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In recent years, U.S. and East Asian policymakers have been deeply concerned over whether territorial disputes in Asian waters might turn into full-blown conflicts. Fear of China’s advance in the East and South China Seas was the prime catalyst for former U.S. President Barack Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia. The same worry has motivated President Donald Trump to restart freedom of navigation operations near contested islands off the Philippines and Vietnam militarized by China. As a result, policymakers have overlooked equally dangerous clashes happening on land. War in Asia could well break out thousands of miles from those contested waters. Most worrying, today, Chinese and Indian troops are facing off just yards away from each other, high in the remote Himalayas, at a spot called Doklam—a reminder that great power conflict in Asia on land, too, could potentially throw the region into chaos.
A HISTORY OF LAND DISPUTES
Current territorial disputes in Asia resemble nineteenth-century European conflicts. These include not only those concerning well-known crisis spots such as the Korean Peninsula’s 38th parallel but obscure disagreements such as the 2008–11 clash between Cambodian and Thai armed forces over ancient Buddhist temple enclaves along the border running between northern Cambodia and northeastern Thailand.
The Sino-Indian flashpoint is in territory claimed by both China and tiny Bhutan, with the latter’s claim long supported by India. The ambiguity of a nineteenth-century treaty has put Beijing and New Delhi at odds over whether China can extend a road through this forbidding territory right up to the border with India. Indian troops have blocked the Chinese from continuing construction, which has led to a military standoff.
There has long been contested territory between the two nuclear powers. They share a border over 2,000 miles long, and in 1962 fought a brief but bitter border war also in the Himalayas. As a result, China controls a contested area called Aksai Chin at the very northern tip of India, while India holds a much larger territory called Arunachal Pradesh, which borders Tibet. Each state claims sovereignty over the other holding, leading to repeated incursions and standoffs along the border, usually by Chinese forces moving temporarily into Indian-claimed territory. The Doklam Plateau, where the current crisis is unfolding, is a narrow land link between subcontinental India and its remote northeastern states that are surrounded by Bangladesh, Burma, and China.
Great power disputes have the potential to wreak havoc throughout Asia, as the Sino-Indian faceoff shows. From New Delhi’s perspective, China continues to try to encircle it from the north, not only in Bhutan but also through the Sino-Pakistan alliance, which links a growing and aggressive power to India’s deadliest enemy, one that has nuclear weapons trained on India’s major cities. With Chinese naval ships increasingly transiting the Indian Ocean, India feels pressured on land and by sea, accounting in part for its forceful response to the Chinese road-building scheme. Given its concerns over China’s growth, New Delhi will only bristle at Chinese Minister Wang Yi’s admonishment to “behave yourself and humbly retreat.”
Adding yet another layer of complexity, both India and China are led by powerful nationalist leaders, each the most charismatic figures their countries have seen in a generation. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has embraced an activist foreign policy, including forming warm relations with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. For his part, Chinese President Xi Jinping has steadily expanded China’s presence globally, launching the One Belt, One Road initiative and founding the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He has also built new bases for the Chinese military in the South China Sea, among other endeavors.
Neither leader is likely to acquiesce. Xi has a crucial Communist Party Congress coming up this fall, where he hopes to further consolidate his considerable power. Modi is coming off successful elections that have given him a boost in domestic politics. Nationalism in both countries is a core element of foreign policy, making it harder to control passions during a crisis.
WILL CONFLICT BREAK OUT?
Yet both countries also have a great deal to lose should they come to blows. Not only would a conflict tarnish China’s reputation as a global leader but anti-Chinese elements in Tibet and Xinjiang could also try to take advantage of any fighting to push back against the harsh Chinese security presence in their territories. As for India, another defeat by the better equipped Chinese would not only be a national humiliation but would raise fears that China’s ally Pakistan might stir up more trouble on their tense border, as well as give China greater influence in countries near India, including Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
A protracted standoff raises the chance of an accident or miscalculation that could cause an armed clash.
Although full-scale war is unlikely to break out in the Himalayas, a protracted standoff raises the chance of an accident or miscalculation that could cause an armed clash. Other nations, such as Russia or Japan, might also get involved to show moral support for one side or the other, or to possibly offer some type of material aid. As for the United States, there is little, if any, role that it can play other than to encourage both sides to settle their quarrel through diplomatic means.
Doklam may be in one of the most isolated spots on earth, but it reflects one aspect of Asia’s current “great game.” The region’s powerful states all have disputes with each other that have lingered for decades, with little resolution in sight. As they have become richer, thanks to globalization and trade, often with each other, they have modernized their militaries, so as to be able to lay credible claims on contested territory. Throw nationalism into the mix, and the recipe for ongoing crisis is nearly complete. Even if Asia’s military pot does not boil over, it will be set at a low boil for the foreseeable future.