India and China share a two thousand mile land border, thus it is not a surprise that India and China had border issues for centuries. Bulk of the border is in the Himalayas where population is scarce and a number of small countries are sandwiched between the big nations. The recent border issue near Doklam Plateau, where India is deploying troops on behalf of Bhutan protesting China’s highway construction leading to the border, seems to raise the tension to an imminent war. The border issues should not have mounted to anything serious except when two countries linked the border issue over-seriously to their national security and international prestige. Both countries have experienced Western power invasion. India had been a colony of Western power for centuries, if we count from Portuguese Empire establishing a trading center in India (1502), then the Dutch East India Company (1616-1795) and the East India Company of the British Empire (1757-) till the independence of India and Pakistan (1947). In a different way, China had been a victim of Western power Since First Opium War with the British in 1839-1842 and a pillage of Japan Since First Sino-Japanese War 1894-1895 to a brutal Japanese all-out invasion to conquer China from 1937-1945, the end of WW II.
During WW II, British controlled Indian soldiers fought with courage throughout the world, in Europe, Africa and South Asia against the Axis. India also provided the base for American operations in support of China fighting the Japanese in the China-Burma-India Theater. Post WW II, India declared independence on August 15, 1947 whereas China's internal conflict resulted in Mainland China and Taiwan struggling with reunification issue for over seventy years. Among the neighboring countries between China and India, Nepal gained independence from Britain in 1923 and turned a Republic nation in 2008. Pakistan gained independence on August 14, 1947. General Aung San led Burma in anti-fascist movement and negotiated for Independence with the British after WW II. Burma gained independence on January 4, 1948 after San being assassinated in July 1947. Bhutan is a small country in between China and India with a population of a little over 750 thousand (2016). Bhutan had always been an independent kingdom never been ruled as a colony.
The above countries border with both India and China. For historical reasons and largely the deed of the British Empire, India and Pakistan had become archenemies. Geographically Bhutan is a land locked country with only a link connected to India, therefore Bhutan has been economically as well as diplomatically controlled by India, although Bhutan is very proud of her history as an independent kingdom. Independence means a great deal with Asian countries. Any country however small desires to be truly independent. However, out of insecurity (concerned with the rising China) on the one hand and her own desire to be a major influential nation in Asia on the other hand, India strategically selects to take a confrontational approach towards China. India's harboring the exile government of Dalai Lama to agitate Tibet to gain independence from China is the direct result of that strategy. Treating Bhutan as India’s protectorate is also the consequence of that strategy to fulfill India’s desire to be an influential Asian big nation.
Since her revolution to form a republic nation in 1911, China has no shortage of interference from foreign nations to prevent her to unite the nation and to rid of the unequal treaties Qing Dynasty had incurred out of defeats against foreign invasions. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) established control over the mainland in 1949, its objective was not so much to become a communist country (part of the Soviet Union) but to build China up to be truly independent. It entered the Korean War (June 25, 1950 – July 27, 1953) for that reason. If China were not to enter the Korean War herself, the Soviet Union would with Russian troops marching through Chinese territory (North East of China) collecting supply on the way. Thus Mao made a strategic decision to engage the powerful U.S. led U.N. troops in the Korean War for protecting China’s integrity. China defended a border war against India in 1962 for that reason too. The Indian Prime Minister Nehru granted asylum to the Dalai Lama and supported the Tibetan uprising. India initiated an aggressive ‘Forward Policy’ to place outposts along the disputed border. Both wars demonstrated China's resolve in defending her sovereignty rights and national security. However, China is bordering 17 nations many hostile plus a sea neighbor Japan who has never sincerely apologized for her invasion in China and her brutal war crimes committed there. It is understandable, though China has risen economically; she still has a strong sense of insecurity. As a nation of manufacturing power, China is naturally concerned with commerce routes to and from the rest of the world. China’s befriending with Bhutan and building roads to the border is understandable from China’s strategy of promoting free trade and global commerce as clearly exhibited by her ambitious One Belt and One Route (B&R or OBOR) program. India, perhaps out of jealousy and insecurity, is resistant to OBOR by not participating while Pakistan is an eager partner.
The U.S. as a superpower does have influence over international affairs especially over military conflicts. Recalling the border clash between Vietnam and China in the seventies, China was tolerant to Vietnam’s aggressive border incidences and hostility to neighboring countries but reluctant to resort to military action. Not until 1979, when the U.S. officially recognized China and the Chinese leader Deng Xiao Ping in his state visit to the U.S. received Carter’s understanding of the Vietnam’s belligerent behavior, China launched a swift and victorious attack against the Vietnam. In the India-China border issue, one might draw a parallel that India did not deploy troops to antagonize the Chinese until the Indian Prime Minister Modi was visiting President Trump in Washington (June 25-26, 2017). Did Modi get Trump’s explicit acknowledgment to provoke China? I don’t think so, because that would be unethical. China’s befriending with Bhutan and constructing roads to Bhutan cannot be an excuse for India to escalate military tension. China-Bhutan and China-India border issues have been contained recently with mutual (Prime Minister-level) understanding thus warrant no drastic action. So it is puzzling to see India’s aggressive behavior.
Shortly after Modi’s visit to the U.S., on July 10, the U.S., India and Japan began a sizable naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal. Does this have a connection to India’s Himalaya border action? I hope not. Reviewing the media reports on the India-China confrontation, the US mainstream media are mostly quiet. The Chinese media seems to maintain cool and constraint other than requesting India to withdraw her troops. The Japanese Nikkei Review seems to take a ‘fanning the flames’ attitude of reporting the conflict. The Indian media does have some nationalistic essays commenting that India is much stronger today than 1962 when they lost the India-China war; thus it is time to wipe out that disgrace. As we observe objectively, Asia has enough room for more than one great nation to prosper. India should not be lured into a major war that would not produce any winner. The U.S. should play her role to prevent war and she should be proud of the fact that the India-China War might just depend on the Position of the U.S.
Ifay Chang. Ph.D. Producer/Host, Community Education - Scrammble Game Show, Weekly TV Columnist, www.us-chinaforum.org . Trustee, Somers Central School District