Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

India’s Beef With China Sizzles at Over 10,000 Feet

And the Pentagon wants to help India in the mountaintop brawl.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy., and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
An aircraft flies above white snowy mountains.
An aircraft flies above white snowy mountains.
An Indian Air Force aircraft is seen against the backdrop of mountains surrounding Leh, the joint capital of the union territory of Ladakh, on June 27, 2020. - India acknowledged for the first time on June 25 that it has matched China in massing troops at their contested Himalayan border region after a deadly clash this month. (Photo by TAUSEEF MUSTAFA / AFP) (Photo by Tauseef Mustafa/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! In case you want a behind-the-scenes peek at the chaos of our work-from-home newsroom during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, our friends at the Rational Security podcast have a half-true glimpse for you of what it was like: Robbie desperately sweating through his cardigan as he burned the midnight oil on stories, while Jack pounded Red Bulls, trying to stay awake.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: The Pentagon gets ready to exercise with India in the Himalayas, Ukraine spoils Russia’s Crimean vacation, and a look at Britain’s likely next prime minister.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! In case you want a behind-the-scenes peek at the chaos of our work-from-home newsroom during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, our friends at the Rational Security podcast have a half-true glimpse for you of what it was like: Robbie desperately sweating through his cardigan as he burned the midnight oil on stories, while Jack pounded Red Bulls, trying to stay awake.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: The Pentagon gets ready to exercise with India in the Himalayas, Ukraine spoils Russia’s Crimean vacation, and a look at Britain’s likely next prime minister.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


Such Great Heights

Albert Einstein reportedly once said he didn’t know which weapons World War III would be fought with but that World War IV would be fought with stone spears.

The Nobel-winning physicist would have found the June 2020 high-altitude standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in the slopes above the Galwan Valley, which snakes through disputed areas along the Sino-Indian border, a familiar sight.

Chinese troops broke out iron rods and batons and threw boulders in the direction of Indian troops. Some 600 men on both sides fought on riverside cliffs in the pitch black for six hours, with troops on both sides hurling one another off the rocks. Great-power competition was here, but it wasn’t the clash of fighter jets or aircraft carriers envisioned by military planners in tabletop war games; it had descended into a hand-to-hand fight to the death.

Not quite so nonaligned? Washington and its Asian allies have long seen New Delhi as the missing piece in the region’s security architecture, dating back to the first iteration of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in 2007. But China’s agitation in this tense border region, part of the Karakoram mountain range in the Himalayas that connects the world’s two highest peaks, has driven the famously nonaligned India (very cautiously) toward the United States and its allies.

And when Indian troops stage military drills in the far northern Uttarakhand state this October, less than 70 miles from the Line of Actual Control separating Indian-administered Ladakh and Chinese-administered Aksai Chin, they’ll be standing side by side with U.S. troops, joining for a high-altitude, cold weather exercise.

It’s far from the first time that the United States has aided India in the disputed region. The Kennedy administration provided supplies to India during a series of monthlong skirmishes in 1962 that allowed China to consolidate its position in Aksai Chin but turned down Indian requests for advanced fighter aircraft, forcing New Delhi to turn to the Soviet Union to buy MiG jets. The U.S. Defense Department has also drilled with India in the Himalayan foothills but never at altitude; last year’s Yudh Abhyas exercise took place in Alaska to simulate similar conditions.

Quad goals. But the relationship is continuing to deepen, as the Quad has come back online and U.S. aircraft now periodically stop to refuel in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Pentagon brass had been pushing Indian officials to expand the geographic scope and nature of exercises in the Himalayas to bring more U.S. Army troops and special operations forces into the fray since 2019, a former senior U.S. defense official told Foreign Policy.

“It’s notable that the Indians feel comfortable doing combined training with the United States near to a flash point,” said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk about policy deliberations. “That was a concern. They didn’t want to unnecessarily provoke the Chinese.”

Even though the Himalayas aren’t a flash point that registers on the geopolitical Richter scale quite like Taiwan or the South China Sea, U.S. officials and open-source intelligence watchers have looked on as China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has begun to build up its presence on its side of the border, forcing India closer to the United States.

Satellite images provided by Maxar revealed that China was staging H-6 bombers at Hotan Airport in Xinjiang province, just north of Aksai Chin, and had also built new facilities for helicopters. “The infrastructure buildup was quite significant for the PLA Army and the PLA Air Force,” the former official said.

Watch the flanks. And it shows that the United States is still willing to push the envelope at a time when tensions in the region are simmering, with China launching 365 aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone in the last 10 days as it steps up exercises around the island after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit last week.

Some see China as trying to shift the status quo in the Himalayas, too. “China’s not invading India, but I think they would be open to shifting the border as a greater favor to them,” the former official said. “In the event of a regional or global war, if it were to come to that, the Chinese want to secure their flank.”


Let’s Get Personnel

Michael Fuchs, who served as a former special assistant to President Joe Biden and deputy chief of staff to Vice President Kamala Harris, is joining the Open Society Foundations as a special advisor.

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Sean Callahan is now the agency’s new mission director for Afghanistan (a mission that will be based out of Kazakhstan).


On the Button 

What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.

Bang-up job. A massive Russian military supply base and airfield in Crimea was utterly wrecked in a series of explosions this week that could signal the start of a new Ukrainian offensive to recapture territory in the country’s south. Scenes of Russians’ vacations on the Crimean coast while explosions went off in the background went viral after the strike, which was reportedly carried out by Ukrainian special forces. Jack has the story on the big Ukrainian counterattack.

Iron Liz? All signs point to British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss becoming the next U.K. prime minister. And all signs point to her foreign-policy doctrine being a lot about hawkish geopolitics—taking a hard-line stance on China and boosting support for Taiwan; going further perhaps even than her current boss, Boris Johnson, in supporting Ukraine militarily; and just in general being, according to government insiders, “more American than the Americans.” Read more from Ben Judah on what a Truss foreign-policy doctrine would look like.

V-Day. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has declared victory over the COVID-19 pandemic in the country while also appearing to acknowledge that he caught the illness that ravaged Pyongyang earlier this year. North Korea had reported that about 4.8 million people had registered “fever” since confirming its first COVID-19 case but never confirmed that those people had caught the coronavirus. Pyongyang now plans to protect North Koreans from COVID-19 with a “steel-strong anti-epidemic barrier.” Good luck, Kim.


Snapshot 

A dog in glasses and headphones stands has its paw on a weapon.
A dog in glasses and headphones stands has its paw on a weapon.

A dog stands next to a weapon during Shot Fair Brasil, an arms exhibition held at the Expoville Convention and Exhibition Center in Joinville, Brazil, on Aug. 5.Albari Rosa/AFP via Getty Images


What We’re Reading

Shameless self-plug alert: Read our own FP interview on Washington’s “Russia whisperer” here.

Other great pieces we’ve come across this week:

Lara Seligman interviews Gen. Frank McKenzie on U.S. failures in Afghanistan for Politico Magazine.

A deep dive from Michael Wilner in McClatchy on U.S. efforts to secure the release of Austin Tice, who has been missing in Syria for a decade.

An expansive New York Times investigation into how a U.N. agency supposedly focused on sustainable development has become a partner and cheerleader for the oil and gas industry.


Put on Your Radar

Aug. 15. The one-year anniversary of the Taliban entering Kabul and the former Afghan government collapsing.


Quote of the Week

“Most importantly, they cannot feel safe in Crimea. They thought they were safe in Crimea, and they thought they were safe at long-range distance.”

Former Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk responds to Tuesday’s explosions that mostly eviscerated a Russian air base in occupied Crimea. 


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Why go to Gstaad when you can ski in Lesotho? With Europe baking under a heat wave (and Washington just generally being gross all the time in August), take a quick mental break from the heat, and read about Africa’s only operating ski resort south of the equator.

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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