Another Sino-Indian border conflict remains a distinct possibility

Tensions are heating up at a freezing, 16,300-feet highHimalayan plateau inside India-controlled territory.

On April 15, New Delhi announced that China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) troops had intruded Indian territories and barged 19 kilometers across the Line of Actual Control, the temporary and still-disputed border between the two Asian giants. The PLA soldiers then set up tents on the Depsang plateau, near the Karakoram Pass linking China and Pakistan. The alleged Chinese intrusion prompted New Delhi to order its Indo Tibetan Border Police to advance to within 300 meters of the Chinese installation and set up its own tit-for-tat camp of tents.

Although India and China have started to withdraw their troops from the disputed Ladakh area on May 5, after a three-week “eyeball to eyeball” standoff, the border tensions between India and China remain. A day after India and China decided to pull back their troops simultaneously from the face-off point, the Indian government declared that there was no “deal” with China on border dispute. And leaders of the Indian opposition parties, led by former defense minister Mulayam Singh, are now calling China the “biggest enemy” of India.

In Washington, the Pentagon has also informed the Congress in a report on May 6 that “Despite increased political and economic relations between China and India, tensions remain along their shared 4,057-kilometer border, most notably over Arunachal Pradesh, which China asserts is part of Tibet, and therefore of China, and over the Aksai Chin region at the western end of the Tibetan Plateau.”

The report noted that both Beijing and New Delhi have “stepped up efforts to assert their claims since 2009? The governor of Arunachal Pradesh announced that India would deploy more troops and fighter jets to the area. And the number of Chinese border violations had risen from 180 in 2011 to more than 400 by September 2012.”

The China-India relationship on the border has always been a troubled one. PLA’s recent Ladakh move is one of the boldest incursions by the Chinese side since the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Some 50 years ago, coincided with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the two Asian giants fought a large-scale war, known as the Sino-Indian Border Conflict. In the 1962 bloody conflict, more than 4,000 Indian and more than 2,000 Chinese soldiers were killed and wounded. Half a century later, the Sino-Indian border is still unsettled, with more than half a million troops are eyeball to eyeball along the Himalayan border.

From an Indian perspective, as Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at New Delhi’s Center for Policy Research, points out, “The Chinese move represents yet another front in China’s increasingly aggressive territorial claims.” China has already escalated territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. “Beijing’s latest move was designed to exploit the strategic weakness in India’s leadership,” Chellaney said.

From a Chinese perspective, however, there are no accidents that “the current ‘tent confrontation’ coincides with Sino-Japan disputes over the Diaoyu Islands as well as the Sino-ASEAN disputes in the South China Sea,” according to Tao Duanfang of the Economic Observer in Beijing, “Chinese are convinced that India is either exploiting the disastrous situation that China is facing or is simply joining other anti-China forces as part of a big conspiracy aimed at containing China.”

And it takes two to tango. As a Times of India editorial points out, “Both sides are pouring money, infrastructure, and forces into the Depsang area to institutionalize their ‘actual control.’ The continuing face-off between troops at 16,300-feet boils down to infrastructure build-up along the unresolved 4,057-kilometer long Line of Actual Control. China has been assiduously strengthening it for well over two decades but has now objected to India’s belated attempts to counter the moves.”

And both Beijing and New Delhi now see diminishing prospects for settling their border dispute. While an all-out war between two major powers, especially between two nuclear powers, is extremely remote, a limited military conflict between China and India remains a distinct possibility. Especially, as London-based Economist warns, “As the years slip by, China may grow less interested in a quiet border.”

Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.