The Chinese and the Indians are at it again. To be more precise the Chinese are at it. They are once again pushing at the disputed 2,100-mile Sino-Indian border.
This week 20 Indian soldiers died and tensions rose as Chinese soldiers attacked with sticks and stones. Tensions appear to have subsided—for now.
But why is a border high in the sparely-populated Himalayas of any interest to the rest of the world? For a start, we are talking about the two most populous countries in the world. They are both nuclear powers. They have the largest and second-largest conventional armies in the world.
There is also the problem that the headwaters of the strategic Indus River run through the disputed Ladakh Region. The Chinese have become notorious for damming fast-moving Himalayan rivers for their hydroelectric power at the expense of downriver farmers and industrialists. Several Southeast Asian nations will testify to the fact.
Ladakh also borders Tibet and has historic and cultural ties with the Buddhist country which is a constant thorn in Beijing’s side. Control of Ladakh would enable the Chinese to tighten their control over Lhasa. Pakistan could also be expected to exploit the situation to renew fighting in disputed Kashmir—now under Indian martial law.
China and India are world economic engines. A Sino-Indian War—especially during an economically disastrous pandemic—would join Brexit and American race wars in tipping the world into an even deeper economic abyss.
The Himalayan clash is also a worrying trend in Chinese diplomacy. Beijing has been traditionally viewed as taking the long, softly, softly catchee monkey with soft words and loads of dosh approach to foreign affairs. Since the pandemic that view appears to have shortened.
The Chinese have responded to tariffs and Trump’s conspiracy theories about the “Chinese Virus” with their own even more outrageous and conspiracy theories about American involvement. They have clamped down on Hong Kong and recently rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea.
Finally, there is the danger of American involvement. The Trump Administration has been forging a new anti-Chinese alliance with India, Vietnam, Australia and Japan. If the Chinese push too hard, Trump could feel the need to come to the aid of his new best friend—and fellow right-wing populist—Narendra Modi.
But back to the roof of the world. The roots of the Sino-Indian border dispute are set firmly in the British Raj. To be precise they are the result of the difficulty successive British surveyors had in mapping Himalayan peaks and valleys. The result was a botched job. The Indians were easy about it. They were owned by the British. The Chinese were distracted by the British-led carve-up of their empire to care too much.
It was not until Indian independence in1948 and the Chinese Communist accession to power the following year that the border issue resurfaced. In 1950 the Chinese invaded and annexed Tibet and brought the Chinese border right up to the border of India. It finally boiled over into the 1962 Sino-Indian war which was fought on both sides of the long border; in the west in the Ladakh region and in the East the Indian-controlled protectorate of Sikkim. The Indians were humiliatingly defeated at both ends.
Since then there has been an armed Sino-Indian truce with periodic outbreaks of goodwill punctuated by the occasional skirmish. The Indians are painfully aware that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is three times the size of the Indian military, so they have concentrated on consolidating control by building airports and roads to what is called the Line of Actual Control (LAC)– to avoid the more legalistic terms boundary or border.
When he assumed office, Indian Prime Minister Narendra declared that a settlement with China was his top foreign policy priority. He organised two summits with Xi Jinping, but no progress was made. China sees no long term advantage in compromise. It simply does not fit in with its plan to be the number one power in Asia.
Tom Arms is a regular contributor