“[W]e seem, as it were, to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind.”-- John Robert Seeley
(Yicai Global) Aug. 9 -- China has much to gain from forcing the issue in its face-off with India and Bhutan in Doklam, or Donglang as Beijing calls it.
The Kingdom of Bhutan sets the backdrop to this dragging-on drama. It drowses under the benevolent Buddhist sway of its photogenic royal couple, the quaintly-named King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his queen consort. It has no official diplomatic relations with China, of which it has been a little leery since the China-India border war of 1962, followed by serial incursions by Tibetan grazers and others onto its territory. The disputed territory sits where western Bhutan adjoins a bulge of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, not far from their three-way border with India.
If China does bust a move in this nook of land, this would have several effects.
First, demonstrate to the world -- and, more importantly, the other Asian neighbors with whom Beijing also has territorial disputes -- the country’s unwavering resolve to defend its irredentism to the last. That it could do so without triggering interference by the other big players is also manifestly clear.
Second, the UK’s weak coalition government is bogged down in Brexit, while what is increasingly transpiring as the lame-duck Trump presidency in the US is busy chasing its tail on the domestic front, while posturing and bluffing toward North Korea and Iran internationally. It also still has its hands full in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Thus, any forceful action China may take against Indian troops stationed on Bhutanese soil is likely to elicit only a muted US and UK protest, notwithstanding India’s status as their close ally, the more so as the potential flash point is in Bhutan, a country with which -- you guessed it -- the US and UK, like China, lack formal diplomatic relations.
Third, China would come out on top because it already is. It would do so because it would be fighting a downhill battle from the Tibetan Plateau, while India would have to fight uphill and, just like in 1962, face the logistical nightmare of hauling troops and hardware many thousands of feet up the world’s most forbidding terrain from the plains below.
Fourth, China would prevail because it is a wealthier, more populous and technologically-advanced nation.
Fifth, it would win because it has logistical supremacy. Its road-building in the region -- the very grounds for Bhutan’s protests and India’s incursion -- means it has transport infrastructure in place, which is not the case on the other side.
The only downside to a military solution in the Doklam impasse for China is that this would would give substance to India’s misgivings over Chinese president Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road initiative. India vociferously suspects that China’s Belt and Road is merely imperialism by another means, commerce as a stalking horse for conquest. India’s history uniquely qualifies her to appreciate the implications of such mercantilism-come-militarism that famously absentmindedly acquired her as part of the former British Empire.
The British indeed bear the blame for the whole mess -- at least in its current configuration. China’s claim to the disputed area seems to derive from the 1890 Convention of Calcutta it signed with the UK, via which the British hoped to congeal India’s northern border and create buffers against Russian encroachments during the time of the Great Game, when these two superpowers and China vied for influence over the squabbling tribes of Central Asia, with the Tsar’s possession of the subcontinent in Russia’s sights. Bhutan, one should note, was neither a signatory to the agreement nor an attendee at the negotiations.
Thus was born this tense tableau. Let us hope reason will ride to the rescue and the two hitherto unarmed contingents of troops will blink and execute a climbdown, rather than each other.
Otherwise, it will be the great pity of the world if its two most populous nations unsheathe the sword and go to war (though it has happened before) over a sward of raw turf on the windswept roof of the Earth which few of either’s citizens could locate on a map.