The Galwan Valley in the Himalayas is located at an altitude of 4,000 meters (13,123 feet). It is a remote area where the slopes are covered in snow all year round. Last week, the valley made an appearance on the global political stage. China and India, the two most populous countries on the planet faced off along their — disputed — Himalayan border. The exact location of where one country ends and the next begins has long been unsettled. Indeed, the two countries went to war over it in 1962.
As the two nuclear-armed states clashed, at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed on the night of June 15. There were also reports of deaths on the Chinese side.
For the first time in almost half a century, the rivalry between the two neighbors has cost human lives. No shots are said to have been fired. Patrols in the area generally don’t carry firearms. Both governments are apparently aware that they could easily trigger a world war. The soldiers may have beaten each other to death with stones and clubs. Some are said to have fallen into a ravine during the fighting.
The incident shows how quickly the situation in Asia can escalate and how a cold war can turn into a hot one at any given moment, despite the high level of caution.
In the Galwan Valley, claims and interests collide. On the one side, there’s the People’s Republic of China, which is expanding its power in the region. In late April, while India was preoccupied with a worsening coronavirus crisis, the Chinese army is said to have moved troops into the border area and encroached on Indian territory in several places. At least that’s what the government in New Delhi says.
On the other side, there are countries like India that don’t want to put up with China’s expansionism.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 26/2020 (June 20, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
It isn’t only the Chinese-Indian relationship that’s tense. Resistance against China is growing in many parts of the world. Conflicts sometimes take place openly, as in the case of India, and at others covertly.
“What we are seeing now is just the beginning of a global backlash,” says Indian geostrategist Brahma Chellaney.
Decoupling From China
Beijing’s growing strength is leading to a “fundamental shifting” of the global balance of power, says NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, adding that in the future, the Western military alliance should cooperate more closely with “like-minded countries,” such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. NATO must “stand up for a world built on freedom and democracy, not on bullying and coercion.” Stoltenberg didn’t have to mention China by name. Everyone knows who he meant.
At the center of the global struggle for power are the United States and China, an old superpower and a new one. Their rivalry has even spilled over into the search for a coronavirus vaccine.
Ever since Richard Nixon was president in the 1970s, Washington has pursued a policy of rapprochement with Beijing. The U.S. aimed to integrate the formerly isolated and impoverished empire into the international system, in the hope that China would align itself with the West. In economic terms, this formula is known as “change through trade.” Every successive U.S. administration has more or less adhered to this approach — until Donald Trump came along.
In 2018, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech at the Hudson Institute in Washington that marked a departure from traditional politics. He accused China of expansionism, unscrupulousness and an uninhibited display of power. “We will not be intimidated and we will not stand down,” he said.
Today, Washington no longer speaks of rapprochement, but of “decoupling” from China.
The U.S.’ change of course was preceded by a shift in awareness on the Chinese side. For a long time, the country had followed the directive of the reformist politician, Deng Xiaoping. “Taoguang yanghui,” it went: “Hide your strength and wait and see.” But as early as the global financial crisis in 2007, the notion has been spreading in China that its own system is not only equal to the West’s, but perhaps even superior.
At a Communist Party conference in 2017, Chinese President and party leader Xi Jinping made it clear that he thought China’s moment had arrived. He proclaimed a “new era” in which the People’s Republic would move “to the center of the world stage.”
The American sinologist Orville Schell recently argued in an essay that Trump’s policy of “America First” and Xi’s “Chinese Dream” of re-emerging as a global power would be difficult to reconcile. Schell’s take is that a new Cold War is all but certain. At best, it could be limited, not prevented.
This antagonism has also forced other countries to pick a side. And even though many players may feel alienated by Trump’s misguided policies, hardly anyone is prepared to get behind China.
Many people in India have long felt threatened by their big neighbor, and not only since the conflict in the Galwan Valley.
In early June, India and Australia announced an agreement by which the two nations would grant one another use of their military bases. The U.S., Japan, Australia and India — known as the “Quad” in geopolitical parlance — could hold joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean for the first time in over 10 years.
The countries have been alarmed by developments in the South China Sea, where there has been a growing number of incidents in recent months. Within a short period of time, Beijing officially incorporated islands there into Chinese administrative districts, carried out geological exploration work in Malaysian waters, the Chinese coast guard rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat and a Chinese corvette aimed at a Filipino warship.
Hanoi, as well as the otherwise reserved governments in Manila and Kuala Lumpur, protested. The U.S. sent three aircraft carriers to the region. The last time the U.S. Navy displayed such strength in the Indo-Pacific was three years ago. Last week, a U.S. military aircraft also flew over Taiwan, a country that is critical of Beijing and with which Washington maintains exceptional relations. China, which considers Taiwan a part of its own territory, called the maneuver a “provocative act.”
It’s likely no coincidence that the conflict between China and the West is coming to a head when the world is distracted by the coronavirus, a disease that first broke out in China of all places.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of politics at Renmin University in Beijing, believes that on the one hand, China is feeling battered and oppressed by accusations of having caused the pandemic, and hit by the collapse of its economy. On the other hand, the leadership in Beijing also sees the crisis as an opportunity to expand its power. Their logic is such: We may be weak, but the others are currently much weaker.
The rhetoric of Chinese diplomacy has changed significantly. Back in the 1990s, some Communist Party members sniped at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, calling it the “Ministry of Traitors,” because its diplomats were supposedly so respectful toward the West. Today, the so-called “Wolf Warriors” call the shots there. This new generation of foreign policy makers gets its name from a patriotic blockbuster in which a cool Chinese fighter faces an American mercenary — with an impressive arsenal of weapons and catchy sayings.
One representative of the new line is Zhao Lijian, who was promoted to Foreign Ministry spokesman after distinguishing himself as a polemical Twitter user during a deployment in Pakistan. In January, China’s ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, compared journalists who criticized China to lightweight boxers foolishly provoking a heavyweight.
Not all Chinese diplomats supported his confrontational style. But moderates like Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador in Washington, are being marginalized, or they’re on their way to retirement. “Almost all of our foreign relations are in a bad way,” says policy professor Shi Yinhong.
Sometimes things escalate beyond mere snappy comments. China at times also uses hard economic pressure to impose its will on its opponents. Australia, whose most important trading partner by far is China, is feeling the effects of this. The government in Canberra had demanded an independent investigation into the outbreak in Wuhan. As a result, Beijing banned the import of beef from four Australian slaughterhouses and imposed an 80-percent tariff on Australian barley. Chinese tourists were also warned against traveling to Australia due to an alleged threat of racist attack. Most recently, China’s Ministry of Education advised students not to study in Australia.
Canberra’s attitude toward China has tended to only cool relations further. “We are an open-trading nation,” said Prime Minister Scott Morrison, “but I’m never going to trade our values in response to coercion from wherever it comes.”
Nowhere is China’s determination to instrumentalize the coronavirus crisis for its own benefit more evident than in Hong Kong. In May, Beijing announced that it would impose a new security law on the former British crown colony. This would allow China’s Ministry of State Security to operate on Hong Kong territory for the first time.
Critics view this not only as an end to freedom of expression in Hong Kong, but also as a breach of the international treaty between China and Britain in which they agreed that the city should enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” until 2047.
On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of the G-7 expressed in a joint statement their “grave concern” about China’s actions.
Above all, it’s the former colonial power Britain that is under pressure. As late as 2015, then-Prime Minister David Cameron was still raving about an impending “golden era” of relations between Britain and China. Beautiful photos of Cameron and Xi were staged, showing them sipping lukewarm ale in a pub in the English countryside.
Cameron’s successor, Boris Johnson, describes himself as “sinophile” and went to great lengths as the mayor of London to attract Chinese investors. But now, he feels compelled to take a clear position.
If China follows through with its new security law, Johnson said London would have “no choice” but to offer 12-month visas to the nearly 3 million Hong Kong citizens who either hold or are entitled to a British overseas passport. It would offer those people a “route to citizenship.”
Other signs are also pointing to conflict. For one, there’s the fact that Britain is reviewing its January decision to involve the Chinese network equipment supplier Huawei in the expansion of the British 5G network. China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, threatened that if the British were to exclude Huawei, Chinese companies could cancel the construction of a nuclear power plant and a new network of tracks for high-speed trains on the island.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jumped at the news: If China backed out, he promised, the U.S. would happily pick up the slack.
From Competitor to Rival
China is encountering political headwinds not only from governments, but from parliaments as well. The Conservative member of parliament Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee, founded the China Research Group in the British parliament. Its members are critical of China and have been lobbying for months to push back Chinese influence in many spheres of British life. “China is challenging the rules-based international system,” says Tugendhat. “We must defend it.”
An international group of parliamentarians who banded together in early June as part of the so-called Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China wants to achieve a similar effect. Co-chairs include representatives from such diverse camps as Republican Senator Marco Rubio, an American, and Reinhard Bütikofer, a German member of the European Parliament with the Green Party.
“The Chancellery hasn’t heard the gong yet.”
“Of course, you have to work with China,” says his party colleague, Omid Nouripour, a member of the German parliament who is also involved. “Nevertheless, this initiative was overdue. The system question is no longer concealed, but clearly expressed from the Chinese side.”
Even the European Union, which has long been lenient toward China, is now showing a greater willingness to assert itself. In 2019, the European Commission for the first time stopped describing China merely as an economic competitor, but as a “systemic rival.” The EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, in May called for Europe to be “more robust” toward China.
This is already happening, too, at least in economic terms. After some spectacular takeovers of European companies by Chinese groups, over which there was substantial public outcry, new rules for reviewing investments designed to ensure greater transparency have been in force since April 2019.
Last Wednesday, EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager presented her new white paper. It contains proposals for how the EU intends to act in the future against companies from third countries, such as China, that use state subsidies to undermine the EU’s internal market.
Germany Steps Up
EU negotiators are also getting closer to their goal of reaching a long-planned investment protection agreement with Beijing. It is intended to provide EU companies in China with relatively fair market access and competitive conditions. One crucial thing the agreement calls for is an end to forced technology transfers, says EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan. Foreign companies that want to produce in China must show the Chinese their technology.
The agreement would be an important step. The EU often has a hard time sending powerful signals to China — whether over human rights or combating the pandemic.
That’s why German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to develop a unified European stance toward Beijing. She has declared Europe’s China policy to be one of the central themes of Germany’s EU Council presidency, which will begin July 1.
Merkel is toeing a fine line. Under no circumstances does she wish to follow the U.S. on its path toward decoupling. “A policy that attempts to isolate China is not in the German and European interest,” says Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German parliament.
At the same time, Germany is also becoming more critical of China and its ambitions for world power.
The question is whether the chancellor is the right person to lead the charge. Her critics consider her a silent advocate, arguing that her policies are one-sided and oriented toward the interests of German businesses.
Last week, the German government published its draft program for the EU Council presidency, which, compared with an earlier version, takes a somewhat sharper tone. Germany wants to demand “more reciprocity in all policy areas” from China. It also stresses the importance of European “values.” But what that will mean in concrete terms remains to be seen.
“Angela Merkel is trapped in an outdated perception of China,” says Nils Schmid, the foreign policy spokesperson for the Social Democrats in the German parliament. “The Chancellery hasn’t heard the gong yet.”