Home The Washington Diplomat November 2009 As Barbs Fly Over Border Dispute, Ties Between China, India Deteriorate

As Barbs Fly Over Border Dispute, Ties Between China, India Deteriorate


Last month, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh drew the ire of China after he visited the Himalayan state of Arunachal Pradesh to shore up support for his ruling party prior to their state assembly election.

The Chinese reaction was rooted in its longstanding belief that this rugged patch of land in northeast India was part of Tibet, and therefore should be part of China.

“China and India have not reached any formal agreement on the border issue,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement released on the ministry’s Web site. “We demand the Indian side address China’s serious concerns and not trigger disturbances in the disputed region so as to facilitate the healthy development of China-India relations.”

Within hours, Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna had countered. “Well, regardless of what others say, it is the government of India’s stated position that Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India. We rest at that.”

The tit-for-tat highlights a simmering distrust that has divided the two Asian giants ever since the Sino-India border war in 1962. That brief war was fought over Arunachal Pradesh and a disputed region of Kashmir, claiming the lives of 3,100 Indian soldiers and 700 Chinese soldiers and leaving thousands wounded.

Despite 13 rounds of negotiations since 1981, the issue remains unresolved.

In many ways, the dispute over Arunachal Pradesh has come to epitomize China’s hatred of the Dalai Lama, who fled through its Tawang district into India in 1959 after China crushed an uprising in his Tibetan homeland. The Dalai Lama added to the drama last year, effectively thumbing his nose at China’s territorial claim by announcing for the first time that the Tawang district is part of India, not China. The China-India relationship is expected to take another nosedive this month when India grants the Dalai Lama’s right to visit Tawang.

Moreover, the border dispute highlights a growing divide between India and China, even though the two rising superpowers are often lumped together in most international discussions, whether it revolves around their economies or policies on climate change. Yet China and India are hardly developing bosom buddies, with vastly different geopolitical agendas and domestic concerns.

In fact, despite a thriving economic partnership — China is India’s largest trading partner — the two constantly eye each other with suspicion.

For instance, when China — long allied with India’s nemesis, Pakistan — recently began issuing separate visas to Indian citizens from Arunachal Pradesh and disputed regions of Jammu and Kashmir, suggesting that the states do not belong to India, New Delhi reacted by barring those visa holders from flying on China-bound planes and by threatening to tighten visa rules for Chinese working in India.

India also demanded that Beijing stop construction projects in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, following an announcement by China and Pakistan that they would upgrade a cross-border highway.

Nevertheless, many experts say the harsh government rhetoric has mostly to do with domestic posturing. That may be so, but the public vitriolic is as loud as ever. The Indian press for instance often sensationalize that China will attack India by 2012, while Beijing’s media counters that India is really using the claims as a pretext to deploy more troops into the disputed border region.

The increased tension has some concerned that the latest spat could spill over into another bloody border skirmish, undercutting the strong trade ties the countries have built over the last decade.

“The likelihood of a military border confrontation between India and China remains a low, but existential, possibility,” Damien Tomkins, of the Washington-based Atlantic Council, recently wrote. “Human error or a misreading of events could be the unintentional trigger for confrontation.”

War of Words

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, told The Washington Diplomat that China’s hardening stance toward India is at the root of the renewed friction.

“The border dispute has simmered for decades,” he said. “But China publicly raked up its long-dormant claim to India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh in 2006.” Chellaney calls China’s territorial claim “laughable,” but also, in the Far Eastern Economic Review, criticizes India for habitually “indulging in ritualized happy talk about the state of its relationship with Beijing, brushing under the rug both long-standing and new problems and hyping the outcome of any bilateral summit meeting.”

Now Chellaney fears that many of the same elements that led to the 1962 war exist today — from the controversy over the Dalai Lama, to India’s defensive position in border negotiations, to the “cross-frontier incursions” into India.

In fact, since 2006, the Indian Army has recorded 270 border violations and roughly 2,300 instances of “aggressive border patrolling” by Chinese soldiers last year. According to Chellaney, this has made the India-China frontier “hotter than the Indian-Pakistan border, but without rival troops trading fire.”

India recently responded by moving 50,000 to 60,000 troops to the border and — despite China’s efforts to block a loan application on the grounds that some of the funds would go to Arunachal Pradesh — has borrowed money for infrastructure improvements in the contested territory. In addition, the Indian Air force plans to upgrade landing grounds in the area to improve supply lines, ferry troops close to the border, and offset Chinese military structures on the other side.

The moves, which some Indian analysts speculate may be too little too late, sparked a series of taunts and attacks from China’s state-owned newspapers. A June editorial warned that India should consider the “consequences of a potential confrontation with China.” Another article that month said, “India is a paper tiger” that would be “trounced” in a potential border war by China’s military and economic superiority.

China’s People’s Daily stirred the pot again last month by accusing India of being “obsessed” with “hegemony,” and following a policy of “befriend the far and attack the near.” It also accused the United States of “tipping the balance between China and India, seeking to woo India away from Russia and China and, in the meantime, feeding India’s ambition to match China force for force by its ever burgeoning arms sales to India.”

“India, which vows to be superpower, needs to have its eyes on relations with neighbors and abandon the recklessness and arrogance as the world is undergoing earthshaking changes,” the paper charged.

And it gave a thinly veiled warning that while the two sides “will never pose a mortal foe to each other,” the “fabricated stories” and “fanciful” reports in the India media — including the claim that China aims to breakup multiethnic India into 20 or 30 fragments — could create an atmosphere where “an accidental slip or go-off at the border would erode into a war.”

The tit-for-tat recriminations by both Chinese and Indian media have overshadowed the more conciliatory tone of some leaders on both sides as they try to cooperate on issues such as climate change and the global economic downturn. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said he wanted to meet Indian Prime Minister Singh on the sidelines of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit in late October, and earlier, Indian Foreign Minister Krishna himself played down the border tensions, telling reporters “this has been one of the most peaceful boundaries that we have had.”

Economics of Cooperation

The war of words over Arunachal Pradesh comes as the world waits to see how the global economic crisis finally shakes out and what that will mean for rising powers such as China and emerging markets such as India.

“The current assumption is that the post-crisis political economy will reflect the rising influence of China, probably of India, and of other large emerging economies,” World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick said in late September. “Supposedly, the United States, the epicenter of the financial crisis, will see its economic power and influence diminish.”

That assessment may explain some of China’s hardening stance toward India.

“Buoyed by the perception that the Obama administration plans to make its ties with China the centerpiece of its foreign policy in light of growing American economic dependence on Chinese exports and credit, China has displayed a distinctly aggressive stance vis-à-vis India,” Harsh V. Pant of King’s College London wrote in the Japan Times.

Indeed, China, so far, appears to have sidestepped most of the recession. This year it predicts roughly 8 percent economic growth and is on track to overtake the U.S. economy in size as soon as 2030. (On the flip side, a 2008 World Bank survey shows that China ranks 130th out of 210 economies in per-person earnings, placing it behind many African and Latin American countries.)

China is also India’s top trading partner, according to its New Delhi embassy. Bilateral trade volume between the two hit .7 billion in 2008, a 33 percent increase since 2007, and the two countries hope to reach billion by 2010. More so, between 2000 and 2008, China’s exports to India jumped from class=”import-text”>2009November.China Asia Ties.txt.5 billion to billion, while India’s exports to China jumped from 0 million to more than billion. And now many say that India is poised to become the world’s third largest economy.

At the same time, India and China are working to find a common stance on a climate change pact, and they both share a desire to restructure the global financial institutions to better protect developing nations in the wake of the economic collapse.

While it is clear that these established and growing economies are intertwined, the confidence levels between the countries remain shaky in vital foreign policy areas — a reflection of their differing individual strategies and interests.

These include basic ideological differences over human rights and democratic governance; arms sales to their neighbors; bilateral relations with Russia; the nuclear pact between India and the United States; China’s nuclear cooperation with Pakistan; religious extremism and terrorism; China’s growing involvement in the Indian Ocean; lingering questions about whether China is trying to isolate India; and lingering questions about whether the United States is trying to isolate China, partly through India.

Who Stands to Gain?

Many worry that the India-China tug of war for power and influence will one day translate into an actual war sparked by their shared 2,200-mile border. But the recent dispute also begs the question: Who would gain?

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar, a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service, has said, “What is abundantly clear is that neither India nor China stands to gain from the war hysteria that has been whipped up through the recent months over the relations between the two countries.”

A war with India would hurt China’s economic transformation and would be “a serious setback to [its] international standing as a responsible power and stakeholder in world stability,” Bhadrakumar wrote in the Asia Times.

Many suggest the big winners would be arms dealers interested in making money off the conflict. And yet others, including Bhadrakumar, say the biggest winner to emerge from a battle between these two Asian giants would be the world’s biggest economy: the United States.

“Curiously, the war hysteria has deflected attention from the U.S. regional policies aimed at perpetuating a military presence in our region by co-opting Pakistan as its key ally,” Bhadrakumar charged. “It also generates uncertainties in the regional environment just as India, Russia and China explore the potentials of cooperation on issues such as Afghanistan and terrorism. If the xenophobia is to be stretched to its logical conclusion, India should unhesitatingly expand its military cooperation with the U.S. to counter the Chinese menace.”

At least officially though, India says it is determined to solve its border disputes with China to avoid a conflict in which no one would stand to gain. “The focus that has been given to both the incursions and also to Arunachal Pradesh, only I think intensifies the need for the two sides to really sit down to resolve these issues with even more seriousness and determination,” Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao recently told All India Radio. “Both governments understand that a peaceful relationship between India and China is not only good for the two countries but it is good for this region — it is good globally also.”

About the Author

Seth McLaughlin is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.