confrontation in the Himalayas, but the tensions that set off the deadly encounter this past June — the first on the – since 1975 — are not going away. Indeed, a poisonous combination of local disputes, regional antagonisms and colonial history could pose a serious danger to peace in Asia.and forces have pulled back from their
In part, the problem is Britain’s colonial legacy. The “” in dispute is an arbitrary line drawn across terrain that doesn’t lend itself to clear boundaries. The architect, , drew it to maximize British control of a region that was in play during the 19th-century “ ” between England and Russia for control of Central Asia. Local concerns were irrelevant.
Han and Hindu Nationalism Come Face to Face
The treaty was signed betweenand Britain in 1914. Although accepts the 550-mile as the border between and , the Chinese have never recognized the boundary. Mortimer Durand, Britain’s lead colonial officer in , drew a similar “border” in 1893 between Pakistan ( ’s “Northern Territories” at the time) and Afghanistan that Kabul has never accepted, and which is still the source of friction between the two countries. Colonialism may be gone, but its effects still linger.
Although the target for thewas Russia, it has always been a sore spot for , not only because Beijing’s protests were ignored, but also because the Chinese saw it as a potential security risk for its western provinces. England had already humiliated in the two Opium Wars as well as by seizing Shanghai and Hong Kong. If it could lop off — which sees as part of its empire — so might another country… like .
A Threat to China?
Indeed, when revoked Article 370 of the Constitution and absorbed Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, the saw the grab as a threat to the security of and its restive western province of Xinjiang. The area in which the recent fighting took place, the Galwan Valley, is close to a road linking with Xinjiang.Prime Minister Narendra Modi unilaterally
The nearby, which seized from in the 1962 border war, not only controls the -Xinjiang highway, but also the area through which is building an oil pipeline. The see the pipeline — which will go from the Pakistani port of Gwadar to Kashgar in Xinjiang — as a way to bypass key choke points in the Ocean controlled by the US Navy.
The $62-billion project is part of the Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure and increase trade between South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and .-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a piece of the huge
moves 80% of its oil by sea and is increasingly nervous about a budding naval alliance between the United States and Beijing’s regional rivals, and Japan. In the yearly Malabar exercises, the three powers’ war-game closes the Malacca Straits through which virtually all of ’s oil passes. The Pakistan- pipeline oil will be more expensive than tanker supplied oil — one estimate is five times more — but it will be secure from the US.
In 2019, however, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah pledged to take back Aksai Chin from, thus exposing the pipeline to potential Indian interdiction.
From China’s point of view the bleak landscape of rock, ice and very little oxygen is central to its strategy of securing access to energy supplies. The region is also part of what is called the world’s “third pole,” the vast snowfields and glaciers that supply the water for 11 countries in the region, including India and China. Together, these two countries make up a third of the world’s population but have access to only 10% of the globe’s water supplies. By 2030, half of India’s population — 700 million people — will lack adequate drinking water.
The “pole” is the source of 10 major rivers, most of them fed by the more than 14,000 thousand glaciers that dot the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. By 2100, two-thirds of those glaciers will be gone, the victims of climate change.largely controls the “pole.” It may be stony and cold, but it is the lifeblood to 11 countries in the region.
Back in Time
The recent standoff has a history. In 2017, and troops faced-off in Doklam — Dongland to — the area where , Bhutan and Sikkim come together. There were fistfights and lots of pushing and shoving, but casualties consisted of black eyes and bloody noses. But the 73-day confrontation apparently shocked the . “For , the Doklam stand-off raised fundamental questions regarding the nature of India’s threat,” says Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington.
Doklam happened just as relations with the Trump administration were headed south, although tensions between Washington and Beijing date back to the 1998-99 Taiwan crisis. At that time, President Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area, one of which traversed the Taiwan Straits between the island and the mainland. The incident humiliated, which re-tooled its military and built up its navy in the aftermath.
In 2003, President George W. Bush wooedto join Japan, South Korea and Australia in a regional alliance aimed at “containing” . The initiative was only partly successful, but it alarmed . Beijing saw the Obama administration’s “Asia pivot” and the current tensions with the Trump administration as part of the same strategy. If one adds to this the US anti-missile systems in South Korea, the deployment of 1,500 Marines to Australia and the buildup of American bases in Guam and Wake, it is easy to see why the would conclude that Washington had it out for them.
has responded aggressively, seizing and fortifying disputed islands and reefs, and claiming virtually all of the South China Sea as home waters. It has rammed and sunk Vietnamese fishing vessels, bullied Malaysian oil rigs and routinely violated Taiwan’s airspace.
has also strengthened relations with neighbors that formally dominated, including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives, initiatives which resents. In short, there are some delicate diplomatic issues in the region, ones whose solutions are ill-served by military posturing or arms races.
The dust-up in the Galwan Valley was partly an extension of’s growing assertiveness in Asia. But the Modi government has also been extremely provocative, particularly in its illegal seizure of Jammu and Kashmir. In the Galwan incident, the were building an airfield and a bridge near the Chinese border that would have allowed armor and modern aircraft to potentially threaten Chinese forces.
There is a current in the Indian military that would like to erase the drubbing India took in its 1962 border war with China. The thinking is that the current Indian military is far stronger and better armed than it was 58 years ago, and it has more experience than the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The last time the Chinese army went to war was its ill-fated invasion of Vietnam in 1979.
But that is dangerous thinking. India’s “experience” consists mainly of terrorizing Kashmiri civilians and an occasional firefight with lightly-armed insurgents. In 1962, India’s and China’s economies were similar in size. Today, China’s economy is five times larger and its military budget four times greater.
China is clearly concerned that it might face a two-front war: India to its south, the US and its allies to the west. That is not a comfortable position, and one that presents dangers to the entire region. Pushing a nuclear-armed country into a corner is never a good idea.
The Chinese need to accept some of the blame for the current tensions. Beijing has bullied smaller countries in the region and refused to accept the World Court’s ruling on its illegal occupation of a Philippine reef. Its heavy-handed approach to Hong Kong and Taiwan, and its oppressive treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang, is winning it no friends, regionally and internationally.
There is no evidence that the US, India and China want a war, one whose effect on the international economy would make COVID-19 look like a mild head cold. But since all three powers are nuclear-armed, there is always the possibility — even if remote — of things getting out of hand.
In reality, all three countries desperately need one another if the world is to confront the existential dangers of climate change, nuclear war and pandemics. It is a time for diplomacy and cooperation, not confrontation.
*[This article was originally published by FPIF.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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