China looms like an enormous bullying giant above its border with India stretching more than 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) from the high Himalayas in the west to more mountains and lower-level frontiers to the east.
In between is Nepal, over which China wields increasing influence, and Bhutan, which is tied so closely to India. There is no vehicle traffic across its northern frontier with China other than smuggling on mountain tracks. Strife between China and India is intermittent and occasionally violent, dangerous enough to raise fears of an all-out Sino-Indian war.
I first got up-close to this issue in 1962 when I was a Fulbright student at the Indian School of International Studies in New Delhi.
Having been up to Kashmir on my first major trip outside the Indian capital, I was well aware of tensions between India and Pakistan. I knew that the line between the two would always be contested and that the Kashmir dispute, with Hindu-dominated India ruling the capital city of Srinagar and much else, would have perpetual difficulties governing the Muslim region.
Then, while I was there, came the Sino-Indian war. Chinese forces attacked across the northern frontier, the rooftop of India, and Indian forces appeared weak and ill-prepared to stop them.
There was even talk of the Chinese simply marching southward, seizing much of northern India. Finally, the fighting stopped at what became known as the “line of actual control” (LAC).
No, that was not the legal border but the line where the fighting stopped after the Chinese had nipped off a sliver of the northernmost reaches of India, showing India who was the dominant power in Asia.
Incredibly, the LAC remained the de facto boundary between the two in that region, 5,000 or so meters above sea level, covered with snow and ice, far removed from the daily concerns of most of the people in either country.
India was much more deeply concerned about China’s budding relationship with Pakistan, the Islamic state remained locked in bitter conflict with India ever since the partition of the Indian subcontinent at the end of British rule in 1948.
There was no doubt that China stood to profit from playing Pakistan against India, courting the Pakistanis with aid and advice while building a highway across the Himalayas in a project that would link China with the Indian Ocean, winding up at the port of Gwadar in southwestern Pakistan.
It was all part of a $46 billion project that would turn Pakistan into a de facto Chinese ally even though Pakistan historically had been allied with the United States in the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization and the Central Treaty Organization.
The United States over the years has provided arms and aid to Pakistan, but relations reached a low after the killing by a U.S. Navy SEAL team of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
The Pakistanis had been harboring bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad when the Navy SEAL team in May 2011 descended in helicopters on his compound, killing bin Laden and four others before taking off with his body, later buried at sea off a U.S. Navy ship.
I was again in India, this time as a senior Fulbright research scholar, in 2013 when Chinese and Indian forces again brushed against each other along the LAC.
Tensions rose to a fever pitch after Chinese soldiers crossed the LAC, but incredibly the Indians persuaded them to leave, threatening breaks in trade and other relationships.
There would be no bloodshed, no violence until just this year when about 20 Indian soldiers, and no doubt some Chinese too, were killed in what was described as “hand to hand” fighting, no clashes with military weaponry even though India over the years had stationed a tank regiment nearby.
China holds the upper hand. All that’s really holding back the Chinese is that they also are involved in contentious disputes from the South China Sea to the Yellow Sea and North Korea.
In those points of conflict, the Chinese have to worry about U.S. warships and relations with other countries. China also claims Taiwan, the island off its east coast that operates as an independent country, and cannot risk war on the Korean peninsula while nurturing ties with South Korea, still defended by U.S. troops after President Trump’s failures at getting North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear program.
There is no doubt, though, as to who holds the real power above the Line of Actual Control between China and India.
At Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, where I was based during my second Fulbright year in 2013, sinologist B.R. Deepak writes that “China has never treated India as an equal in its modern and contemporary history.” How, he asks, when “the regional balance is clearly tilted in China’s favor, can India expect China to relent” on the border? “At a time when it is being said that the LAC must be identified” he writes, “it will be an absolutely futile exercise, for China is not interested in defining the same, at all.” Nothing, he suggests, is going to alter “China’s long-term strategy to demilitarize the LAC on its own terms.”
M. Taylor Fravel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology writes that “India’s new border roads may have prompted the current standoff.” China, he quotes a former Indian defense official as saying, “has always been ultrasensitive to India expanding its presence” in the region.
Lakhvinder Singh, an Indian scholar in Seoul, sees China’s overwhelming concern as protecting its trading lines on land and sea.
“Chinese simply cannot afford to mess with India at this stage,” he writes. “For Chinese economy to keep growing, trading is everything. Even the slightest threat of disruption can increase the Chinese shipping cost many times and make Chinese products expensive in the market.” For India, the key is to “exploit this Chinese weakness for safe flow of its product.”
But Singh warns “India has only five years.” For India, the way to remove the Chinese threat above its far northern frontier is to appeal to China’s interests and negotiate a solution before “Chinese naval encirclement of India will be complete” and China becomes the dominant power over the Indian subcontinent.