Many in the Indo-Pacific region are watching with bated breath as the world continues to be shaken by Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. After all, despite the Russian Federation’s illegal actions against Ukraine’s young democracy isolating the country from much of the rest of the world, Moscow nevertheless considers China, the world’s second-largest economy (and expanding), among its closest allies.
Moscow and Beijing have only grown closer since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The two Eurasian autocracies haven’t worked so closely together since the heady days of the Sino-Soviet alliance in the early years of the Cold War.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shattered all international legal standards governing the right use of force in the twenty-first century, other countries with territorial ambitions similar to Russia’s—such as China—are taking meticulous notes on how they, too, should act.
There are fears that China is attempting to repeat what Russia did lately in Ukraine in Taiwan. While the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ultimate strategic objective is to conquer Taiwan, it is unlikely that China will have the amphibious capabilities required to capture a target like Taiwan until at least 2025. (though the United States Department of Defense insists the earliest China could move on Taiwan would be 2027).
While the West must constantly be on the lookout for a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, Washington would do well to keep a watch on China’s involvement in other disputes in the Indo-Pacific. Specifically, the ongoing stalemate in Ladakh, India’s far north.
In 2020, a fierce battle occurred between Chinese and Indian forces patrolling their respective sides of the Line of Actual Control (LAC)—the boundary that legally demarcates where Indian and Chinese territory finish and begin. What began as fistfighting between troops quickly escalated into something considerably more lethal. The dispute over Ladakh has been a frozen conflict for the past two years. Despite repeated calls from New Delhi for Beijing to meet and discuss a solution, China has strengthened its stance.
Since the initial combat on their side of the LAC two years ago, China has been working on constructing a bridge. It’s just one of a slew of large infrastructure projects undertaken by the Chinese military in the region since the conflict began. India has also completed numerous infrastructural projects.
However, China’s initiatives are becoming more complicated, long-term, and clearly aimed at more than merely bolstering their side of the LAC.
One may argue that China’s infrastructure initiative along its border with northern India is a clear attempt to ensure that their troops can deploy to the harsh and remote Ladakh region more quickly and easily than the Indian military. These infrastructure projects, then, are more akin to China’s ongoing illegal island-building programmes in the South China Sea: they are a form of aggressive power projection and great state intimidation—and they are designed to force the rightful owners of a given territory, in this case Ladakh, out so that China can take over.
While everyone’s attention is focused on a big Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army is strengthening its position along India’s mountainous frontier.
China believes that one day it will be a strong naval power capable of simultaneously invading Taiwan and posing a global threat to the US Navy. China’s navy modernization effort is spectacular to say the least. Nonetheless, it is still in the works. Beijing will remain a land power until it completes its vast navy modernization programme. Picking a confrontation with India in Ladakh plays to China’s immediate military strengths while also keeping the dispute just below the threat of a big war, at least according to Beijing’s conception.
China’s probable conflict with India is more likely than an invasion of Taiwan (though this is likely to happen sooner than most people think, particularly the Pentagon’s leadership).
China has huge military stationed throughout the disputed territory, and they are currently rapidly expanding their infrastructure footprint in Ladakh to provide easier access and long-term war operations against India. Furthermore, a Chinese assault against India would be a replay of the salami-slicing methods utilised not only by China in the South China Sea, but also by Russia in Georgia and Ukraine. Given how close Moscow and Beijing are becoming, it’s only natural that the two burgeoning strategic partners would steal from each other’s playbooks.
India should not rest on its laurels, assuming that China’s silence equals to nonviolence. In reality, China is likely planning a rapid drive into Ladakh to remove the Indian presence out of the disputed region. And, given the world’s attention being drawn to the awful events in Ukraine, it’s unlikely that any other country will be able to help India. India needs to beef up its Ladakh reinforcements and send a message to China that any attempt to escalate in Ladakh will be met with overwhelming power.
Failure to do so would allow China to redraw the geopolitical landscape of the Near Abroad in the same way that Russia is redrawing the map of its own area. With bated breath, the world is following the historic events in Ukraine.