The threat of a major confrontation in the Korean Peninsula this summer has led to one of the most serious nuclear stand-offs since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Less well remembered is that at a similar time in 1962 there was a Sino-Indian war that resulted in actual combat.
In an eerie parallel, the world’s two most populous countries are again in conflict at precisely the same time that Washington is distracted by a missile crisis elsewhere.
High in the Himalayas, China and India have locked horns over a small patch of land known as the Doklam or Donglang plateau. Readers of WiC will know the background to the row (see issue 374). In mid-June Chinese troops began roadbuilding activities in the area, which India doesn’t claim for itself, but supports the claims of its close ally Bhutan.
Delhi is worried about the road because it leads to higher ground overlooking one of India’s weaker strategic points – a narrow corridor known as the ‘chicken neck’ which connects seven northeastern states to the rest of the country.
In event of a wider war, for instance over the disputed state of Arunachal Pradesh – which Beijing calls South Tibet – Chinese tanks and artillery could fire at Indian troops moving to the northeast.
Hence Indian security experts have classed the the road construction as a ‘red line’ China should not cross.
The Chinese are adamant that the land is their territory, despite acknowledging that its border with Bhutan is still unsettled. The foreign ministry has said repeatedly that the troops have the right to build roads on Chinese soil and its position since the start of the standoff is that India must withdraw its troops to its own side of the border. There are still 58 Indian soldiers and a bulldozer in the disputed area as of this week, according to Chinese officials.
India is calling for a withdrawal from the Chinese at the same time.
“Both sides need a face-saving modus vivendi. One way out is replacing Indian troops with Bhutanese soldiers. The second option is being creative about the simultaneity of withdrawal, that includes getting optically right the sequencing of withdrawal by both armies,” wrote Ashok K Mehta, a former major-general in the Indian army this week.
Yet there are signs that the confrontation has the potential to worsen. India has moved forward its annual “Operations Alert” exercise in which approximately 50,000 Himalayan troops drill in their forward stations and this week there were clashes on another part of the 3,500-kilometre border, raising the possibility that Beijing is broadening the confrontation in a bid to get India to back down.
According to Indian media, 15 Chinese troops advanced into Indian territory near Pagong Lake in Ladakh – a region on the border of Kashmir and Tibet. Indian troops tried to push them back and both sides pelted each other with stones. The skirmish lasted about two hours before each nation’s troops withdrew to their earlier positions, Indian news channel NDTV said.
In the past few weeks the Chinese have ratcheted up the rhetoric, warning of a limit to their patience.
“Restraint has a bottom line,” said the spokesperson for the People’s Liberation Army on August 4. “No country should underestimate Chinese forces’ confidence and capability to safeguard peace and their resolve and willpower to defend national sovereignty, security and development interests”.
The Chinese media, in particular the Global Times, has accused Delhi of isolating Bhutan and bullying its other neighbours so it can maintain its sphere of influence.
Xinhua has also released a punchy video this week pointing out the “7 Sins of India” which included “driving bulldozers into China’s undisputed territory”. It featured a female host who belittled Delhi’s “stupid excuses”and an actor donning a turban and a fake beard who repeatedly mocked India.
Meanwhile, reports in the international press suggest that Bhutan is tired of being stuck in the middle of the row.
“In the case of war between India and China, we would be the meat in the sandwich,” Pema Gyamtsho, a leader of the opposition party in Bhutan’s National Assembly told the New York Times.
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