The Himalayan Crisis


Given that there is no dearth of bad news, I was not paying attention to the steadily rising din of the China-India conflict in the Himalayas. I surmised - and remain of the same opinion - that the skirmishes wouldn't come to much. China has enough on its plate, with its trade war with America and unrest in Hong Kong, to start yet another conflict. And, while the current regime in India loves a little war, but taking on China is a completely different thing compared to needling a weak Pakistan. My expectations, therefore, were that both sides would play for the gallery a bit and then step back from the brink as they have always done in the past.

But blood has been spilled! The news that Indian (and possibly Chinese) soldiers were killed in the skirmish yesterday changes things. Indeed, I would still expect that the cooler heads will prevail and the Army commanders will be able to de-escalate the situation, but a new line has been crossed. It is in everyone's interest that these deaths were in vain, as no final settlement is ever possible in China-India border disputes. But we are all in a dangerous place right now, as soldiers' deaths always make it difficult for the governments to row back from aggressive postures. This is making me think again - is it possible that China and India may walk into a hot war?

It is indeed extremely unlikely. Given that the both states possess nuclear weapons, this is a war neither can win, or at least, can win without significant loss of life. Both economies are in fragile state - India's more than China's, but still - and there will be no winners in such a dispute. As far as the borders are concerned, they are never going to be 'settled' and both countries are better off accepting status quo and living flexibly in the border regions. This is what they have been doing for a while: Patrolling without guns! And, yet, we are dealing with deaths of personnel and an increasingly serious crisis, which makes it prudent to speculate what may make such a war plausible.

The uncomfortable truth is that it is far more plausible now than it ever was. We are in the middle of a geopolitical transition, with an America under Trump in full retreat from its global engagements and the post-war 'western consensus' in tatters. Bombast is not policy and Trump, a flawed man, is in a very weak position to face off determined adversories, let alone a major nation like China or India. The United States, while it may still have overwhelming power on the sea, may have little influence when the conflict moves inland. Whether or not one believes the overlordship of a dominant power is key to world peace, it is easy to recognise that the periods of transition, from a dominant overlordship to regional power balances, are particularly prone to conflict.

It is also the theatre of this current escalation that makes it more likely. China is strategically trying to shift the centre of gravity of the world economy, pinning its future on the stabilisation and regeneration of the ancient Silk Route. India has been a road block, as it recognised China's strategic ambitions may cut it off from the Asian hinterland. India has played its hand, perhaps unintentionally, by creating in Ladakh a Buddhist majority state, which changed the status quo. If China wanted to teach India a little lesson and establish, once and for all, its overlordship on the Silk Route, this summer is its time. It's a risky strategy, but one balanced by risks of a restive Tibet which Americans may try to foster next. A similar rationale prompted China into the 1962 war - and it may make sense again.

For India, a summer conflict makes no sense. This makes it vulnerable from a two-front war, just in case Pakistan wants to settle the Kashmir issue as the Chinese bites into Ladakh. The Indian government has gambled along the ideological lines in Kashmir by removing its special status last year, which has altered the status quo. Pakistan, battered as it is with its internal crisis and its government's lack of legitimacy, could do very little. But the China-India cnflict may offer it an opportunity to make some gains, both internally and externally. And, yet, the Indian government, weaker than it ever was, may see the conflict as an opportunity. Depends on who you believe, India is either looking at a prolonged recession or a mini-collapse of its economy as it emerges from Corona Virus, perhaps being the worst hit country of all. All the different crisis - jobs crisis, banking crisis, supply chain crisis - are about to form a perfect storm. Just as Mao used in 1962 conflict to save himself in the middle of the chaos of cultural revolution, a conflict, if it could be contained, might come handy for Mr Modi in the middle of his own cultural revolution.

But, as we know from history, governments struggling with legitimacy are portents of geopolitical conflicts and we have plenty of them in the region now. No one is fooled by President Xi's ambition or Prime Minister Modi's rhetoric; they both were long on rhetoric and short on delivery, and the Corona Virus crisis has exposed them. Prime Minister Khan of Pakistan, who serves at the pleasure of the Armed Forces, is also at a very difficult spot. They may all mistake a war as salvation, their little opportunities for oneupmanship, political brownie points or even a legacy. Each one may want to settle the Himalaya once and for all; each one may be crazy or desperate enough to think that's possible. Mr Modi has made the first move last year by changing the status quo; the others may try to take advantage of it now.

I am full of foreboding, therefore. It may be crazy that China and India, two still poor and rising powers, would want to fight one another, which will harm them and given nuclear deterrance, would be inconclusive. But then, countries don't fight wars as often as interests do, and we may have a case here when even a futile and costly conflict may help some people.

Finally, it may seem the Americans may benefit - given that this will curb China and its arms suppliers will find more willing buyers - but that's only in Donald Trump's twisted imagination: As the guarantor and chief beneficiary of the current world order, the United States hardly benefits from the breaking of it. Corona Virus has exposed Trump as a weak leader who doesn't know what he is doing and it's unlikely that he would be able to do anything to contain the crisis. Churchill may have said that the Americans could be counted on to do the right thing after all options have been exhausted, but it's doubtful if Mr Trump knows his options.

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