Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Indo-Pacific: Military Tensions in the Himalayas and Taiwan Strait

Washington, DC – The recent clashes between Chinese and Indian soldiers at Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, have indicated growing instability in the Indo-Pacific region. And China appears to be in the center stage. Its relations with the major regional players such as Australia, Japan, India, South Korea, and the US are worsening every passing day. The smaller nations, too, are at odds with Beijing over the latter’s trespassing in their maritime limits. All these nations have blamed China for using military threats to maintain its hegemony, encroaching upon other countries’ sovereign limits, and silencing the critics.

The military maneuvers are of great concern, especially in the wake of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. Beijing’s open military threats to Taiwan or the incursion into the Indian territory are adding to the possibility of political and military hostilities in the region. While Taiwan is supposed to be defended against Chinese invasion by the US-led west block, India has garnered sufficient military capabilities to stand against Chinese aggression. In such a scenario, any military misadventure can lead to major armed conflicts, making the Indo-Pacific a warzone.

Chinese and Indian army personnel had fatal clashes over a border dispute in mid-2020, which led to significant casualties. Both sides started disengagement from the disputed areas to douse the tension. In December 2022, Chinese patrolling forces, however, tried to cross to the Indian side in the disputed zone in the eastern Himalayan border. Indian troops blocked the patrol calling it trespassing. Yet, Chinese personnel did not stop and used spikes, iron rods, and stun guns to force their way past. Indian forces used wooden sticks to thwart the attack.

The incident has led to an uproar in India, with politicians joining the chorus of “preparations for war.” India sent clear signals to China by testing a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of over 5,000 km. They are taking the Chinese military actions seriously as they appear to be a part of coordinated efforts. “China grabs a little bit of territory and then a little bit more until India accepts that it’s Chinese territory,” said V.S. Subrahmanian, Faculty Fellow at the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs.

Similarly, Chinese maneuvers are making nations in the South China Sea and the East China Sea nervous. They, too, are gearing up to confront China’s military power. Japan is an important player in the ongoing conflict in the Taiwan Strait and is concerned about China’s claim on the Senkaku island. Tokyo has sensed the higher probability of armed conflict as a fallout of China’s growing aggression in the region over Taiwan. Thus, Japan has withdrawn restrictions on military build-up. This is happening for the first time since World War II as its constitution seeks to renounce the right and the means to wage war. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan’s counterstrike capability was vital in the wake of deteriorating relations with Beijing and China’s growing military might.

The new security strategy mentioned China as “the biggest strategic challenge,” even before other hostile neighbors such as North Korea and Russia. China reacted to Japan’s new security strategy by sending warships close to Japan. China has been sending its navy ships through Japanese islands. However, it raised strong objections to ships passing through the Taiwan Strait. The South Korean government is also under tremendous pressure as it gets trapped between the US and China. However, people in South Korea want their country to be all set to counter China, as public opinion about China has grown negative in recent years. Polls suggest South Korean people felt confident about being with the US and supported nuclear weapons to create a bulwark against China’s assertiveness.

All major countries in the Indo-Pacific are moving close to the US as they see China’s hegemony, military expansion, and threats as unhealthy for the region’s peace, prosperity, and stability. Australia has been looking for a new alliance and signing security pacts with major countries in the Indo-Pacific after China suspended bilateral trade as punishment and issued military threats to Canberra. While smaller nations have not been much vocal about Chinese ingression, they are concerned about Beijing’s intentions.

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