Brazen Belligerents Bound for Blood over Borders?: India, Japan and China

Remember Samuel Huntington? The theorist behind the “clash of civilizations”? One of his comments that has stuck to me is the “bloody borders” of civilizations. For him, he pointed to “Islam’s” bloody border as evidence to the veracity of his hypothesis. Quick note: I’m not a big fan of Huntington’s theory, primarily from the point view of the modifiable area unit problem (MAUP alert!). Like any theory its over-extrapolation of… humans. As any person over the age of 20 knows, people are wildly different even within small communities.

But I also believe in salvaging aspects of theories that could still be useful. From Huntington, I like the idea of the bloody borders. Why? Mostly because it makes sense and I like reason and logic. While no one is going to be able to define what constitutes a “civilization” (unless you’re Sid Meier), we have plenty of states to examine. And states’ borders are just as bloody. I could fly into a nice tangent about the organic state in regards to bloody borders, but I’ll save that, but in addition to the unclear and missing state presence in borderlands, there’s also the issue of population. Population groups in borderland regions are apt to be very different from population groups in the capitals, there’s bound to be a number of minority groups (some might actually be the majority), and there’s also likely to be population groups in one country whose brethren (I use this term very loosely) are the majority group in another country. For one example, consider the Chakma/Marma population in Bangladesh (who are loosely related to Burmans in Burma) or the Rohingya population in Burma (who are loosely related to Bengalis in Bangladesh).

One state making headlines (depending on the paper you read) is China. And its borders are bloody. Yet. But they seem to be getting hotter. And I’m not even talking about the South China Sea. China grabbed (Indian) headlines this past weekend with a 10-kilometer incursion into the disputed territory of Ladakh in India. While a Times of India article noted that there have been 600 border violations (across all three sectors: Ladakh, Uttarakhand/Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh) India’s Ministry of Defense is concerned about the “brazen military assertiveness” of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. An official noted that the PLA is going increasingly deeper into Ladakh, in particular, with a potential aim to stake “claims” in the disputed area (planting the flag). In this latest incident, the PLA erected a tent. And haven’t moved. Another Times article notes that the act of erecting a permanent structure (a tent) violates a “Sino-Indian” agreement on managing the disputed border.

In other words, its an escalation. Typically, both sides would retreat to their respective lines after a face-off and flag-waving. While the Indian border guards did so, the PLA pitched a tent and spent the night. The Indian border guards pitched a tent as well, a tit-for-tat escalation (guess the agreement’s void now). Senior military-leader meetings are being held but they have been inconclusive in resolving the dispute. India’s is keeping the option of “rushing troops” to Ladakh, if needed. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs points out that it did nothing wrong and is merely patrolling the line of actual control (LAC, which nominally divides China and India).

In the BBC’s headlines, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned that Japan would respond, with force, “if any attempt is made to land on disputed islands” in the East China Sea. As the article points out, the issue over the Senkaku/Diaoyu (Japanese and Mandarin names respectively) islands was reignited last year when the Japanese state purchased three of the islands from a private owner (“nationalizing” them).

Are these two groups of countries, India-China, Japan-China, heading for a violent conflict? Hard to tell. Violent inter-state conflict is becoming harder to discern these days. Gone are the days when an ambassador was summoned and war declared by a representative body or person of the body politic. I doubt anyone could predict such a cataclysmic event like the beginning of a war. What we can say, however, is that tensions are getting hotter (how hot would be the subject of a research paper, not a blog post). New lines are being crossed: China pitching a tent, Prime Minister Abe mentioning force. But these are a long way from someone pulling a trigger (or pushing a button). But as tensions raise, we have to wonder – how many other levers are there to pull to escalate a situation? And which lever, pulled with the intention to demonstrate resolve, accidentally ignites a conflict?

A lot of this is outside the scope of (political) Geography, of course. For me, the real interest is how these tensions are manifesting in the physical and human landscapes. Why Ladakh? Why the Senkakus? These are discussion points worth their own posts, but to me, Ladakh because there are so few people (civilians) there. Of the four areas listed (Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh) Ladakh has the lowest population density (less than 10 people per square mile). If violence were to erupt, due to a miscalculation by the Chinese or the Indians, it would be largely isolated in a far-flung region dominated by mountains and glaciers. The Senkakus are more than just a set of rocks in the Pacific. They have potential economic value, thanks to local fisheries and underwater petroleum reserves. Beyond this they are symbolic, they are tied up in the turbulent history of East Asia, especially between China and Japan. Though I haven’t read it yet, Council on Foreign Relations published an article this month for “contingency planning” purposes.

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