The Chinese Foreign Ministry blasted India over the Doklam border dispute on Thursday, accusing the Indian government of duplicity and “slapping its own face” by planning to build a road in contested territory—much as China has already done.
The Doklam standoff is perhaps the most under-the-radar foreign crisis in the world, all but uncovered by Western media, even though it has brought India and China to the brink of a border war. One reason the conflict is so underestimated by the rest of the world is that it seems like such a small matter: Basically, China built a road on a plateau called Doklam that is claimed by the tiny nation of Bhutan, and India is worried that completion of the road will give China an unacceptable strategic advantage in the Himalayas.
This is such a serious concern for India that it technically invaded China with a small force of troops to prevent further construction. The Chinese are famously sensitive about unauthorized boots marching upon any patch of land they regard as theirs.
The U.S. Navy held joint maneuvers with India and Japan last month, in part to send a message about refraining from escalation in the Himalayas. China held live-fire drill in the Indian Ocean this week to send a message of its own. They have also staged some land-based live-fire drills in Tibet, which is adjacent to the Doklam region.
Chinese commentators were quite relaxed about stating that all of this gunplay was mean to intimidate India and bring it to the bargaining table with hat in hand. They also said the rapid deployment of Chinese weapons to Tibet was an impressive demonstration of how easily China can move its forces through the region, which is exactly what India is worried about.
India began building a road of its own near Pangong Lake, where Indian and Chinese troops wound up pelting each other with rocks last week. Bizarre as that sounds, it was a serious scuffle, with serious injuries reported on both sides. Someone managed to capture the melee on video:
The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Thursday said India “slapped its own face” by undertaking such a project in disputed territory.
“The Indian side is closely following China’s road-building recently but India’s actions themselves have proven that the Indian side says something and does another,” declared Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
“Its words are in complete contradiction to its deeds in terms of border issues,” Hua elaborated. “The western section of the India-China boundary has not been delimited. The two sides have agreed to uphold border areas’ peace and tranquility before disputes are settled. The current road construction by the Indian side is not conducive to peace and stability in that area and will not help with settlement of the current situation.”
When Japan’s envoy to India expressed support for the Indian position on Doklam last week, Hua Chunying was dispatched by the Chinese Foreign Ministry to tell the Japanese to butt out.
“I have seen that the Japanese ambassador to India really wants to support India. And I want to remind him not to randomly make comments before clarifying relevant facts,” Hua sniffed at a press briefing. “In Doklam, there is no territorial dispute. The boundary has been delimited and recognized by both sides. The attempt to change the status quo illegally is by India, not China.”
China took the dispute to social media with a viral video featuring a Chinese man wearing a fake Sikh beard and turban, confessing to the “Seven Sins of India” in an accent roughly approximating Apu the convenience store owner from The Simpsons. The seven sins were “trespassing, violating a bilateral convention, trampling international law, confusing right and wrong, putting the blame on the victim, hijacking a small neighbor and sticking to a mistake knowingly,” as the Hindustan Times rendered them.
The video, which was released by China’s state-run Xinhua news agency, claims the entire world supports China’s claims against India, but India is “asleep” and cannot hear the pleas of all mankind to give Beijing what it demands.
Indians denounced the video as racially insensitive, and fired back with a song mocking China for having border disputes with most of its neighbors, while comparing the Chinese military to a gang of hoodlums.
Writing at Forbes, Douglas Bulloch slammed China’s “absurdly racist video broadcast” as a sign of its “casual disregard for the dangers of treating large, powerful states as a kind of roadkill on China’s rapid rise.”
Bulloch fears the rest of the world misunderstands how close India and China have come to war over the Doklam dispute, with an outspokenly belligerent China possibly thinking about military action to deliver a “disciplinary slap,” while India’s quiet determination to resist grows stronger.
He also worries that a string of other border disputes between India, China, and third parties could go off like a string of firecrackers if the next clash over the Doklam region involves ordinance heavier than rocks, especially if China underestimates India’s command of the Himalayas and starts a skirmish it loses badly.
The most optimistic theory Bulloch advances is that India’s declared plan to build a road near the site of the Pangong Lake melee might be a bluff, designed to give China a way to pull back from the Doklam project in what appears to be a mutual exchange of concessions with India and Bhutan, rather than a humiliating rout. It is also unclear how U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement of a stronger alliance with India, and unprecedented criticism of China’s ally Pakistan, might affect Chinese calculations of its strategic position along the Indian border.
Sonya Fatah at the Globe and Mail is one of a growing number of observers who urge the rest of the world to start paying attention to the standoff between India and China, noting that the 1962 war between the two powers began quite abruptly. China won a crushing victory then, but India is much stronger now, both are armed with more dangerous weapons, and there are more reasons a limited border skirmish could escalate into a larger conflict.