The two most populous countries in the world are dangerously close to armed conflict. Both are fast-growing and ambitious nations with something to prove – and they have nuclear weapons. Yet you’ll find surprisingly little discussion of the issue in Washington, where President Donald Trump’s ongoing controversies and the threat of terrorist attacks continue to dominate the discussion.
The military standoff between India and China over a remote plateau in the Himalayas has been going on for months now. This week, The Washington Post’s Annie Gowen and Simon Denyer took a look at the complicated dispute, which was sparked by China’s move to build a road in territory claimed by Bhutan, a close ally of India that does not have formal diplomatic relations with Beijing.
Territorial disputes between in the area are far from new – India and China briefly went to war over contest territory in 1962. And much of the present dispute dates back to an 1890 border agreement made between British India and China’s Qing Dynasty, one of a number of lingering problems caused by colonial cartographers.
But experts say the current standoff is the worst in decades and has taken on a different tone than previous flare-ups. “It would be very complacent to rule out escalation,” Shashank Joshi, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute in London, told The Post. “It’s the most serious crisis in India-China relations for 30 years.”
Both India and China are speaking openly and seriously of armed conflict, with Beijing’s state media striking a indigent and at times uncharacteristically vulgar tone. An English-language video posted by the Xinhua news agency Wednesday accused India of “trampling international law” and “inventing various excuses to whitewash its illegal moves” – before showing a Chinese actor in a Sikh turban who spoke in an insulting Indian accent.
If India and China were to go to war, it would be no small matter. Over 2.6I billion people live in the two nations. Between them, they are estimated to have 380 nuclear weapons (though both China and India subscribe to a “no first use” policy, which should – hopefully – mean they wouldn’t be used in such any conflict).
In a briefing last month, the State Department urged restraint. During a press briefing last week, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “It’s a situation that we have certainly followed closely. And as you know, we have relationships with both governments. We continue to encourage both parties to sit down and have conversations about that.”
The dispute centers not only on the territory in question – an obscure, 34-square-mile area known as the Doklam Plateau that is claimed by both Bhutan and China – but a narrow strip of strategically important Indian land called the Siliguri Corridor. This tract, unaffectionately nicknamed the “chicken’s neck,” connects the bulk of the India with its remote east. Delhi has long feared Chinese troops could cut across the corridor if war broke out, effectively cutting the country in half. It’s not an unreasonable fear, given that the region is just 14 miles wide at its thinnest point; Ankit Panda of the Diplomat once dubbed it a “terrifyingly vulnerable artery in India’s geography.”
It is widely assumed that Washington would side with India in the dispute. Trump is a frequent critic of China, and some in his administration have pushed for tough responses to other territorial claims made by Beijing, such as the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea. Trump called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on India’s Independence Day this week, which some media outlets interpreted as a gesture of support for New Delhi.
And yet, there is a nagging sense among some in India that Trump won’t have Modi’s back if push comes to shove. “If ever there was a war with China, America would never come to our rescue,” one government official told Indian journalist Barkha Dutt recently, according to a story Dutt wrote for The Post’s Global Opinion section.
Washington also may be diplomatically limited in the region: A number of key State Department positions that would have responsibility for handling an India-China crisis remain unfilled. Another part of the problem is simply the complexity of the issue, which could prove hard to communicate to a leader with seemingly limited knowledge of the world and a notoriously short attention span.
There is also an argument that perhaps Trump should keep his nose out of this. The Post’s Jackson Diehl wrote he didn’t find much enthusiasm for U.S. involvement in the dispute while in Delhi last week. The U.S. president has gained a reputation there for being hotheaded and impulsive – even the drawdown in tensions with North Korea seems to have happened in spite of his involvement, not because of it.
Diehl noted that Modi had sought a closer relationship with the United States in the hope that Trump would be tough on China and terrorism while forging closer ties to Russia, an old Indian ally. Instead, as Diehl writes, the Indians have received “contradictions and chaos,” with some wondering if the White House currently is even capable of handling complicated geopolitical situations.
To be fair, Trump is not alone in being more interested in the standoff with North Korea or terrorist attacks like the one that took place Thursday in Barcelona. He’s also in the midst of his own domestic crises.
However, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution noted recently that the 1962 Indo-Chinese war was resolved with the help of President John F. Kennedy, who used military support for India and clever diplomacy to limit the scope of the conflict. Remarkably, this all happened at the same time as the Cuban missile crisis, the “most dangerous moment in human history.” Given that, what is Trump’s excuse?