25 June 2020
By Neil Tidmarsh
Last month, Poland invaded the Czech Republic.
Polish troops crossed the border between the Polish village of Pielgrzymow and the Czech village of Pelhrimovy and set up a road block on Czech soil. They were first noticed on Thursday 28 May, by a Czech engineer who was on his way to a historic chapel where he was overseeing repairs. He found his path blocked by a checkpoint manned by Polish soldiers armed with machine-guns. They refused to let him through to the chapel. They were still there a few days later, when a party from a local ecological group tried to visit the building but were also turned away by armed Polish soldiers. The chapel is thirty metres inside the Czech Republic, and the frontier there is clearly marked by a stream running between the two countries.
Local Czech police ordered the soldiers to leave. They did eventually evacuate their position and withdraw to their own side of the border after the authorities in Prague made an official complaint to the authorities in Warsaw. “The placement of the border post was a result of a misunderstanding, not a deliberate act” said Poland’s minister of defence. “It was corrected immediately and the case was resolved.”
So what was that about? The two countries share an 800km border undisputed since distant conflicts in 1919 and 1938. They enjoy good relations with each other. Was it just a cock-up, with over-enthusiastic soldiers occupying a bridgehead on the wrong side of a bridge when the coronavirus emergency temporarily closed the border? Or was it something more mysterious? Was something secret happening in the chapel? Was some sort of covert operation taking place on that bridge spanning the frontier river? Will we ever know?
But perhaps the story shouldn’t surprise or intrigue us. Border conflicts often have something of the surreal or irrational about them. They often seem to be senseless or groundless quarrels over apparently trivial incidents or over land of little economic or strategic value. Shakespeare has a bewildered Hamlet similarly scratching his head over the mystery of why Fortinbras of Norway is trying to seize a tiny plot of Polish territory on his border, or why Poland is bothering to defend it, when it is worth nothing and is hardly big enough to bury the soldiers who will die fighting for it.
But of course that doesn’t mean that border conflicts are insignificant or inconsequential. While no doubt Hamlet would have been equally bewildered by the current stand-off between China and India along their disputed Himalayan border (after all, the frozen, high-altitude scrap of land which Chinese troops have apparently occupied on the Indian side of the border is more or less uninhabitable), the conflict clearly has serious and wide-reaching implications for the rest of the world.
It’s a worrying sign that China is now embarking on a more aggressive pursuit of super-power global domination. It seems that the economic and political expansionism of recent years is now being matched by a campaign of military expansionism. This campaign seems to be determined and well-planned. Conflict along this border has simmered since the war of 1962, but India insists that there was nothing “accidental” about the logistical and tactical build-up to this current Himalayan land-grab; this was no “misunderstanding” but a “deliberate act”. And the bloody and ruthless way the Chinese have defended it has effectively broadcast a new determination to the whole world. China isn’t merely challenging a neighbouring country to a fight over a few mountainous acres of snow and ice; it’s challenging a regional rival to a fight for regional supremacy. India and China are the two biggest powers in Asia; they are the two most populous countries in the world; they are both nuclear powers; and they are both governed by authoritative, nationalistic strongmen. The implications for the rest of the world are clearly worrying.
India isn’t the only neighbour to have been on the receiving end of threats from the Chinese military in recent weeks. Beijing’s increasingly belligerent rhetoric towards Taiwan has been backed up by military exercises. A Vietnamese fishing vessel was sunk in the South China Seas. Malaysian oil rigs and the ships servicing them are being harassed. This new concentration of assertive and aggressive action can’t be accidental or coincidental, coming as it does at the same time as the coronavirus pandemic (which has inflamed Chinese sensitivities and weakened the rest of the world) and the kind of political, economic and (allegedly) cyber threats targeted at countries such as Australia and Canada.
The Himalayan border between India and China wasn’t the only frontier in the headlines this week; the border between South Korea and North Korea is back in the news. The two countries signed an agreement in 2018 to reduce tension across the border, but two years of relaxation were literally blown sky-high last week with the North detonating the building which housed the joint liaison office between the two countries. The explosion was preceded by a storm of aggressive and threatening anti-South rhetoric from Kim Jong-un’s sister. The bone of contention is ostensibly the propaganda leaflets and memory sticks sent across the border from South to North on helium balloons (Hamlet scratches his head again), but in all probability it’s really about frustration in the North at the stalling of talks with the USA, coupled perhaps with imponderable and internal issues such as the North’s economy, leadership and Covid-19 status. Whatever the reason, the border is now hotting up again. The 2018 agreements are being reversed, with the North preparing to send troops back to guard-posts in the border zone and to send its own propaganda south of the border, either broadcast from restored barrages of loud-speakers blasting their message across the militarised zone or flown over on its own new retaliatory fleet of helium balloons.
Were there no good news stories about frontiers and borders in the papers this week? Yes, there was one – reported in last Friday’s The Times – and here it is, to round things off on a positive note.
The 5500 mile border between Canada and the USA has been closed by the coronavirus epidemic (although thousands of Canadian nurses have been crossing it to work in US hospitals every day). The closure has split towns and communities along the border, including the town of Surrey which straddles it between British Colombia and Washington state. It runs right through the middle of the town’s 42-acre park – Peace Arch Park – which was founded in 1921 to commemorate the “peaceful resolution of US-British disputes and an unguarded US/Canadian border” and dedicated to the citizens of both countries, the “children of a common mother”. The park and its entrances in both countries were closed in the March lockdown.
The border remains closed, but Peace Arch Park has just reopened. Covid-19 cases have fallen in British Colombia, and people from both countries are now free to enter the park again, as long as they leave by the same way they went in. Families, friends and couples who found themselves separated – one partner in the USA and one in Canada – by the pandemic are now coming together in Peace Arch Park from all over North America. It has been the site of so many romantic reunions in recent days that it is now known as Passion Park.
There’s a lesson there for Poland, the Czech Republic, China, India, North Korea, South Korea and indeed the whole of the world.