China’s offer to mediate in the dispute over the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, amidst its border stand-off with India in Doklam, has evoked political speculation, positive interest and even some war-talk in the northern state. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has cited it to spur Delhi into initiating dialogue on Kashmir in order to thwart the “foreign hand”. Hurriyat leaders Syed Ali Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq have weighed in by thanking Beijing and hoping that the Chinese interest would give salience to the plight of the Kashmiris and the dispute over the state. There was also wild speculation in Srinagar, following a baseless report by a Pakistani TV news channel, that a significant military clash had taken place in Doklam, leading to the death of over 150 Indian soldiers. In summary, China’s aggressive statements and India’s refusal to blink are cause for concern.

Undoubtedly, Beijing’s mention of Kashmir was intended to alert Delhi to its potential territorial vulnerability: “If you take a hard stance on Doklam, we will assert ourselves in Jammu and Kashmir.” The argument is cut from the same strategic cloth as Delhi’s mention of Pakistan’s Balochistan in 2015, albeit with greater fanfare and braggadocio. Such are the games states play.

However, the point is that despite such episodic sabre rattling, there is a broader principle at work here. The Doklam stand-off illustrates the political will of the larger regional powers to assert power – even if over the smallest patch of territory – in what they see, paradoxically, as their “peripheries”. In this context, the entire Himalaya must be seen as a complex seam of cultures fraught with potential for conflict between two ambitious demographic giants. How Delhi and Beijing, and the Himalayans themselves, deal with such confrontations will be of great import for the future of politics on the Eurasian landmass.

Complex history

But first the Doklam stand-off. The agreed upon sequence of events, from a reading of several security and military experts, seems to be this: in early June, some Indian bunkers were destroyed by Chinese border guards in the area. In mid-June, the Chinese restarted work on a road in the area and the Indian military physically blocked this activity. It is still unclear whether this was with or without a priori leave from Thimphu. Regardless, the first formal Bhutanese response came on June 29 with a demarche to the Chinese embassy. Beijing’s (uncharacteristic) daily protests over Indian involvement and even threats from opinion makers in the Chinese media have persisted since the start of the crisis. Beijing’s toughest response came from its embassy in Delhi in the first week of July: that there will be no negotiations until India unilaterally withdraws from Doklam.

Why this sudden outbreak of hostilities? Expert opinion is varied. Beijing tends to provoke contention at critical junctures, such as during Xi Jinping’s visit to India in 2014 and, today, Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States. It is a response to Delhi’s rejection of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It has taken place because China wants to wean Bhutan away from India. It is a tactical move by China designed to gain geo-military advantage close to the Siliguri Corridor, which would leave India’s North East vulnerable. Finally, China is irked by India’s build-up of hardware and troops along the 3,500-km Himalayan boundary since the 2000s.

There has been some speculation among security experts, the military, policy wonks and academics about the possibility of war over Doklam. Although few have ventured to predict the probability of war, many have expressed anxiety over that possibility for reasons ranging from domestic compulsions in Beijing and Delhi to an accidental shootout between nervous soldiers.

From the perspective of the Himalayan peoples, the immediate reasons for the current impasse are less important than the history – and historical attitudes – that have informed Chinese and Indian actions. History not so much in the minutiae of the treaties and agreements or the skirmishes and wars from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century that have punctuated relationships in the region, but more in how they have affected the peoples of the Himalaya.

To explain: the British Indian strategy towards the Himalaya may have been tactically secretive but it was strategically transparent. In its broadest contours, it was defined as a choice between a “forward policy”, which was territorially expansive, and its opposite, “masterly inactivity”, which was territorially and politically neutral. The latter won the day more often and meant laxity towards territorial and political sovereignty. But, in exchange, it required an unambiguous political allegiance to British India over any interest shown from the north – Russia or the Soviet Union and, selectively, China – an approach that prevailed until the British withdrew from South Asia. These were policies that had minimal material impact on the peoples.

New realities

After 1947, the “forward policy” and “masterly inactivity” debate was rendered anachronistic for British India’s successor states because of the revolutionary changes in communications, transport and technology – not to speak of the paradigm shifts in the international political order. Today, China and the former colonies of South Asia are politically independent, but struggle with the structures of their political institutions. Their political institutions are different, of course, but they are similar in one way – all seek greater control over the populations and territories they inherited from the British and Qing empires.

These policies have had two consequences. First, they have radically altered how the state’s writ is enforced – it is no longer nuanced in application. Secondly, their complexity has left the modern and nascent states of China, India and Pakistan with a legacy of lingering disputes, of which the peoples of the Himalaya have become the greatest victims.

To return to Kashmir, the Hurriyat’s appeal to China is the deployment of the maxim that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. The argument speaks to the absence of a positive strategy, one that is people-oriented rather than dominated by territorial concerns, on the part of China, India or Pakistan. This short-sightedness in deferring the resolution of disputes in and on their “peripheries” can lead to a Himalaya-wide logjam from Arunachal Pradesh to J&K, involving territorial disputes not only among the three large states but the smaller sovereign states as well. The centrality of Bhutan in the current India-China stand-off is a case in point. In this context, invoking Kashmir in the west during a confrontation over Doklam in the east is not as far-fetched as it may seem.

Siddiq Wahid is a historian and founding vice chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology, Kashmir.