by Austin Bay
May 7, 2013
This past Sunday, China and India agreed to avoid turning the world's most dangerous border dispute into the world's most dangerous war -- at least temporarily.
According to Indian sources, Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) and Indian Army combat units will simultaneously withdraw from their forward positions in a disputed chunk of the Himalayas.
But don't breathe a sigh of relief just yet. 1962's Sino-Indian War involved two Asian giants that were both developing nations with infantry armies. In 2013, India and China are emerging global powers. Both possess nuclear weapons and vastly improved conventional military forces.
The conflict is one of the world's truly frozen conflicts, which is something of a dark diplomatic joke, given that China and India are fighting over very high-altitude and bitterly cold terrain. Some 1962 battles occurred at altitudes over 4,000 meters (14,000 feet).
However, "frozen conflicts" -- wars that end in a stalemate or without a treaty and the belligerents don't agree to forget -- are no joke. They haunt the planet and frustrate peacemakers. At the moment, the Korean War is perhaps the most notorious example of a frozen conflict. North Korea's insistent threats to hit South Korea, Japan and the U.S. with nuclear weapons serve as a constant reminder that the Cold War's nuclear abyss still yawns.
The global list of interminable killers is dauntingly long. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupts with deadly regularity. The division of Cyprus into a Greek-Cypriot south and Turkish-Cypriot north has roots in 1453 (the year the Turks took Constantinople from the Byzantine Greeks). Twenty-first century Russia is a prison house of murderous frozen conflicts.
In a world of instant Internet communications and jumbo jet transportation, small conflicts incessantly seed international tragedy. Moscow's fitful war with Chechnya (did it start in the 18th century?) definitely played a role in last month's Boston Marathon terrorist attack.
Meanwhile, back in the Himalayas: 51 years after the 1962 Sino-Indian war erupted, the border disputes that ignited the conflict remain unsettled. There are two disputed regions, and the distance between them illustrates the size and heft of the Asian giants.
2013's confrontation centered on the western Karakoram sector, at the junction of the China-Pakistan-India border and along the northern edge of Kashmir province. Kashmir is another frozen conflict. Six decades after India and Pakistan separated, Kashmir remains divided, adding volatile Hindu versus Muslim dimensions to a Sino-Indian geopolitical confrontation in the zone.
The second disputed sector is roughly 2,000 kilometers east of Karakoram, near the "trijunction" of the India-Bhutan-China border. Prior to 1950, the area was the trijunction of the India-Bhutan-Tibet border. In 1950, Mao Zedong's victorious communist army, having forced its nationalist foes to flee to Taiwan, invaded Tibet and claimed it for Mao's avowedly anti-imperialist China.
In 1959, India gave Tibet's Dalai Lama refuge. Mao saw India as a threat to China's interests.
Mao's China kicked off its 1962 attack on Indian Army positions in both sectors during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As the world focused on the U.S.-Soviet Union confrontation, Beijing decided to use bayonets to define the border.
Chinese forces, acclimated to the high altitudes, quickly defeated Indian soldiers rushed north to meet the offensive. The defeat still rankles the Indian Army.
At the moment, China has a superior road network in the disputed regions, which translates into superior logistics capabilities. China reportedly sees India's use of two "advance landing grounds" (small forward airfields) in the Karakoram sector as a signal that India intends to improve its ability to reinforce the disputed zone.
Far-sighted diplomacy could resolve the border dispute. Senior Chinese and Indian officials will meet later this month, and the dispute will be on the agenda. But with control of Asia's genuine high ground at stake, definitive resolution is a dim prospect.