A skirmish along the Sino-Bhutanese border involving up to 6,000 Indian and Chinese troops has occupied international media for the last two weeks. It was triggered on June 16, when the Chinese army started building a road that Bhutan alleged was on its territory. Indian troops were called in to back up Bhutan. The matter is still ongoing, with troops standing “eyeball to eyeball” along a mountainous line, and diplomatic relations between China and India have since deteriorated rapidly. Commentators are describing this escalation as unparalleled in recent history. So why is it happening now and what are the potential consequences?
Border skirmishes are not at all uncommon in this Himalayan region. There is no drawn border between Tibet, Sikkim on the Indian side, and Bhutan. Instead, each army operates along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which remains a contested grey area. In 2014, the BBC described the border as porous, and incursions regularly happen prior to important state visits. Experts have suggested that this particular standoff was provoked by Prime Minister Modi’s three-day visit to Washington, which happened in the last week of June. Rajeswari Rajagopalan, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, stated that the timing “could not be a coincidence.”
However, while incursions are not uncommon, this incident is unprecedented in recent history. Unlike previous incidents, which have typically been downplayed by politicians and diplomats on both sides, this has quickly soured Sino-Indian relations. Beijing confirmed last week it had closed the Nathu La Pass, a pilgrim trail opened in 2015 to allow Indian worshippers access to Mount Kailash and Lake Manosawar, two sites revered by Hindus and Buddhists. On July 5, Global Times, a Chinese state-run English language newspaper, argued that India needed to be taught a “bitter lesson” and it would suffer “worse losses than in 1962” if the border clash escalated. The Indian media has been similarly bellicose; India’s Chief of Staff stated India was fully ready for a “two-and-a-half-front war,” referring to Pakistan, China, and other international forces.
Several factors have contributed to this state of affairs. Trump’s inauguration, some argue, has ushered in a new level of instability in international politics and bolstered China’s confidence as the regional superpower. Furthermore, China and India have longstanding issues that are becoming increasingly pressing, including India’s diplomatic involvement with Bhutan and its support of the Dalai Lama. Beijing regarded its recent visit to Arunachal Pradesh state on the border with China as very provocative. India, on the other hand, has become ever more wary of Beijing’s relations with Pakistan, where China is supporting a nuclear programme. It also takes umbrage at Beijing’s diplomatic interventions, which India alleges have prevented India from bringing Pakistan-sheltered terrorists to justice, and from joining the UN Security Council and the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
It is clear that rising nationalism has changed the Sino-Indian dynamic recently. The ascension of the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, and the fermenting state-sponsored nationalism in China have inculcated dangerous patriotic sentiments in both countries. As can be seen with the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute, China’s foreign policy is driven not only by economic concerns, but reinforced and catalyzed by its nationalist public that puts its leaders in a tight spot. Similarly, India is unwilling to back down to China, lest the country loses face and appears weak before its formidable neighbour and long-time competitor.
Furthermore, the Indian region involved in this dispute, Sikkim, is a former Buddhist monarchy and part of the Tibetan cultural sphere. It is home to Tawang, a culturally Tibetan city and birthplace of a former Dalai Lama. With the current. Dalai Lama entering his 82nd year, control of the area in which he may reincarnate will be crucial to China’s influence over Tibetan politics for the coming generation. Control over Tibet remains integral to the Chinese government’s plan and national identity. For this reason, China is once again making moves on this part of the world.
Although a heated war between India and China remains unlikely, and experts agree that both countries have diplomatic mechanisms to deal with this dispute, this standoff has certainly alerted us to the brewing nationalism in the region. This may have the potential to simmer over the edge in the coming years, if only to make a political point.