Aggressive nationalism is becoming part of the natural order for the present government, with both ministers and ruling party supporters showing contempt for anyone that questions their way. But faced with a hyper-aggressive strain of the same phenomenon on the border question in the northeast they seem to be stumped for an answer. The TV discourse, if it could be called that, has ratcheted up with absurd displays of verbal machismo but the government is silent for once and actually trying to dial down the noise.

The Doklam Standoff, as it is called, is simple enough prima facie. It began with Bhutan warning New Delhi that a gang of Chinese soldiers and workmen with bulldozers and excavators were building a mountain road near the border on Doklam plateau, a 269 sq km flatland at the tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China, whose status is undecided. That is what India claims and Bhutan seems to agree. It termed the Chinese incursion a direct violation of agreements in 1988 and 1998 to avoid confrontation and decide the matter through dialogue. China disagrees with that statement and is in no mood to listen. It has warned India not to “push your luck” and, in increasingly strident terms, demanded a pullback. The severity of its tone threatens to reach a point of diplomatic no return very soon.

India and China’s unresolved border problem dates back to colonial times and they even went to war over it in 1962. Since then there have been muscular incidents but both parties have on the whole avoided the temptation of letting it pass boiling point. This time seems a bit different, with the Chinese hinting darkly at dire consequences. Initially taken aback by the aggressive language New Delhi has remained resolute in its stance. Still, there is a question that needs to be addressed. Why would President XI Jinping sanction such provocation at this time and in this place?

At the moment Beijing looks like de facto boss of the South China Sea. The Philippines government has declined to act after an international tribunal dismissed Chinese claims to strategic reefs and atolls in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, which are claimed by Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia, in addition to Beijing. The One Belt One Road initiative (also known as the New Silk Road) was endorsed by a host of Asian governments as well as Russia. One terminus of this grandiose project is nearing completion at Gwadar port in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. And given the US retreat from trade accords to rein in China, the way is open for an unprecedented expansion of its footprint.

Against this background it is hard to see why the resistance to its occupation of a small, remote plateau should excite such wrath but it is worth noting that this is only one instance in an orgy of aggression over the past several months. Its fury over then President-elect Donald Trump’s conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen last December culminated with the flight of a nuclear-capable bomber over the South China Sea.

One reason for the display of machismo could be a predicted slowdown in 2017. McKinsey analyst Gordon Orr in January forecast anemic growth and the possibility of escalating trade disputes and falling exports, especially with the US. There are other concerns as well, job losses to technology and low real wage increases, along with public resentment at tighter controls over every day affairs, including the Internet. How far any or all of these factors account for Chinese aggression is hard to quantify, but hyper-nationalism abroad is a reliable escape valve to manage domestic frustrations. In India’s case, though, there could be more than just that. It is, of course, identified as a strategic adversary but so are Japan and South Korea. The difference is that these two and Taiwan have US guarantees of protection, even if nothing is certain in a Trump presidency. India, on the other hand has no guarantor, not even Russia. Moscow under Putin is closer than ever to Beijing and noticeably cool towards New Delhi. It makes sense to exploit this vulnerability to leverage your advantage.

India, for all its internal problems, is the most credible long-term Asian competitor despite being far behind the colossus that is modern China. Perhaps Beijing took a calculated risk to show the upstart its true place in the pecking order with a sharp lesson at the border. New Delhi’s refusal to roll over then became an even greater provocation than its recital of previous agreements and offers of dialogue. That deprivation of bragging rights on the cheap could have incited a more strident response than Beijing intended.

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