For the last few weeks, two international crises have dominated news coverage in the UK. The first of which is the continuing and troubling efforts of the North Korean regime to develop nuclear weapons.
We have seen test after test of ever more advanced weaponry from Kim Jong Un, and the most recent test indicated a range that could threaten most of the United States mainland. Despite efforts from America, South Korea and Japan to demonstrate their defensive capabilities, and diplomatic attempts to pacify the regime, the threat only seems to intensify. The regime has responded by promising more tests, which will only condemn the region to an ever worsening security situation. And it will increase the pressure on Donald Trump to respond.
The other crisis attracting the attention of international observers has of course been the terrible situation in Venezuela. The country’s people are starving and hospitals have run out of medicine, while Nicolas Maduro, the President, marches away from the difficulties of democracy, and brutally crushes any form of dissent against him. We in the UK have a particular interest in the situation. After all, the leader of the Labour party has frequently held Venezuela and Maduro up as showing “another way” – an alternative to austerity, and has yet to consider even the smallest criticism of him, even as his regime murders protesters.
It is understandable that these issues are keeping us occupied. However, there is another key international situation that we should perhaps be paying a bit more attention to. Right now, two armies from nuclear-powered nations are squaring off on a high plateau in the Himalayas, in response to the proposed building of a new road on those disputed lands. And the situation appears to be getting worse by the day.
China and India are countries with numerous outstanding border disagreements that they usually manage to largely ignore. But in a region known as Doklam in Bhutan and India, and as Donglang in China, we are seeing one of the worst disputes between these nations in decades. The essence of the crisis is that, although they both view the territory as their own, Bhutan and China have a long-standing agreement to maintain peace and the status quo in the region.
Now China is trying to build a new road, which has been seen as an attempt to alter the status quo. And although India does not have their own claim on the territory, they do support their close ally Bhutan’s claim – so in June it sent troops to halt construction. India’s view is that China has crossed Bhutan’s border, and illegally started building a road. Meanwhile, China says that India has sent troops onto its own territory. Now both sides have troops stationed just metres apart, and there appears to be little imminent solution. Diplomatic statements from both sides have become increasingly aggressive, and China has started to make veiled threats of war.
This aggressiveness about disputed territories, and attempts to shore up territorial claims through bulldozers and construction, has become a feature of China’s foreign policy in recent years. We’ve previously seen it in the South China sea, where China has artificially expanded tiny islands and built military bases to further excessive claims. Whenever smaller countries try to push back they are bullied, and when the US Navy sails through what should still be international waters they are threatened. The evidence is mounting that China, coupled with an ever more fervent domestic nationalism, is seeking to become a much more aggressive and dominant player in Asia.
There was much disappointment when Barack Obama announced his pivot to Asia, and even described himself as the “first Pacific President”. Some have claimed that it was his biggest foreign policy mistake, as he took his nation’s eye off the ball in the Middle East, and ignored an ever more manipulative Russia. However, he was right that we must be aware of what China is doing, and awake to the consequences. We must devote resources both to understanding their motives, and to mitigate the impacts on their near neighbours’ interests and our own. International order requires states willing to preserve the status quo – and that is what is under threat.
Indeed, this was a partial reason behind the planned Trans Pacific Partnership (although preliminary negotiations started under George W.Bush), which Trump was short-sighted in immediately scrapping. The West’s allies in Asia need to be looked after, and they need to have a firm political and economic commitment to their wellbeing from us all, now and in the future.
Whether it is disputed islands or disputed highlands, the Chinese government is increasingly willing to threaten a more aggressive stance to get their way. The nations of that region deserve our protection, and they also deserve to be free from intimidation. In conjunction with our allies, we need to start getting a strategy together about how to maintain the status quo in Asia. It’s in all of our best interests.