24 August 2017

The clash of the Asian titans

While the North Korean crisis undoubtedly remains the world's most dangerous potential military flashpoint, there's another which deserves more attention than it has previously received in the US.

For two months, tensions have been rising between China and India over a border dispute in the Himalayas (technically the dispute is between China and the small state of Bhutan, but India is supporting Bhutan).  So far no shots have been fired, but there have been a number of clashes between Chinese and Indian troops which involved throwing rocks at each other.

The risk of escalation is exacerbated by the fact that both countries' governments are belligerently nationalistic regimes determined to assert their power and prestige on the world stage.  China is essentially a fascist dictatorship, and while India is a democracy, the current BJP government's religio-nationalist ideology is aggressively challenging India's secular traditions and asserting Hindu supremacy at the expense of minority religions, dissenting views, and democratic values generally (more on the BJP here).

China-India tensions have implications beyond just those two countries -- especially in a world destabilized by the unreliability of the US under Trump and its general retreat from global leadership.  Japan, in particular, has long been concerned about China's growing power, and has been seeking closer ties with other countries -- notably India.  A close Japan-India alliance would have much to offer both parties.  Japan has no nuclear weapons, and while it could easily build them, doing so would trigger severe shock and anxiety in other East Asian countries.  India, however, does have them.  The two countries are on opposite sides of China, so a close alliance would deter China from attacking either one due to the risk of a two-front war.  India seeks to increase its military power, but is hindered by poverty and technological backwardness.  Japanese money and technology could hugely increase its capabilities.

India is already restructuring its strategic nuclear forces to focus more on China than on its traditional enemy Pakistan -- suggesting that it now considers China its most likely future adversary.

Could the current border dispute escalate into a major war?  It's unlikely, because the stakes in this specific dispute are not high enough to risk really large-scale casualties and destruction.  The only way it could happen is if one of the two governments gets so caught up in asserting national prestige as to take leave of its senses.  In the two months this dispute has been simmering, neither has done so.

However, in the long run the risk of something leading to a war is significant, for several reasons.  Ultra-nationalistic regimes have repeatedly shown a tendency to miscalculate how much provocation rivals will tolerate.  Such regimes have also been known to whip up international tensions, or even war, in order to intensify patriotic "unity" fervor at home.  Both countries suffer from a serious imbalance of the genders among young adults, due to the toxic combination of patriarchal traditional culture and sex-selective abortion; an unmarriageable excess of young men can contribute to social and even political instability, tempting an authoritarian state to prefer to burn off the excess as cannon fodder in wars of aggression.  Both countries have nuclear weapons, but their arsenals are much smaller than those of the superpowers (India is estimated to have somewhat over 100 warheads, China around 260), while the number actually deliverable to each other's major cities is even smaller; and these warheads are largely fission bombs much less powerful than modern fusion bombs.  The temptation to regard a nuclear exchange as survivable, especially if a first strike destroyed much of the enemy's arsenal, exists in a way it could not exist for the US and Russia.

The West long ago lost its monopoly on weapons of mass destruction.  On belligerence and dangerous ideology, it has never had a monopoly at all.

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