Rising tensions between China and India do not bode well for the region
As the world grapples with the North Korean missile crisis, a phenomenon not seen on this scale since the Cuban missile crisis, it is worth bearing in mind that North Korea’s neighbour and ally China currently faces a standoff with India in the south and hence is under pressure on two fronts.
The tri-nation border junction of Bhutan, India, and China in the Nathang Valley, near the disputed Doklam/Donglang plateau where the current Sino-Indian standoff began in June, is 194-km from Tetulia, the northern tip of Bangladesh.
At a height of 10,000 feet above sea level, the plateau overlooks the Chicken’s Neck corridor between Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and India. The governments of India, China, and Bhutan have emphasised diplomacy to resolve the standoff, but belligerent rhetoric from hawkish elements in China and India has given rise to fears that a miscalculation can spark conflict.
Are we safe?
A war between Asia’s two largest powers, both of which have nuclear arsenals and one of which is a veto wielding member of the UN Security Council, can have grave ramifications for regional and global stability. The last Sino-Indian war in 1962 saw Chinese troops entering Northeast India, a region which borders eastern Bangladesh.
China has also been critical of growing defense ties between India and the United States, two of the world’s largest democracies. It has also been wary of India’s warm ties with Japan, Asia’s most developed democracy and a historic Chinese rival.
For Bangladesh and its Himalayan neighbours, the potential for a Sino-Indian conflict in the eastern sub-continent is a dangerous prospect. The countries of this sub-region of South Asia have prioritised economic development and the eradication of poverty.
A war between the two great nuclear powers of the region risks affecting and jeopardising economic progress achieved over the years.
Bangladesh is the largest non-nuclear nation in South Asia. It enjoys long-standing relations with both India and China, including in trade and security. Bangladesh is in a unique position in the region to advocate engagement over conflict. The government should take the lead and express the concerns of public opinion in both Bangladesh and our regional neighbours.
Bangladesh can also ponder seeking a nuclear umbrella as insurance from an extra-regional power. But such a move would be restricted by the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, to which Dhaka is a signatory. The treaty will come into effect once it is ratified by at least 50 countries.
The current scenario is a far cry from the grand displays of goodwill in 2014 and 2015, when Xi Jingping and Narendra Modi exchanged state visits
Bangladesh’s strategic importance to China is not simply as a neighbour of India, but because it is also located in the same time zone as Tibet and Xinjiang. On the map, Bangladesh stands in the middle between Western China and the Bay of Bengal.
During World War II, what is now Bangladesh was connected to Southern China by the Stilwell Road. The road is named after an American general who led the Allied Forces (including the British Raj) in support of the Republic of China against Imperial Japan. Beijing would thus be mindful of extra regional forces in modern Bangladesh.
China vs South Asia
In the long term, the nations of SAARC, all of which today enjoy democratic systems, should develop a coordinated strategy and policy on China. The mainland Chinese political system is inherently at odds with the electoral democracies of South Asia.
The One China principle pursued by the mainland People’s Republic of China (PRC) enjoyed a legitimate claim in the 1970s. In 1971, the Chinese permanent seat on the UN Security Council was given to the PRC after the UN General Assembly voted to remove the Republic of China (ROC) based in Taiwan.
The ROC at the time was ruled by the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek, the military ruler who was defeated by Mao Zedong during the Chinese civil war. Many countries switched to relations with the PRC during the economic reform period of Deng Xiaoping.
However, in 1996, Taiwan held its first direct presidential election and has since evolved into a multi-party polity. At the time, mainland China warned the ROC against its democratisation by test firing several missiles into the Taiwan Straits.
Another Chinese territory where democratic aspirations have flourished is the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The former British colony has a partially elected legislature and has seen protests demanding the direct election of its chief executive.
The mainland Chinese government has dug its heels, sparking fears for the future of Hong Kong’s democratic institutions after 2047, the year when China has promised to review Hong Kong’s status and basic law in line with the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.
Today, the One China principle is challenged by the vibrant democracy in the ROC on Taiwan and the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
The mainland rises
The economic advancement of mainland China is certainly welcomed and admired. Today, China is the world’s second largest economy and consumer market. Initiatives such as the One Belt, One Road do indeed provide much needed investment in infrastructure.
China is a significant source of economic assistance for developing countries and also the world’s third largest arms exporter — accounting for 6.2% of weapons sales.
A democratic system in China with the rule of law based on universal human rights, due process, and civil liberties can complement its rise on the world stage. It will certainly complement its burgeoning trade relationships in South Asia, including with India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.
Democracies do not usually go to war, as there is greater room for political engagement.
For all its bellicose posturing, India would do well to prioritise the path of diplomacy during tense times at the Himalayan border. The Indian government has recently clarified that it is doing just that. The current scenario is a far cry from the grand displays of goodwill in 2014 and 2015, when Xi Jingping and Narendra Modi exchanged state visits.
India has often shied away from promoting democratic values abroad, particularly in recent decades.
We only have to look to Myanmar to see the pitfalls of India being bedfellows with a dictatorship; with 25% of seats in Myanmar’s National Assembly now reserved for military officers.
Umran Chowdhury is a law student of the University of London International Program.