Indians stage a protest against China killing Indian soldiers during a Himalayan border standoff, on June 17, 2020. Photo: Twitter

Quoting a supposedly independent scholar in Chinese Communist Party-controlled media is a well-worn tactic used by top leaders to get their views across without stating them publicly.

So when the official mouthpiece Global Times wrote in a June 17 commentary that India would “pay a heavy price” and “face military pressure on two or even three fronts” if it retaliated for China’s killing of at least 20 Indian soldiers with rocks and spiked clubs in a Western Himalayan border altercation, the newspaper was speaking Beijing’s mind.

The nationalistic newspaper also wrote somewhat cryptically that “Pakistan is a reliable strategic partner of China and Nepal also has close ties with China, and both of them are key partners under the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative”, an insinuation that certain of India’s neighbors could be drawn into a conflict against it if tensions escalate.

Another Shanghai-based scholar quoted by Global Times reputedly said that India should not “believe that worsening China-US ties would provide a chance for India to challenge China” while suggesting any “unwise movements” could “bring about serious consequences” for India.

When the border stand-off erupted earlier this month, the Global Times channeled Beijing’s threat of armed conflict on June 7 by noting China had “organized a large-scale maneuver operation featuring thousands of paratroops plus armored vehicles [and] huge batches of supplies.”

That would seem to be overkill if the issue was truly over India’s building of a new road on its side of the Line of Actual Control in the disputed frontier region. But the unofficial message was clear: Beijing is building alliances with its neighbors to counter what it perceives as a new India-US alliance that is part and parcel of a wider US strategy to encircle and contain an increasingly assertive and powerful China.

Yet if Beijing’s muscle-flexing in the Himalayas is aimed at strengthening its position in the region at the expense of adversaries, its increasingly aggressive policies in recent months would appear to be making more foes than friends, particularly among those who see China’s regional ambitions as a threat to their national interests. That could make the encirclement Beijing supposedly dreads a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

Indian border security force soldiers keep vigil near a military bunker along the Srinagar-Leh National highway on June 17, 2020. At least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a violent clash with Chinese forces in a disputed border area. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Faisal Khan

Many nations have rising reasons to fear.

In April, a Chinese vessel sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea which prompted the Philippines, an old US ally that under the current president Rodrigo Duterte had moved closer to China, to vocally side with Vietnam. That was not surprising considering a Philippine fishing boat was in June last year rammed by a Chinese vessel in the nearby Reed Bank area.

China has also managed to antagonize a range of other countries in the region. On June 4, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsud said at a virtual news conference that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea “affect Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.”

On May 26, Jakarta had declared that China’s so-called “nine-dash line” outlining its wide-reaching claims in the South China Sea lacks a basis in international law. Jakarta cited a 2016 ruling by Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague which had ruled in favor of the Philippines in a complaint against China’s encroachments into the South China Sea, which China rejected as baseless.

In May this year, a Chinese survey ship was involved in a month-long standoff with a Malaysian oil exploration vessel in the South China Sea. The ship, Haiyang Dizhi 8, eventually left the area escorted by at least two Chinese naval vessels while Malaysia’s West Capella also withdrew after “completing its planned work.”

Judging from postings on social media statements from civil society organizations and anecdotal evidence provided by individual local as well as international analysts, anti-Chinese sentiment is also on the rise in Myanmar.

There, China wants to push ahead with a controversial hydroelectric dam project at Myitsone in the far north of the country which was suspended by then-president Thein Sein in September 2011.

When Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Myanmar in January this year, civil society organizations, mostly based in northern Kachin state where the projected dam site is located, issued an open letter to Xi stating that they “would never agree to restarting the Myitsone project.”

Postings on Myanmar social media also express anger over the fact that Xi did not say a word about the Covid-19 crisis during his visit. The outbreak of the disease in the city of Wuhan was then well-known by China’s leaders but the extent of it was still kept secret for the outside world.

An Indian wears a facemask with an inscription that reads ‘Ban China’ as he pays tribute along with others to the soldiers who lost their lives following a recent clash between India and China, in Hyderabad on June 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/Noah Seelam

Chinese doctors who had reported on Chinese social media platforms were even reprimanded for “spreading rumors.” And many people in Myanmar appear to have mixed feelings about China’s grand plans to establish an “economic corridor” through their country down to a partly Chinese-financed deep seaport at Kyaukphu on the coast of Myanmar which will provide China with direct access to the Indian Ocean.

China’s apparent rising disregard for what the world thinks as well as agreements it has signed with other countries was felt across the region when Beijing earlier this year announced plans for a new security law for Hong Kong.

Residents in the former British colony resented the move and demonstrated against it while Britain considered such interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs as a breach of the Sino-British declaration of 1984 under which London agreed to hand over the territory to China in 1997.

The declaration was registered with the UN and Britain considers it a binding international treaty. Beijing, however, now argues that as soon as the handover was complete, it became null and void. That view was expressed earlier in June 2017 by a Chinese foreign ministry statement saying that the agreement was “a historical document that no longer has any practical significance.”

Until now Australia has been very reluctant to criticize China, which buys huge quantities of minerals, ores, grain and other natural resources from Australian producers. But critical voices are rising at the highest levels, with foreign minister Marise Payne saying in mid-June that it was “troubling that some countries are using the (Covid-19) pandemic to undermine liberal democracy to promote their own more authoritarian models.”

She hit out against China in particular for spreading “disinformation about the pandemic” and “the risk of racist attacks against” Chinese tourists and students in Australia. Payne also highlighted an announcement by Twitter that it would remove 23,000 China-linked accounts for “spreading geopolitical narratives favorable to the [Chinese] Communist Party.”

It is not yet clear whether Australia will participate in India’s Malabar naval exercises with the US and Japan. Barry O’Farrell, the Australian high commissioner in New Delhi, was quoted this month in The Hindu newspaper as saying that “we would be delighted to participate in Malabar” but that it may “get in the way of the underappreciated growth and significance of defense ties between Australia and India.”

An Australian naval officer shows weapons to Indian Navy counterparts during the AUSINDEX 2017 joint exercises held in Australia. Photo: Twitter/Commonwealth of Australia

He added that such bilateral defense cooperation has “quadrupled in the last six years.” That cooperation includes maneuvers and intelligence-sharing in the Indian Ocean and a new agreement signed in June which will give Indian warships access to Australian naval facilities for logistical purposes.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently called India “a trusted friend of Australia” while India’s The Economic Times newspaper commented on June 5 that “the widening of the Indo-Australian strategic partnership is also significant amid the standoff at the Line of Actual Control between India and China and it could send a message to Beijing.”

The US sent an even stronger message to China’s leaders when, in the first week of June, the guided-missile destroyer Russell transited the Taiwan Strait. It was the second such trip since May and US Pacific Fleet spokesperson Rachel Maul said that it “demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The US Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”

The transit was no doubt in response to China’s saber-rattling against Taiwan and shows that the Covid-19 crisis, which has hit the US especially hard, does not mean that Washington has forgotten its defense obligations in the Asia-Pacific.

China’s policies in that theater have helped to forge a new informal alliance between Taiwan and Japan. Indeed, Tokyo called Taiwan “an extremely important partner” in this year’s annual foreign policy report. On May 20, Japan’s government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said Tokyo is “eager to deepen its ties with Taiwan as its president, Tsai Ing-wen, begins her second term in office.”

From the Himalayan mountains to the South China Sea, China’s recent actions are redounding on Beijing in unforeseen ways and maybe pushing the encirclement it aims to avert. How that new dynamic will play out will be clearer once the Covid-19 crisis ends and countries take a clearer measure of China’s recent moves, including the killing of 20 Indian soldiers with crude implements over a contested, rocky mountainous border.