The highly respected British magazine The Economist featured a front-page article in their 21 August issue about the possibility of a major war between China and India. I've been thinking about this scenario for over a decade, and authored a book, War at the Top of the World, that warned of the dangers of a future Sino-Indian conflict.
Just thinking about this topic staggers the imagination. China and India account for 2.3 billion people, a third of the world's total population. My book was directly inspired by meeting the Dalai Lama in the mid-1990's. I heard him give a long, very interesting speech on the Indian-Chinese border conflict, which I had studied in depth as a result of my deep interest in the Himalayan region.
The audience that came to hear His Holiness expected to hear a warm, fuzzy talk about the meaning of life. Instead, they were totally bemused by the Dalai Lama's discussion of South Asian grand strategy and the Tibetan-Indian border that had been drawn by Imperial Britain with no regard to China. People often forget the Dalai Lama is the temporal leader of Tibet as well as its spiritual guide.
I was the only person in the audience who understood the subject or who asked questions about the talk. After, His Holiness took me aside and we conversed at length about the contested border, from Ladakh and Kashmir in the West to India's Assam and Northeast Frontier Agency (today Arunachal Pradesh), and Tibet's future. We also talked for a long time about cats, but that's another story that will be in my next book.
So from my encounter with the Dalai Lama came my first book, War at the Top of the World (now in its fourth, revised edition), which also covered then little-known Afghanistan and the endless conflict over Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
In War, I predicted that the first major crisis of the 21st Century would occur in Afghanistan.
9/11 happened soon after War came out. I was swamped by calls from the media to talk about Afghanistan and a certain Osama bin Laden.
"How did you know?" everyone asked me in amazement.
"Because I was watching that part of the world when few others were doing so," came my reply.
In 1962, India moved troops into remote valleys high on the eastern Himalayas claimed by China. Beijing proclaimed it would "teach India a lesson."
It certainly did. Marching over the high mountains, Chinese troops quickly outflanked static Indian forces -- as they did with American troops in Korea in 1950. The Indians were routed. The People's Liberation Army took much of Arunachal Pradesh, and stood before tea-producing Assam, only a relatively short distance to Calcutta.
Satisfied by his "lesson," Chairman Mao ordered his troops to withdraw.
Proud India was humiliated and deeply shocked. Since then, India has built up its forces in the region to over three army corps of 100,000 mountain troops, backed by high-altitude air bases and a network of new roads and supply depots.
The long, poorly demarcated border has been tense ever since. India claims two large chunks of territory in the west held by China: Aksai Chin and a slice of Kashmir given by Pakistan to China to allow a military road connecting Tibet with Chinese Xinjiang. I have explored both frozen wastelands, both over 15,000 vertiginous feet.
China claims most of Indian-held Arunachal Pradesh on the eastern end of the Himalayan border, known as the McMahon line. India has only grudgingly accepted China's 1950 takeover of Tibet and has harbored anti- Chinese groups dedicated to liberating the mountain kingdom. At the same time, India quietly asserted control of two other Himalayan mountain kingdoms, Bhutan and Sikkim. India sees the growing array of Chinese bases in Tibet as an extreme danger. China's air, missile and intelligence bases in Tibet look down on the vast plains of India.
India's leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, once complained of this danger to China's Premier Chou Enlai. Chou laughed and retorted, "If I wanted to destroy India, I would march 100 million Chinese to the edge of the Tibetan plateau and order them to piss downhill. We would wash you into the Indian Ocean."
Tibet controls most of the headwaters of India's great rivers. Delhi has long feared that China may one day dam and divert their waters to China's dry western provinces.
Other serious potential flashpoints exist. India's old foe, Pakistan, with whom it has fought four wars, is China's closet ally. Beijing arms Pakistan and has built up its nuclear arms program. An Indian-Pakistan war over divided Kashmir, or an Indian intervention in a fragmenting Pakistan or Afghanistan, could draw China into the fray. A new port in western Pakistan at Gwadar will give China port rights on the Arabian Sea.
Burma (today Myanmar), on India's troubled eastern flank, which is rent by tribal uprisings, deeply worries Delhi. Strategic Burma is rapidly becoming an important forward Chinese base. A new road links China with Burma, and provides China's navy a badly needed port on the Andaman Sea, and thus access to the Indian Ocean. India believes China is trying to strategically encircle it. To the west, Pakistan; to the north, Tibet; to the east, Burma. To the south, China is busy cultivating Sri Lanka.
In spite of million man armed forces and nuclear weapons, India feels increasingly threatened by China's rise. The Indians know full well that China expects obedience from its neighbors. Even a small border clash between these two assertive giants could light the fuse of a broad and very frightening conflict. The scramble for oil and gas offers ample causes of yet more conflict in Central Asia and even the Gulf, where today America's rules supreme.