INDIA’s reluctance to join a military alliance and China’s territorial ambitions – as well as its failures to learn from the Cuban Missile Crisis – could lead to major conflict between the two nuclear states, experts predicted last night.
The warnings follow a border skirmish in the Himalayas in which Chinese troops used nail-studded rods to kill 20 Indian soldiers, including their commanding officer.
In his sharpest rebuke to date, India’s PM Narendra Modi warned China that, while India wanted peace, “on provocation, India will give a befitting reply.”
Privately, Indian diplomats attempted to play down any thoughts of escalation, pointing to this week’s Russia-India-China foreign ministers’ meeting.
“The fact that all both India and Russia are still meeting in this week’s trilateral bodes well for de-escalation and the resumption of relations,” said a highly placed source.
But with border issues not on the agenda, and Covid-19 protocols dictating the meeting is to beheld virtually, there seems little scope of back-room dialogue.
Last night one China expert warned that any de-escalation now would only be temporary.
“The reality is that the border between the British Raj and China’s Empire Dynasty, which is the basis for Line of Actual Control, was a terrible example of ‘big map and fat marker’ – straight lines drawn on small scale maps using pencils and markers of the day. “These lines translate to roughly a mile wide and, when you get down on the ground, especially in mountainous areas such as the Himalayas, they don’t necessary actually comply with either geographic sense or historic tradition. So this is part of what is going on,” said Dean Cheng, of the Heritage Foundation think tank.
“What you’re seeing now is an ongoing confrontation between the two Asian behemoths. They are both overconfident and reject foreign interference. And the really scary part is that they’re both nuclear powers,“
He warned that de-escalation now would only amount to “boiling the frog” – in reference to a fable that claims the only way to boil a frog is to place it in tepid water and gradually increase the temperature so that it doesn’t notice until it’s too late.
“China has its own names for six areas of Arunachal Pradesh, along the Line of Actual Control,” he said.
“Whenever the Chinese have a different name for somewhere it’s always worth paying attention to, because that usually means that they won’t let up pressure until others except that Chinese name. “
He said border tensions has escalated since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, adding: “China never gives up its territorial claims. “
China never gives up its territorial claimsDean Cheng, Heritage Foundation think tank
Tensions have been boiling for weeks over India’s moves to build an all-weather road to a remote air base in Ladakh, in India’s far northern Kashmir region.
In early May thousands of Chinese troops began moving over the disputed Line of Actual Control and digging in, first in Ladakh’s Pangong Lake region and days later more than 750 miles away on the Sikkim border.
Last week’s incident happened just nine days after after senior commanders from both sides agreed to de-escalate and disengage along the LAC, a section of the 2,500 mile border with China in Western India, which contains a 12-mile no mans land and which was never properly defined by Britain when India was a colony.
Last night Lt Gen RK Sawhney, who commanded border troops during the 1962 Sino-India war, said: “Protocols are meant to keep both sides in check. As soon a sone side begins to feel superior, they go out the window,” said Gen Sawhney, now with the Vivekananda International Foundation think tank.
“China is unilaterally declaring changes that we are supposed to accept. It wants to salami slice it, drawing it in two and then into one, and we’re supposed to accept that too. This is a process of strategic bullying which has become a bigger problem since 2013, when Xi Jinping came to power.
“We’ve invested in infrastructure on territory which even they acknowledge is Indian. If we build airstrips or roads, they object. What sort of bullying power is it that thinks it can command what nations do on sovereign territory?”
He added: “We are dealing with a belligerent, arrogant country which wanted to become a global power, and to do this they must be a regional power. China ispicking off countries one by one. Look at the South China Sea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines – they even claim Indonesia’s Natuna islands which was 2,500 miles away from their established borders.”
On Friday, Indian officials indicated Modi was prepared to rethink India’s economically important bileteral relationship with China, with Chinese tech firms singled out.
“Why should we have a huge economic relationship with a country which doesn’t offer stability, which continues its border infringements and kills our soldiers? The answer is that our economic relationship simply cannot continue in the same way” said Gen Sawhney.
But, while this could mean a greeter alignment with the US, diplomats denied intentions to join military alliances.
”That isn’t the direction of travel”, said one.
Gen Sawhney added: “My think tank was one of those which supported closer relationships with the Quad (an informal partnership with Australia, Japan and the US). But, while we have friends and partners, we will keep our strategic neutrality. We’re too big and expensive to be an ally.
“I was a newly-commissioned second lieutenant cmmaonding the eastern sector in 1962. The Indian Army of today knows how to ensure there is no ingress Into our territory.
“We don’t want to carry out offensives. War costs money, it requires spending just at a time when we are recovering from the economic consequences of Covid-19 and we have other economic pressures.
“But we will defend our territory. “
While both countries were fighting in 1962, however, they missed on lessons learned by the rest of the world as it recovered from the Cuban Missile Crisis, said Cheng.
“There were two major events in 1962, and those involved drew very different conclusions from them,” he said.
”After the Cuban Missile Crisis, both the US and USSR concluded that some transparency was necessary, some predictability was necessary, in order to avoid another such crisis.
“China’s history has never involved inadvertent escalation -its wars with Japan or the Mongols were all due to deliberate policy decisions.
“Now the situation is that, whether it’s through hubris or misplaced self-confidence, neither side sees a reason to compromise. And that’s worrying.”