The dragon vs. the elephant

High in the Himalayas, troops from China and India are locked in a worst military standoff in decades.

“Asia’s two largest countries,” reports Ralph Jennings for Forbes, “are locked in a standoff on the Doklam plateau, a region of the Himalayan mountain kingdom Bhutan where China was apparently building a highway. As a protector of Bhutan, India has mobilized up to 10,000 troops ‘for any contingency.’ The highway project is off for now, but it is easy to imagine the standoff since late June will lead to an actual battle between the two countries, who behave something like regional superpowers.”

As neither side shows sign of backing down from the eyeball-to-eyeball standoff, there is “a dreadful sense of deja vu about the way the standoff appears to be escalating,” says BBC’s Soutik Biswas.

The world may have forgotten the last border war between the two most populous countries some fifty-five years ago. On Oct. 20, 1962, at an altitude or more than 14,000 feet, Chinese People’s Liberation Army, with overwhelming force, launched simultaneous attacks on both the eastern and western sections of the Himalayas and penetrated deep into northeastern India. The 32-day war between the two Asian titans ended in India’s defeat. New Delhi not only suffered a humiliating rout, but also lost almost 14,500 square kilometer territory to Beijing. For this reason, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors have never officially accepted the unilateral ceasefire offered by the Chinese.

Fifty-five years later, the situation appears to be even more “dreadful.” “The conflict shows no sign of abating,” according to Steven Myers and Ellen Barry of New York Times, “and it reflects the swelling ambition – and nationalism – of both countries. Each is governed by a muscular leader eager to bolster his domestic standing while asserting his country’s place on the world stage as the United States recedes from a leading role.”

In recent months, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, write Myers and Barry, “has shown that he is willing to flout China’s wishes – and ignore its threats. In April, a top Indian official accompanied the Dalai Lama to the border of Tibet, shrugging off China’s public insistence that the journey be halted. In May, India boycotted the inauguration of President Xi Jinping’s signature ‘One Belt, One Road’ project, saying the plan ignored ‘core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity’… Few countries have been eager to confront China’s regional ambitions as directly with military forces, which has made India’s response to the construction so striking and so fraught with danger.”

China has also adopted a hardline approach. “China,” declared the state-run Global Times, “will resolutely safeguard its border sovereignty in conflicts with India, even at the cost of war.” When asked about the likelihood of the current border conflict escalating, Luo Zhaohui, China’s ambassador to India, did not dismiss the possibility of such an endgame.

Fu Ying, former Chinese ambassador to Australia and England, justifies China’s strong-arm approach, “China stumbled into the 20th century with its capital under occupation of Imperialist armies and for over a century China suffered the humiliation of repeated foreign aggression and bullying. That is why the China is very sensitive about anything that is related to the loss of territory and would never allow such recurrence, even if it were an inch of land. This is something that the outside world needs to keep in mind when trying to understand Chinese behavior.”

Will the current round of hostilities lead to a second Sino-Indian war?

The answer is: No. War is a political act. It is not generals, but political leaders who have to deal with the after effects of war.

In India’s case, a war with China will have a devastating impact on Indian economy. “Even if New Delhi won such a war by putting forth massive efforts,” says Rajeesh Kumar at Institute for Defense Analyses in New Delhi, “the economic and military might of Beijing and China’s strategic advantages will ensure that the battle is unproductive for India.”

In China’s case, it is China’s international image and ambitions that precludes Beijing from going into war with India. As China has its eye set on becoming the world’s next superpower, waging a war with another key member of the BRICS will not only tarnish Beijing’s international image, but also threaten President Xi’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

For China and India, Asia’s two nuclear-armed giants, the only option is to retreat back to the status quo and be prepared for an “indefinite standoff.”

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.

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