Chinese forces have staged an “intrusion” into Indian territory that would have been top world news had they been North Korean troops straying across the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
The story’s big in India, to be sure, but nobody’s paying the slightest attention elsewhere. The “intrusion,” the Indian media’s word for it, is relevant to Korea for one basic reason. It’s another sign of China’s yearning to spread its influence and power around its periphery.
However uneasy the Chinese may feel about the North’s rhetoric, its threats, its nuclear and missile programs, China sees North Korea as an extension of that power. The Chinese, pouring fuel and food into the North as usual, have to delight in the spectacle of the North defying the U.S. and South Korea, making sure China holds sway over both halves of the divided peninsula.
Can it really be, however, that China wants to flex its muscles against India in a repetition of the Sino-Indian border war of the fall of 1962 that resulted in at least 2,000 killed, two thirds of them Indian? Almost without anyone noticing what was going on, two dozen Chinese troops have moved about ten miles beyond the “Line of Actual Control” that’s viewed, at least in New Delhi, as India’s de facto northernmost border.
A few dozen Indian troops have set up camp several hundred meters from the Chinese in a confrontation that no one quite expects to burst into bloodshed. Should not loudspeaker demands to get out, and banners strung up bearing the same message, be enough to persuade the Chinese to decide, We’ve made our point and now we can leave. That’s how it’s been in hundreds of such “intrusions” over the decades since the two sides were actually shooting at one another in a contest in which the Chinese definitely proved their prowess.
This time, though, the Chinese are staying much longer than usual in a most inhospitable region covered with snow and ice at altitudes of several thousand meters. Much to the consternation of Indian policy-makers, the Chinese commander has refused to come to any agreement or understanding with the Indian commander. This time the Chinese seem determined to nip away at Indian lines — and Indian self-esteem.
The Chinese would seem to have already amply proved their military superiority by refusing to consider abandoning a virtually uninhabited region called Aksai Chin that the Chinese took over in 1962 and have held ever since. The region is so desolate, so difficult to defend and of so little immediate value that India virtually ceded it while still claiming it. The Line of Actual Control, as far as the Indians are concerned, is the border separating the territory the Indians still hold from Chinese-held territory.
There is a feeling in Delhi of, why won’t this latest hassle go away? That’s partly because China’s premier, Li Keqiang, is due to come to Delhi this month to meet India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. They should have a lot to talk about, including the problem of China diverting precious waters by damming the enormous rivers that flow out of China through northern India and neighboring Bangladesh.
Officially, India is playing a policy of containment of the Chinese. No, that’s not military containment. Rather, Indian policy-makers are trying to contain what could turn into a crisis, an “incident.” Prime Minister Singh prefers to view the Chinese presence as strictly a minor matter that should come to very little. “We do not want to accentuate the situation,” he told Indian journalists. “It is a localized problem.”
Fine, but the Chinese troops are still there. Moreover, Chinese officials in Beijing say Chinese troops never crossed the line at all. Although no one expects either side to open fire on the other, a solution does not appear in view.
Chinese and Indian leaders, moreover, have much more to worry about than the latest incursion. China is Pakistan’s biggest arms supplier. India imports arms from Russia, the U.S., Europe, even Israel, but not from China.
From the South China Sea, which it claims as its own, to the East China Sea, where the Chinese face off against Japan over an island cluster known as the Senkakus to the Japanese, Daioyu to the Chinese, China is flexing its muscles. Looking northeast, China sees the Yellow Sea and the Korean peninsula as within its sphere of influence. Isn’t that why China keeps calling for “stability” above all else?
The image of Chinese troops way up on the roof of India symbolizes much larger problems for all Asia. On China’s outer fringes, a few dozen Chinese troops huddled in tents at an altitude of nearly 6,000 meters are the tip of the point of China’s expansionist aims throughout Asia.
Donald Kirk is a veteran journalist with decades of experience living and working in Asia. This article has been adapted from “China’s Thrust in the High Himalayas,” which originally appeared on Forbes.com