In the waning weeks of 2022, a video circulated online of Chinese and Indian troops stationed in the Himalayas engaging one another with sticks as weapons. The clash happened near the Line of Actual Control in Arunachal Pradesh, part of the disputed territory between the two states. Although this belligerent behavior seems par for the course, combined with other recent foreign policy moves by the Chinese government, the clashes in the Himalayas actually highlight a potential new or refocused strategy for China.
The recent spy balloon incident, along with the increased U.S. military presence in the Philippines, demonstrate tension between the United States and China, but prior to this, the Chinese government had pivoted to a new posture indicating a potential thaw in relations. Specifically, after President Biden signed an executive order that “kneecapped” China’s semiconductor industry, the Chinese government seemed to shift to a charm offensive involving cordial meetings with foreign political and business leaders, signaling the prioritization of pragmatic self-preservation over ambitious foreign policy.
As part of Beijing’s foreign policy reset, China seems — or seemed — more set on obtaining security without causing an international crisis, which would almost certainly have happened if it had kept up its behavior vis-a-vis the United States and Taiwan. Upping tensions with India may prove to serve more obtainable and important short-term Chinese objectives compared to seizing Taiwan. With Chinese rivers drying up, there are substantial strategic reasons to seize control of the Himalayas’ water basin, which is home to vital rivers. There are also broader security concerns — the Himalayas lie in the Chinese trade route to South Asia and the Middle East, while India has been concerned about Chinese encirclement ever since Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure projects came to the center stage of Chinese foreign policy.
As China already had territorial claims to parts of the region that conflict with Indian claims, and a victory over India in a military contest would cement its regional status further, there is reason to fear that China will go to war over the Himalayas, taking on a military enemy more on their level than the United States. China has not fought a major war since the 1970s, and as they ease their pressure on Taiwan, this would be a chance to shore up nationalism at home. The United States, in addition, would be far less likely to come to India’s aid than Taiwan’s, given their historically undeveloped strategic partnership, which makes the Himalayas a more enticing target for China in the near term.
There may be reason to hope against a potential conflict, however. On top of backing away from the brink with the United States, China has also signed deals with Saudi Arabia and Qatar for oil as U.S. relations with those states sour. In the context of those energy deals, the threat of war with India may simply suffice to buy leverage to prevent the interdiction of Chinese vessels passing into the Middle East. Nonetheless, as top Indian officials issue warnings about the potential for further escalations in the near future, the Himalayas remain a primary spot where geopolitical conflict could erupt within the next few years.