The omens of war grow stronger in Asia
Early this week, the back pages of numerous news outlets detailed one of the strangest incidents of state conflict in recent memory. 14,000 ft up in a stretch of barren, oxygen-deprived, Himalayan desert, Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in brutal hand-to-hand combat that resulted in at least 20 deaths. Armed with rudimentary weapons including iron rods, bamboo sticks, or simply their fists, soldiers fought amidst sub-zero temperatures, in the dark, on a steep and uneven mountainous ridge. Unsurprisingly, most deaths have been attributed to falls from the high slopes.
This ‘battle’ is the deadliest clash between the two states in decades, but the disagreements underlying the violence are nothing new. Fighting took place in the Galwan Valley in the territory of Ladakh, whose ownership has been both shared and heavily disputed since the 1950’s, and which has become a site of fierce Indo-Sinese hostility. Both sides have accused the other of instigation by crossing the Line of Actual Control, which acts as a de facto border. Despite the lack of an officially defined border, large-scale conflicts have been previously avoided due to agreements from the 1990’s that ban the use of guns and explosives, encourage rapid retreats during hostilities, and focus on diplomatic resolutions. These arrangements are responsible for the strangely crude and archaic nature of the skirmishes that ultimately occur. However, the incident is a serious escalation of a generally low-level conflict between the two states, and one that has been rumbling on with increasingly aggressive confrontations since early May.
Without its wider context, it may seem simply an interesting, almost parochial engagement, but one that is ultimately an insignificant event in a far-away land. Perhaps this explains the minimal media coverage, although it is admittedly hard to break through the current headline domination of the coronavirus and racial tensions in the West. Most importantly, it’s impact on the British public has been close to non-existent. So why, you may ask, should we care?
We should care because what is occurring in the Galwan Valley is a microcosm of India and China’s wider battle for Asian, and ultimately global, supremacy. The expectations of China to leapfrog the US as the world’s largest economy are well-documented, as is their global expansion. The enormous Belt and Road initiative, which aims to connect Asia with Africa and Europe through the creation of extensive land and maritime networks, will vastly increase Chinese trade and economic growth. This, alongside their extensive investment focus on African, exhibits their insatiable desire for expansion and has led to accusations of financial imperialism. What is less understood is the substantial challenge that India poses to future Chinese hegemony. India is currently the fifth largest economy in the world and attracts the globe’s highest foreign direct investment. In addition to this, and of great concern to Chinese authority, recent years have seen China’s economy begin to slow as India’s has accelerated. Make no mistake, this is a very real conflict between two of the world’s great powers.
Some argue their clash in the Himalayas is merely strategic posturing, but the aftermath of the event has done little to quell fears of further military action. Despite a reportedly amicable phone call between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi, subsequent agreements to de-escalate have been proceeded by actions entirely divergent from achieving this outcome. Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry, took to Twitter, accusing the Indian army of ‘deliberately provoking and attacking Chinese officers and soldiers’. Addressing the issue on national television, Modi refuted claims of provocation, and ominously added that ‘India wants peace, but if provoked, India will provide an appropriate response’. Videos are currently circulating online of protestors hanging and burning effigies of Xi across India. The lack of a peaceful resolution is of great concern and it is likely that this mutual antagonism will creep into other disputes, such as their naval spats in the Indian Ocean, China’s actions in the South China Sea, or their respective policies towards Pakistan.
Taking another perspective, this is a further example of the increasingly volatile balance of power across Asia. Barry Buzan identified the continent as the battleground of smaller regional security complexes of the Middle East, South Asia, and South East Asia, which exhibit great internal and external competition. The Middle East is defined by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, South Asia by India-Pakistan, and South East Asia with Chinese, Japanese, and ASEAN competition. Consequently, relations across the board are highly strung and frequently boil over. Only extremely sensitive diplomacy avoided igniting last year’s India-Pakistan stand-off into war, and just this week North Korea blew up its joint liaison office with South Korea whilst dramatically increasing their military presence at the border. Great enmity underpins Chinese-Japanese relations due to historical atrocities, whilst China’s long-expressed intention to absorb Taiwan into its nation, alongside its practice of building islands in the South China Sea to expand its territorial reach, has greatly angered the ASEAN states.
In his book The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World, historian Peter Krankopan detailed how, as Western hegemony declines, the centre of the world is shifting East. Including Japan, the continent boasts 3 of the top 5 economies in the world, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Myanmar are among the globe’s fastest developing nations, whilst Pakistan has become the world’s largest retail market. Yet alongside this positivity comes grave concerns, as the pressures of this development correlate with the exacerbation of an array of state conflicts. Suprastate organisations have failed to achieve peace or establish concrete resolutions and history teaches us that such regional rivalries rarely lead to peaceful outcomes. This takes on more significance as the drivers of the global economy can be seen to be standing on ever more unstable ground. Thus, as the eye of the world moves to Asia, the images it sees may increasingly be those of turbulence and competition. Fist-fighting in the mountains may be the extent of it now, but this has the potential to erupt into a major conflict.