for an invasion of Taiwan. (It is notable that, in a recent statement, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang conspicuously dropped the word “peaceful” from the usual phrasing, “peaceful reunification with Taiwan.”) Beijing also has launched a new security law that would dramatically undercut Hong Kong’s civil liberties, and imposed punitive trade measures on Australia to punish Canberra for daring to ask for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 (an initiative that has attracted support for Canberra from other countries).

And that’s just in the last few months.

China has a track record of positioning itself to be ready to act when an opening occurs. In 1962, China invaded India four days after the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis. That could have been an opening for a deeper Washington—Delhi relationship. India was caught by surprise and was desperate to arm itself. But while the United States provided small arms, ammunition, and other forms of support, President John F. Kennedy rejected Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s request for high-tech weaponry and closer military co-operation, including squadrons of all-weather fighters that would be piloted by Americans until Indian pilots could be trained. This time, again, the geopolitical future will depend in large part on how well the United States, India (and others) can work together against an expansionist China.

There are promising signs. China’s aggression has provoked pushback. In May, the White House released a document entitled United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China, outlining a new whole-of-government strategy for countering the Chinese Communist Party’s “malign behavior,” including the way it is “engaging in provocative and coercive military and paramilitary activities in the Yellow Sea, the East and South China Seas, the Taiwan Strait, and Sino-Indian border areas.”

And it’s not just talk. President Donald Trump and the US Labor Department have effectively blocked a proposed multi-billion dollar investment by a federal pension plan in the Chinese market. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo officially certified that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China, opening the way to strip the territory of economic privileges it has long enjoyed. Chinese students in the United States with links to China’s military may have their visas revoked.

The United States made a mistake during the Cold War by not fully backing India’s democracy against communist China. This time, things may be different. There is a general understanding that those experiencing Chinese economic and military aggression have to work together. In the short term, the US is backing India, at least on the level of diplomatic rhetoric. And Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi just held a virtual summit with his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, in which they concluded a defense logistics agreement. (India will also be buying agricultural products from Australia to compensate for the impact of Chinese trade restrictions.) The UK is calling for a “D10” (the seven democracies of the G7, plus Australia, India, and South Korea) to develop an alternative to Huawei’s 5G cellular-network technology. In policy circles, Indian, American, and Japanese strategists are calling for leaders to think about some kind of Indo-Pacific charter, along the lines of the 1941 Atlantic Charter.

China isn’t standing alone, either. It is working strategically with Russia, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, and, increasingly, Turkey. Beijing’s influence now covers the full spectrum of geostrategic pressure points, including the military, economic, resource-extraction, telecom, and infrastructure spheres. If we are going to respond appropriately, we can’t look at China’s military incursions into India in isolation, but must assess them in this larger context.

Likewise, America’s allies need to stop hedging their bets. If Japan wants support in the East China Sea, it should allow better interoperability with the US military. If the Philippines wants support from the US Navy, it should continue to maintain its defense pact with the United States.

As for India, it has agreed to purchase Russia’s advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile system—a system that could render its defense network vulnerable to electronic sabotage in the event of a war with China (which has worked closely with Russia on the system). If Delhi brings the system online, it would also preclude cooperation with the US on high-tech military projects and platforms. (Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 meant it was dropped from the F-35 program.) In 1962, India desperately wanted advanced US fighter jets. Now Delhi is creating a situation where a very willing US can’t even give them to India.

From the mountains of the Himalayas, to the capital markets, to your local cell phone tower, China is trying to reshape the international order to its own benefit. Even in a world distracted by many other crises, this should be recognized as a threat that demands a unified international response.


Cleo Paskal is non-resident senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Featured Image: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activists is paying tribute to the Indian soldiers killed in the clashes between China and Indian troops.  Sanjoy Karmakar / Alamy 


  1. There are promising signs. China’s aggression has provoked pushback. In May, the White House …

    I do not see any mention in this article of the Democratic Party pushing back against China.

    In fact, I seldom see any mention anywhere of the Party doing anything more than mildly criticizing China. Party-adjacent corporations like Apple don’t seem to be doing much either in the way of pushback.

    Not much of an American pushback, is it?

  2. As some of you in the Quillette circle may know I am currently living and working in China and have been for more than 10 years.
    I know that some may consider me partisan, naturally I consider myself to be logical and rational but I suppose all partisans think that.
    What I would like to see is some cool headed discussion as to whether there is any sort of universal morality. One that the actions of all nations can be measured against. All I see China accuse of are the non-crimes of;

    the constant attempt to shift the norms, to shift what is the status quo,


    trying to reshape the international order to its own benefit.

    Isn’t this the moral thing to do ? Shouldn’t every nation in the world try to shape things for their own benefit ? Surely the status quo is only to the benefit of the nation on the top of the heap, and even then they should still be striving to improve.
    I have more but I think I will keep my powder dry for the inevitably salty replies.

  3. I’m assuming the list of other aggressive actions perpetrated by the Chinese military serves as circumstantial corroboration.

    Asking if the author was present for the conflict seems like an awfully high/arbitrary bar for a writer to clear. But it does seem like a good strategy to employ if a commenter wants to dismiss out of hand an article they don’t want to engage with.

  4. Hi Jake, I used to live in China myself, though not as long as you have.

    You raise some interesting points. If we just take the issues brought up in this article, which doesn’t address the whole “2 million people in concentration camps” thing, I can see where it could be argues that China is simply looking out for their best interests. But I think what is actually happening is the CCP is looking out for its best interests, and not the interests of China or its people. A recent UN resolution admonished Iran for its lack of transparency in regards to its nuclear program. The only 2 votes against the admonishment were from Russia and China. There’s a reason why China is buddies with the Who’s Who of bad state actors.

    While in China, I listened to several people talk about how the value of liberty is not needed in China. How it’s a Western value. This is one reason why the CCP is so terrified of Taiwan and the Hong Kong protestors. They prove that liberty is a universal value and that it can mesh with Chinese culture.

  5. Ironic. So many American liberals now see liberty as hostile to social justice.

  6. Time for a bit of a round up of retorts

    Generally speaking I’m not in favor of pointing out what America or Britain is doing currently or did historically as any sort of explanation of, or justification for, what China is doing currently or may do in the future. It’s a weak argument and smacks of “Whataboutism”.


    However, there is a reason why hypocrisy has such a bad smell about it. If there is one rule on Tuesday and another on Wednesday, or one rule for those guys wearing that hat flying that flag, but another rule for these guys with the other hat and flag, then you have shown that those aren’t your real laws at all. You have come up with a weak justification to cover the laws you really operate by. Rules you can’t state openly because no one would openly support them. Those unstated rules are probably some variation of “Me and Mine are of a superior species to You and Yours” or the more primitive doctrine of “Might is Right”.

    I can see this in @GaoFuShuai criticism of Russia and China voting against a U.N. resolution criticizing Iran. Russia and China have indeed formed a diplomatic alliance to shield their allies. The obvious comparison to make is with America and Israel.
    What is the real principle operating here ? Is it that all nations must be transparent with their nuclear programs ? Or is it that Israel is entitled to a clandestine nuclear weapons program to defend itself against it’s enemies but Iran is not ?
    If the later is your position then fine, state it openly and justify it logically.

    As for the “2 million in concentration camps” bit. I see your quote marks but no link, is this your assertion or are you quoting someone else ?
    I don’t see any need to address this, I’m running with the old Christopher Hitchens line, “That which may be asserted without evidence may be dismissed without evidence”.
    You made the assertion, the burden of is on you to prove it. But be clear in exactly which assertion you are trying to prove. I’m old enough to remember when the claim was 100 thousand in concentration camps, that was, I believe in the olden days of 2018, there seems to have been some inflation since then.
    As for Taiwan I see no fear of Taiwanese “Liberty” on the mainland at all. Taiwan is a vassal state. The sure sign of this is that they don’t provide for their own defense and don’t have an independent foreign policy.
    They are under Washington’s umbrella. If they tried to deal directly with Beijing or Moscow they would be shut down.

    Liberty is something that @Kiwidave seems quite keen on I’ve debated this point with @Isaiah at some length in relation to China. I see the term as a vague metaphysical abstraction, something like praying to a pagan goddess. In international political terms it seems to mean being in Washington’s sphere of influence. On a personal level it may be different. I can see how having the freedom to live your life as you see fit does depend on being well armed, or at least having good friends who are well armed.
    If I then take this concept back to the international level, is being well armed to stop Washington from telling you how you should live your life an exercise in Liberty or not ?

  7. I don’t believe the term “Liberty” describes anything usefully.

    Your loss.

  8. China is making every effort to live up to its reputation as an unappealing, threatening authoritarian surveillance state:

    The police in China are collecting blood samples from men and boys from across the country to build a genetic map of its roughly 700 million males, giving authorities a powerful new tool for their emerging high-tech surveillance state. (…)

    A US company, Thermo Fisher, is helping: The Massachusetts company has sold testing kits to Chinese police tailored to their specifications. (…)

    The police have also gathered DNA from ethnic minority groups like the Uighurs as a way to tighten the Communist Party’s control over them.

  9. I think are besties are too busy protesting American racism and police brutality to pay any attention to this insignificant issue.

  10. I would not presume to imply any underlying motives to your replies-however, I do find it highly suspect that, given the fact that you claim to live and work in mainland China, that you would go out of your way to defend a government that seeks to monitor and control its citizens, does not allow them to criticize their own government, does not allow them to elect their leaders (no need to considering you have a self appointed president for life), considers the ideas of individual liberty and freedom as “meaningless” western concepts, oh and uses forced labor and concentration camps to “re-educate” political dissidents.

    Criticize the West all you like, criticize the concepts of democracy, freedom, and liberty all you like-but remember that while the West does have it faults, at least it’s residents are ALLOWED to criticize their governments and leaders, which is more then I can say about the CCP.

  11. Hi Jake, thanks for your response.

    I think you’re correct in that I could have been more clear in your my response to your initial post. First off, I 100% agree with you in your annoyance with “Whataboutism.” It gets people nowhere.

    Secondly, the point I was trying to make in reference to the UN Iran vote was more to do with who exactly China has chosen its allies to be, referring back to me saying "the “Who’s Who of bad state actors” than me specifically talking about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. I should have been more clear with that and thanks for pointing that out. With Iran’s widely referenced position as the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, your move to point out the US’s ties with Israel feels a bit unpersuasive. Iran seems to have an objectively bad government: bad for its neighbors and for its own people. China is supporting that government (along with the government of North Korea). If we want to talk about the US’s questionable allies, I think the US’s ties, especially recently, with Saudi Arabia are far more problematic than its close association with Israel. Additionally, the vote to reprimand Iran is because it made an agreement that it would do something. Traditionally, it is good for global diplomacy if states follow through on their promises (not following through on international agreements is something China does often as well like their treatment of Hong Kong or their arbitrary citations of borders).

    I’m a bit unsure about your confusion in regards to the 2 million people in concentration camps. Are you denying what is happening in Xinjiang? Or do you question the numbers? The BBC, Vice, 60 Minutes Australia, the Wall Street Journal etc have all reported on the “re-education camps” in Xinjiang. The most cited number is currently 1-2 million people in Xinjiang’s camps currently. This article is from 2018 and is from an organization tied to the UN, not exactly knowing for calling out China’s malfeasance:

    You’ll have to add another zero to your recollection from the “olden days of 2018.”

    In regards to opposition to Taiwanese liberty, I think you’re missing some obvious points. I was continually cautioned against conflating my own experience as a well-off foreigner living in China with the experiences of Chinese citizens. I was treated extremely well and was extremely comfortable. When I started talking with local friends about their situations, that’s when I learned more about the actual situation for those on the ground. People would speak in hushed tones about anything touching Tibet or Taiwan. Watching CGTN, whenever anything about Taiwan came up, they would only focus on and show stories about the people in Taiwan desperate to reunify with the mainland. Showing my Chinese friends non-state controlled media about the Taiwan situation really opened up their eyes to how people felt. Also, you don’t think the China’s use of the Great Firewall is indicative of a fear of Liberty generally? The long argument was that Liberty was great for Western cultures but doesn’t jive with traditional Chinese culture. Taiwan and Hong Kong disprove that. Also, a government that doesn’t fear questions of Liberty wouldn’t arrest its own citizens for Tweets they make abroad:

    Lastly, a non-fearful government wouldn’t spend far more on “state security” than on national security:

  12. Thanks for your reply Jake.

    I think we’re veering off into pedantry here, which isn’t exactly helpful. Of course numerous organizations have their own inherent biases and motivations which will color their reporting and perceptions. Readers too, will carry those same biases. However, when the weight of much of the world’s reportage arrives at the same conclusion, that there are massive amounts of Uighur Muslims in compulsory concentration camps, to me, it feels safe to assume there is a high degree of truth to such a statement. Does it mean it is irrefutable? No, but like you say, what in life is? As you said, the article I linked is not specifically from the UN but the information conveyed within the article is accurate. There was a report from a UN associated body, and again, the UN is notoriously kind to China, acknowledging reports of concentration camps holding 1 million Uighurs. Does this single report mean the matter is closed? Of course not, and I’m not suggesting it is. But when coupled with the large amount of other investigative reports suggesting wide-scale imprisonment of the Uighur population, a trend appears. You should be smart enough to know that.

    Unfortunately, for those interested in “get[ting] closer to reality” the CCP arrests and disappears people who report on issues that may criticize the regime. If an outsider investigates something inside China, it seems that you’ll chalk that up to simply some person that doesn’t truly understand the conditions on the ground. When a Chinese reporter tries to report on what is happening but gets arrested and disappears (or does a forced apology on TV, recanting any heretical views they may have shared earlier) that also proves your point. And again, the very existence of the Great Firewall irrefutably proves that the CCP represses information. If the CCP has this undeniable history of information repression, people are justified in being cynical toward their denials of malfeasance toward the Uighur population.

    I think you’re 100% correct that “to get the best information you have to travel to the source or at least as close as you can to it.” The CCP agrees! That’s why it’s incredibly difficult for outside reporters to investigate what is happening in Xinjiang. That’s also why visitors to Xinjiang have apps installed on their phones by the CCP:

    Again, do all of these things prove beyond question what is happening? No, but fair-minded and rational people can make informed judgments on the information at hand. Hiding behind the sentiment that if you don’t have firsthand knowledge, you can’t speak on it is unproductive. In the original article posted here on Quillette, the author does not provide proof that it was China that instigated the confrontation with India. But when we consider the many instances of aggression against the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan etc, it would follow an established pattern. This does not mean the matter is closed but it does offer those interested in understanding the situation, and not merely being contrary to prevailing views, a solid base to form their understandings of what happened.

  13. I would argue that this statement is actually true, with the proviso that the Western values of the Enlightenment are maintained. It is also the reason why every country that has become a relative success, has copied the Enlightenment blueprint, in whole or in part- and usually there success roughly corresponds to the magnitude of success they enjoy.

    The reason why China is different, is because whilst the West was watching the fall of the Berlin Wall and concluding that liberal democracy was the natural conclusion of progress- China was too. Forewarned is forearmed, after all. Not my idea- but a compelling case, nonetheless.

  14. It’s pretty wild how intellectually dishonest you’ve been throughout this entire thread. You criticize Craig by mockingly referencing his clairvoyance, immediately following you telling him that you know more about the situation and have studied it more than him. You’ve also used a condescending tone several times and then engage in pedantry to avoid the many examples others have provided refuting your points. You’ve demonstrated several times over that you aren’t willing to have a discussion, rather you’d like to simply be contrary while demonstrating your perceived unique insight into China. So many Westerners living in China do exactly what you’re doing; they operate as though China is somehow their own and the simpletons from back home could never understand it.

    I think it would be helpful to stop with the shallow, pedantic argumentation, and engage in good faith.

  15. You pointed out the saltiness of others but then complain about tone policing. You ignore the points that refute your argument and try to argue pedantic points. Not much of a reason to engage with someone that is arguing in bad faith.

    Good luck!

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