India, China, and Bhutan
Remote areas of Asia have always been a site of border disputes and power struggles between great nations. The British and Russian Empires fought a “great game” over Afghanistan, in an attempt to secure control over India and Central Asia, resulting in the creation of the Wakhan Corridor to separate the two imperial powers. India and Pakistan have an ongoing border dispute over Kashmir, which has resulted in multiple wars, skirmishes, and deaths.
The latest ongoing dispute takes place in the Himalayas, between Bhutan and China. China is attempting to build a road through the Doklam Plateau (which it claims), which lies very close to the Indian state of Sikkim. Sikkim lies near the Siliguri Corridor, which connects India’s seven northeastern states to the rest of the Indian mainland. Therefore, a Chinese incursion through the Doklam Plateau is a major source of pressure on India, as if war breaks out between India and China, China could easily cut off northeast India from the rest of India.
This is precisely why Indian soldiers have blocked the construction of the road, much to China’s anger. China, in response, stopped a batch of around 50 Indian pilgrims that were travelling to Tibet. Additionally, Chinese troops reportedly entered Sikkim and destroyed two Indian bunkers. Tensions between India and China have risen dramatically and the two Asian titans appear to be headed on a collision course. Many observers fear a repeat of the bloody 1962 war is possible, which was also fought over border disputes. China has threatened to start a war if it is necessary to protect “territorial sovereignty”, a form of very aggressive rhetoric that the international community is accustomed to seeing out of Beijing.
Thankfully, even in the event of war, it will likely be sporadic, isolated battles that claim relatively few lives. No side is going to dare fully invade the other, because of international involvement, relatively equal military strength (even if China is slightly stronger), and most importantly, the Himalayas. Not even the Mongol Empire could conquer India, despite being able to overrun nearly all of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The Himalayas provide a 3000 mile long, two mile high wall of sheer rock and ice that is impossible to cross for any decent sized army. Furthermore, India and China traded around 71 billion dollars in 2016-war simply doesn’t make economic sense, especially for two rising superpowers who are poised to become superpowers in the near future. A larger fear for India (in terms of an all out war) is China encouraging and helping Pakistan in a war against India, a topic which I have already gone over in detail.
China’s ultra aggressive stance is baffling for a country that dreams of becoming the dominant power in Asia. As China continues to bully its neighbors (not only in the Himalayas, but also in the East and South China seas), more Asian countries flock to India for protection. India has improved relationships or has good relationships with most Asian countries, including Mongolia, Japan, Vietnam, and Bhutan. Even Sri Lanka is in a “tug of war” between India and Asia. China’s only Asian allies are Pakistan, as mentioned before, and North Korea, a totalitarian state despised by the rest of the world, who China is only allied with for a buffer against South Korea. If China truly desires to become a superpower, China needs to flex soft power, rather than hard power.
India, in order to preserve its friendships with the rest of Asia, needs to reassure Asian countries (including Bhutan) that India will not tolerate China’s aggressive behavior. Furthermore, India must ensure that China cannot build its road in the Doklam Plateau-if the road is built, it would be highly detrimental to Indian security. While India should obviously pursue diplomatic channels, there could be a legitimate case for war if China does not back off. There is simply no reason for China to build this road other than to threaten India, and India has the full right to respond to and neutralize this threat.
The United States, meanwhile, needs to ensure both sides come to a consensus at the negotiating table, rather than on the battlefield. Theodore Roosevelt mediated peace between Russia and Japan after the Russo-Japanese war (when the US was not even close to being a superpower), and the Trump administration should seek to do the same. American power can and should be used to promote global peace, and America should not sit idly as two immense countries are on a direct collision course.