By Yuhang Zhang
In World War II, the deadliest war in human history, it’s estimated that there were about 66 million deaths. As a conflict that drew in the entire developed world, occurred alongside mass genocide and famine, and involved the usage of nuclear weapons, the death number is sobering, yet expected.
There is another potential conflict brewing involving only two countries this time; between them, they share the worst famine in human history, pasts filled with ethnic and cultural atrocities, enough nuclear weapons to rip a continent in half, and one rugged 1650 mile border. If only 5% of their populations died during war (a stunningly conservative estimate given the concentration of their people, the presence of nuclear war, unstable governments, and tendencies towards famine), that would be 135 million deaths, or double that of World War II.
The two countries, of course, are China and India; the conflict, a multi-headed hydra that most recently reared its head at the Doklam Plateau. The tiny plateau, only about 89 km, is isolated within the towering Himalayas. Yet, it has been the point of fierce contention between the twin titans of China and India.
A bit of background: On June 16, China began constructing roads in disputed territory on Doklam, which India responded to by sending troops to halt construction. The two countries reached a stalemate position for a couple of months, with neither Beijing nor Delhi backing down on their stances. Eventually, the two countries reached a “consensus” when Modi (the Prime Minister of India) indicated that, unless China backed off of Doklam, India would skip the 9th BRICS summit; that threat seemed to be enough for China, who then withdrew the road workers.
And now, like ex-lovers trapped in an elevator alone, the two countries have redressed themselves in cheery diplomacy and shaky extensions of camaraderie.
Here’s an interesting question- who is China’s ally? Of course, friendships and rivalries are always opportunistic on the global stage, and rarely stay static; for example, one would be foolish to claim that the United States and Japan have genuinely friendly attitudes towards each other.
An ally, often, is nothing more than a label, implying and bringing into existence bilateral feelings of amity. It is different than an alliance, which takes form as a unified opposition to something (usually war). It describes another country which can be relied upon to support the original country’s policies, even on issues that have little relevance to the ally. Both countries heavily benefit from the relationship; for example, the United States uses Japan as a crucial trading and tech partner, and as a regional counterpoint to China, whilst Japan relies on the United States for protection and a market.
China, however, does not have any true allies. It trades with the United States and much of the world, but hardly any of those countries would support China in a controversial policy situation. Regionally, it stands alone- to the East, the decidedly antagonistic Japan, and a horde of ambitious Southeast Asian nations nipping at its heels; to the North, the enigmatic Russia, which simultaneously confronts and cooperates with China regularly; to the West, India.
China seeks allies in Europe, South America, and the Middle East hoping to find a country willing to side with it opposite the sprawling American ally network; surprisingly, it finds little takers. There is Pakistan, much of Africa, and the People’s Republic of North Korea. Together, their GDP is 3.6 trillion (assuming all of Africa, which is not the case), about the GDP of Germany, and hardly 40% of China’s 11.2 trillion GDP.
What this means is that China is a massive and accelerating country that stands largely on its own- the aforementioned African allies are mostly one-sided beneficiaries of Chinese aid, and Pakistan and North Korea are hardly in a position to support them.
And so, like every other world power in this situation (The Roman Empire, the Mongols, WWII Germany and Japan, to name a few), China must expand to maintain its security. This operates both physically, as in China literally pushing the borders of its nation, and through exerting its hegemony within the region.
In other words, after decades of being trodden on, China has finally awoken to find an unfriendly world, where it must secure many of its own advantages and trade networks, prop up a hastily-constructed economy, and deal with political dissidence and cultural strife- all the while having to play the United States, and most of the West, in an international game of strategy that China seems destined to lose.
Hope and Potentials
Of course, neither China nor India desire a war; in fact, even barring the usage of nuclear weapons, it would easily be one of the most deadly events in history. But, as stated above, China’s survival strategy is to extend, and its border with India is contentious and full of potential strife.
The ideas here are my own, and probably won’t occur in real life, due to the fact it would require three superpowers to follow the advice of one Vanderbilt freshman. That being said, I think there are three solutions, with various degrees of impossibility.
First, and most impossibly, the root cause of China’s issues could be dealt with and the United States could relieve its multinational pressure on China. I say impossibly because it requires the United States to swallow its ego and open itself to vulnerability (highly unlikely underneath the current administration), and for China to accept this concession without exploiting it. These actions together would result in China being able to move outside of the current pressure cooker it’s been forced into- easily finding markets to sustain and grow alongside, losing much of the regional antagonism heaped upon it.
That situation will most likely never happen due to the incredible risks involved, and so we move on to the second option- improved relations between India and China, mediated and spurred on by the United States. Due to paranoia about the possibility of losing its grip in the Asian region, the United States is unlikely to support this action, and yet this would be the most logical- India and China already share many of the same goals, and if China agreed to concede the alliance with Pakistan and breaks ties, the two countries could easily work together rather than in opposition.
Neither of these are particularly likely situations, and in reality, China and India will probably stand at this stalemated cycle for years to come, two stone-willed forces separated by the jagged peaks of the Himalayas (and the helpless Bhutan). What comes next, whether it be death or reconciliation, is difficult to foresee.