Sino-Indian Border Clash Serves Timely Reminder of Potential Global Flashpoint

Chinese and Indian troops have come to blows along their disputed Himalayan border in the Sikkim region. No shots were fired during the latest in a series of minor skirmishes between the opposing forces, which typically comprise little more than fisticuffs.

Whilst the latest squabble was resolved by local commanders in a matter of hours, it serves as a reminder of another potential flashpoint between two rising global powers. As with Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea, a spat could quickly descend into full-blown conflict, which given the remoteness of this particular region may prove difficult to rein back.

Localised spats are not uncommon along the Sino-Indian border in Sikkim

The Indian state of Sikkim borders the Chinese-controlled Tibet Autonomous Region, itself a source of contention in Sino-Indian relations. An independent Buddhist kingdom was established in Sikkim in the 17th century, although it was plagued by frequent Nepalese incursions. In 1791, the Chinese Qing dynasty sent troops into Sikkim to help oust the Nepalese forces, establishing a degree of influence over the kingdom that they retained for over a century.

Despite the constant threat on its sovereignty from foreign powers – including the British Raj – the Kingdom of Sikkim staggered on until 1975 when its ruling house was overthrown by the Indian Army. A subsequent referendum saw the people vote for Sikkim to become India’s 22nd state.

The Sikkim Guards on parade in 1914

Prior to this, India and China had already engaged in a brief, albeit bloody, war. A line of control had been tentatively established along the approximately 2,000-mile Himalayan border between the two nations in 1959. This followed a series of skirmishes precipitated by the Tibetan Uprising, during which India offered asylum to the fleeing Dalai Lama, much to Beijing’s chagrin. Already angered by this, and the Soviet support for India after the Sino-Soviet split, China launched coordinated offensives across the line of control in October 1962.

Over the course of a month, more than 2,000 troops were killed on either side as fighting took place in some of the harshest conditions imaginable. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces proved too strong for their Indian counterparts, advancing to the territorial extent of China’s claim and in Beijing’s words ‘securing China’s western border’. China declared a universal ceasefire and an uneasy line of control was re-established, with the Indians left to lick their wounds.

Indian troops patrol the frigid battleground during the 1962 war

What is particularly astonishing is that a similar war has not occurred again between India and China. Across such a vast and unpopulated border, it would be easy to imagine that military skirmishes could progress quite rapidly without many people being aware. But aside from the odd exchange of fire in the 1960s and 1980s, plus a standoff over China’s incursion on Bhutanian territory in 2017, the status quo has held.

Whether China will continue to exercise restraint in the coming years is far from certain. Xi Jinping has been increasingly willing to play the revisionist role in recent years, in stark contrast to his predecessor Hu Jintao. Beijing’s brazen island-building in the South China Sea – a Chinese territorial claim with equally dubious historic grounding as their Sikkim stake – has gone unpunished and offers advanced power-projection opportunities for the PLA Navy.

India is far from a military novice and its army is well-trained and equipped. That said, the Chinese have invested considerable money and energy in modernising their military in recent years, whilst streamlining their army for a more efficient PLA fighting force. It would be hard to imagine the Indians resisting a new Chinese incursion and whether the international community would come to their aid over a few disputed border posts high up in the mountains is highly debatable.

It would therefore not be inconceivable for Xi to test New Delhi’s metal – not the mention that of the Western powers – by endeavouring to bite a chunk out of Indian territory. This would be particularly imaginable during a period of internal disquiet in China, with Xi resorting to the tried and tested nationalist advance in a bid to win over dissenters potentially frustrated by an economic downturn in the wake of the cornoavirus.

Despite an international tribunal ruling against its claims, China has sought to extend its influence in the South China Sea by building military facilities on artificial islands created around rocky outcrops. These intrigues have gone unpunished

For now, major conflict has been averted and there is certainly no reason to believe that either Beijing or New Delhi would want another war with their large neighbour. That said, through its moves in the South China Sea, and its aggressive mercantilist drive through the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, China is sowing the seeds for future agitation as it seeks to further tilt the regional balance of power in its favour.

It may not be a disagreement many people are familiar with, or concerned about, but the Sino-Indian border dispute has the potential to degenerate from a minor crisis to a major conflict if poorly handled. An international mediation to settle the dispute and more firmly fix the Himalayan borders, whilst unlikely to hold much sway with Beijing and New Delhi, must be worth a go. Otherwise it could be a case of ‘what if’ for the global powers in the years to come.

Pakistan Fights to End Senseless Honor Killings: an unsolvable barbarity?

In October, Pakistan repealed a legal loophole which allowed those guilty of honor killings to walk free if they sought the forgiveness of a family member. Whilst some commentators argue that the Pakistani government is still nowhere near giving women the protection they need, and ensuring that murderers receive their just deserts, it is at least a step in the right direction.

Pakistani women have become more vocal in their protests against honour killings, in itself a brave act
Pakistani women have become more vocal in their protests against honor killings, in itself a brave act

This barbaric practice is particularly prevalent – and indeed receives most global attention – in Pakistan, although it remains commonplace throughout the Islamic world. The warped belief that a man can defend his family’s honor by killing a female relative is sadly not a phenomenon deposited in medieval times.

The causes for such retributive killings are many; adultery, refusing an arranged marriage, disobeying the family, religious indiscretion.

Some scholars have attributed religious motives to the practice, perhaps another archaic and selective interpretation of Islamic teaching, a further testament to the unenlightened nature of some of its followers.

Others, however, staunchly oppose such theories, rejecting claims that honor killings are condoned by the Qur’an or have been encouraged by the Islamic rulers of history.

Of course, men (and women) kill spouses, partners and family members worldwide, sometimes for the same reasons stated above. Yet these tend to be crimes of passion, angry, violent outbursts that are not overlooked thanks to some legal technicality.

Honor killings proliferated throughout the Ancient World, from Rome and the Mediterranean, to the Amerindian empires of the Aztecs and Incas. Often it was a punishment to satisfy the Gods as much as serving as a sweet elixir of revenge. Yet it was readily practiced, to the extent that male family members in Rome were subjected to abuse should they fail to smite down their adulterous siblings.

Adultery was punishable by death under the Aztecs, with the resulting execution serving as a sacrifice to the Gods as well as a restoration of honour
Adultery was punishable by death under the Aztecs, with the resulting execution serving as a sacrifice to the Gods as well as a restoration of honor

Outside of Islam, this procedural, planned and rigorous method of execution is now rare, the law affording the perpetrators few gimmes.

Perhaps the root cause is related to the age of Islam compared to Christianity and other global religions? The Christian Enlightenment began in the 17th century and a steady process of secularisation has encroached upon life in the subsequent years, so that church and state are now far removed from one another, with religious doctrine subordinated in society to liberal morality.

Yet honor killings are not restricted to the rural backwaters, where it could be argued that people have no access to the trappings of modern life and the channels of information and communication that accompany it.

Earlier this year, the renowned Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch was herself the victim of an honor killing, strangled to death by her brother in Punjab province having lived in Karachi. This is not a geographical issue.

Qandeel Baloch: her social media posts provoked the ire of her family who killed her
Qandeel Baloch: her social media posts provoked the ire of her family who killed her

Indeed, honor killings amongst Muslim families occur in the West as well, with notorious cases in the UK and the USA in recent years for instance. Exposure to more tolerant and compassionate cultures does not eradicate an inherent extremist piety.

So, is this simply another form of Islamic extremism? In a word, yes. The Puritans of 17th century New England are comparable for their adherence to religious stricture, yet even they seldom resorted to such cold-blooded machinations. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter exemplifies the Puritan retribution of an adulterous woman; perpetually shaming her, not murdering her.

Hester Prynne and her scarlet 'A'
Hester Prynne and her scarlet ‘A’

Islam is a young religion compared to many others and it has yet to begin the secularising process through which it must pass to reconcile many of its belief systems with the modern world. That Islam is inherently violent is an extremely dubious premise, yet it is certainly patriarchal, some of its core tenets susceptible to abuse.

Whatever the reason, the practice of honor killing is a shameful and senseless one, irreconcilable with the honor and righteousness it claims to uphold. A practice abandoned centuries ago in some cultures claims the lives of thousands each year in others.

To be a Muslim woman today remains an undoubted challenge, in some countries more than others. The root causes of many honor killings are themselves flagrant abuses of women and girls, child marriage being an obvious case in point.

The Pakistani government would do well to remember that its latest triumph is merely a tentative beginning.