Writing in these columns exactly a year ago I drew attention to the deteriorating Sino-Indian relationship, my attention piqued by news that the Indian government had sanctioned for deployment along the China border a hundred pieces of the hypersonic cruise missile Brahmos.
The news leaks suggested the missiles would be tailored for mountain warfare, with “steep dive” capabilities. Since defence ministries rarely announce actual deployments, I took this as signalling that regardless of the superior infrastructure on the Tibet side of the border, the Indians had weapons to neutralise that advantage.
Sure enough, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) protested against the deployment of the missiles, saying it exceeded Indian defence needs and posed a “serious threat” to Tibet and Yunnan.
Well, the nightmare flagged a year ago is fully upon us.
For the past seven weeks, a few hundred troops of the two armies have been standing eyeball to eyeball on a 3,300m-high plateau claimed by Bhutan. India says its troops arrived to help their Bhutanese counterparts prevent the PLA from constructing a proper road on an old dirt track.
Beijing, which seems to have had use of the track for at least a decade, says the Indians are intruding on Chinese land and must depart forthwith for any meaningful negotiations to start. New Delhi does not claim the area but says China’s road-building threatens a narrow sliver of land that connects its seven north-eastern states to the Indian mainland.
With India showing no signs of backing off, Chinese frustration and fury are growing by the day. This week, a commentary in Xinhua accused India of committing “seven sins” against Chinese sovereignty and international law. “These severe mistakes may trigger unpredictable consequences and greatly undermine regional peace and stability,” it warned.
Separately, an editorial in the China Daily added that “the countdown to a clash between the two forces has begun, and the clock is ticking away the time to what seems to be an inevitable conclusion”.
The Indian government’s attitude so far to the shrill notes from Beijing has been the diplomatic equivalent of a yawn. Its main stock markets in Mumbai show nary a worry about the potential for conflict, having soared to record highs recently. Both New Delhi and Mumbai may be miscalculating. Perhaps, Beijing as well. For the “unpredictable consequences” it speaks of apply to all.
How so? A look back into history offers some parallels with the current situation.
The 1962 Sino-Indian war, which went badly for an ill-equipped India, took place at a time when the United States was preoccupied with the Cuban missile crisis. Today, the US, which treats India as a “major defence partner” with which it shares technology not available even to some Nato members, has its vision fixed on North Korea. There is little evidence that the Donald Trump administration is as invested in the India relationship as its predecessor administrations under Barack Obama and George W Bush.
Influence of internal politics
Long-time China watchers also warn that internal politics in the mainland could bear on the border tension. Top Chinese leaders, including some seniors now retired, are currently at the seaside resort of Beidaihe, a conclave that usually sets the ground for the party congress likely to be held before year-end. Predictably, there is much jockeying around President Xi Jinping as he seeks to cement his position and perhaps, stay on beyond his normal retirement year of 2022.
With party factionalism extending into the ranks of the PLA, Xi would make himself vulnerable to attack if he displayed a lack of resolve on a territorial question where, unlike in the South China Sea, China would seem to have the moral high ground.
It was at Beidaihe in 1962 that Chairman Mao Zedong, licking his wounds from the failed Great Leap Forward, decided to strike at India in order to punish Jawaharlal Nehru for ordering border posts moved forward.
A third element New Delhi needs to take into account is Pakistan, where the deep state, with its deep antipathy towards New Delhi, has just evicted the India-neutral Nawaz Sharif from national leadership. Thousands of PLA troops are currently in Pakistan, building the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the most significant manifestation of a swiftly strengthening strategic embrace. Should some of the troops be diverted towards Kashmir, and should the Pakistani military mark its “all-weather friendship” with China by moving alongside the PLA, India could have a real problem on its hands.
Finally, the weather is not in India’s favour since it is summer still and the Himalayan passes are yet to close with the onset of winter snows. China, with its fine network of roads running to the border, has the logistical advantage. As for Pakistan, the nuclear sabre that India may need to rattle in the event of a two-front war may not work since Islamabad is surely aware that the wind patterns on the sub-continent currently are such that any radioactive fallout on Pakistan will drift into India in no time.
Equally, China, while overwhelmingly powerful, would be well-advised to proceed with caution. There is no guarantee that any punitive strike on India will be limited to one section of the border, or that it may itself not suffer a bloody nose in the process.
Unlike 1962’s infantry battles, India almost certainly will choose to go for a stand-off war, using its advanced rocketry. Should the Indians go further and take down the Qinghai-Tibet rail link by labelling it a military target, for instance, China’s global prestige would suffer massively and provoke further escalation.
It would be a matter of time before things spilled into the seas.
There’s also no knowing when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will have his moment of reckoning with the US. Beijing has to be mindful of the prospect of American troops standing on the Yalu riverbank, China’s underbelly, while its own gaze is fixed on the Himalayan border with India.
Japan, with which China has been seeking to repair its relationship, is a factor too. Japanese law now authorises combat missions by its military to help allies in the name of “collective self-defence”. While Tokyo and New Delhi are close strategic partners but not formal allies, it was only a few weeks ago that a Japanese helicopter carrier joined two US carrier groups and an Indian carrier for massive war games in the Bay of Bengal.
Innocent bystanders would be well-advised to take precautions. The Republic of Singapore Air Force, for instance, has a long-term lease facility in Kalaikunda, West Bengal state, where it conducts joint military training with the Indian Air Force. The IAF has both strike aircraft and reconnaissance planes on the base, making it a legitimate military target in war.
Is there a way out of this downward spiral? It is tempting to call for international mediation, perhaps a visit by the United Nations Secretary-General to both capitals. But Antonio Guterres has shown no appetite for Asian affairs and certainly is no Ban Ki-moon. Trump’s attention is torn between his crumbling administration, North Korea and his Twitter handle. The only world leader who has the ear of both Xi and India’s Narendra Modi is perhaps Russia’s Vladimir Putin but he plays second fiddle to Xi these days, limiting his powers of persuasion.
Acting in good faith
That leaves just one option: the two sides have to sort this out themselves, and quickly. Only a sequenced withdrawal of troops under rock-solid guarantees of good faith will make this possible. Once that is accomplished, the two simply need to find the political will to close a border deal. After all, most of the preparatory work for this has been completed more than a year ago.
Another open conflict between China and India will end all prospects of an Asian century and will probably throw New Delhi fully into Washington’s embrace. Fifty-five years after their last war, the 1962 loss continues to be seared in Indian consciousness. Another one would prevent a flowering of bilateral ties for at least a hundred years and the rest of Asia would suffer alongside.