International Policy Digest

Antônio Milena
World News /19 Nov 2019

Are India and China Drifting into War?

Since the conclusion of the Indo-Chinese War in 1962, an uneasy peace has reigned over the “McMahon Line” as China now trumpets the discovery of an estimated $60 billion gold find, and the beginning of mining operations in Arunachal Pradesh region on the Chinese side of the Himalayas, along with plans to dam the headwaters of the major rivers in South East Asia and the publishing of new maps which shows Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet.” Tensions are rising. While China denies it will construct more dams affecting the Brahmaputra River, China also lied about the construction of the first dam that was constructed on the Brahmaputra, which was finished in 2015. With both nations becoming ever more nationalistic, the possibility has increased.

The Chinese government has also been encouraging the settlement of the Han Chinese in this area in order to strengthen its claim to the Himalayas, and what China claims is their rightful ownership of territory under dispute between China and India. Recently, the Chinese government has been referring to Arunachal Pradesh, which is currently under India’s governance, as “Southern Tibet” or South Tibet. Since Tibet is under the military control of the Chinese in the Tibetan Plateau, China is following the same political formula which it followed when it seized the South China Sea via the military buildup of artificial islands in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines.

The McMahon Line

The McMahon Line was named after the British diplomat Henry McMahon in 1914 at the Simla Conference. The agreement between the British Empire and Tibet was not signed by the Chinese government, and the boundary is not recognized by the People’s Republic of China.

The Geopolitical Significance of the Himalayas and Tibet

One of the underlying principles of military science has always been to seize the high ground. The Himalayas are the highest mountain range in the world. China, since ancient times, has always regarded the Himalayas and Tibet as vital to its national security.

China has historically referred to Tibet as “Xizang” or the “Western Storehouse” in Mandarin.

While the Indo-Chinese War concluded in 1962, the cessation of hostilities was little more than an uneasy truce. At the time of the close of the Indo-Chinese War neither power possessed nuclear weapons. Today both of these giant Asian powers possess nuclear weapons, so any conflict between India and China has the potential of rising to the level of nuclear weapons being employed.

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is an essential water resource for both India and China. The mighty Yangtze River and the Yellow River both receive water run-off from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau from Tibetan glaciers and the snowmelt from the mountains of the Himalayas. On the Indian side, the rivers Brahmaputra, and Indus also are fed by the glaciers of Tibet and the snowmelt of the Himalayas. For India, the status of the Brahmaputra is the most sensitive as the Chinese are developing dams on the Tibetan Plateau that could severely restrict the flow of water from Tibet into the Brahmaputra. This could rapidly become a serious flashpoint between India and China.

Indian soldiers training with members of the U.S. Army. (Samuel Northrup/U.S. Army)

For the moment, the two nuclear powers share the water resources and neither one has attempted to gain a monopoly on the source of water for both countries. However, with China becoming more bellicose in her official statements, particularly by calling the Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet,” China appears to be setting the groundwork for an attempt to force India from the Arunachal Pradesh so as to gain total control of the source of water which is vital to both countries.

Besides water, there are large deposits of copper in Tibet’s Yulong Copper Mine as well as oil and other precious minerals which China wants to use to supply her manufacturing base.

For decades the Chinese have been constructing the necessary infrastructure to be able to develop the Tibetan Plateau and finally, their hard work is going to pay off. The work of building this infrastructure is hampered by the climate of the Himalayas especially the altitude which only allows men and women to work at the high altitudes for limited amounts of time.

The Brahmaputra And the Ganges Delta

The Ganges Delta, also known as the Green Delta, is fed by the rivers Brahmaputra and the Ganges rivers. While the Ganges River arises from the western Himalayas in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, the Brahmaputra begins its journey from the Angsi glacier in Tibetan territory which is controlled by China.

The Ganges Delta is one of the most fertile deltas in the world. One of the major rivers feeding the Ganges Delta is the Brahmaputra.

With the construction of the Zangmu Dam which became operational in October of 2015, the possibility of war between China and India has been simmering. With the renewed aggressive behavior of China in regard to the Arunachal Pradesh region in northeastern China, the ability of the Chinese to simply stop the flow of water to the Brahmaputra has quietly raised tensions between the two nuclear powers.

China has already used the prospect of blocking the information of water flow date to India from the Tibetan Plateau. In 2017, India and China became embroiled in a military standoff in Doklam in Bhutan. Since 1949, India and Bhutan have an agreement where India is responsible for guiding the affairs and national security of Bhutan.

China on June 16, 2017, after publishing maps that disputed the Convention of Calcutta which was signed in March of 1890, moved armed troops along with construction crews into Doklam and began expanding a road leading southwards onto the Doklam Plateau. On June 18, 2017, India dispatched 270 armed troops with two bulldozers to prevent the Chinese troops from extending the road. After several clashes, in August of 2017, both sides withdrew and the status quo ante bellum was restored.

During this period of time, China interrupted the water flow date of the Siang River that feeds the Brahmaputra which raised alarm in India and the Green Delta. The Chinese claimed that the interruption was the result of an adjustment to its measuring stations. Remarkably, after the stand-off at the Doklam Plateau had been resolved, the Chinese were able to resume sharing water flow data with India. With the Chinese constructing additional dams in the Tibetan Plateau, the threat of cutting off water to India’s northeaster plain and the Green Delta cannot be easily dismissed.

With nationalist governments in power in both countries, the ability to disengage from future standoffs will be more difficult to achieve. As a result, the odds of war between the two nuclear-armed countries has increased which does not bode well for peace between China and India.