By: John Elliott

For the past three weeks it has sometimes seemed, from India media reports and aggressive statements coming out of Beijing, that there is a distinct possibility of a Himalayan border war breaking out between the two countries, 55 years after India suffered a humiliating military defeat in the area at the hands of its larger Asian neighbor.

It is unlikely to happen because neither side wants a war, but the long confrontation has been closer in physical terms and noisier in the media than in the past – at least until China’s president Xi Jinping and India’s prime minister Narendra Modi met, smiled, and chatted while attending a regional meeting at the G20 assembly in Hamburg on July 7.

That is not to underplay the importance of what has been happening on the 2,500 mile-long undemarcated border in a face-off over Chinese road construction that has also for the first time drawn the tiny kingdom of Bhutan into the two nuclear powers’ border disputes.

The Chinese media has played a major role in raising the temperature and on July 8 the Global Times, an outspokenly outspoken government-linked newspaper even went to the extent of suggesting that India’s role in the border issue with Bhutan would justify another country interfering in its northern region of Kashmir.

China, led by the increasingly powerful and assertive Xi, is in a belligerent mood and is trying to extend its reach and power in areas such as the South and East China Seas as well as in the Himalayas, while also underlining its sovereignty of Hong Kong, which it regained from British rule 20 years ago on June 30 1997.

Speaking on the day of the anniversary, a Beijing foreign ministry spokesman said that the UK has no role in the future of its former territory, even though the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that led to the 1997 handover gave it a monitoring role for 50 years. The spokesman said that, as “a historical document,” the joint declaration “no longer has any practical significance.” It was not at all binding for Beijing’s management over Hong Kong.

1962 “historical lessons”

Similarly slapping down India, a China’s People Liberation Army spokesman on June 29 implicitly alluded to the 1962 defeat when he said that India should learn from “historical lessons.” He was responding to India’s army chief saying his troops were ready for a “two-and-a-half-front war,” referring to China, Pakistan and internal security.

Britain has regularly failed to effectively monitor developments in Hong Kong, and there are doubts about India’s war-readiness, but it was a sign of China’s increased assertiveness that, in the space of two days, the UK should be publicly told it had no role and that India should be reminded so openly of its 1962 defeat.

India has however resisted latest China’s territorial ambitions despite the aggressive noises from Beijing. Perhaps Modi has heard that Barack Obama, America’s former president, once said of China: “You have to be pretty firm with them, because they will push as hard as they can until they meet resistance.”

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The border at the Nathu La Pass in Sikkim

In the Himalayas, China’s army has been steadily moving into Bhutanese territory with tracks and roads for several years, but has met with virtually no resistance. The current crisis has arisen because its road construction has entered the especially sensitive Doklam plateau that Bhutan claims as its territory but which China also claims as part of the Donglang region.

The location on the China-Bhutan-India trijunction is separate from the main areas disputed by India and China, but is it critically important because the Doklam plateau overlooks China’s Chumbi Valley, a strategically important V-shaped area of Tibet located between the Indian state of Sikkim to the west and Bhutan to the east. The 2,895-meter-high valley juts down towards a strip of Indian territory called the Siliguri Corridor (nicknamed the “chicken’s neck”), which is the only land route from the main land mass of India to its north-eastern states.

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The closer China gets to the Siliguri Corridor down the Chumbi Valley, the  better equipped it would be in a war to try to cut India off from its northeastern states and invade Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims, while also making land grabs on other states and on Bhutan.

Face-to-face confrontation

Because of the sensitivity, Bhutan objected and India confronted the Chinese troops and blocked construction work. That brought the opposing army troops face to face and provoked a complaint from local Chinese army commanders early in June that India had invaded its territory.

China chose to publicize the clash and complain to Delhi just as Modi was about to meet President Donald Trump for the first time in Washington on June 26. This led observers to suggest that China had timed the move as a warning to India of what could happen if it continued to grow closer to the US. China is unhappy with the more aggressive stance adopted by Modi in recent months, which has included a boycott of its transnational One Belt One Road infrastructure and trade initiative.

Bhutan’s objections were unusual because the country, sandwiched between China and India, generally stays quiet. But on June 29 its ambassador in New Delhi delivered a formal demarche to China at its embassy – they are located five minutes’ drive from each other in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri diplomatic area.

“Recently, the Chinese army started construction of a road towards Bhutanese Army camp at Zomphlri in Doklam area which is in violation of an agreement between the two countries,” Vetsop Namgyel, Bhutan’s ambassador, told India’s main news agency.

“Peace and tranquility”

He was referring to a written agreement with China that that there should be “peace and tranquility” till their disputed border was agreed. That is complicated because it involves reconciling disputes about the relevance of historic documents and agreements going back more than a century to a time when Bhutan had not even decided where it thought its borders lay.

India used to run Bhutan’s foreign affairs, but is now only consulted. The relationship is close however, as was shown by India’s response. Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with China and has been resisting demands from Beijing to open them, though it does have regular but inconclusive meetings on the 470-km border.

From conversations I had on my last visit to Bhutan two years ago, it was clear that there is considerable resentment about India’s sometimes overbearing interference in Bhutan’s affairs, along with a growing demand for formal relations with Beijing, which would weaken India’s role.

Hamburg atmosphere

There was excited media coverage about how Xi and Modi wouldn’t meet while they were in Hamburg, and that this would show that relations between the two countries were at a new and dangerously low point.

In fact, neither side was ready for formal talks because no solution was in sight and a formal meeting would have been useless or maybe even counter-productive. As a Chinese spokesman put it, the “atmosphere” was “not right”.

The informal meeting between Xi and Modi does however appear to have gone well with the two leaders apparently praising each other’s economic and anti-terrorist successes, while avoiding, at least as far as diplomatic briefings have revealed, anything about the standoff in the mountains.

That has softened the mood, at least in the capitals. It is too early to predict how the situation will be solved, though it could be done with all sides agreeing to withdraw pending talks between China and Bhutan. Meanwhile, on the same day that Xi and Modi met, China issued a safety advisory to its citizens living in India to pay close attention to the security, which may have been part of the loud diplomatic onslaught before the leaders met.

Coincidentally, India, Japan and the US begin annual naval exercises in the Indian Ocean today (July 10), bringing together three countries concerned about China’s expansionary ambitions.

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India’s relations with China now look like becoming even more fractious because the head of the India-based Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, on July 5 unfurled the Tibetan national flag on the shores of Pang Gong lake in the Ladakh region of India. The lake spans the border between India and China’s Tibetan region at a height of over 4267 meters. This is the first time the independent Tibet flag has been unfurled there,s certain to anger China, which tolerates India hosting the government in exile along with the Dalai Lama, providing neither engages in political or diplomatic activity.

Relations between China and India have always been complicated, both before and after the 1962 war, but China’s growing territorial and international ambitions add new dimensions that are likely to lead to more crises.

No shot has been fired on the border for 40 years, though there are frequent confrontations. That is in striking contrast to the regular firing on India’s Pakistan line of control, but it raises he question of how both sides could contain the reaction if shooting began.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi correspondent. He blogs at www.ridingtheelephant.com.