The Debate

China and India: A Lesson in Conflict Resolution

In a violent world, the two behemoths offer a welcome respite.

China and India: A Lesson in Conflict Resolution
Credit: Nilesh Shukla

China and India just reminded the world – especially those who have seen the slaughter in the killing fields in the Middle East and Africa – that differences among people can be settled without firing a shot, without anyone getting killed. The dispute began when China started to pave a road in a Himalayan region at a plateau in Doklam, a territory China considers part of its land but India recognizes as part of the kingdom of Bhutan, its close ally. India sent its troops to stop China, and in turn China sent its troops to reinforce its claims.

The conflagration between the two nations, each equipped with nuclear weapons and a large, recently expanded military, alarmed various observers. Indian-born economist and British politician Meghnad Desai claimed, according to India Today, “We could be in a full scale war with China within a month.” A Washington Post editorial painted a bleak scene of Doklam as a ticking time bomb: “China and India, two nuclear-armed nations, have come near the brink of conflict over an unpaved road…Now soldiers from the two powers are squaring off, separated by only a few hundred feet. The conflict shows no sign of abating, and it reflects the swelling ambition – and nationalism – of both countries.” An op-ed in Al-Jazeera similarly set a foreboding scene: “The two Asian giants, collectively home to a third of humanity, are once again on the verge of direct military conflict with frightening implications for the region and beyond.”

Yet both Indian and Chinese troops left their firearms behind and instead jostled with each other in ways that are more reminiscent of a pick-up basketball game or, at worst, a St. Patrick’s Day street brannigan. Videos of these outbursts have regaled YouTube viewers. One video of a Doklam skirmish shows roughly a dozen Indian and Chinese soldiers in heavy coats pushing each other around. Some simply charge with their chests, holding their hands in the air to signal they don’t want a fight. Others hold their foes in bear hugs. No punches are thrown. Many of the soldiers wear cameras slung over their shoulders, as each side seems eager to capture the other looking abusive. Another video, which was aired on NDTV, depicts a more heated confrontation at Pangong Lake in Ladakh, where some patrolmen wrestled, punched, kicked, and hurled stones at each other. In all, not a shot was fired, not one was killed.

After two months of shoving and pushing – the two sides settled. Each framed the withdrawal of their troops from the contested area in their own terms, but leave they did. An Indian Foreign Ministry official told the Associated Press that the two sides had agreed to return to the “status quo,” and cable news channel NDTV reported that Chinese bulldozers had been moved away, and road construction stopped. According to the Washington Post, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that China will continue to “exercise its sovereign rights” and “guard its territorial sovereignty.” Talk they did; shoot they did not.

The issue may well flare up again. And the road, which the region needs, may well be paved. However, for now this form of conflict resolution deserves much more attention than it is getting. Jostling – or, my favorite, arm wrestling – recommends itself for parties that contest territories, from Iraq to Sudan, from Libya to Afghanistan.

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Some may say that this confrontation in Bhutan was indeed an operatic one, but we all know how aggressive China usually is. Indeed, China’s foreign policy has often been described as “aggressive” by academics and pundits. However, in my 2017 book Avoiding War with China, I examined the major confrontations in which China has been involved in this century. These include the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the Scarborough Shoal, and the Spratly Islands. In all these instances, no one was killed; not a shot was fired. In some cases China “lost” (it failed to change the status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands); in some it resolved the differences peacefully (with the Philippines over the Spratly Islands); and in some the status remains unclear. However, without exception, aggression – if this term applies at all – was largely verbal or amounted to some pushing and shoving, ramming fishing boats, and, in one case, roping off a shoal to impede the travel of some vessels into a Chinese-claimed area.

I am not suggesting that China – or India – have adopted Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence or that they are about to disband their militaries and train their people in advanced jostling. Nor do I argue that they are incapable of engaging in a major shooting war or other forms of brutality. However, in a period when we are bombarded with images of civil wars, attacks on crowded urban markets, and bombings of cities teeming with civilians, the way China and India settled their latest dispute, at least for now, provides a welcome respite.

Amitai Etzioni is professor of international relations at The George Washington University. He is the author of Avoiding War with China, just published by University of Virginia Press. Follow his work on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.