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India and China's Dangerous Tug-of-War for the Top of the World

Bruno Maçães

If you were to draw the world’s economic center of gravity on a map, it would fall right on the border between Europe and Asia. But it is far from stationary. For 40 years, it has been following a long arc from the middle of the Atlantic, the sea world of yesterday, to the Himalayas, the land world of tomorrow. And if you thought the history of Western modernity was an extravaganza of technology and brute power, just wait for Asian modernity — technological on a vaster scale and directed by two fully modernized giants, India and China.

I recently sat down with Vijay Chauthaiwale, one of the brains behind Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new foreign policy. He now leads the foreign affairs department of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. I wanted to know what the real dangers would be of a potential clash between China and India.

There is a grand bargain to be struck between an expanding China and a retreating United States. The former will slowly move into the areas abandoned by the latter and we may well reach a kind of balance between the two. But what happens when China and India move into the same space, with all the hurried moves of rising powers?

Chauthaiwale sees himself as the grown-up in the room, trying to balance the voices of “Internet Hindus,” who are calling for a tougher Chinese policy, and the traditional Nehruvian elites, for whom India must always give way in foreign policy. Patience is a smart policy, as India’s position will only grow stronger, he told me. But China is also fast becoming the biggest question for Indian foreign policy, he agreed. The two countries seem to be entering a new Cold War, which includes an ongoing clash over the Maldives as well as a persistent dispute over a remote location in the Himalayas. This week China’s state-run Global Times threatened India with a military response should it intervene in the Maldives. The earlier confrontation in Doklam provides clues to how this should be interpreted.

Last summer Chinese troops were spotted extending a road through a piece of land disputed between China and Bhutan known as the Doklam plateau, which slopes down to the Siliguri Corridor, a narrow strip of Indian territory dividing the Indian mainland from the northeastern region states. If China is able to block off the corridor, this will isolate the northeastern region, a devastating scenario in case of war.

India perceived China’s move as an unacceptable change to the status quo and crossed its own border — in this case a perfectly settled one — to block the works. Chauthaiwale confirmed that the decision to cross the border and block the construction was carefully and deliberately taken. Indian strategists know that China advances by changing the facts on the ground, sometimes in slow increments but always with large goals in mind. There is only one way to counter this strategy and that is to block each and every of these attempts without worrying about an escalation, which is something China is not interested in.

“China blinked,” Chauthaiwale told me, referring to the agreement reached later in the summer by which the two countries moved their troops back from the standoff point. I asked him about the news that China had since returned to the area. Chauthaiwale smiled. India, he said, was ready too.

It is a dangerous game. Satellite imagery analyzed by a former Indian military intelligence officer, Colonel Vinayak Bhat, shows that China is now building permanent positions inside the disputed border area and just north of the point where troops from both sides faced each other last summer. The new images reveal concrete posts, seven helipads, several dozen armored vehicles and a tall observation tower just meters from the most forward Indian trench. The fighting posts — built on almost every hillock in the northern plateau — have dug-out areas and large, double-layered communication trenches.

Colonel Bhat served in the Indian Army for over 30 years. He was a satellite imagery analyst, stationed in high altitude areas, where he also attended border personnel meetings as a Mandarin interpreter. I asked him why he thought Beijing was so determined to establish control over the Doklam plateau. After all, these border areas are far removed from any population center, and in many cases the actual border is difficult to determine — the demarcation goes back to old treaties between the Qing Empire and the British Raj and outdated, hand-drawn maps. Does it matter who gains an advantage here?

“It matters,” Bhat emphatically told me. “If the Chinese control Doklam, especially South Doklam, they will be able to threaten the Siliguri Corridor. After the Doklam plateau it will all be downhill. You need anything from nine to 16 battalions in these high altitude mountains for each defensive battalion. So that changes the calculations.”

India feels it won the summer confrontation in Doklam, but the Chinese strategy is to create response fatigue. If the other side thinks it has won, it is less likely to reopen the issue when Beijing continues to press or provoke. As Colonel Bhat pointed out to me, China now has effective control over the plateau, but if it were to use that strategic advantage and cross the summer standoff point, “that would mean war.”

For those with an active imagination, it may sound like a premonition. The history of the future will be written in Asia and perhaps, in a perfect reversion of what had happened in the past, the West may well be dragged into stories — long and bloody stories — being written by others.

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