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The World's Two Most Populous Countries Are Mad At Each Other And That's Bad

While the world obsesses about every Trump tweet, two nuclear powers have become embroiled in a tense military standoff that could trigger a bigger conflict.

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BEIJING — Deep in the Himalayas, hundreds of troops from India and China are squaring off at a mountain pass in the worst confrontation between the world’s two largest military powers in decades.

Tension occasionally flares up between the nuclear-armed neighbors, who share a lengthy border including thousands of miles of territory claimed by both countries. But rapidly escalating rhetoric and talk of war from both sides has made the most recent incident drag on for nearly six weeks, and has shown no signs of coming to a resolution.

"India and China have both miscalculated, with potentially dire consequences," wrote M. Taylor Fravel, an expert on border disputes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

How did the standoff start?

The standoff is happening in a remote region called the Doklam Plateau, which is claimed by both China and the tiny landlocked kingdom of Bhutan, a longtime ally of India. It’s located in the eastern section of the Himalayas, at the three-way border between all three countries.

The problems started on June 16 when construction workers from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army brought in bulldozers to begin extending a road south into the plateau. In response, two days later, Indian troops moved into the territory to try to halt the construction, incensing China and leading to the standoff.

Why does India care about this plateau?

Chinese FM releases pictures of evidence showing trespass of #Indian border troops at the #Sikkim section… https://t.co/Vn1pOr4Do6

India doesn’t have a claim to this patch of land, which has been the core of the Chinese argument. But from a strategic perspective, the region is vitally important to India because it lies near a key route for Indian commerce and military traffic called the Siliguri Corridor — one that Indian strategists fear could be someday targeted by China. That strip of land, often called the “chicken’s neck” in India, is a crucial path between central India and remote sections of the country’s north. India is also concerned that China's plan to extend the road would give its forces access to a ridge where Indian and Bhutanese troops conduct regular joint patrols along the border.

Where does Bhutan stand in all of this?

Despite all the saber-rattling from government officials and the press in China and India, Bhutan, which actually has a claim to the territory, has been pretty quiet beyond a mild rebuke issued by its foreign ministry. Bhutan relies heavily on India for diplomatic and military support and does not have diplomatic relations with China. Bhutan is the largest beneficiary of Indian foreign aid and India holds significant sway over its foreign policy.

Has this ever happened before?

Well, sort of. Tensions have occasionally flared between China and India over disputed sections of their border and real and perceived incursions by troops. The last incident was in 2014, when Chinese troops entered Indian territory in the northern Ladakh region, just as Chinese President Xi Jinping was in New Delhi for talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There are major territorial disputes in two sections of the China–India border — one in an area between Bhutan and Myanmar, and another near the Chinese region of Xinjiang.

So what’s different this time?

One major difference this time has been a more aggressive tone from Chinese officials and state media, which have explicitly warned of the possibility of a conflict. A recent op-ed in the state-run Global Times newspaper warned of an “all-out confrontation” if India does not back down. And earlier this month, China’s military carried out live-fire exercises on the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau in a clear message to India. (India’s newspapers and some government officials have been just as bombastic, but that’s less unusual.)

"India, which provoked the incident, should see the worst consequence — military clashes. And China would make no compromises on territorial disputes," Wang Dehua, head of the Institute for South and Central Asian Studies at the Shanghai Municipal Center for International Studies, told the Global Times.

Have India and China ever fought a war over territory?

Yes — in 1962, when a series of small conflicts led to a brief but destructive border war. That ended essentially in a stalemate. Since then, there have been no skirmishes for several decades, but round after round of talks between China and India have yielded little progress in settling the disputes.

“Suggestions of a new war or military skirmish between the two nuclear-armed Asian neighbors, both with populations in excess of 1 billion, are slowly becoming less taboo, highlighting the potential for serious escalation,” wrote Ankit Panda, a senior editor at The Diplomat. “If anything is clear about this crisis, it’s that the stakes are high.”

What are the two countries saying about this?

China says India is failing to abide by a treaty negotiated in 1890 by British-controlled India and China — but Bhutan was not a part of that treaty. In June, Wu Qian, a spokesman for China’s People’s Liberation Army, said India should “learn the lessons of history” — a reference to the 1962 war, after the Indian army chief said the country was ready for “a two and a half–front war.” A day later, Indian Defense Minister Arun Jaitley responded by saying that the India of 2017 was different than the India of 1962.

Chinese officials have repeated this week that Indian troops must back down.

"The solution to this issue is simple, which is that they back out honestly," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during a trip to Bangkok on July 25. China says it will not negotiate a settlement until India pulls back its troops.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs has called the road construction a “significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India.”

Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is visiting Beijing this week, and will meet with Chinese President Xi ahead of talks with leaders from Brazil, Russia, South Africa, and China. His visit has raised hopes of a resolution to the standoff.

Megha Rajagopalan is the Asia correspondent at BuzzFeed News.

Contact Megha Rajagopalan at megha.rajagopalan@buzzfeed.com.

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