The Asian version of the conflict between House Lannister and House Stark is playing out over a patch of remote land high in the Himalayas, bordered by China, India, and Bhutan. The Chinese dragon and the Indian tiger, the two most populous nations with nuclear weapons, are engaging in their worst border dispute in 40 years, which has turned this spit of land into the most dangerous place in Asia.
You haven’t heard anything about it until now because the U.S. media is so focused on who talked to whom during the 2016 presidential campaign that they can’t spare any resources to report on truly consequential events taking place around the world.
China and India share a very long border of more than 2,000 miles. The two countries have engaged in various border disputes since the nineteenth century. They even fought a war in 1962 over border issues. China claimed it won the war but India only admitted that the war resulted in a stalemate and left many border issues unresolved.
The most recent border dispute started in June, when Indian soldiers stopped a Chinese army construction crew from building a road in a pocket of land in the Dokalam region. Since this land lies between Bhutan, China, and the Indian state of Sikkim, all three countries claim ownership of it. China calls this region Donglang and treats it as part of Chinese-controlled Tibet. Thus, China firmly believes that it has every right to build the road within its sovereign territory. China let India know that “trespass into Chinese territory is a blatant infringement on China’s sovereignty, which should be immediately and unconditionally rectified.” However, Bhutan and India disagree.
This Land Is My Land
Bhutan is a tiny country wedged between two nuclear-armed superpowers. It doesn’t have an official diplomatic relationship with China. The government of Bhutan issued a demarche to China over the road construction, asking China to stop. Since Bhutan has a close relationship with India and relies on India for security protection, it also asked India for help. China has tried unsuccessfully to break the Bhutan-India alliance by engaging Bhutan directly. Bhutan, however, follows India’s lead on this matter.
From India’s perspective, it intervenes on behalf of both India and Bhutan because both have historical claims to the disputed land. Since Beijing and New Delhi agreed back in 2012 to solve their particular border dispute in this tri-junction area through consultations with all countries involved, New Delhi regards China’s recent road construction as a unilateral violation of the 2012 understanding.
Furthermore, India’s military is concerned that the road China intends to build will give China easier access to a strategically important area in India, which is known as the “chicken’s neck,” “a 20km (12-mile) wide corridor that links the seven north-eastern states to the Indian mainland.” If China’s road project succeeds, India military believes it would diminish their own “terrain and tactical advantage” over the Chinese army in this area.
India is also suspicious of the road project’s timing. The construction began right around the same time that India’s Prime Minister Modi was giving U.S. President Trump bear hugs and President Trump proclaimed that the U.S.-India relationship was “never better.” Did China try to warn India not to get too close to the United States by starting a road construction in the disputed area at this particular time? Many in India seem to think so.
Soldiers Face Off ‘Eyeball to Eyeball’
The border standoff continues with no obvious solution in sight. Both China and India increased their troop levels at the border. Online video shows soldiers from both countries facing off “eyeball to eyeball.” So far no one has fired the first shot yet, but the war of words has been heating up, not just at the border, but through both countries’ government officials and media.
China’s ambassador to India said “the first priority is that the Indian troops unconditionally pull back to the Indian side of the boundary. That is the precondition for any meaningful dialogue between China and India.” Chinese media used the 1962 Sino-India border war as an example to forewarn India that if the two sides get into a military conflict again, India will have the most to lose. Chinese media also warned Tibetan exiles in India not to take advantage of the situation because “sovereignty over Tibet is nonnegotiable.”
Indian Defense and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley fired back at China’s rhetoric by reminding China that the India of 2017 is not the India of 1962. He further pointed out that China’s intended construction site was on “Bhutan’s land, close to the Indian border, and Bhutan and India have an arrangement to provide security…To say we will come there and grab the land of some other country is what China is doing and it is absolutely wrong.”
Any Misstep Can Be Fatal
This dispute is a reflection of a deeper problem: the underlying, deep-rooted mistrust and hostility between China and India. Each feels insecure of the other nation’s growing economic and military power. These two countries, with a combined population of more than 2 billion people, both have nuclear weapons and strong nationalistic leaders, and are elbowing each other for the iron throne—ultimate dominance in the region. No one is willing to back down at this point.
Besides border disputes, both nations have breathed plenty of fires to irritate the other side. China’s pipeline project with Myanmar not only allows China to have easier access to cheap oil, but also enables Chinese ships to be present in India’s eastern backyard. India snubbed China’s “One Belt and One Road”(OBOR) economic summit in May by not sending a high-level delegation. India media even called the OBOR initiative “a new kind of colonization.” Starting this week, India is holding naval exercises with the United States and Japan, a move viewed by observers as a show of force against China’s rising naval power.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the 1962 war, it’s this: any miscalculation or any missteps by either nation could lead to a war with devastating consequences not just for the region, but for the rest of the world. Therefore, it’s absolutely essential that the two nations find a peaceful resolution to their border dispute as soon as possible.
The United States probably will need support from both China and India to deal with the rising threat from North Korea. Therefore, it’s in the United States’ best interest to serve as a mediator to help both nations reach a diplomatic solution, before the “Game of Thrones” Asian edition moves from a fantasy to a bloody reality.