A Sino-Indian Conflict of Himalayan Proportions?

Despite the militarization of the border, chances of an armed conflict between China and India remain slim.

An Indian border guard, February 12, 2009
An Indian border guard, February 12, 2009 (Louis-Leeson)

Sino-Indian relations are currently set on a positive course. Meetings between high level officials, including a goodwill visit by Indian naval ships to Shanghai, have projected the image of a healthy bilateral relationship. Furthermore, in what could only be a reassuring sign for China, India was not willing to completely align with the United States’ strategic shift toward the Asia Pacific. There is one issue within Sino-Indian relations, however, that could push their relationship toward a gridlock: the increasing militarization of the Himalayas along the border between China and India.

High on the roof of the world in the eastern Himalayan Mountains, China and India are involved in what increasingly appears to be an arms race. Since their war in 1962, there has been an ongoing dispute along their 3,225 kilometer long Himalayan border. The disputes are mainly related to the status of the Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh (which is still displayed on Chinese maps as within Chinese territory and referred to as “Southern Tibet”).

The militarization of the Himalayas has included large troop surges by both sides. According to a 2010 report, China has deployed approximately 300,000 troops within the region. Undeterred by China’s show of force troop deployment in the region, Indian defense minister A.K. Anthony has said that “if they can increase their military strength there, then we can increase our military strength in our own land.” Consequently, India is currently in the midst of a ten year plan to increase its own deployment, which includes an addition of 60,000 troops to the already 120,000 deployed.

What is most worrying, however, is the increasing deployment of missiles within the region by both China and India. Currently, China has nuclear capable intermediate missiles deployed in the area. It has also been recently revealed by the PLA Daily Online that China has successfully test fired new high altitude, surface to air missiles in the Tibetan plateau. The missiles were ominously targeted southwest toward potential enemy aircraft — a clear reference to India, as there are no other threats to China from this direction.

Perhaps in reaction to the Chinese deployment, India has test fired a new version of their BrahMos supersonic cruise missile and announced plans to deploy them in Arunachal Pradesh along the border. The BrahMos missile has a range of almost three hundred kilometers and has the capability to carry a conventional warhead of up to thee hundred kilograms.

The reaction from both sides of the border to this increasingly militaristic situation has not been overly positive. While negotiations have been ongoing, they have been unable to resolve the border dispute. China has made it clear that an early resolution with India is not feasible at this point. The BrahMos missile testing was a further thorn in the side of China’s interests in the region and was labeled as a great “concern” by Chinese state media.

India’s former army chief, General V.K. Singh, has stated that “with the kind of developments that are taking place in the Tibet Autonomous Region and infrastructure that is going up, it gives a certain capability to China. And you say at some point, if the issue does not get settled, there could be some problem.” It has thus been perceived by many analysts that there has been an ongoing military intensification and the perception of an arms race between China and India in the Himalayan region. After fifteen rounds of talks about the border issue, a peaceful solution still seems to be well off.

However, while the militarization of the Himalayas is not a positive occurrence, the possibility for greater conflict between China and India is unlikely. The current dispute has existed for fifty years and could very well last for many decades more. Neither side wants to be pulled into an ugly conflict that would only foster further political and economic disadvantages, and create the possibility of greater regional escalation. The overriding nuclear deterrent means that the chances of both countries going to war are slim.

While there overall effectiveness can be questioned, there remains diplomatic mechanisms, such as a defense hotline and regular border meetings, which can help to ease pressure and ensure that there is no sudden escalation of hostilities. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin has in fact expressed quite a positive characterization of the current situation.

China and India are in consensus on the border issue, will work together to protect peace and calm in the border region and also believe that by jointly working toward the same goal, negotiations on the border will yield results.

Ultimately, what can be observed in the Himalayas is the typical posturing of two states that are unwilling to bow down to the other. To do so would be to admit inferiority. As long as the overall relationship of China and India remains positive, the chance of escalation remains low. Increased militarization does not necessarily result in instability and can in fact create the opposite effect (as deterrent strategists are keen to point out). Only if China and India allow an uncontrollable security dilemma to develop will the situation become unstable. Until this happens, any apparent Himalayan conflict will be of minuscule proportions.

This article by Nicholas Clement originally appeared at 2point6billion.com, August 9, 2012.

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