The crystal clear waters of Pangong, the world’s highest salt water lake, lie like a jewel in the glacial landscape of Ladakh in the Himalayas.
Each year thousands of people flock here to savor its pristine beauty, most cheerfully ignoring, as they pose for selfies, that they are standing in one of the most dangerous places on the planet – a point of trigger for a nuclear disaster.
And this week, the detonation got closer as the two mega-states of Asia – India and China – literally exchanged blows.
At least 20 Indian soldiers died on Tuesday evening, including a colonel, and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers were killed after a month-long stalemate that broke out on top of a cliff as temperatures dropped.
After a deadly shooting in 1975, soldiers on both sides often remain unarmed as they patrol the remote and highly controversial border, and this conflict was carried out in close combat for several hours with batons, rocks, poles. fence and clubs wrapped in barbed wire.
If it weren’t so bad, it would be funny.
Indian soldiers board a convoy along a highway leading to Leh, on the border with China, in Gagangir on Wednesday
Albert Einstein once predicted that if the third world war was delivered with nuclear weapons, then the fourth world war would be delivered with clubs and rocks.
China and India have reversed Einstein’s order of conflict, but they have not reduced the risk of nuclear war. Emotions in both countries have recently been stirred by this primitive violence. Beijing insists that Indian soldiers “crossed the border twice.” . . provoke and attack Chinese personnel ”.
For its part, New Delhi retorts that the confrontation is the result of China’s attempt to “unilaterally change the status quo”.
In the West, for several decades we have become so used to anticipating and avoiding the “big” – the conflict between the United States and the former Soviet Union – that we have tended to ignore other simmering potential atomic wars .
Yes, North Korea’s nuclear bombing draws our attention intermittently, while India and Pakistan have danced too often on the nuclear tightrope for comfort. But the nuclear elephant in the room is the roaring rivalry between India and China.
This is indeed epic: the first is the largest democracy in the world, and the other is the largest dictatorship in the world.
The two countries have built nuclear arsenals and carriers in recent years, but an imbalance exists which makes the situation even more precarious.
India has about 140 warheads (and a nuclear-powered submarine that could carry 12 missiles, but is not yet armed), and depends on manned bombers to deliver them to deep targets in China.
Since China knows the location of the bases in India, it could launch a first preemptive strike. Even if the bombers flew, they could be shot down by Chinese air defenses during a war.
China has more than double the number of Indian warheads – around 300 – and its strategy is based on the destruction of key urban centers which it says would terrify an opponent in passive and soothing mode.
Regarding the launching of weapons, China also has a wider range of options, including bombers and submarines. It has up to 75 intercontinental missiles in silos and mobile solid fuel rockets. In April, images of dozens of these weapons deployed in Inner Mongolia were deliberately released – just to let the United States and India know what they were fighting against – before being removed from view.
Indian army soldiers stand around the coffin of their colleague, who was killed in a border clash with Chinese troops in Ladakh
China therefore has the capacity to strike anywhere in India and India has no effective missile defense. And, let’s not forget, China has Pakistan’s nuclear weapons as its ally behind India.
This increases the risk that India will feel compelled to strike before its bases are eliminated by China and Pakistan, triggering massive Chinese reprisals.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – for which the country is blamed for a good cause – China has adopted a more aggressive global policy, be it the so-called “wolf war diplomacy” with the West, or pressure from developing countries to adhere to its global development strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative, in return for investment.
It has strengthened its naval presence in the South China Sea and around the separatist island of Taiwan. In Hong Kong, he introduced draconian security laws that vandalize the constitution of the territory and the “one country, two systems” style of government that has brought unprecedented democratic freedoms to mainland China.
And it has steadily increased the number of its troops in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas, even as India has invested in new routes to facilitate a rapid military deployment to deal with the threat.
Last month, China increased its stake when patrols crossed the border – taking India by surprise – to take strategic positions in its rival’s territory.
We now have the most serious confrontation since the two nations waged war on Ladakh in 1962. Not only would such a generalized conflict be devastating for billions of people in Asia, but it would force the West – and Russia – to choose their side. Deterrence would go out the window and the law of the nuclear jungle would prevail.
The disputed border in the Himalayan highlands is not only symbolic for the patriots who fight in the chest on both sides. Its glaciers provide water to hundreds of millions of Indians. New Delhi is concerned that China and its ally Pakistan, which faces India on another ill-defined border in Kashmir, are considering using their headwaters to blackmail India downstream.
Activists of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) shout slogans as they burn posters and an effigy of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an anti-China demonstration in Siliguri on Wednesday
China certainly has a form in this regard. Its dams on the mighty Mekong River rising to Tibet have dramatically reduced the flow of water through Laos and Cambodia to Vietnam, leaving Beijing in effective control of its neighbors’ water supply.
Oil has caused wars in recent history, but the battle for water control in Asia could spark a nuclear conflict.
Nor is it a coincidence that Beijing’s close ally, North Korea, has again become aggressive towards the South.
It is highly unlikely that Kim Jong-un and his powerful sister, Kim Yo-jong – Bonnie and Clyde, armed with nuclear weapons – would have detonated this week a “liaison office” in the tense demilitarized zone which divides their tyranny of Headless South of China.
China and India will always rub against each other. But New Delhi and Beijing must step back and bring the nuclear clock back to midnight.
Britain cannot separate from this crisis – given the millions of Britons of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Nepalese descent who will be very concerned about the events.
But the West in general needs to shift its focus from the coronavirus momentarily to help. Our democracies must show solidarity with India – perhaps the only way to prevent what would be the worst war in world history.
- Mark Almond is director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford.