The Sino-Indian border dispute threatens to dramatically escalate, as recent skirmishes have provoked a significant military response from both nations. Earlier this month, several soldiers were injured as Indian soldiers attempted to break down newly constructed PLA outposts in the Tsomo Nganglha Ringpo valley. Due to the international sensitivity of the area, soldiers in both armies are under orders not to fire unless instructed to do so by their national government. As a result, fistfights have recently broken out as tensions flared. This latest skirmish saw soldiers in both armies using rocks and clubs as they fought over control of the tent outposts, which had been constructed in an area typically patrolled by Indian troops.
Tensions are high because India and China both have been developing infrastructure in contested areas. India recently began the construction of a bridge to improve the capabilities of its airbase near the Tibetan-Nepalese border. China is also upgrading its airbase on the other side of the border, part of a larger scheme of encirclement that has seen an island in the Maldives purchased, reclaimed, and converted into an airbase. Today in Ladakh, China and India are surging troops and heavy equipment, in response to a severe skirmish earlier this month. It would appear that the order to fire, with all of its implications for the Himalayan region, might actually be under consideration in Beijing and New Delhi. The question of who might fire the first shot is hopefully one we might never answer, as the international community now focuses its attention on stabilizing the situation.
Until recently, border disputes between India and China have been insignificant, as the Himalayas have formed a strong natural barrier between the world’s two most populated countries. Tibetan culture, and the many cultures that independently developed in the mountain valleys of the Himalayas, served as a cultural and political boundary between China and India. That boundary was moved when China annexed Tibet. Many Tibetan customs and languages still exist, but Han Chinese have a stronger presence on the Tibetan plateau than when they controlled Tibet in the past. For the first time, India is contemplating large garrisons of Chinese troops stationed minutes from Indian territory, and the official response is to fortify existing borders.
In the longer term, two options provide hope for stability. The first is for India, China, and Pakistan to sign an agreement on the existing borders between the three nations, and to keep militarization of those borders to a minimum. That has been attempted many times since the P.R.C. invaded and took control of Tibet in the 1950s, and has borne little fruit. An alternative vision sees the reestablishment of an independent Tibet, a vision undoubtedly favored by India. I’m also of the opinion that an independent Tibet and Himalayan region would provide greater stability to Asia and better serve the people who live there. Culturally and economically, the Himalayas have little in common with governments in Beijing, Islamabad, or New Delhi, and should not have to answer to any regional power.
The Himalayan region has few strategic industries or resources. China has used Tibet as a nuclear waste dump, and most people in the Himalayas live simple, pastoral and agrarian lifestyles. The strategic value for the Chinese, from what I can gather, is simply to have a good footing for a front line in any future battle. Taking a mountain in war is very difficult, so whoever can fortify a mountaintop overlooking the other’s territory is in a superior position. Aside from that, many rivers in India and China start in this mountainous territory.
For both of these reasons, I think the entire region should be independent. However, as these skirmishes over contested territory continue to escalate in violence, the odds of a political coalition against China on the Himalayan plateau forming and reasserting Tibetan sovereignty shrink. If that is no longer possible, India will be forced to accept a Chinese presence at their borders or risk a major war: a decision it may make sooner than we had hoped.