Solution to a Himalayan Standoff: Formalize the India-China Border
While the media is abuzz with various analyses on how the current India-China military standoff in the Doklam bowl may pan out, they generally miss the larger issue at stake: namely the need for a permanent border resolution between both nations.
Any temporary resolution over the 89-square kilometre yak-grazing ground claimed by China and Bhutan would be complicated by the lack of a general border consensus between all three nations in the area. Doklam represents only a dot along the thousands of square kilometres of contested lands straddling the Line of Actual Contact (LAC) between India and China. Even if the Doklam standoff is resolved today, another sore spot along the LAC may flare up tomorrow.
Under these circumstances, it would be pointless for India to make any concessions to China unless Delhi and Beijing agree to resolve all outstanding border issues within an accelerated time-frame. Until then, the current eyeball-to-eyeball staring war between Indian and Chinese troops in the Doklam bowl will be repeated across various peaks along the Himalayas.
Singed Borders or Synergized Economies?
Despite China’s military superiority, India knows that it is digging in from a position of strength. The Chinese economy is maxing out, primarily due to debts incurred by its numerous state-owned enterprises (SOEs) which amounted to 65% of its GDP in 2016. According to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the total outstanding debt incurred by China’s government, corporate and household sectors amounted to $26.6 trillion in 2015, representing a staggering 255 percent of its GDP.
China therefore can ill-afford a major war with India whose long-overdue infrastructural boom has only begun to rev up. Beijing also urgently needs alternative export markets before various debt bubbles, worth tens of trillions of dollars in the United States alone, implode a la the Great Recession of 2008. The global stabilizing role played by China from 2008 onwards may even be replicated by India in 2018 – if both nations can move beyond their singed borders to synergize their economies.
So far, little has been studied or published about the economic potentials unleashed by a hypothetical border treaty between India and China. With a collective market of 2.7 billion potential consumers, backed by a historic stranglehold over 50% of the global GDP from 1000 AD to 1600 AD, there is no reason why both nations cannot return to their rightful places under the sun. In the light of the West’s gradual decline, China’s export-oriented industries need Indian consumers for the next few decades. Incidences like the Doklam standoff however have resulted in strident calls for the boycott of Chinese products in India and the substitution of Chinese raw materials through an accelerated industrial program.
A Stable Geostrategic Continuum
It is an open question on who will benefit more from a final border resolution between China and India. China’s primary Belt and Road (B&R) arteries have been laid being across territories that may be prone to Islamic fundamentalist disruptions and geopolitical blackmail in the near future. A trans-Himalayan economic corridor into India, post-border treaty, may however provide a secure and enduring economic corridor for China in a way the CPEC in Pakistan cannot. It also creates a formidable geostrategic continuum between the RIC nations of Russia, India and China.
Such a game-changing development may also neutralize jihadi secessionist movements from Xinjiang to Kashmir to southern Thailand. Turkey, aware of its ability to stoke pan-Turkic discombobulation across Central Asia, is already eyeing a military base along the Straits of Malacca through which 80 per cent of China’s maritime oil imports and 60% of Japan’s total oil imports flow.
While the proposed Melaka Gateway joint development project by a Chinese-Malaysian consortium may help secure the Straits of Malacca for Beijing, there is no guarantee that Turkey will not establish a wildcard presence in the region. With a growing military presence in the Straits of Hormuz courtesy of the ongoing Qatar-Saudi Arabia rift, Ankara may be tempted to encircle the B&R in order to extract trade and geopolitical concessions out of China. And this is just one short-term geopolitical risk facing China.
It is therefore in Beijing’s long-term interest to seek a permanent border resolution with Delhi. India is already benefitting from the fallouts of China’s unresolved territorial disputes with 18-odd nations; one that may even involve the Jiandao region in a future unified Korea. Nations feeling the brunt of China’s revanchist policies are rapidly boosting trade and military ties with India.
A final India-China border treaty should be future-proof. It should securitize the Tibetan fonts of India’s downstream water lifelines and cut out Pakistan from being used as a spoiler in future India-China bilateral equations.
At the of the day, it may take a Himalayan effort for both nations to sign a secure and lasting treaty but once both nations stop bickering to start cooperating, it is their destiny to move mountains beyond their current redoubts.
Originally published in the Business Standard on Aug 2, 2017