Just a passing glance at a map of Asia, and you can't miss the contours of the more than 4,000-kilometer-long border between India and China, the world’s two most populous countries. But it may require a closer look at that same map to see what is commonly dubbed: the "Chicken's Neck" of India.
This narrow stretch of land (less than 27-km-wide at one point) is formally known as the Siliguri Corridor, and lies in the state of West Bengal, connecting India's northeastern states to the rest of the country. It was created in 1947 after the partition of Bengal between India and Pakistan, and today is surrounded by the countries of Nepal and Bangladesh, and the tiny kingdom of Bhutan.
But today the Chicken Neck is back in the headlines because of China. This most vulnerable point in India’s geography appears to have pushed Delhi's unusually aggressive move in Dok La, a region comprising Bhutan and China’s disputed land border: On June 16th, Indian soldiers formed a human chain in the area, preventing Chinese incursion into the territory for road construction.
Soldiers of both armies have now pitched tents opposite each other, effectively creating a military standoff, as India and China face their deepest conflict since their month-long war in 1962.
The Chicken Neck (Siliguri Corridor) in red — Wikipedia
Asian geopolitics are never simple to understand: in this case, border tensions between Bhutan and China have led to a face-off between China and India. Authorities in Delhi claim to be acting in Bhutan’s best interests, and with its consent, but there is more to the standoff than meets the eye. The presence of Chinese troops in the Dok La region would make it easy for China to take control of the corridor, and as a consequence isolate all of northeast India from the rest of the country.
But the more relevant question may be: Why now? Beyond the factors on the ground are the men in charge. The countries' current leaders, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi, have each made it clear that they want to exert their influence beyond their respective borders. Xi has been busy flexing his muscles in the South China Sea, across the straits, and now, even in Africa.
While previous leaders for the two countries have avoided open conflict for more than 40 years, the current territorial skirmishes, coupled with the leaders’ global ambitions, begs the question of how much longer this peace will last.
Siliguri, India — Photo: Sayantani
Still, even as both sides declare their preparedness for war, it remains a highly unlikely outcome. Even as Bhutan remains sandwiched between the two countries, with China constantly threatening to make it a vassal state, it is hard to imagine the two continental powers going to war over a border conflict in the tiny Asian kingdom.
Though the two sides are currently showing no signs of backing down, neither Beijing nor Delhi are likely to let the situation degenerate to that point. The reason is simple: even more than global muscle-flexing, both China and India will do everything in their power in the pursuit of economic growth.
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