Chinese Incursion into India Points to Forgotten Territorial Dispute

The seas of East Asia are the centre of today’s global territorial disputes. Whether it be the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea – where China, Japan and Taiwan claim sovereignty – or the South China Sea – where a myriad of overlapping claims lead to regular diplomatic spats – it is this region that seemingly threatens to embroil China in a conflict with its neighbours.

The news, then, that India has protested at an incursion of Chinese troops across a disputed border in Ladakh province, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is a timely reminder of one of the Chinese’s most incendiary border disputes.

There are two main border disputes between China and India. Aksai Chin is the first, forming a mountainous buffer zone between the neighbouring giants and which India claims is a part of the Ladakh province encroached upon in the past few days by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)

The Aksai Chin dispute
The Aksai Chin dispute

The inhospitable nature of Aksai Chin did not stop a Chinese invasion force crossing into the disputed territory in October 1962 to inflict a swift rout upon the defending Indian forces, whose death toll climbed quickly amidst the harshness of winter. After India provided the Dalai Lama with sanctuary in 1959, Sino-Indian relations deteriorated rapidly and the border dispute was both a convenient excuse for conflict, whilst also providing a potentially beneficial strategic outcome for the Chinese. The Chinese extended their tentative claim line into what Indians considered their territory, before declaring a unilateral ceasefire.

Despite the bitter cold, the flats of Aksai Chin are conducive to warfare
Despite the bitter cold, the flats of Aksai Chin are conducive to warfare

Simultaneously, the PLA had advanced into the other disputed border zone. This territory forms the northern part of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, formerly the North East Frontier Agency of British India. As is so often the case, it is the former colonial authorities who lie at the heart of this particular dispute. During their 19th century incursions into the depths of India, the British claimed the region of Arunachal Pradesh and negotiated a border – known as the McMahon Line after its proponent – with Tibet, negating to inform the Chinese, who laid claim to part of the territory.

Arunachal Pradesh dispute
Arunachal Pradesh dispute

Even deep into the 20th century, and under communist rule, the Chinese were still rankled by what they saw as a deep territorial injustice as the McMahon Line was retained as an international boundary for a newly independent India.

Chinese forces cross the McMahon Line
Chinese forces cross the McMahon Line

On the 1st October 1967, almost exactly five years after the Sino-Indian War, the Chola Incident occurred. This one-day skirmish stemmed from PLA troops crossing the McMahon Line into the province of Sikkim, resulting in ten Chinese and four Indian deaths.

In mid-1987 a less intense skirmish between Indian and Chinese troops took place in the very far northeast of India in the Sumdorong Chu Valley. A restrained affair, it resulted in no fatalities but was confirmation once again of the fragile peace existing across the former British dominion border.

In exchange for recognising Sikkim as a province in 1993, India officially accepted Tibet as an autonomous region of China and a ‘line of actual control’ was agreed across their disputed borders. The passage of time, coupled with the economic importance of the Sino-Indian trading relationship, has seen the preservation of the line of actual control, despite Indian claims that the Chinese have violated it 500 times since 2010.

This accusation, coupled with China’s recent serious incursion, It is testament to the forces of nationalism, history and the vast size of both countries and a reminder that such events are always likely to reoccur. Removed from their political masters, the army generals on the Himalayan frontier between China and India can act with a degree of impunity, aware that the quashing of their ambitions will take at the very least time if not great resources and political persuasion.

Whilst wary eyes are cast towards the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula for the potential flashpoints of regional conflict, a thought should be spared for the precarious balance of power along the old McMahon Line. It would only take a slight miscalculation of judgement for Asia’s two biggest powers to be brought to the brink of war. Whatever economic interdependence may exist between the two states could be dashed by the wants of sovereignty and nationalism.

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Saudis Support their Favourite Client State: the Bahraini Uprising Remains on Hold

Amidst the glamour and speed of last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix near Manama was the conspicuous presence of Saudi Arabian tanks, brought in to stifle protesters complaining against the hosting of the Grand Prix. This protest forms part of a larger Bahraini uprising against the long-ruling Al-Khalifa monarchy, which saw the latter invite 1,000 Saudi forces into the country to quell the rebellion in March 2011.

Erupting out of the Arab Spring, the Bahrain Uprising has been ruthlessly repressed
Erupting out of the Arab Spring, the Bahrain Uprising has been ruthlessly repressed

The Saudis needed little pleading to send their armed forces across the King Fahd causeway. Bahrain is also a Sunni-dominated country, with a substantial Shia minority. As such, Saudi Arabia sees it as a crucial ally in preventing the spread of Iranian influence in the region and the two states, whilst differing grossly in size, share an interlinked history.

Even before the invention of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula, Bahrain and what is now the east coast of Saudi Arabia formed part of the Sassanid Empire which ruled from 224 to 651. After its dissolution, the historical region of Bahrain came into being and encompassed not only the Gulf islands that comprise the state today, but also the majority of the eastern Arabian Peninsula.

Bahrain historically included parts of modern day Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE
Bahrain historically included parts of modern day Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE

It was from central Arabia that the Prophet Muhammad sent the missionary Abu Al-Ala’a Al-Hadrami to convert the region of Bahrain to Islam in around the year 628. Over the next few centuries, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia would share in the experiences of dynastic struggle, Persian encroachment and European invasion.

In the late 18th century, the Al-Khalifa family moved to Bahrain from mainland Arabia, having been persecuted in several other Middle Eastern countries in previous generations. Trying to negotiate a path to Bahraini independence, the Al-Khalifa struck a deal with the British in 1860 (by then a major geopolitical player in the Middle East) whereby they were named the de facto rulers of Bahrain under British protection.

The Al-Khalifa had to defer to British imperial desires
The Al-Khalifa had to defer to British imperial desires

British ambitions soon became more selfish, however, and non-complicit members of the Bahraini ruling elite were exiled to Saudi Arabia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from where they retained their unity. Although the Al-Khalifa family remained the nominal rulers of Bahrain, they were virtual puppets of the British throughout both World Wars and into the 1950s.

During this period, and after the Arabian oil boom had materialised, the destiny of Bahrain’s future came under greater scrutiny. The Shia-dominated Iranians claimed Bahrain as a territory of their own, bitterly opposed as they were by both the Saudis and the British. After UN intervention, supported by a Saudi-British delegation, Bahrain was given independence in 1971, which Iran reluctantly accepted.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979, however, heralded another challenge to Bahraini integrity and required a show of support from their historic neighbours. Inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain instigated an attempted coup d’etat in 1981. Saudi Arabian support, both technical and material, were crucial in ensuring the coup failed and in helping to stabilise their Sunni partners, the Al-Khalifa, in the succeeding years.

This solidarity between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, based on a shared history and religion, has remained a potent force in the Middle East until the present day. Along with Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and the UAE, the Saudi-Bahrain axis forms a crucial Sunni alliance, characterised by authoritarian rule, seeking to counter Shia influence spreading from Iran, Syria and parts of Iraq. Whilst in many cases the actions of these governments are no less evil or immoral than the regimes of Iran and Syria, they are considered the lesser of two evils by the Western world.

Such is the reason why the Bahraini uprising has received only brief attention from Western governments. The Saudis cannot be upset at any cost. They remain crucial allies to both the United States and Great Britain. And as long as Bahrain remains an important client state of Saudi Arabia, the Al-Khalifa can rely on the tacit support of Western governments to continue their crackdown on democratic protests and preserve their centuries-long rule.