China-India standoff on the Himalayas


Sure, as many pundits argue these days, it is possible for the China-India almost-two-month long standoff over the high Himalaya mountains in Doklam to be resolved. Both parties, despite the high-pitched public rhetoric in their media, are scrambling to find a face-saving way out.

But the geopolitical wounds inflicted by the present stalemate will be harder to heal as they brought to the surface a great number of issues that could haunt the region and the world for years. It involves some 3 billion people, about 40% of the global population. This could well be more dangerous than the ongoing North Korean crisis. In many ways the Pope is going in the middle of all this with his planned visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar later this year.

The real issue of the present crisis, perhaps as always in politics, is not who is right or wrong over the slither of territory claimed by both parties, but who would win in a military confrontation.

Behind this general question there is a more precise one. Chinese military strategists have known since ancient times that there are two levels in any clash: one is purely military, and one is more political. In the present situation of the world, no matter who wins the military confrontation, China could lose the political one. If China were to win in the Himalayas against India, it would prove to the world that the country is a bully, and this could trigger some kind of general cold war against China.

If China were to lose the confrontation, India would prove China just a paper tiger, and Beijing could face many neighbors with claims against China. Basically, it is the same as with the South China Sea (see 2011 Vietnam's Dr Strangelove at war with the Mandarins). But the twist here is much more complicated and very different.

The general point is that in politics, before actually starting a war, you must convince yourself and the rest of the world that your war is just. If you convince only your own population that your war is just, you will be isolated. In fact, this is the case now because the geopolitical rules of engagement have greatly changed in the past century. Every state is no longer only after its own interest, but has a small or large stake in global interests.

So, the world is now seen more as a whole entity, in which each state has to convince the others of its own reasons. If a state fails to do so, it will be isolated by the rest of the community, which feels it also has a stake in the matter that contributes to its general wellbeing. The situation is dramatically different from the situation of the 19th century in Europe, for instance, when each state felt completely justified in indiscriminately pursuing its own national interests against those of other states, almost like different companies competing for market shares.

Moreover, this world system is set around some generally accepted guiding principles and states. The states are the US, the EU, and other Western countries. The principles are Western principles.

If China wants to convince the world of its reasons, it has to accept this reality. To fight this situation would be to fight the world and the principles as they are now. There are two ways to change these principles: join these principles and change them slowly just as a young enthusiastic Communist youngster joins the party to change the party from within; or to fight from without with consequences that could be huge, because, all in all, China is a minority in the world.

At the moment, India is backed directly or indirectly by the rest of the world because it is a democracy like the rest of the world, because it has adopted the English legal system, and because its elite speak English.

So in this case, for India, to push for a military confrontation with China is a win-win. India, with a territory less than half of China and a population of over 1.5bn people, including the Bangladeshi ally, wants to be “the next China”. Then, India might want to have a border war with China similar to the war China had with Vietnam in 1979.

Even if India loses, a limited border clash will prove to the United States and to the world that India is ready to stand up to China, that China is a bully, and that new trade and technology investment rules can be negotiated with New Delhi to move the focus of attention of many Western companies from China to India, which is potentially more reliable. In some ways India may feel it has already scored important points, as it has force-stopped the highway Beijing planned to build.

How did China get into this situation? The root cause is two-fold: the handling of Pakistan and the new Silk Road.

After the late 90s, when India and Pakistan clashed violently over the Kargil (1999), China kept a balance but actually sided with India realizing the dangers of Pakistan, which was turning too aggressive.

However, over the following 16 years, things slowly and progressively switched around. China felt increasingly threatened by Pakistan's possibly indirect blackmailing to help and train Xinjiang militants against China. In fact, over the years, many radical Xinjiang Muslims received religious and guerilla training in Pakistan, possibly abetted by the Pakistani secret services. Pakistan didn't provide weapons to those militants but many Uighur extremists entered Xinjiang with Pakistani passports.

The wave of attacks and the great instability of Xinjiang made Beijing feel that in order to control Xinjiang's peace and stability, it had to back Pakistan against India, to gain Pakistan's assistance against the Uighur extremists.

In the meantime, in New Delhi, the more moderate Congress Party gave way to the more radical BJP, which had a more nationalist agenda and felt that China's alliances with Pakistan and Sri Lanka were hurting India's national interest. All the while, China also launched the revolutionary initiative of the new Silk Road, the OBOR – One Belt One Road.

In this, India's interests felt antagonized. Indian diplomats felt that China was not really offering an opportunity for joint development but was giving New Delhi strict terms and conditions on whether to adhere or not to some China-established new Asian political order. This feeling was stressed by a lingering Indian concern over bilateral trade with China.

Yes, China was importing from India more than it exported, but the quality of Indian exports to China was very low: China was basically importing mostly raw materials, and India was being treated by China as a glorified African country—not enough due respect was paid to the Indian industrial output.

Thus in the long term, India felt there was little sense in dealing with China. All this, plus the general cooling of politics around China with the new Trump administration in the US, may have coalesced into the present situation.

How can China get out of this cul de sac? Because, in this, there may not be a happy ending for Beijing.

China may think that looking after its own interests in a limited conflict with India might be enough. After all, the West still respected Russia after Moscow's brief war in Georgia in 2008, Moscow's support for pro-Russian forces in Ukraine in the past years, and Russia's takeover of Crimea in 2014. China may feel it could do the same for its borders.

However, those who think along these lines could be very wrong because, unlike China, and despite Moscow's vast nuclear arsenal, Russia does not represent a global strategic challenge to the US.

China, unlike Russia, and thus less threatening, did not wage war for some 30 years and has a limited nuclear arsenal, but because of its economic and political development and because of its population, represents a global challenge to the American-led order. Therefore, any limited war waged by China could be considered by the rest of the world tantamount to clear evidence of Beijing's true aggressive intentions.

Furthermore, Russia has been a master in building channels and bridges with people of all walks of life in the West, developing on the former Soviet expertise in disinformazia. In every Western country, there is a “Russian Party,” and in the US, the president himself is clearly sympathetic to Moscow's president Vladimir Putin.

This network protects Russian actions, which are in no way perceived as being as challenging and threatening as China's. Moreover, Russia is a Western country. Moscow calls itself the Third Rome, and its national symbol, the two-headed eagle, hails from Constantinople, almost like the American national symbol, the eagle, which also hails from Rome. Nothing like that happens with China.

The brilliant idea of creating a community of interests, as China's strategist Zheng Bijian put it, is backfiring because Chinese investments abroad are not sustained by long term plans, attentive care for the local communities, and a broad, accepted value system. Therefore, Chinese investments are considered evil (although sometime necessary), an instrument of Chinese invasion, and a tool to help steal local resources, technology, and know-how.

In this way, China walks a very fine line.

If China doesn't care about its territory, internal nationalist protests could shake or even topple the government. If it intervenes, then of course, it sets a trap calling on global reaction.

China's difficult predicament is clear to powers outside of China. The fact that the US doesn't step on the gas of this contradiction by forcing China to intervene or pull out in a war at its border, be it with India or in the South China Sea, proves that United States has so far no intention of forcing a crisis in China. In fact, the US is still looking for ways to integrate China into the global international system.

The question is then how can China evolve its internal political and economic structure so that it can match the needs of the global system and avoid a potentially very dangerous war? This is the greatest challenge China has faced maybe for centuries but also the greatest opportunity China has been presented with in centuries. If China, with its size and potential, fully joins the international order, opportunities of all kinds will increase for everybody, including China itself.

The careful handling of the Doklam crisis could do that, and it has to be through helping India to grow politically and economically with China and the world, not against it. It is very difficult but doable, and so far, most of the world still roots for this kind of outcome.



+MoreOther Commentary