China-India border tension risks escalating into more intense conflict

Earlier this month the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, concluded a three-day trip to India. As he set off to meet Narendra Modi, Xi wrote in The Hinduthat China and India “need to become co-operation partners."

This does not explain why his soldiers entered Indian-claimed territory without authorisation on the first day of his visit.

As Xi landed in Gujarat, Indian media was abuzz with reports of a Chinese intrusion into Indian territory in Ladakh, with 130 Indian troops facing down 230 Chinese troops. Both sides publicly downplayed the face-off – but it was apparently serious enough for Modi to raise it twice with Xi.

Whatever he said did nothing to relieve the tension, which is still high: around 1,000 soldiers from each side have now been stationed in Ladakh and the dispute is playing out through the seemingly endless rushed tit-for-tat construction of military huts and roads.

Clearly, the latest increase in tension is not just an everyday mishap; thanks to constant mistakes, misperception and mistrust, it risks escalating into a more intense conflict.

Chinese-Indian border incursions are nothing new: according to the Indian government, 334 “encroachments” have already happened in 2014 (with 411, 426 and 213 incidents in 2013, 2012 and 2011, respectively).

Disputed since China annexed all of Tibet in 1950, the border still eludes clarification. India claims about 15,000 square miles of Chinese-controlled territory in Aksai Chin, while China claims Indian Arunachal Pradesh (about 34,000 square miles) as “Southern Tibet”.

The failure to clearly demarcate the China-India border has led to overlapping perceptions of where the so-called Line of Actual Control (LAC) lies, guaranteeing that rival border patrols will run into each other and force the issue.

It’s possible that troops stationed high up in the Himalayas are just horribly out of touch with international politics. Alternatively, the People’s Liberation Army could be airing its own foreign policy views in opposition to the civilian leadership.

Then again, this could also be a co-ordinated strategy on the part of the Chinese: talking peace and dangling economic incentives while implementing hard-nosed security policies, just as Beijing is doing in the East and South China Seas.

But whatever is behind the latest dial-up in tensions, it has taken emotions to a height unseen in years.

Territorial issues haunt Indian-Chinese relations even at the best of times – and so it went during Xi’s visit. India had mixed success keeping Tibetan protests out of the Chinese president’s path: to safeguard the atmosphere before his arrival in Ahmedabad, 52 Tibetan students were pre-emptively detained, and north-east Indian staff in Xi’s hotel were banned from their workplace.

But still, Tibetan girls descended onto Hyderabad House, site of the Delhi meeting, shouting anti-Chinese slogans. Other activists scaled scaffolding outside Xi’s hotel and unfurled pro-Tibetan banners.

Some Indians speculated that the authorities deliberately allowed the protesters to reach Hyderabad House in retaliation for the border incursion. If true, beating up the protesters and bundling them away within minutes is a strange and feckless way to send a message to China.

In any case, ahead of Xi’s arrival, it had been predicted that he would pressure New Delhi to help curtail the Dalai Lama’s activities and shut down the Tibetan “government-in-exile”. New Delhi reportedly rejected these demands – but in a signal that the incursions had introduced a froideur into proceedings, it also refused to resurrect its expression of support for the “One China Principle” in the customary joint declaration.

All this might sound like it calls for a reasonable sort of detente – but the problem is, New Delhi and Beijing need far more from each other than that.

The economic case for co-operation is obvious. China and India are currently trading only at the volume of US$66.4 billion, although India suffers a trade deficit of around US$35 billion. The 16 deals signed during Xi’s visit will bequeath a Chinese investment of US$20 billion in Indian power equipment, automobiles, infrastructure development and airlines.

For India, securing foreign investment is a crucial priority. China has plenty of capital to invest, and if Modi is serious about co-operating in global institutions with the other BRICS, he will have to defrost New Delhi’s relations with Beijing.

But for China, embroiled in various sharp territorial disputes with neighbours on its eastern Pacific front, improving relations with India is a point of paramount security importance.

With Modi having an imperative to repair relations with Washington during a US visit, this just weeks after he implicitly decried Chinese “expansionism” in Tokyo; hopes that the world’s two largest countries will manage to improve their relationship may be premature at best.

Tsering Topgyal is lecturer in International Relations at University of Birmingham, This article first appeared on The Conversation