High in the barren mountains of Ladakh, just downwind from the Himalayas, a seemingly bizarre series of fights took place last week.
Indian and Chinese troops in this long-disputed territory fought hand to hand in temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees. Some were thrown from mountainsides and subsequently froze to death, others were beaten bloody by truncheons bound tightly with barbed wire.
At altitudes of up to 18,000 feet above sea level the air is thin and even walking can be difficult, so the combatants must have struggled for every breath.
It is believed that some 20 Indian soldiers were killed. No one is saying how many Chinese.
The border between the two Asian powers has been heavily contested ever since British, Chinese and Russian imperial powers fought out the 19th century’s “Great Game” to divide the region.
Generations later, tensions between China and independent India erupted in war in 1962, and several bouts of “skirmishes” in the 1970s and 80s.
Yet in recent years the still unresolved border issue had been largely quiet. Both sides agreed that troops patrolling the area would not be armed and would meet regularly to discuss problems.
While bilateral trade was booming it made little sense for either side to start sabre-rattling.
Yet beneath the calm surface each side has been manoeuvring.
India has built a major road into the area that makes little commercial sense but which allows the rapid deployment of troops and armaments to the region.
Meanwhile China has been “nibbling away” at what was thought to be Indian territory in the hope that if, in the future, a border is formally agreed China will emerge the victor.
But to fully understand what is driving these revived tensions we need to look at the global picture of imperialist rivalry—and the pressure exerted by the coming recession.
South Asia is increasingly divided into pro-China or pro-US camps.
Pakistan, India’s northern neighbour with which it seems perpetually on the brink of military conflict, is now in an economic and strategic relationship with China.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a massive £50 billion programme of infrastructure projects. It is currently building an 800-mile road between the two countries, plus fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, and a deep water shipping port in Gwadar.
Chinese banks and engineering firms are raking in huge profits by putting up the finance and doing the building. And the Chinese ruling class is essentially establishing an outpost in the strategically vital Arabian Sea.
Angered by the growing potential power of Pakistan, and with its nose bloodied by fighting with China, India is now looking to strengthen its relationship with the US.
Tough new restrictions on Chinese investment in India have been announced and prime minister Modi now plans to play along with Donald Trump’s threats against Beijing by being his guest at the forthcoming G7 summit.
“India has been active in many US plans that target China,” Liu Zongyi, a South Asia expert at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told the Financial Times newspaper last week.
“If India hastily joins a small circle that perceives China as an imaginary enemy, China-India relations will deteriorate.”
So the prospect of a new and very dangerous fault line opening up in the conflict is real—and there could hardly be a more dangerous place in the world for it.
The running sore that is Kashmir surrounds the disputed border in Ladakh.
India has kept its portion of Kashmir under the most brutal of military lockdowns since abolishing its special constitutional status last year.
It is a now a simmering pot of anger.
Any conflict on the border could easily ignite a far wider war. But as the global economy heads for a deep recession, the world’s superpowers have but one motto—“Grab what you can, while you can.”
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