What if they held a party for the Asian century and Asia’s mega-states came dressed for a war? The century is only 16 years old and China and India are already locked in military stalemate over their disputed border in the Himalayas and talking of teaching each other a lesson.
The two ancient civilisations are also surging great powers, the only countries with populations of more than one billion people. It’s the first time in half a millennium that both have been on the rise at the same time. It’s also a drastically under-reported event in the wider media.
The five-week confrontation between the two nuclear states points to the uncomfortable fact that there is no agreed map of the borders between Asia’s nation states, much less any agreement on who will write the agenda for any “Asian century”.
“The experts I talk to in India see this as the most serious confrontation since the 1962 war”, when China launched a surprise attack on India during a border dispute, says the head of ANU’s National Security College, Rory Medcalf.
China’s state-owned Global Times, as bellicose as ever, huffed that “India will suffer greater losses than in 1962 if it incites military conflicts”. But even more responsible Chinese voices are uncompromising on this dispute. Beijing’s ambassador to Delhi describes the situation as “grave”. Luo Zhaohui demanded a full and unconditional Indian withdrawal from the area before any talks could be held.
And indeed, the two leaders, China’s Xi Jinping and India’s Narendra Modi , were both at the recent G-20 summit, were together for leaders’ gatherings large and small, yet both studiously avoided raising the dispute, according to news reports. Neither wanted to be the first to blink, apparently.
Each side has some 3000 front-line troops at the disputed border area, and the Chinese have carried out live-fire drills to intimidate their rival. The Indians, still smarting from their loss of half a century ago, have spent some years bracing to resist the Chinese.
The army chief, Bipin Rawat , visited the area just before the flare-up and said India’s forces were prepared to deal with a multi-front war against China and China’s nuclear-armed ally, Pakistan.
Illustration: Andrew Dyson.
What’s it all about? There are the specifics, and then there are the larger stakes.The particular spark flared and crackled when a Chinese road-building party crossed a line at a three-way border juncture between Chinese-controlled Tibet, India and Bhutan, on the Doklam plateau. While Bhutan is a sovereign state, it is a tiny kingdom that’s heavily dependent on India; its foreign policy is “guided” by its giant neighbour and it has an agreement where it can call for Indian protection. And, according to Bhutan’s Foreign Ministry, that’s just what it did when the Chinese construction party, escorted by Chinese troops, ignored Bhutan’s army and crossed into Bhutan’s territory on June 16.
At Bhutan’s request, Indian personnel approached the Chinese and “urged them to desist from changing the status quo”, in the words of the Indian government.
The Chinese countered, however, that the Indian troops had crossed into their territory: “It is the Indian side who takes ‘protecting Bhutan’ as an excuse to justify its boundary-crossing and entry into China,” said Beijing’s Foreign Ministry.
China has been building a system of roads into the area for years to entrench its position there. For India, it’s a super-sensitive zone, as Rory Medcalf explains: “China claims the South China Sea is a core interest. For India, anything that narrows India’s space for manoeuvre in the ‘chicken’s neck’ is a core interest.” The chicken’s neck – Siliguri Corridor – “is the incredibly narrow corridor that connects the main part of India’s homeland with its north-eastern states. Every mile that China makes in this region makes India more sensitive that its north-eastern states will be cut off in a crisis.”
Chinese troops hold a banner which reads “You’ve crossed the border, please go back” in Ladakh, India. Photo: AP
A Chinese military advance of just 130 kilometres would do it. Hence India’s alarm. And that leads to the larger equities at stake. China invaded Tibet in 1949-50 to cement control of the outer reaches of its sphere of influence. Today China remains firmly entrenched in Tibet, building vast infrastructure and militarising the Tibetan plateau. It’s part of China’s expansion across the Himalayas to Central Asia and, together with its One Belt, One Road proposal, all the way to Europe. This is the same reason India conspicuously refused to send a representative to Beijing’s launch of One Belt, One Road.
Beijing likes to condescend to India. One of its former ambassadors to India, Zhou Gang, said last week: “Both China and India are rising powers, but apparently China’s development is faster and it has greater global influence. India is not comfortable with that. They are jealous.”
And while it’s true that India is infuriated by China’s disrespect, the real issue for India is simply that it’s not interested in yielding any territory or influence to China. Both are proud, and both have a national sense that their time has come. Neither is willing to yield. The two powers increasingly rub up against each other in the Indian Ocean, too.
In the worst case, the Doklam dispute could one day lead to a major war. According to a 2012 paper by an Australian army officer, China-India in 2030 by Brigadier Nick Ryan, such a border clash could conceivably escalate to a nuclear one: “Given the high potential for an Indian conventional overmatch in this scenario, the Chinese may consider last resort use of nuclear weapons, notwithstanding their No First Use policy,” Ryan wrote.
In the short run, Medcalf thinks that the most likely result is that the weather will call a truce: “Both sides will have to withdraw as winter comes on,” he says, “unless there’s a skirmish before about November.”
By Peter Hartcher
Sydney Morning Herald