In recent months, China and India — the world’s two most populous nations — have engaged in gradually more contentious exchanges over a remote border dispute (india-china-standoff).
Relations between contiguous China and India have been characterized by border disputes, resulting in three military conflicts — the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the Chola incident in 1967, and the 1987 Sino-Indian skirmish. India-China-relations date back more than 2,000 years, but the modern relationship really launched in 1950 when India became one of the first countries to end formal ties with the Republic of China (Taiwan) and recognize the PRC (People’s Republic of China) as the legitimate government of Mainland China. Not only are China and India the two most populous countries, they are the fastest growing major economies in the world (timesofindia).
Earlier this summer, China began extending an unpaved road into the disputed territory, and India sent troops and equipment to block the work. The incursion has resulted in a tense standoff that has lasted more than 50 days, with Indian soldiers facing Chinese troops who have dug in just a few hundred yards away (nytimes). Doklam is a disputed territory between China and Bhutan, and India acted on Bhutan’s behalf. The confrontation at Doklam prompted the Chinese administration to issue threats through its state-controlled media including the threat to intervene in Jammu and Kashmir.
The Chinese media made veiled allusions to the People’s Liberation Army’s supremacy over the Indian forces. However, India didn’t budge from its position– no talks until China withdrew its soldiers. Indian soldiers had disrupted Chinese building activities in Doklam in June. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said in a statement made to Parliament that India’s territory faced danger from the Chinese activities as the area was near ‘Chicken’s Neck’–a narrow strip of land that connects the north-eastern states to the rest of India (india.com).
On Tuesday, August 29, Bhutan welcomed a disengagement by the Indian and Chinese troops in the Doklam area. The hope is that this contributes to the maintenance of peace, tranquility and status quo along borders of Bhutan, China and India in keeping with existing agreements between the respective countries (india.com). However, China has not ceased operations. A media report stated that the Chinese, instead, shifted the unused road construction material North and East of the site of the previous conflict. The construction workers are guarded by 500 soldiers of the PLA as construction continues.
The tensions have not ended there. After years of using its chokehold on almost every major transnational river system in Asia to manipulate water flows themselves, China has worked hard to exploit that status to increase its leverage over its neighbors, relentlessly building upstream dams on international rivers. China is now home to more dams than the rest of the world combined, and the construction continues, leaving downstream neighbors – especially the vulnerable lower Mekong basin states, Nepal, and Kazakhstan – essentially at China’s mercy.
China is now withholding data on upstream flows to put pressure on downstream countries, particularly India. This year, China decided to withhold such data from India. This undermined the efficacy of India’s flood early-warning systems – during Asia’s summer monsoon season, no less. As a result, despite below-normal monsoon rains this year in northeast India, where the Brahmaputra River flows after leaving Tibet before entering Bangladesh, the region faced unprecedented flooding, with devastating consequences, especially in Assam state.
Unlike some other countries, which offer hydrological data to their downstream counterparts for free, China does so only for a price. A price that even after India paid, they still received no data. It has been suggested that China’s failure to deliver the promised data to India had been intentionally halted, owing to India’s supposed infringement on Chinese territorial sovereignty. The same dispute over the remote Himalayan region of Doklam. (atimes.com).
In the past few years, India has gradually risen as a global superpower that has challenged China as the leading power in the Asian region. The tensions have only been further exacerbated by the growing ties between India and the United States. India has been cementing its strategic ties with the USA and eyeing its state-of-the-art weapons platform to strengthen its defense forces much to China’s chagrin.
In late 2017 US Defense Secretary James Mattis became US President Donald Trump’s administration’s first cabinet-level and highest ranking official thus far to visit India. During his visit, Mattis discussed the sale of 22 Sea Guardian remotely-piloted vehicles worth $2 billion. The aircraft are the most advanced maritime reconnaissance drones and will give a much-needed edge to the Indian Navy.
This tour was seen with suspicion by the Chinese. An article titled ‘US should not determine India’s status in Asia’ in the Global Times said:
Washington is attempting to tie New Delhi to its chariot, but US intention cannot bring about India’s rise or act as a viable bargaining chip for India in handling its relations with China. India will have to rely on itself rather than a few weapons the US sells to it, for its ambitions.
The article went on to say:
For Washington, the idea of China encircling India is a useful strategy to draw New Delhi to its side and an advertisement for American weapons. If India exerts itself addressing an alleged China threat, it will gradually evolve into a chess piece for the US and a source of funding for “America First.” (india.com).
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said that in keeping with India’s status as a major defense partner and their mutual interest in expanding maritime cooperation, the Trump administration has offered a menu of defense options for India’s consideration. The proposals the US has put forward, including for Guardian UAVs, aircraft carrier technologies, the Future Vertical Lift program, and F-18 and F-16 fighter aircraft, are all potential game changers for our commercial and defense cooperation (worldofweapon).
Such military oriented relations are not the first between India and the United States that have raised concern with the Chinese government. In late 2015 a joint naval drill, known as the Malabar Operation, was planned by India and United States in the north-eastern part of the Indian Ocean, also known as the Bay of Bengal. Japan also participated. China was irked by the audacity of New Delhi and expressed its discontent with the member nations. Beijing also challenged the participating countries to explain the motive behind conducting the multilateral program.
The decision to execute the Malabar Operation was undertaken by the Indian government as a tit-for-tat response to China’s joint military exercise with Sri Lanka in the Palk Strait, right at the toes of India. The Malabar exercise was intended to send a clear message to Beijing, who has constantly shown aggression on India’s North-Eastern border. On earlier occasions too, the Communist nation has accused New Delhi of attempting to assert its dominance in the Indian Ocean, which it claims should be treated as a shared waterbody of South Asian nations (india.com).
The Higgins Report has reported the growing hostilities between the two countries in several previous reports. As India becomes a more prevalent force, both militarily and economically, it has made itself an ever-greater threat to China and its goal of becoming the dominant regional power. This is further exacerbated by the growing military ties India is forging with the U.S.
A logical consideration is that China is feeling backed into a wall by the other two global superpowers. It stands to reason they are grasping at whatever avenues offer them some sort of leverage in this setting. However, while such strategies might prove beneficial in the short run, the long-term consequences may prove detrimental. Creating such a menacing situation in the south will only force India to up its game.
India’s current government has proven far more aggressive in its dealings with foreign belligerents. It has publicly stated that it intends to pursue a tougher foreign policy stance (See Report India Rising). It has backed up this agenda with action. In the recent years, India has executed a series of commando raids across international borders to engage hostile threats. Members of the government have advocated using proxy warfare and supporting militant groups operating abroad as a means to combat nation-states deemed confrontational.
A likely plausible scenario is that the Chinese control of the water passages might escalate the tensions towards a covert war. In this case, the two countries engage militarily through indirect means by use of proxy organizations and special forces conducting cross-border sabotage missions. This theory would be proven if Chinese dams or other structures mysteriously start to blow up or suffer severe damage from sabotage.