You'd think the danger of a war between the two nations with the most people on earth would get a lot of attention, but it doesn't. Just such an event is an accident waiting to happen, right now, in the Himalayas. In fact, an actual "hot war" in exactly the same region has happened before. The current standoff is getting too little attention.
Soldiers from India and China have been in a face-off, literally, since June 16 on China's border with Bhutan. They stand eye to eye and have been engaging in what is inevitably called "jostling" in the Indian media, whereby unarmed soldiers from either side go chest-to-chest and attempt to barge each other back from the disputed border.
It sounds like kids playing at soldiers, but experts on the region say it wouldn't take much to kick off an actual conflict. Asked whether this spat could spiral into war, Jeff Smith, a scholar who studies Indian-Chinese relations, said "Yes, I do - and I don't say that lightly."
The odds of actual fighting appear far higher than any likely physical action from the United States in North Korea, in my book, or any skirmishing over Taiwan or the South China Sea. And a battle between the two Asian mega-nations is never going to be good for trade or trading.
Both the Chinese and Indian sides have taken a hardline stance from which they will find it hard to stand down. And both nations have staunchly nationalistic leaders who keenly want to cement their country as a central presence on the world stage.
The situation now is "eerily similar" to that half a century ago, according to Smith, a fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. In 1962, India and China came to real blows over the territory. He's not alone in thinking the same could happen again.
The fight in the Himalayan foothills, then and now, stems from contradictory wording in an 1890 border agreement between British India and the Qing Dynasty in China -- both of which no longer exist. One phrasing gives control of most of the disputed area to Bhutan, and another phrase gives it to China.
Most recently, China has been extending a highway from Tibet -- which of course has its own issues as part of China -- into the disputed area. The road now reaches right across the Doklam plateau, which China calls Donglang. When Chinese troops attempted to protect the Chinese construction workers who are trying to build the new section of road, Bhutan asked for India's help. That's when Indian troops entered the disputed area.
India has been Bhutan's key ally on, well, everything. India also has its own territorial disputes with China in the same area, about where exactly the border lies between its disputed Sikkim region and Tibet. And India and China have never seen eye to eye.
Doklam and the pass at Doka La where the troops are stationed is a particularly sensitive spot next to the Siliguroi Corridor, a narrow piece of Indian land that Indians call the "chicken neck." At times only 13 miles across, the neck of Indian turf snakes between Nepal and Bangladesh. Without it, India's northeastern states -- eight of them -- would not be linked at all to the Indian mainland.
So India is none too happy that China is using infrastructure to cement its presence, literally. China on Monday said it would protect its sovereignty "at all costs."
The entrance of troops from both sides into disputed turf certainly harks back to 1962. At that point, it was Indian soldiers who first entered contested territory, with China having annexed Tibet the decade before and the Dalai Lama in exile in India. Indian troops were given the discretion to use force to protect Indian territory, although even they weren't always sure what it was.
These probes met with a bristly Chinese response, words and posturing at first and then a few armed border clashes. Both sides built up huge troop numbers until China attacked on two fronts, driving Indian troops back and occupying land up to its claim lines. It withdrew its troops in a unilateral cease fire that has held -- and established several "de facto" lines of control.
The six-month war was an "immediate and utter" defeat for the Indians, according to Neville Maxwell, who wrote India's China War on the conflict. But it never resolved the territorial dispute. As a result, this unclear, contested border remains "waiting only for incidental sparks to set off martial conflagration," Neville writes now in the South China Morning Post.
It doesn't help that both China and India have huge inferiority complexes. China claims to have invented just about everything, from pasta to soccer, and sees itself as the constant victim in a series of past political and military defeats. It is increasingly muscular in extending its influence in Asia, at times physically, as in the South China Sea.
India struggled early with its identity as a nation, and resents standing in China's shadow, economically and politically. Only over the last two years have I detected a major shift in attention from investors, now considering India as a serious destination for corporate-buyout targets as well as stock-market or real-estate investment.
There's an "absurd myth" that continues to ferment in India's high military and political circles that China attacked India without provocation back in 1962. This has left certain leaders with a "longing for revenge," Neville writes.
That theory was concocted to protect the reputation of then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who "was personally and pre-eminently responsible" for the "national disaster" of India starting the conflict in the first place, Neville says.
India used a tactic whereby it "discovered" the alignment of its borders through historical research, then felt it only need display them on its own official maps for them to become defined international boundaries "not open to discussion with anybody," as Nehru said in 1954, he adds.
India rejected repeated calls from Chinese leaders to negotiate on the borders then, and subsequent leaders after Nehru have used the same maps blocking out a broad area "occupied" by China.
China is duplicating India's old map tactic now, particularly in the South China Sea. Its Nine-Dash Line is widely used in official Chinese maps. The line pictures its frankly ridiculous maritime claim, covering virtually the entire South China Sea right up to the shores of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam.
The Nine-Dash Line was thrown out this time last year by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which found in favor of the Philippines in its dispute with China, as I wrote at the time.
But China continues to lay its claim to the sea, which just happens to contain oil and gas reserves of around $5 trillion. It has built islands into airstrips and is none too happy about persistent "freedom of navigation" moves by the U.S. Navy to sail ships through the area.
India has been increasingly vocal in its criticism of China, on trade and other issues. It is a notable holdout that has refused to sign off on China's One Belt, One Road plan for infrastructure linking China with the West. That's a huge problem for China, since India is basically in the way.
What's more, some 80% of China's vast oil imports come through the Indian Ocean or the Strait of Malacca, shipments India could disrupt. India has this month started to take part in joint naval exercises with the United States and Japan in the Indian Ocean, and says it will station warships to monitor movements through the Strait.
China has a lot to risk, then, if bullets start flying in Bhutan. India, economically, probably has more.
"I hope the Indian side knows what it's doing, because the moment you put your hand in the hornet's nest, you have to be prepared for whatever consequence there is going to be," another author on the 1962 war, Shiv Kunal Verma, told The New York Times.
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At the time of publication, Alex McMillan had no positions in the stocks mentioned.