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India vs China: Clash of the titans

A border dispute high in the Himalayas puts the decades long "cold
peace" between India and China under severe strain.
21 Aug 2017 13:22 GMT |

Richard Javad Heydarian


Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs.

"It is true that we have a border dispute with China. But in the last 40 years, not a single bullet
has been fired because of it", exclaimed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit
to Russia in June.

He hailed the 21st century as "the century of Asia", with India and China poised to "influence
the situation of the world in the coming decades."

The situation on the ground, however, suggests otherwise.

The decades-long "cold peace" between India and China is actually under severe strain. For
the last two months, hundreds of Indian and Chinese soldiers have been squaring off over a
"tri-juncture", which tenuously separates India, Bhutan and China thousands of kilometres
above sea level.

There have reportedly been clashes between the two sides, with Chinese and Indian soldiers
throwing stones at each other, but so far stopping just short of firing their guns. But tensions
are rising every day, with diplomatic patience wearing thin. The two Asian giants, collectively
home to a third of humanity, are once again on the verge of direct military conflict with
frightening implications for the region and beyond.

Troubled Borders
The so-called Line of Actual Control (LAC), which separates India from China, is a potentially
explosive oxymoron. It is neither a clear line nor is anyone fully in control.

The murky territorial boundaries are the poisonous legacy of 19th-century colonialism, when
the British Raj and Qing Dynasty sought to negotiate their overlapping imperial boundaries


under fluid geopolitical circumstances.

With their economies and military capabilities expanding, both modern India and post-Qing
China have been pushing the envelope to maximise and mark their territory in the area.

READ MORE: China demands India pulls back troops in border dispute

At the heart of the new round of tensions is the Doklam plateau, which lies at a junction
between China, the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim and Bhutan, is currently disputed
between Beijing and Thimphu. India supports Bhutan's claim. India and China already fought a
war over the border in 1962, and disputes remain unresolved in several areas.

In mid-June, Indian soldiers crossed into the plateau to prevent Chinese border guards from
bringing in road-building equipment into the contested area.

New Delhi claimed that its latest action was in defence of its ally, the tiny kingdom of Bhutan,
which has no direct diplomatic relations with China and is a de facto protectorate on India. But
the South Asian powerhouse was likely more worried by the prospect of China extending its
strategic reach (via construction of new road systems across Bhutan-claimed territories) close
to so-called "chicken's neck", a strategic corridor that connects India's heartland to its eight
northeastern states.

New Delhi is worried about losing strategic high ground to its rival-neighbour, which has a
military budget that is four times larger and is bent on buying friends and allies throughout the
region with major infrastructure investment deals.

The situation reflects the perils of Beijing's rising assertiveness, which is rattling both its
continental neighbours such as India as well as maritime neighbours in the East and South
China Sea, namely Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.

Throughout the decades, continental-size China, with 14 land neighbours and six sea
neighbours, has been embroiled in 23 border disputes. Many have been resolved, particularly
with Russia and central Asian republics, but those with the likes of India, Vietnam and Japan
have festered in recent years.

All Fall Down

Following India's decision to send its soldiers to the Doklam plateau, an incensed China has
warned of direct military confrontation and a repeat of India's humiliating defeat during the
1962 border conflict.

Amid deteriorating diplomatic relations, Indian and Chinese leaders have been refusing to
meet each other on the sidelines of major summits in recent months. Meanwhile, hawks and
sensationalist media on both sides have been sabre-rattling and engaging in bitter and
acrimonious exchanges in recent weeks.

All this marks a dramatic turnabout in the direction of bilateral ties.

READ MORE: India rejects China's mediation offer on Kashmir

Since coming to power in 2014, Mr Modi has tirelessly sought to upgrade bilateral relations
with Beijing. After all, he was a former minister of Gujarat, a booming Indian state that has
benefited from large-scale Chinese investments.

Few months into office, he cordially welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping to the luxurious
Hyderabad House, where the two leaders indulged in personal diplomacy with bonhomie amid
much media fanfare.


The following year, Modi visited China, where he signed multibillion-dollar business deals,
visited key cultural sites of China and, along the way, took an intimate selfie with Chinese
Premier Li Keqiang, which flooded the social media landscape with thousands of shares.

It's selfie time! Thanks Premier Li. pic.twitter.com/DSCTszSnq3

Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 15, 2015

He also shared on Chinese social media platform Weibo portraits of his gifts to Xi, including a
Buddhist relic and a millennium-old statue of Buddha excavated from his home state of

Quick to underscore the shared Buddhist legacy of both neighbours, the Indian leader visited
the ancient city of Xi'an, the cradle of ancient Silk Road, where he received a gift from a
Buddhist monk.

OPINION: India and Japan get closer as China flexes its muscles

Modi's cultural diplomacy efforts and personal investment in bilateral relations, however, have
been torpedoed by age-old territorial disputes. The standoff in the Himalayas underpins the
fragile nature of bilateral relations between the world's two most populous nations.

It also reveals growing territorial nationalism and strongman brinkmanship on both sides, as
President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi tap into ethnocentric sentiments for
domestic political purposes. At this point, both men, who have promised to make their
countries "great again", are in no position to back down.

Given the high stakes involved, the fate of peace in Asia could very well be decided by their
next moves.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs

and author of Asia's New Battlefield: The USA, China, and the Struggle for the Western

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect
Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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