One of these conflicts surfaced few weeks back, a stand-off between Chinese and Indian military in Doklam-Plateau, which overlooks the Siligiru corridor. To understand the “Why” one has to look at the map. Doklam plateau is situated in, what can be called, the tri-junction of Indian, Chinese and Bhutanese border. It has been termed Chicken’s Neck. The plateau overlooks Siligiru corridor through which most of the supply for Indian army, situated in Bhutan, passes. It connects India’s north-east to rest of the country. The claim is regarding a border issue, which dates back to 1890: “A treaty between Great Britain and China that delimited the border between Indian state of Sikkim and Tibet as well as boundary point with Bhutan”. India claims that the border is at Batang La, while China stresses it is at Mount Gimpochi three miles to south, if China is correct than the Doklam plateau falls under Chinese territory. The recent stand-off began when Chinese started to build a road on the plateau to help its troop patrols. Bhutan accusing China of territorial aggrandizement allowed Indian troops to cross the border. The Indian soldiers, then, formed a human chain to interdict the bulldozers and construction work. This camaraderie between Bhutan and India dates back to India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty 1949, which proposed that “neither country will allow its territory to be used for activities that harm other’s national security interests. AT its peak, the border had 3000 troops at each side.
According to an article in Foreign Policy, Bhutan also has some secret, informal and unofficial settlements with China as well and the latter is using it as a pretext to station their troops there: “That PLA action in Doklam may be based on a private understanding between China and Bhutan. Thus China deems it’s road-building in Doklam legitimate within this private, pre-settlement agreement”.
Considering that both countries have fought a war in 1962 in which the Chinese won, this recent stand-off, was significant and troublesome. The rivalry is not confined to borders only. The economic front is alive as well. China’s One Belt One Road initiative, a network of rail, road and maritime trade routes that aims to connect China to Eurasia, is a source of consternation for India. India’s counter-move to OBOR is India-Myanmar-Thailand highway, a 1,360 kilometer link giving India easy, effective and efficient access to markets in Thailand and Myanmar. Though not comparable in either size or number of countries it aims to connect, the project gives a clear view of growing tussle between two regional rivals. According to Bloomberg, “In the last two years alone, India has assigned more than $4.7 billion in contracts for the development of its border roads, as per the government figures”. There is a new policy, Act East, under which India aims to build more links to its north-eastern neighbors. Kaladan multimodal project connecting Indian ports in Kolkata and Myanmar’s Sittwe, is another project in the string of new initiatives that India plans to undertake.
Militarily things are also heating up. India is preparing to take the delivery of INS Kalvari one of the stealthiest submarines, named after a deep-water shark. This is one in many that India’s plans to buy or build in future as its navy fleet seems to shrink during recent decades. The opening of first naval base in Djibouti and the artificial islands built in South China Sea manifests the country’s plans and ambitions to control the region. If militaries of both countries are juxtaposed in facts and figures, China emerges as the winner. India has 1.2 million active military personnel whereas China touts a 2.3 million active military personnel base. In terms of tanks, artillery and aircrafts China is far ahead. The total number of submarines India has stands at 15 as compared to 68 Chinese ones. China also has an aircraft carrier. Nuclear stockpiles in India tops to 130 warheads, China 270. Chinese Intern-continental Ballistic Missile has a range of 15,000km. Indian’s have reached 6,000km maximum (a new missile is underway that is expected to by-pass the range of Chinese ICBM).
However, India has a natural geographic advantage in Indian Ocean. China has to cross Straits of Malacca to enter the Indian Ocean whereas India can access it anytime through its southern borders.
Both countries agreed to end the stand-off on 28th August. And most observers think that given the international standing of both countries the possibility of an all-out war, in future, remains very low. However, heated and caustic rhetoric, brinksmanship and a prolonged stand-off with either sides not succumbing, this game-of-chicken can take a wrong turn anytime. It is not only about borders. The recent stand-off exposed a chasm between the Asian giants that continues to widen. Matters have returned to “status quo” but this is not a permanent solution.
There has been a war between the two in 1962. Who knows, next time, things might get out of control, engulfing the neighbors as well. Given the extent of integration the world has achieved it is quite possible.
Note: This is one of the points which have the ingredients that may start an armed conflict. The other two: South China Sea and DPRK, which will be discussed in the next parts.