Of all the crazy stories of 2020 so far, the hand-to-hand combat between Chinese and Indian troops on the high-altitude rocks of the Galwan Valley is right up there. It sounds like something from a film. For hours, on steep, jagged terrain, around 600 troops fought each other with rocks, studded-batons and their fists. Most of those who died did so not by a mortal blow from the enemy, but by slipping or being pushed and plunging off the rocks to their death.
The two armies did not have guns because of an agreement between the nuclear powers lasting decades, which is intended to reduce the possibility of conflict between the two sides. The nature of the Himalayan border – a mountainous, inhospitable terrain – has thought to make war far less likely between two countries which represent a combined 36 per cent of the world population, since it would be impossible to get an army to march over the terrain, but it also means the border line is constantly in dispute and changing.
A short war was fought between the two sides in 1962, and the fighting on Tuesday – which each blames the other for – has been the worst since then. 20 Indian soldiers are dead, while Beijing is keeping a tight-lid on its death toll. China released 10 Indian soldiers captured during the fighting last night after a round of talks to try to ease tensions. There have been calls for a boycott of Chinese goods in India, with pictures of Chinese leader Xi Jinping burned on the streets of Delhi.
The tensions have been getting ratcheted up for months, with a brawl occurring last month between soldiers, where no one died. Both sides are building military infrastructure and laying claim to disputed border territory. The two rising powers, the most populated countries on the planet, are led by nationalist leaders intent on building up their military prowess. However, it is an uneven contest; China is emerging as a major rival to US power with an economy and military far superior to that of India.
While Covid-19 started in China (and has returned with a sharp spike in Beijing in recent days), the country has managed the pandemic far better than Western counter-parts, most importantly the US. American analysts worry that the chance to contain the rise of China may be slipping through their fingers, with the latest claims from Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton in his soon-to-be published book, that the US President sought the help of Xi Jinping to secure his re-election, adding to the view that the US is so internally divided and chaotic that it is in no position to put the brakes on Beijing.
China is set to overtake the US in terms of economic size mid-way through this decade, but Washington will continue to maintain a huge military advantage. This latest dispute with India has to be seen in the context of the geopolitical rivalries surrounding China’s rise. In the UK, the persistent lobbying to stop Huawei building the country’s 5G network is about containing Beijing’s sudden emergence as a tech super-power, where Chinese firms have garnered key advantages over previously dominant US rivals in recent years. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, has warned that action must be taken if the US is to remain as top-dog in global tech.
“Do you really want to plan for a future where you have to fight with someone who is as good as you are?” Bezos told a conference last December. “This is not a sporting competition. You don’t want to fight fair.”
So far Washington’s lobbying efforts to remove Huawei as key 5G contractor have been resisted under Theresa May and Boris Johnson because the truth is that Huawei is way ahead in 5G, and therefore to not contract the company would be an act of national infrastructure self-harm. But with the right-wing press increasingly virulent in its anti-China sentiment since the Covid-19 crisis began – at times indulging conspiracy theory – the pressure on Downing Street may be too great. Johnson has announced a 35 per cent cap on Huawei’s involvement in UK 5G, but he remains under pressure to pull the company altogether. If Huawei is pulled, it’s a clear sign that the UK is now little more than a pawn in Washington’s great power game.
You don’t have to be a historian to know that a global economic crisis of the severity of this one has in the past generated conditions for increasingly intense imperial conflict between great powers, up to and including war. The hand-to-hand combat in the Galwan Valley – just one of numerous potential global flashpoints – is a reminder that the political balance which prevents warfare between the most powerful countries in the world is built on very unstable foundations indeed.
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