It’s easy to forget (global pandemic, George Floyd protests and riots, upcoming US election, new Bolton book, SCOTUS landmark anti-discrimination ruling, etc…), but the US is involved in a trade war with China. But actually, it’s much bigger than a trade war; it’s a war over global influence. This week, there was a minor border skirmish between China and India. How are the two connected? In May, Chinese military began “incursions” over the Line of Actual Control (commonly referred to as the LAC, the demarcation line and de facto border between India and China in the Ladakh region of India and Tibet). There is often some “pushing and shoving” along the LAC, but over the last month, there has been a sizable buildup of Chinese forces, and most recently, a minor skirmish that resulted in approximately 20 Indian and 35 Chinese deaths. So what is going on here? Approximately no one thinks this is about the border. This is a message from China to India, and the message is “stop leaning so hard towards the US and Japan” — and not just a message to India but to everyone else in the region.
Other countries that border China are now thinking, “if they’re will to do this to a nuclear country, what about us?” Although almost certainly not the intent, the result of destabilizing the trade relationship between China and the US has been that China has felt the need to accelerate the projection of its power. This is not just incursion into Indian and Japanese territory, it’s the interference in European and Asian (Australia) democracies, the supporting of Pakistan-based terrorism against India, the stronger stance in Hong Kong with the proposed new security law, etc…, etc….
Against this backdrop, China’s belt-and-road initiative had been working globally, and its policies in Southeast Asia were almost certain to align all of that region with China’s interests over the next few years. However, this new, aggressive China may not be as appealing to Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia — and certainly not Singapore. While I don’t expect China to engage in full-scale war with any of its neighbors, least of all India, it absolutely will attempt to continue to assert itself as a superpower on the world stage — and it will do so in ways that are more subtle and more far reaching than war. Europe, Japan, and the US need to be paying close attention here, lest India and Southeast Asia move in a direction that the West really does not desire.