Remember Erich Remarque’s book “All Quiet on the Western Front” about the First World War?
While the claim that war is imminent in the Himalayas is too strong a claim, tensions between the region’s economic giants have nevertheless arisen.
Indeed, relations between China and India are at their lowest point in years. President Xi Jinping has been pushing an expansionist agenda in the South and the East China Sea, as well as against India. Xi Jinping’s political future may be defined by his military stunts. And notwithstanding the fact that China has military and economic superiority over India, the Chinese armed forces remain untested in battle.
While Premier Modi and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping have showed friendship for appearances at the G20 summit at Hamburg, Beijing continues to stubbornly refuse India’s entry into the nuclear suppliers’ group NSG.
China has on also several occasions walked away from India’s bid to get Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar labelled as a UN-designated terrorist. New Delhi itself has refused to join China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative while India’s arch-enemy Pakistan did, and continues to welcome Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, much to the anger and frustration of Beijing.
However, the most painful stand-off is taking place in the Himalayan mountains where both countries share a long border stretching some 3,500km, and the border clashes show how volatile the situation between New Delhi and China is. In 1962 during the Sino-Indian war, New Delhi suffered a humiliating defeat, and Beijing is keen to remind India of it.
In the aftermath of this conflict, India lost some territories in the Aksai Chin. In 1967 there was another incident involving both armies, this time to force the Chinese to withdraw from Sikkim (i.e. a protectorate of India and in 1975 after annexation it became a state of India). Then, in 1987 there were a couple of other skirmishes in these harsh mountains. However, on a net basis, India has been losing more territory than China and feels more humiliated.
While China loves to dwell on the shame it endured at the hands of the British when Kowloon and the New Territories were transferred to the United Kingdom in 1892 – calling it the century of humiliation – it conveniently fails to acknowledge its bullying behaviour.
As already mentioned, with the border war in 1962 against India in the Himalayas New Delhi suffered international disgrace as it lost the region of Aksai Chin (approximately 37,244 km2) as well as the aspirations to become the world leader of the Non-Alignment Movement. But, also, with Vietnam in 1979, it was Hanoi who imposed a dishonorable defeat to the Chinese forces by pushing them back inside China.
Humiliation is one of the key ingredients in the realm of geopolitics as shame and disgrace can be a vector of hatred and virulent nationalism. Indeed, dishonor can cause a frantic aspiration for revenge, and help authoritarian leaders (such as Xi Jinping) to craft a version of history that advances their cause. It has become a public secret that instrumentalizing a dispute with a foreign adversary distracts people away from domestic failures, further strengthening the regime’s stability. After all, the threat of war is much scarier than corruption and mass unemployment.
The latest disputes involving New Delhi and Beijing relates to the disputed Doklam Plateau that, while not part of India, carries a strategic importance for India. Technically, the Doklam Plateau is part of the tiny kingdom of Bhutan, but both Beijing and Thimphu claim this disputed territory. And, now, the latter has turned to New Delhi, its long-time protector, for help. Thus, a Chinese incursion into Bhutanese territory is also a matter of national security to India.
The reason for the tension is that in recent months the Chinese troops have tremendously increased road construction activities on the plateau, leading Indian authorities to believe that, once completed, Beijing could use the Doklam Plateau as a military launching point to cut India in two. The Doklam Plateau is next to the Siliguri corridor which is a vital connecting point between India’s northeast with the rest of the peninsula.
Already, media on both sides ramped up their war-drums with warnings that neither of both parties would make concessions. However, this time, New Delhi feels that it needs to show resolve lest it suffer another humiliation. In the mean time, India has sent several hundreds of troops to the plateau to keep a close eye on the Chinese, while concomitantly, Beijing has ordered more soldiers in this border region as well.
While for outsiders, this kind of border skirmish may not reveal a lot of significance, it reflects the culmination of decades-long animosity between two of Asia’s economic giants. Granted, China is economically and militarily superior to India. However, it has no recent combat experience, and Beijing suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese in 1979 (but, Beijing will counter by claiming that the last Sino-Indian war was won by the Chinese).
But, it must be mentioned that New Delhi’s political and military authorities much prefer negotiating to fighting. And, that China is much more of a bully than India (even though, firstly, India is not a push-over, and secondly, India has a much more confrontational attitude towards Pakistan). The chest-beating behavior of both countries is essentially a way to foster an environment that creates a leverage in negotiations.
Looking at the broader picture, the Sino-Indian border problem is part of a bigger game at play. China and India are both big Asian economies aspiring to play a more significant role in the region. China is already confrontational with the neighboring countries of the South China Sea (as well as with Japan in the East China Sea) and looks to increase its influence in the Indian Ocean thereby implementing its policy of String of Pearls, while India itself is attempting to increase its influence in SE Asia (by building military alliances with some ASEAN countries). The jostle for influence and power between both giants is set to become more bitter as the stakes are getting higher.