August 16, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: China and India on Edge
The world’s two most populous countries, India and China, are in the midst of an uneasy and long-simmering standoff over their shared border with Bhutan, with Beijing insisting that some of the territory in the small Himalayan country belongs to China. While the front-line troops usually do not carry weapons along the disputed line in order to avoid rapid and unintended escalation, troops from each side have engaged in rock throwing and literal chest bumping, and both countries show no intention of toning down the war of words and posturing. The issue is of critical geopolitical importance; India and China will need to resolve—or at least lower the tensions around—this and other border disputes at a time when China is actively asserting itself across its sphere of influence.
Since the 1962 war between China and India over similar border issues, the two countries have avoided major conflict, even as both have greatly expanded their respective military capabilities. Any outbreak of major fighting in the contested area where India, Bhutan, and China meet, known as the ‘tri-junction’, has the potential to dramatically and quickly escalate. The rhetoric between the two countries is at levels not seen in decades, with neither side showing an inclination to back down. Chinese media has warned of another ‘bitter lesson’ if India continued to, in Beijing’s view, illegally hold Chinese territory. The chances of major fighting are considered low, but any increase in border disputes between major, nuclear-armed powers warrants extreme caution.
In June, China began a road building project in the Doklam Plateau, part of the disputed territory. Tensions quickly increased after Indian troops, who maintain a sizable presence in Bhutan, drove off the construction workers and their military escorts. China is demanding the Indian troops leave the area and has made the issue a question of its sovereignty, with a state editorial warning ‘no country should underestimate the determination of the Chinese government and people to defend territorial sovereignty.’
As in the South China Sea, Beijing is reshaping the status quo through a selective reading of regional history, interpreting old agreements or statements in ways that solidify what neighbors see as an unsettling and seismic re-ordering of long-standing boundaries. In the case of the Doklam Plateau, Beijing is relying on an 1890 treaty between what was then the British Raj and China. Adding to the current tensions is the fact that the 70th anniversary of India’s independence was August 15, a time of sensitivity to notions of challenged sovereignty and pride. The narrow area under dispute, which is known as the ‘Chicken Neck’, is crucial for India in terms of maintaining uninterrupted control over its northeastern states. This geographic significance alone makes it nearly impossible for India to compromise on its position that the borders are settled, and that aggressive attempts by China to revise them will be met with stern resistance. For its part, China views the situation as one part of a broader regional assertion, a strategic path from which it is determined not to deviate. Given both countries’ determination to remain unyielding on questions of national sovereignty, there will likely be more friction as the two powers put pressure on long-contested boundaries in an age of global re-alignment.
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