“The United States does not recognize our countries as great powers.” Chairman Mao Zedong, the Communist revolutionary and the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, said this to Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, in 1954. The two leaders met in Beijing and bonded over a shared sentiment of anti-imperialism. “The ruler that the United States uses to measure other countries will no longer be useful in the future,” Nehru agreed with Mao, according to archives now declassified and released by the Wilson Center. “In addition to money there are other factors, the human factor is the most important,” he said idealistically; “ … our two countries should play more important roles in Asia. In any case, the population of our two countries reaches one billion. This will lead to immense influence.”
More than six decades later, between them, China and India make up 36 percent of the world’s population and are the globe’s fastest-growing economies, with a recent report placing India ahead. Nehru was prescient about the influence they would wield — he coined the phrase “Hindi-Chini bhai bhai” (the Indians and Chinese are brothers) — but absolutely misjudged their imagined partnership. His naiveté about China resulted in a war in 1962 that caught India off guard. This year, as Chinese and Indian soldiers stand eyeball to eyeball in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan in a month-long standoff, the state-run Chinese media has threatened India that “it will suffer greater losses than in 1962.”
But, as Indian Defense Minister Arun Jaitley said, “India of 2017 is very different” from the India of 1962. India has refused to kowtow to China’s entitled assumptions about a hegemonic control of Asia.
At the epicenter of the growing crisis is the Doklam plateau, which sits at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan, near the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim. In June, the Bhutanese army objected to the Chinese constructing a road in territory that it says is within its sovereignty. It asked the Indian military for help to resist the Chinese aggression, and Indian troops moved into the construction area in Bhutan. India says China has violated an agreed-upon status quo and is in violation of a 2012 boundary agreement. Beijing has referenced a much earlier colonial treaty signed between Great Britain and China. The Indian military maintains a permanent training presence in Bhutan; its current king was a graduate of the National Defense College in Delhi. China, for its part, has for years wanted full diplomatic ties with Bhutan.
But still, Bhutan may simply be a decoy for a bigger play: Who will lead Asia?
“The larger battle is essentially about strategic competition for geopolitical space and influence in Asia between India and China,” said Nirupama Rao, who served as India’s ambassador to China and retired as the government’s top-ranking diplomatic official. “The gauntlet thrown is not directed against Bhutan, but against India,” she told me in an interview. The entire Indo-Pacific region is now the gladiatorial ring where a global joust is unfolding, pulling in countries well beyond Bhutan. The United States, India and Japan just completed trilateral naval exercises amid reports of Chinese submarine presence in the Indian Ocean region.
Tibet — and India’s support for the Dalai Lama — has been another flashpoint; as China sulked, India allowed the Buddhist leader, who has championed independence for Tibet, to visit Tawang in the eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims to have rights over.
Regional provocation is also spinning along the Sino-Pakistan axis. China has regularly blocked action at the United Nations against Pakistan-based terrorist groups. China’s ambitious “one belt, one road” initiative passes through territory that India regards as sovereign, angering New Delhi. Beijing has used the Sikkim-Bhutan standoff to threaten India on possible interference in the Kashmir Valley, in support of Pakistan.
Many Indians believe that infrastructure, power projects, highways in Pakistan are the instruments of Chinese neo-colonialism. Beijing’s protectorate over Pakistan, Islamabad, is now seen as a virtual colony of China, locked into inescapable dependence.
Yet, despite the Indian military chief asserting his readiness for a “two-and-a-half-front war” (a reference to Pakistan, China and internal threats), some believe that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s observation that India and China have not fired a single bullet in 40 years will remain true. India is China’s largest trading partner; a sixth of India’s imports are now Chinese. “China is no monolith,” said Alok Bansal with the India Foundation, a think tank linked to the government. “We have to look at the subterranean currents; Chinese society today is extremely driven by commercial interests. I don’t think the people there want conflict with India. Indian soft power has also made its own ingress.” Bansal said that what really bothers the Chinese is India’s growing proximity to the United States and points out that any maleficent aggression will achieve precisely that.
There are also murmurs in strategic circles about overdependence on Washington. “If ever there was a war with China, America would never come to our rescue,” one government official said. India’s road to equality with China may eventually route itself not through Washington or the West, but through the East; Modi has invested energy in building relationships with Japan, Vietnam and South Korea, all of whom are suspicious of China.
Amid current fears of a second Sino-Indian battle between two nuclear-armed giants of Asia, the only denouement can be a mutual withdrawal of soldiers from the contested Bhutan region. Anything else could be cataclysmic.