JUNE 21 — Two of the world’s most powerful nations clashed last week with casualties on both sides.
Indian and Chinese troops fought over a disputed section of their Himalayan border on June 16th — the first conflict with fatalities between the two countries in over 50 years.
The world’s two most populous nations, also the second and fifth largest economies in the world, engaged in a deadly battle but in a world focused on Covid-19 and transfixed by America’s Black Lives Matter protests, this incident didn’t dominate headlines in the way it perhaps should have.
This is a serious and dangerous escalation.
Both India and China are nuclear powers and while it is not likely they are going to engage in nuclear war over a patch of rocks in the Himalayas, the fact that a conflict that has been reasonably frozen for decades has escalated to fatalities is troubling.
To make matters worse, the casualties were not caused by the usual gun shots and artillery.
By mutual agreement, soldiers patrolling the India-China border do not carry firearms so combatants from the two sides bludgeoned each other to death.
It’s gruesome but shows a frightening level of hostility and an absence of a working de-escalation mechanism.
At a time when the world is dealing with an unprecedented pandemic and the economic fallout from the associated lockdown, the world’s emerging superpowers seemed to display disappointing immaturity.
No one should be dying over a high-altitude wasteland.
Whatever maps, treaties, and lines in the snow the two sides produce, the truth is these remote valleys have never been an important part of any kingdom.
There are no real settlements or resources in the area; it’s a natural buffer. So, what are they fighting about?
It is not exactly clear.
Broadly, India is nervous about a corner of its territory near both Pakistan and China.
Given the area is effectively part of Kashmir — most of which India disputes with its other nuclear armed neighbour, Pakistan — India wants as much territory, roads, and access for its troops as it can get.
Meanwhile, China wants to increase its troop presence in the region to help secure roadways that help connect its most remote provinces — Xinjiang and Tibet.
While these are important tactical priorities, they aren’t on the scale of say China’s claims in the South China Sea, or India’s bigger dispute with Pakistan.
Control of maritime trade routes in the South China Sea is a vital priority for China but fighting over a line of control at 18,000 feet cannot possibly be a major strategic priority.
So again, why are people dying over something that just doesn’t seem that important?
Both sides seem to be motivated by nationalist sentiment. As rising powers they want to show their domestic populations that they can be more assertive and they no longer seem as willing to compromise.
But this seems short-sighted.
Watching troops literally brawling does not reinforce confidence. At a time when Western world leadership is looking shaky in the face of a more isolationist America and an economically vulnerable Europe, the world and Asia in particular is looking for China and India to show leadership... not engage in mini battles.
China-US trade tensions have already done serious harm to many Asian economies and while India-China trade is not on the same scale, it is significant and if it stalls there will once again be consequences for economies in South-east Asia.
Currently the world really doesn’t need more nationalist chest thumping from these two vast nations.
India and China need to find some way to manage their territorial disputes while still co-operating on the big issues.
The disputed kilometres up in the Himalayas should remain as they have been for thousands of years — frozen.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.