- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 16, 2017

The world’s two most populous nations have been escalating a nasty border feud, with no quick resolution in sight.

A weeks-long standoff between China and India in disputed Himalayan territory reached a new climax Wednesday, after India authorized its army to make emergency purchases of weapons to prepare for a “short, intense war,” according to India Today.

Though nonviolent border kerfuffles have occurred regularly between the two nations since the Sino-Indian War in 1962, “this dispute is a bit more serious,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center.

Tensions heightened in mid-June, when Indian troops halted a Chinese construction force in the Doklam Plateau — territory on Bhutan’s western border that India and Bhutan call Bhutanese, but that China claims for itself.

Since the confrontation, both sides have poured troops into the region for a nonviolent standoff. Chinese rhetoric has been sharper this time than in past disputes, noted Mr. Kugelman.

The current conflict has a darker tone because of deteriorating relations between the two countries in the past months, Mr. Kugelman said. For example, China blocked India from joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group and maintains a close relationship with Pakistan, India’s enemy.

India, meanwhile, won’t support China’s massive “Belt and Road” initiative, a development strategy involving the cooperation of multiple Asian nations.

Moreover, Mr. Kugelman said, the Doklam is more crucial than other regions of border disputes.

The Doklam is essential to Indian security, said Jeff Smith, director of Asian security programs at the American Foreign Policy Council.

It’s near India’s “Chicken’s Neck,” or the Siliguri Corridor, which connects India’s easternmost states to the rest of the country. Though India doesn’t own the disputed plateau, negotiations with Bhutan allow Indian troops to patrol the area.

China, meanwhile, claims the land based on an 1890 treaty that India argues was invalidated by negotiations in 2012.

China, at least, has a case to make,” Mr. Smith said. “But that doesn’t explain why they’re pressing the issue now.”

Mr. Kugelman speculated that China wants to “send a message of defiance.” He noted that Chinese troops entered the plateau during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit with President Trump was “not likely coincidental.”

Neither side would benefit from war, Mr. Kugelman said, noting that India and China have a strong bilateral trade, and that each has other security concerns that make war unaffordable.

Still, it’s hard to see how tensions will defuse, said Alyssa Ayres, senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council of Foreign Relations.

China’s taking a very hard line on this, and it seems to be making it difficult for negotiators to find a way out,” Ms. Ayres said, agreeing that the conflict is unlikely to become a war.

Mr. Smith said India has been more quiet on the issue but would not cede anything to China: “We may have these camps staying in place indefinitely with the heightened possibility of some kind of escalation.”

Regardless of the prospects, the world should pay more attention, said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“We’re talking about two nuclear weapons states,” Mr. Manning said. “It’s something people should think about.”

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