An India-china war?
This week’s cover story in a major Indian national weekly magazine, India Today, asks ominously: “Will There Be a War?” This refers to a current standoff between Indian and Chinese forces at the trijunction of India, China and Bhutan in the Himalayas.
In mid-june, Indian troops stopped road construction by Chinese soldiers in the Doklam area in the middle part of the long Indo-china border. India intervened because of the country’s 1949 Friendship Treaty with Bhutan, which provides for Indian support when required, and because Bhutan’s foreign ministry said the Chinese road would penetrate Bhutanese territory. India asserts that it is seeking to protect the territory on behalf of Bhutan, because Bhutan’s complaints that China did not observe the agreed process for border settlement were not heeded; but China claims Doklam as within its territory.
Inadequate demarcation along the China-india border has led to occasional friction between the two countries, and they have been posturing on a number of occasions. The border issue between China and Bhutan is also unsettled.
China asks India to withdraw its forces, calling the issue one between China and Bhutan. India, on the other hand, calls it a trilateral issue because of its vital security concerns.
The late-july visit to Beijing by India’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval, to attend the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China, and South Africa) NSAS meeting did not result in any immediate resolution to the standoff. But despite China’s shrill rhetoric, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reportedly asked his own military and civilian leaders to tone it down, as he will be visiting Beijing in September to attend this year’s BRICS summit.
It is indeed in the interest of both countries to find a peaceful solution. Trade and investment across the border have been steadily on the rise. China wishes to create an image of being a responsible global citizen as it gradually claims global leadership while the world watches the U.S. retreat.
A comparison of the two countries’ military power in case there is a war shows the heavy Chinese advantage. Last year, China’s defense budget exceeded $150 billion, while independent observers estimate it to have been in reality worth $200 billion, almost five times that of India’s. President Xi Jinping’s recent reforms have given the Chinese military a great deal of mobility and efficiency. India, on the other hand, still remembers its 1962 humiliation in the India-china war. The Indian military is much better prepared now than at that time, but is still at a disadvantage.
As the People’s Liberation Army celebrated its 90th anniversary on Tuesday with a massive show of military force, and the Communist Party congress is set for November, Xi cannot show any sign of weakness which might bolster his rivals. Hence, the standoff will likely continue.
This is not the only territorial dispute that China has on its periphery. It should come as no surprise as Beijing is known for asserting aggressive claims in its neighborhood. Take, for instance, Mongolia, Taiwan, South Korea, North Korea, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Burma (Myanmar) and Tibet, all of which have had border trouble with China.
During the last 10 days of July, while I was in India, the Doklam standoff was a hot topic of conversation and was constantly in the media. I was asked several times why the United States, besides expressing concern and urging both countries to work together for a peaceful resolution, left India out in the cold over this issue, although it calls India a vital partner. Obviously, I had no answer.
Ved Nanda is Evans University Professor and director of the Ved Nanda Center for International and Comparative Law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.