While North Korea Fires Missile, Nuclear-Armed China and India Stand Down

 | Aug 29, 2017 | 9:00 AM EDT
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Well, that's one disaster averted. For now.

While North Korea, South Korea, Japan and the United States face off over Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons program,India and China have agreed to disagree in their border dispute high in the Himalayas, with both sides claiming a diplomatic victory. India is withdrawing troops that had moved into a contested part of the Bhutan border in an area where China won a "hot war" with India in 1962.

With nationalistic leaders in charge in both nations -- which always glance askew at each other anyway -- neither India nor China wanted to be seen as backing down. That created a two-and-a-half-month impasse when soldiers from the world's most-populous nations started each other down.

The dispute high in the highest of Himalayas -- the area is not far from Mount Everest -- started on June 16. India calls the plateau where they standoff took place Doklam; China dubs it Dong Lang. Both sides sent around 300 soldiers to stand off against each other.

India called its troops into action after Chinese construction workers sought to extend a road into an area that it claims, but that India and Bhutan both say belongs to Bhutan. Bhutan, which relies on India for most things, called on its ally's support to repel the Chinese.

The situation bore certain similarities to the events that led to the Sino-Indian War in late 1962. This time around, the spat on two occasions devolved into physical conflict. A real war between nuclear-armed nations that account for 36% of the world's people and 18% of its economic output would have been disastrous.

The dispute did get physical. In June, the two sets of troops shoved up against each other's chests in an effort to barge the other side down. And there was real fighting in mid-August, albeit with fists, rather than guns.

Troops from the two sides kicked, punched and even threw rocks at each other during a brawl next to Pangong Lake, it appears from a 43-second video of the mêlée, but thankfully avoided live fire. Indian media gave the footage plenty of airtime, saying it shows the two-hour fracas that resulted from an attempt by Chinese troops to enter Indian terrain on Indian independence day on Aug. 15.

The disputed area is close to India's "chicken neck" -- its narrowest swathe of territory, at times only 12 miles wide. The neck sits at the point where Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal almost touch, and just south of Chinese Tibet. It links India's seven easternmost provinces, the "head," with the body of the country. India also has its own dispute with China over territory in Sikkim, where Tibet touches the north of the neck.

India says the area the Chinese construction workers entered is disputed; China sees it as its own.

China claims Indian troops then "illegally crossed the well-delimited China-India border" in Sikkim. It believes its cries of protestation "made the facts and the truth of the situation known to the international community."

Beijing says New Delhi called its dogs of war back at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, withdrawing all its equipment and personnel. India, in a brief statement, calls it an "expeditious disengagement of border personnel" from the "face-off site" that was agreed by both sides. Anonymously, Indian officials have claimed China has taken a step back, too, withdrawing the earth-movers and suspending construction of the road.

The timing works out well. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet in the coastal Chinese city of Xiamen during a Sept. 3-5 summit of the BRICS emerging economies. The hard men represent the strongest leader each country has seen since Chairman Mao and Indira Gandhi.

Out of this incident, China said it "attaches importance to developing good neighborly and friendly relations with India." It hopes to see "mutual respect for each other's territorial sovereignty," a foreign ministry spokesperson said in a press conference as India backed its troops down.

India says its back channels to China allowed it "to express our views and convey our concerns and interests." It wants to see boundary issues "scrupulously respected," putting online a scanned version of an apparently typed statement.

The dispute is hardly settled, but has reverted to the previous status quo. China maintains its claim.

It hopes that India "could earnestly honor the border-related historical treaty" on Sikkim and the Doklam/Dong Lang plateau. China claims that the borders were settled in the 1890 Convention on Calcutta, signed between the Qing Dynasty and the British Raj -- entities that do not exist today. To make matters even more complex, it was a private entity, the British East India Company, that first claimed Sikkim under the Union Jack.

China already faces a territorial dispute that pits it against Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam in the South China Sea. It's unclear who exactly was in the right over the road in the Himalayas, but it certainly looks like China was using infrastructure to cement a claim on disputed soil that it insists is its sovereign territory. That's a similar strategy to the island building it has used to cement, literally, its South China Sea position.

China's position on boundaries and international treaties is highly situation-dependent. How it has dealt with separate agreements with the United Kingdom demonstrates that very clearly.

All of a sudden, in Sikkim, China is very keen to see a "historical treaty" heeded. That contrasts starkly with China's stance on Hong Kong, which it ceded to Britain before the Calcutta convention.

The Qing Dynasty handed Hong Kong island to Great Britain "in perpetuity" when it signed the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. The British then took out a 99-year lease on an extension of the enclave, thereafter called the New Territories.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher saw the inevitable end of the colony. Britain and China then orchestrated, through painful negotiation, the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984. That established the rules of transferring the territory, and how it should subsequently be governed.

China now says the Sino-British Joint Declaration is a "historical document that no longer has any realistic meaning." It has steadfastly claimed that it alone has the right to govern Hong Kong and that the British have no right to supervise how the city is run. The arrangements in the declaration are "now history and of no practical significance," it claims, and not binding on how China runs Hong Kong.

But the Treaty of Calcutta is apparently highly relevant today. When past historical treaties suit China's purposes, it expects counterparties to "earnestly honor" them, since they have great meaning. When China has got the territory it wants, those treaties are mere documents, worth only the paper they're printed on.

China doesn't even rely on a treaty in claiming the South China Sea -- it says precedent and history that saw its fishermen exploit the marine resources there is enough.

Watch what you sign, cede and receive with China, in other words. The border between right and wrong shifts with time.

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