The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
On October 12, 2020, the electricity went out in India’s biggest city. Mumbai faced its worst power cut in decades, with businesses crippled, the stock market shut down, thousands of commuters stranded, and hospitals scrambling to ensure backup supply for their COVID-19 patients. Major outages are not altogether uncommon in India, but Mumbai had prided itself on its recent record of reliable electricity for its residents. The disruption left authorities in the western state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, searching for answers.
Indian officials revealed in March that they might have found the cause of the power cut: a foreign cyberattack that targeted the servers of state power companies. They did not name a particular culprit, but the implication was clear. Chinese hackers, officials suggested, had trained their sights on bringing down Mumbai’s electric grid—and they had succeeded.
In its bid to gain Asian hegemony, China views India as a major obstacle. This possible cyberattack came at a time of mounting military tensions, with confrontations flaring last year at numerous points along the rugged, disputed border between the two countries. Beijing’s ability to pressure its neighbor extends beyond the conventional battlefield and increasingly includes unconventional forms of warfare (or “unrestricted war,” as the title of a book by two Chinese military officers put it) to achieve expansionist and coercive objectives. Through unrestricted war—which includes its “salami slicing” strategy (or how it aggressively seizes parcels of disputed territory without providing a cause for war), cyberwarfare, debt-trap diplomacy, environmental degradation, and the spread of misinformation—China has redrawn the geopolitical map of the South China Sea without incurring any international costs. Beijing hopes to use the same methods to box India in.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding this year, has ruled China continuously for more than seven decades, making it the longest-serving political party in power in modern history. Its success attests to the ruthlessness with which it has pursued its objectives at home and abroad. Mao Zedong led the party to power, and Deng Xiaoping made the country richer. Now, President Xi Jinping’s ambition is to turn China into a hegemonic global leader. Such is the essence of what Xi calls the “Chinese dream.”
The CCP pays lip service to equality and reciprocity in international relations, but in fact China under Xi seeks to subordinate small nations. Nowhere is this truer than in Southeast Asia, where China has used a two-pronged, unconventional strategy to help it both dominate the South China Sea and control the transboundary flow of the Mekong River, the region’s lifeline. Chinese forces have constructed artificial islands in the South China Sea and unilaterally claimed disputed waters. China’s 11 megadams on the Mekong equip it with the power to turn off the tap for much of continental Southeast Asia, making downstream countries dependent on Chinese goodwill for access to water.
With a similar multidimensional strategy, China also hopes to contain its two potential peer rivals in Asia, India and Japan. The CCP has adopted a strategy of indirect war against India and Japan, with the aim of fencing in the two powers. The strategy’s first phase involved building Pakistan as a nuclear and conventional-military counterweight to India and aiding North Korea’s initial development of weapons of mass destruction. In more recent years, China has focused on an escalating campaign of deception, stealth, and concealment. At the center of this campaign is territorial revisionism, with China flexing its muscles by asserting its claim to lands or islands administered by its two neighbors.
The indirect-war elements are conspicuous in China’s actions against India. China has steadily brought Indian security under pressure through unconventional instruments, including cyberattacks, its reengineering of the cross-border flows of rivers, and its nibbling away at disputed Himalayan territories. It seeks to employ all available means short of open war to curtail Indian ambitions and strike at core Indian interests.
China relishes plausible deniability in its involvement in cyberwarfare against its rivals. India claims that state-sponsored Chinese hackers have repeatedly targeted its critical infrastructure, including power grids. A U.S.-based cybersecurity firm found that a China-linked group called RedEcho was behind a surge in attacks on India’s power infrastructure in 2020, but Chinese officials insisted the allegations were false and that, in any case, it is “very difficult to trace the origin of a cyberattack.”
The cyber-tactics run parallel to more traditional conflicts. Last May, a shocked India discovered that Chinese forces had stealthily occupied mountaintops and other strategic vantage points in the northern border region of Ladakh. Tensions quickly rose, with more than 100,000 war-ready Chinese and Indian troops locked in multiple Himalayan military standoffs. And as frontier skirmishes intensified, China ramped up its cyberwar on Indian power grids.
In June, clashes between Chinese and Indian forces left dozens of soldiers dead. That month also saw at least 40,300 attempts to inject malware into Indian networks. Indian officials understood these efforts as a stern warning from Xi regime’s: if India did not stand down in the border confrontation, China would turn off the lights across vast expanses of the country. India surged troops to the border in the following months, and in October, Mumbai went dark.
More recently, Chinese cyberattackers have homed in on India’s pharmaceutical industry. China’s attempts to steal American data on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments have been well publicized, but recent Chinese cyberattacks on two of India’s leading vaccine makers have received little attention. The hackers attempted to pilfer blueprints of the two COVID-19 vaccines at the heart of India’s current immunization campaign. India supplies more than 60 percent of the world’s vaccines against various diseases and is currently employing that manufacturing heft to export millions of COVID-19 shots every week.
China controls many of the rivers that flow from the Himalayas into the Indian subcontinent, and through them it can wield tremendous leverage. China has weaponized these waters in the past. In 2017, India announced that it would boycott the inaugural summit of Xi’s signature project, the vast infrastructure investment program known as the Belt and Road Initiative. (India was the first country to criticize the BRI for lacking transparency and pursuing neocolonial aims, a stance the United States later adopted.) China retaliated by abruptly withholding hydrological data it once shared on the transboundary flows of rivers originating in Tibet. It resumed sharing the data in 2018, but only after the suspension had already hampered India’s early-warning systems for flooding, resulting in preventable deaths in the downstream Indian state of Assam.
China dominates Asia’s water map with its control over the water-rich Tibetan Plateau, a region the country annexed in the early 1950s. China, however, still refuses to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any downstream country. (Even historic rivals India and Pakistan have a water-sharing treaty.) In March, China’s rubber-stamp parliament ratified the CCP decision to dam the Brahmaputra River just before it enters India. This mammoth dam will allow China to effectively control a vital resource for millions of people outside its borders. Chinese upstream activities in the past have triggered flash floods in Indian border states and polluted the Brahmaputra’s main artery, the once pristine Siang. The newly approved megaproject, whose construction in an area known for frequent seismic activity could make it a ticking “water bomb” for downstream communities, will generate almost three times as much electricity as China’s Three Gorges Dam, currently the world’s largest dam.
The country located farthest downstream, Bangladesh, will probably bear the brunt of the megaproject’s environmental havoc. This could trigger a new exodus of refugees to India, already home to millions of Bangladeshi migrants. The dam will allow China to further manipulate transboundary river flows and leverage its long-standing claim to the adjacent Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is almost three times the size of Taiwan.
In the disputed Himalayan borderlands, China has mixed conventional and unrestricted tactics. For example, China has set out to quietly build some 624 villages in the region so as to unilaterally change facts on the ground. Such military-designed border villages are the Himalayan equivalent of China’s artificially created islands in the South China Sea. By bringing people from afar to settle in desolate, uninhabited border regions, China is seeking to achieve twin objectives: to absorb disputed areas and to legitimize its grabs under international law, which customarily has recognized settlements as evidence of effective control.
The village-building spree, coupled with the frenetic construction of new military facilities along the border, is a classic example of the CCP’s indirect war, which blends irregular tactics with conventional methods. The irregular aggression, known also as “gray zone” warfare because it straddles the line between war and peace, aims to subdue the foe through exhaustion while simultaneously falling short of precipitating an actual shooting war. Even against a significant military power such as India, China has demonstrated how such hybrid warfare can incrementally advance its expansionist objectives without crossing the threshold of overt armed conflict.
China has repeatedly outfoxed and outmaneuvered India.
China may not want to risk outright war with India or its other rivals, but it remains absolutely willing to flout its legal obligations. Its withholding from India of data about rivers breached two bilateral accords that required China to transfer to India hydrological and meteorological data daily during the dangerous flood season. The CCP ceases to see international agreements as binding when they are no longer politically convenient, a fact apparent from its obliteration of Hong Kong’s autonomy in violation of a United Nations–registered treaty. China grabbed Indian territory in 2020 in Ladakh and massed troops at the border in brazen disregard of bilateral agreements to maintain peace and tranquility.
Many of the CCP’s external actions may appear small in isolation, but they are significant when taken together. It is thus perilous for any target country to consider Chinese moves individually rather than collectively. No country has been able to figure out how to counter the CCP’s aggressive behavior under Xi—not even the United States, as China’s cost-free expansion in the South China Sea illustrates.
The CCP has repeatedly outfoxed and outmaneuvered India. Given that China made its territorial grabs in Ladakh without firing a shot, India has no credible option to restore the status quo ante without provoking a war. China is constantly searching for opportunities to take bits of territory and catch its opponent by surprise, without taking overt warlike actions. Unless India is willing to turn the tables on the CCP with its own hybrid warfare that targets China’s weak spots, including in Tibet, and unless the world’s democratic powers form a united front against Xi’s expansionism, China’s unrestricted war will continue to destabilize Asia and undermine international security.