For more than a month now, Indian and Chinese troops have faced off on a Himalayan plateau, leading to the worst tension between Asia's twin giants in recent memory. It was triggered by the People's Liberation Army's attempt to build a serviceable road on an old dirt track that Bhutan claims is in its territory. When Bhutanese troops could not stop the construction, the Indians arrived to assist. A stand-off has resulted. Bhutan wants the Chinese to withdraw; China says any withdrawal or negotiations hinge on the Indians pulling back first; and New Delhi says it will not oblige.
Several factors are at play here. An undemarcated boundary that dates to British colonial rule is the prime one. China's annexation of Tibet, which removed a key buffer, brought new worry to India - angst accentuated by a military defeat it suffered at China's hands in 1962 and, latterly, by thickening China-Pakistan ties. Beijing, on its part, frets that India has dropped its traditional non-alignment policy for a strategic posture married to the United States. It has also looked askance at the Dalai Lama's activities in India for decades. Bhutan, its foreign policy yoked to India by treaty, is the unfortunate stuffing in this sandwich. India admits it has no claim on the territory its troops have moved into, but justifies it on the basis of the terrain's proximity to a strategic corridor that links its mainland to the north-east states. It also points out that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is being constructed through a part of Kashmir to which it lays claim.
While the troops have been ordered to keep their guns pointing groundward, the situation is a serious one. Jingoistic rhetoric has flowed from both India and China, additional troops have been kept on reserve, and India's foreign minister has called for an all-party meeting to discuss the issue. China has responded by closing a border crossing for Indian pilgrims to cross over to Tibet. With Beijing eschewing its normal de-escalatory messaging for a more strident tone, there is danger that the brittle peace, which has prevailed on the border for more than a quarter of a century, could be broken.
The situation calls for calm minds. One way out of the impasse is for back-channel negotiations to help mitigate the key concerns of each side. This should not be difficult, seeing that high-level bilateral contacts have not been interrupted despite the border tension. Another way, of course, is mediation, but powers the size of China and India do not take easily to third-party involvement in their problems. Hopefully, the Asian giants will see the wisdom of focusing on common interests like economic ties and the geopolitical underpinnings for sustained growth in the region. At a time when North Korea's provocations are worrying enough, Asia does not need sabres to be rattled elsewhere.