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How China and India May Come to Blows

Why could there be war between these two most populous countries in the world?

November 4, 2015

Why could there be war between these two most populous countries in the world?

Quick question to test your global know-how: Which source of friction between China and India is the most likely trigger or tripwire for war between these two most populous countries in the world?

    1. A territorial dispute involving Aksai Chin or Arunachal Pradesh
    2. China’s supply of nuclear and conventional weapons to India’s archenemy Pakistan
    3. India’s harboring of the Dalai Lama and other issues related to China’s authoritarian grip on Tibet
    4. China’s diversion of key sources of India’s water supply
    5. Any or all of the above

This is a very difficult question to answer, but the ultimate answer may well turn out to be #5 – any or all of the above.

Let’s take them in a step-by-step fashion – first looking at the territorial disputes involving Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh.

These two pieces of strategic real estate, which lie more than 1,200 miles apart, served as the original battlefields in the bloody 1962 Sino-Indian War.

Aksai Chin, a Chinese-controlled territory that is contested by India is about the size of Switzerland. It sits on the easternmost portion of the autonomous Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

For China, this virtually uninhabited high desert provides an essential north-south transportation and logistics link between its two most western territories – Xinjiang Province and Tibet.

This essential link – officially known as Chinese National Highway 219 – runs for more than 1,000 miles from Yecheng in Xinjiang to Lhatse in Tibet and passes right through Aksai Chin.

In fact, it was the construction of this critical road segment in the mid-1950s that first inflamed Indian passions and set the stage for the 1962 war.

Ironically, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had gone out of his way in the early 1950s to assist Maoist China, then a communist pariah to much of the world.

As late as 1954, Nehru promoted the slogan “Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai,” meaning that India and China are brothers. In fact, in April of that same year, China and India signed a mutual non-aggression pact.

As part of that pact, Nehru had presented China with a frontier map that included Aksai Chin as part of India. And Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai had assured Nehru that China had no designs on this mountainous enclave or any other Indian territory.

This assurance notwithstanding, China began to secretly build its strategic road across Aksai Chin as early as 1956. In 1958, China would further escalate the budding crisis by marking Aksai Chin on official maps as Chinese territory.

From warfare to “mapfare”

Operating in this stealthy way, China sought to establish new facts on the ground and thereby legally bolster its sovereignty claim.

As the world has learned in recent years, this kind of “lawfare” and “mapfare” is a common feature of China’s way to claim disputed territory.

With India’s capital New Delhi about as close to the Aksai Chin border as Washington, D.C. is to Boston, China’s rapid military buildup over the last several decades in both Tibet and Xinjiang has become a cause of great concern for India.

In evaluating the legitimacy of India’s strategic concerns, it is important to note that historically the high altitude Himalayas formed a natural, almost impenetrable, barrier between India and China.

Today, China’s military can easily overcome this barrier through joint air and land operations.

China’s growing threat to the Indian subcontinent also manifests itself via a modern, military-grade road network in Tibet that features numerous axial roads, stretches for more than 35,000 miles and funnels right into Aksai Chin’s land invasion route.

What all this adds up to is a very credible threat to the Indian heartland, the strategic centerpiece of which is China’s control of Aksai Chin.

There also is a second territorial dispute with quite similar strategic dimensions – the Indian-held state of Arunachal Pradesh (which China calls “Southern Tibet”).

About the size of Austria, this “land of the dawn-lit mountains” and most north-eastern part of India borders both Bhutan in the West and Myanmar in the east as well as Tibet to the north.

In fact, more than 50 years after the end of the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Chinese troops continue to make periodic and highly provocative incursions into Arunachal Pradesh.

From New Delhi’s strategic perspective, if China were to successfully take this eastern gateway into India, it would offer a second line of military advance through the Brahmaputra Valley from China’s heavily populated, and equally heavily militarized, Yunnan Province.

Ultimately, the real prize in any Chinese taking of Arunachal Pradesh may well turn out to be its water rights. To see why, we need to look more closely at the budding water wars between China and India.

The water conundrum

China and India account for almost 40% of the world’s population, but have access to only about 10% of global water supplies.

China’s water scarcity is further compounded by a high degree of pollution – many of its lakes and rivers are dead zones and as much as 40% of the water in China’s rivers is unfit for human consumption.

For India, the situation is hardly any better. In a land heavily dependent on agriculture, it is projected by the World Bank to be “water stressed” as early as 2025 and “water scarce” by 2050.

China, via its control of Tibet, also has control over much of India’s water supplies.

In fact, the Tibetan Plateau is the “world’s largest freshwater repository after the polar icecaps” and a key watershed for fully ten of the largest rivers in Asia, including the Mekong running through Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia on its way to Vietnam, and the Salween that winds it way through Burma.

And just how may China’s control of this Tibetan “water tower of the world” actually trigger war? Just consider the real-world ramifications of Beijing’s audacious proposal to divert as much as 60% of the waters of India’s Brahmaputra River into China’s increasingly parched Yellow River.

To understand how catastrophic such a diversion would be for India – and how the importance of Arunachal Pradesh as a war trigger jumps right back into the strategic picture – a little geography is in order.

At present, the waters of India’s Brahmaputra River begin in the Kailas range of the Himalayas and head directly east for some 1,800 miles through Tibet before reaching a “Great Bend” just north of the border between Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh.

At this point, in one of the most remarkable feats of nature, the river makes an abrupt U-turn and then winds its way through Arunachal Pradesh on its way first to become a main tributary of India’s sacred Ganges River and eventually to find the river’s end in Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal.

If China did indeed divert as much as 200 billion cubic meters of this water annually to the Yellow River, this would not just represent an obvious casus belli. It would be an environmental and economic disaster for India as well as a cataclysmic event for India’s downriver neighbor Bangladesh.

Put both the territorial and the water dimensions together and you discover the most important reason for China’s increasing insistence that Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese, not Indian, territory.

If China can impose its “Southern Tibet” claim on India (either through coercion or force), then India would have much less standing when it came to protesting the diversion of water from the Brahmaputra.

From Pakistan to Tibet

Beyond these territorial and water disputes creating plenty of friction between India and China, there are also other perennial triggers, perhaps none of them bigger than the Pakistan issue.

India quite correctly blames China both for its substantial arms sales to Pakistan and for providing its archenemy with the expertise and technology to become a nuclear power.

And just why is China so cozy with Pakistan? Because it views the Islamic state both as a gateway to South Asia as well as a buffer state against India itself.

It is important to realize that this special China-Pakistan bond is not a recent development. In fact, it dates back to the 1962 Sino-Indian War and the unraveling of strong relations between Nehru’s India and Mao’s China.

In addition, Pakistan has built a massive port at Gwadar that is likely to become an increasingly important port of call for China’s growing navy.

The “will there be war?” problem is that, as China begins to project its naval power into the Indian Ocean and uses Pakistan as a basing area, the scope for a second Sino-Indian War will mount.

As for whether India and China would actually ever really go to war over Tibet or water or anything else, some experts argue that this is impossible.

The argument they base their assessment on is that both states are very capable and well-equipped nuclear powers. One should certainly hope so, but there is no guarantee whatsoever that restraint will prevail.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Peter Navarro’s book “Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World (Prometheus Books)” which released on November 3, 2015.


China, via its control of Tibet, also has control over much of India’s water supplies.

China and India with the highest population in the world have access to only 10% of global water supplies.

China views Pakistan as a gateway to South Asia as well as a buffer state against India.

As China begins to project its naval power, the scope for a second Sino-Indian War will mount.