A recent series of military confrontations between Chinese troops on one side and Indian and Bhutanese troops on the other in a remote tri-border area in the Himalayas threatens to become a wider conflict unless wiser diplomatic heads prevail. With the eclipse of the United States as a major player in international relations, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, it is now up to regional players to avoid old border disputes from growing into a replay of the 1962 Sino-Indian border war.
The 1962 conflict was unusual in that it was one of the very few times when the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves generally on the same side in tacitly supporting non-aligned India. But 1962 was a different era, one of bipolar superpower domination. In 2017, without the engagement of the United States foreign policy establishment, as represented chiefly by the State Department, India and China, along with other regional powers, will have to sort out their border differences on their own. That will certainly be a test for the diplomatic skills on both sides of the Himalayan range.
The 1962 border war did not become a wider international conflict thanks to level-headed decisions by President John F. Kennedy, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En-lai. Diplomacy prevailed in 1962. Today, when nationalistic bombast has replaced diplomacy at the White House and a realignment of foreign policies is in full swing, border incidents between China, the world’s most populous nation and, arguably, the world’s strongest economic power, and India, the world’s most populous democracy, are fraught with danger. Both India and China are nuclear powers and their common border remains one of the most militarily fortified in the world.
Some borders in the Himalayan region have names like «lines of control», «lines of actual control», «un-demarcated boundaries», and colonial vestiges like the «McMahon Line», the «Johnson Line», and the Macartney-Macdonald Line.» Many of the borders, including those between India and China, as well as India and Pakistan, have been contested since the end of British colonial rule over the sub-continent. In the rugged and sparsely-populated mountainous range extending from Kashmir in the west to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in the east, it has been nearly impossible to establish recognizable borders and the countries of the region – India, China, Pakistan, Bhutan, and Nepal – have been contesting borders since the years after World War II. Mapping has been all but impossible and even Google Maps cannot accurately pinpoint some contested areas in the Himalayas.
It is not known whether Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought up the border dispute with China during his recent White House visit, but the American foreign policy apparatus was largely asleep at the wheel as Chinese and Indian troops faced off on the vague border of Indian-occupied Sikkim and Chinese-controlled Tibet. Ominously, China reminded India that it had defeated the Indian army in the 1962 border war. China was also suspicious about Modi's trip to Israel, the first by an Indian prime minister to the Jewish state. China is keenly aware of the influence Israel maintains through the pro-Israel cell led by Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner within the White House. China suspects that India may be using Kushner and his Israeli friends to New Delhi’s advantage in the Himalayan border confrontation.
The latest border skirmish between the two Asian powers began when Indian troops blocked the construction by Chinese workers of a road in the tri-border Doka La region of Sikkim, where the borders of India, China, and Bhutan meet. The blocking of the Chinese road crew by the Indian Army resulted in a statement by Beijing that the area, which is claimed by India and Bhutan, was «indisputable sovereign» Chinese territory. China demanded that India withdraw its troops from the Doka La area. Bhutan charged that Beijing violated past agreements between the two countries by building a road that headed toward the Bhutan Army camp at Zompelri.
The Royal Bhutanese Army has been involved in a project demarcating the border between Bhutan and China. It was a Bhutanese Army patrol that first discovered the Chinese construction crew in the disputed zone. The Bhutanese told the Chinese crew that they were violating Bhutanese territory and instructed them to withdraw. When the Chinese refused, the Bhutanese government lodged a formal diplomatic protest with the Chinese embassy in New Delhi, citing Beijing for violating the 1998 «Agreement for the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility in the Bhutan-China Border Area», a pact to maintain the status quo regarding their common border. Bhutan and China do not maintain diplomatic relations. China swiftly rejected Bhutan's complaint.
China is believed to be illegally occupying 154 square miles of Bhutanese territory in west Bhutan. In return for ceding Bhutan’s territory in western Bhutan to China, Beijing has offered to exchange with the tiny kingdom, where the economy is based on «gross national happiness», 347 square miles of territory in northern Bhutan. However, the northern Bhutan territory is already Bhutanese, so the Chinese are trying to exchange illegally occupied territory for illegally claimed territory.
After the Chinese-Bhutanese border confrontation, Indian military personnel joined Bhutanese army units at the Chinese highway construction site. The Indians backed Bhutan's request for the Chinese to withdraw from the region. After the border incidents, Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat visited Indian garrisons along the Sikkim-Tibet border and stressed that India could fight a two-front war against China and Pakistan, while ensuring the stability of restive Indian states in the region. Tensions between New Delhi and Beijing grew rapidly.
China, in retaliation for the Indian Army's moves against its road construction crew, blocked access for religious pilgrims seeking to cross the strategic and heavily-militarized Nathu La pass from Sikkim into Tibet in the annual visitation to Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar, which are sacred to Hindus and Buddhists.
China has indicated that the road construction in Doka La has nothing to do with the Dalai Lama and that it is part of China's «One Belt, One Road» infrastructure project of establishing modern highway and rail links throughout Asia and beyond, including the Nathu-La pass that now serves as a major commercial route from Sikkim to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.
There are special interests in both Tibet and India that never approved of the 2003 Sino-Indian agreement that saw India recognize Tibet as the «Tibet Autonomous Region» of China, in return for Beijing recognizing Sikkim as a state of India. Before the 2003 agreement, Chinese maps showed Sikkim as an independent state. The state had been an independent kingdom until 1975, when Indian troops invaded the country and deposed its monarch, who was married to an American, and his government. In November 2008, Chinese troops demolished Indian bunkers built in the disputed Doka La region. Preceding the standoff over the Chinese road crew incident this month was the bulldozing of at least one fortified Indian bunker in the Doka La region by Chinese forces in early June.
There are several flashpoints between India and China along their 2500-mile border. A military conflict at any one of these or a combination of them could swiftly escalate to a wider war and bring in Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Myanmar, as well as Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal. There may be outside pressure for the parties to peacefully resolve their differences but it won’t include a United States that is quickly retreating from international engagement.