A Big War Scare in the Himalayas

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In the later 1990’s, I was invited to a small dinner in New York given for the Dalai Lama. All of the guests came expecting to hear His Holiness explain the meaning of life.

To their bewilderment, the Dalai Lama gave a rather long, detailed talk about the history of Himalayan border problems between India, China and his own Chinese-occupied Tibet. This subject had always fascinated me – and I was the only person who knew anything about this remote region.

That dinner with the Dalai Lama inspired me to write my first book, War at the Top of the World, a geopolitical overview of the conflicts in the high Himalayas and Karakoram mountains and in Afghanistan.

I predicted that in coming years, China and India would fight a major war over their poorly demarcated, 4,000 km Himalayan border and vie to dominate strategic Burma, China’s route to the Indian Ocean.

Thank the British for this historic Himalayan mess. The British created MacMahon Line, poorly drew the wild, little-known border of the British Indian Raj and Tibet. Legend has it that the British used a thick tipped pen to draw the line on a map, leaving a wide area undefined. China refuses to recognize this British Imperial creation – today, India’s Arunachal Pradesh.

In 1962, India and China fought a brief but bloody border along India’s eastern mountain border in what was then called Northeast Frontier Agency, and in the western region of Ladakh, often called “Little Tibet,” the westernmost extension of the Tibetan Plateau.

The Indian Army was badly defeated by the Chinese, who could have pushed on to take Calcutta. But Chairman Mao called off the war, claiming India had been taught a “lesson.” India indeed learned a lesson: it began arming and preparing for future mountain wars with China. Since then, tensions have periodically flared on and off along the Indo-Tibetan border.

Near Ladakh lies Aksai Chin, a vast wilderness of frozen peaks and lakes at an average altitude of 4,600 meters that China seized from India in the 1950’s in order to build a military road linking its western-most province of Xinjiang to Tibet.

Smack in the middle of the towering mountains is the vast, poorly demarcated Siachen Glacier at an average 6,000 meters altitude. Starting in the mid-1980’s, India and China have fought over this almost airless white hell in the highest war in history. I observed combat between Pakistani commandos and Indian mountain troups there in the late 1980’s.

In mid-April of this year, Chinese troops set up a series of small encampments in Indian Ladakh. India moved troops nearby.

India, which believes it is being surrounded by China and Chinese allies, reacted with great alarm to the small incursions. For a time, there was talk in India’s media of a new war with China. But after three weeks of nationalist uproar by India’s militant Hind parties, both sides calmed down and agreed to withdraw their troops.

But, according to many Indian analysts, China had scored a big point by getting parts of India’s border to be called “disputed territory,” a time-honored ploy so often used by Israel in claiming Arab lands.

India remains deeply worried by the relentless Chinese strategic buildup on the Tibetan plateau: new air and missile bases; military roads, depots and barracks; radars and other electronic intelligence systems. Chinese forces in Tibet literally look down on India’s plains.

Equally worrisome for India, many of its major rivers that provide hundreds of millions of its people with water and nourish crops originate in or near Chinese-ruled Tibet.

Indian and Chinese officials have conducted polite but unproductive border talks for years. More are set to be held.

But neither side appears ready to make serious concessions.

Meanwhile, Indian-Chinese trade is growing and has reached $10 billion per annum, but the strategic confrontation continues, with growing Indian alarms over China’s push into the Indian Ocean, which Delhi considers its “mare nostrum.”

Add to Himalayan tensions India’s mounting concerns over China’s involvement in new port-building in Pakistan’s Baluchistan, Burma and Sri Lanka. One never knows, my prediction of a clash between the two Asian giants may yet come to pass.

The Best of Eric Margolis

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