China tried to build a road in India’s sphere of influence, so the two powers are feuding. We need to pay attention.
The peace of the world is like the health of the body: given how many moving parts there are, it’s amazing the machine breaks down so rarely. Our well-being has less to do with everything running perfectly, and more to do with what doesn’t go wrong. Woody Allen said ninety percent of success is showing up. Just as being a good parent is mostly about being there—sober—peace is largely about not shooting. China and India aren’t firing. Yet. The merely complain—and occasionally just cast stones at each other. Literally.
The size of the contenders would impress anyone with a sense of scale, or at least anyone who has ever had to balance a budget for a ROTC field trip. Imagine the latrine facilities required for this trifling affair—which so far has amounted to a stare-off—and you will appreciate the scale of the problem.
The leviathan People’s Liberation Army—easily the colossalest collection of armed manpower on Earth—is scowling at the Armed Forces of the Republic of India. The two are generally accommodating acquaintances and if not friends, which is crucial distinctions to make. The pair have been tied together since the dawn of history. They were amigos in ancient times: a pair of great empires separated by the best fence neighbors ever had, the Himalayas.
Generally, Sino-Indian ties have had been strange since 1947, when India gained independence, and 1949, when Mao declared the People’s Republic. The last time they fought was in 1962 over a barren set of mountaintops. Armed men froze in high places for land a Kentucky meth cooker wouldn’t spit at. It was war, which meant stupid pride over wise survival. The Dalai Lama, decolonialization, and Communism were also involved. The reason we don’t remember it in the west is:
1) We are provincial, and
2) It happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when America had other matters on its mind.
By the end of the party, the Indian territory of Aksai Chin was handed to Beijing, and approximately two thousand souls perished above the sky so cartographers could work an extra weekend redrawing boundary lines. Since then, the two powers have mostly been at rest, like Newton’s unacted-upon bodies.
Until this summer.
According to Business Insider:
The latest incident comes amid an ongoing dispute between the two sides over a strategic Himalayan plateau thousands of kilometres away where hundreds of Indian and Chinese soldiers have been facing off against each other for more than two months. The border trouble began in June when Chinese soldiers started to extend a road through the Doklam territory — known as “Donglang” in Chinese. The area is disputed between China and Bhutan. India, a close ally of Bhutan, then deployed troops to stop the construction project, prompting Beijing to accuse India of trespassing on Chinese soil. China has said India must withdraw its troops before any proper negotiation takes place. India said both sides should withdraw their forces together.
The Insider gets most of the story right. China put down asphalt in a road in a place called Doklam. That’s generally how the Middle Kingdom takes real estate, by highwaying. As the article points out, the area is named Doklam, or Donglang if you’re on the other side—language being another tool with which to pummel another fellow’s cranial space, after all. Doklam is, as they say in conquest games and in grad school parlance, a Contested Area.
In mid-June, Beijing decided to Get ‘Er Done and sent road-building machines to Doklam, down South. China claims Doklam is its own Private Idaho, or whatever the Chinese equivalent of Idaho is. India and the nation-state of Bhutan claim that Doklam is Bhutanese territory. Entirely. This has been simmering for some time. And they decided to force the issue.
As Al-Jazeera notes, it is crucial to maintain the Sino-Indian “cold peace.” The current leader of India, Modi, has tirelessly worked to maintain better relationships with Beijing. China has been involved in various border disputes for decades, so the awkward question of boundaries is a long-running topic:
There have reportedly been clashes between the two sides, with Chinese and Indian soldiers throwing stones at each other, but so far stopping just short of firing their guns. But tensions are rising every day, with diplomatic patience wearing thin. The two Asian giants, collectively home to a third of humanity, are once again on the verge of direct military conflict with frightening implications for the region and beyond. … The so-called Line of Actual Control (LAC), which separates India from China, is a potentially explosive oxymoron. It is neither a clear line nor is anyone fully in control. The murky territorial boundaries are the poisonous legacy of 19th-century colonialism, when the British Raj and Qing Dynasty sought to negotiate their overlapping imperial boundaries under fluid geopolitical circumstances. With their economies and military capabilities expanding, both modern India and post-Qing China have been pushing the envelope to maximise and mark their territory in the area.
Bhutan is significantly less powerful than India (and China) to put it over-mildly. This is a lightweight getting pummeled in a match against a heavyweight, so another heavyweight (who also happens to manage the first lightweight) jumps in the ring and says he’ll fight instead. Put it another way: this is India and China. India is Kuwaiting Bhutan; that is, using a smaller ally to push back against the force it needs to feud with. India has no physical claim (they support Bhutan’s claim), but they have an overwhelming political claim. Bhutan is in the Indian sphere of influence. Under treaties in 1949 and 2007, India has some influence over Bhutan’s doings. Bhutan is “sovereign.” Under the terms of the treaty they signed with India they are strongly—let me emphasize strongly—encouraged to cooperate with the Mumbai on its foreign doing and its inner be-ing.
Two days after the initial disagreement, India moved into Doklam to stop China from building. A couple of people have been injured, but no deaths. For now. Standoff. And while I’m as averse as anyone to Cillizza-style clichés along the lines of “And the world holds it breath,” the world is holding its breath. What’s happening here? India knows China claims the land. China knows India claims the land; they all know and are known in turn.
There’s a lot of ink written in old treaties, but some of those agreements were written by colonial masters. In the old days, India and China were dominated. Now India and China are coming into greater strength and power. This sibling rivalry would complicate matters, even if they had been free and independent during the last century. But the agreements set down during the days of humiliation mean that so much is unresolved between the two poles of Asia.
Let me reiterate, in case I have not hammered it home strongly enough, that this blue marble’s continued existence is due in large part to what does not go wrong. China and India’s avoidance of a bloodbath is a miracle we ought to give holy thanks for every weekday and thrice on Labor Day. Their mostly-undisturbed peace is a Christmas blessing.
In the 20th century, we saw how far territorial fights can go: all the way to No Man’s Land. In the 21st century, with so much more technology, and such larger populations, and with economies spiderwebbed as thick as silk parachute, a big war between giants—even a non-nuclear one—would charbroil the next ten years. India and China are huge and powerful, and nuclear-armed, and both are economically growing at a fantastic rate, and all these factors throw a wrench in predicting the hows and whys of two of the most populous countries on God’s green earth.
If the day arrives when China and India fight, then Pakistan and Bangladesh get roped in. That’s forty-one percent of the human population. Imagine 3 billion people going at it tooth and claw, hammer to anvil. No day at the disco. A bright light, deep silence, and fall down curtain, roll up the sky. With so much at stake, matters must be settled in a peaceful way.
There will be other disagreements to come. Americans ought to consider what happens in Asia, far more frequently than we do. In an old part of the world, a new peace is needed more than ever.