Calculated Political Tension at China-India Mountain Border
China might be fueling the border dispute to discourage India’s assertive foreign policy.
In the Himalayas, two great powers are blaming each other for stirring tension. India says Chinese troops crossed the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border there. China claims it was merely responding to earlier intrusions carried out by Indian border guards. We don’t know who is speaking the truth. But “calculated” political tension has emerged.
The root of the Sino-Indian border dispute lies in the 1914 Simla Accord, signed by India’s British rulers and demarcating the border with Tibet. This “McMahon Line,” named after India’s foreign secretary at the time, is recognized by India but disputed by China which insists that Tibet was not a sovereign power. China invaded and conquered Tibet in 1950.
A brief war between China and India in 1962 failed to settle the border issue. An area of some 125,000 square kilometers remains in dispute although the area of “real” conflict is the 95,000 square kilometers south of the McMahon Line.
China and India set up a joint working group in 1988 to try to resolve the issue. Special representatives were appointed in 2003 to advance the process. Fifteen rounds of talks took place before the representatives last met in December of last year. No concrete plan to solve the conflict has yet emerged.
Since the end of the Cold War and China’s emergence as an economic power, the government in Beijing has resolved many of its border disputes expect those with India, Japan and in the South China Sea. In many of the cases where it did compromise, it agreed to transfer land to neighboring countries. Its unwillingness to do so with India and its refusal to honor a century old treaty suggest that China wants to keep this border issue alive.
The last time Chinese border guards entered Indian territory was in 1986 at Sumdorong Chu in the eastern part of Arunachal Pradesh state. They vacated their position in 1995.
The porous Himalaya border and lack of clear demarcating features makes incursion an almost everyday incident. Their frequency depends on the status of the bilateral relationship.
The genesis of the present crisis likely lies in India’s increasing presence in Southeast Asia, especially its improving maritime relations with Vietnam, as well as an emerging alliance with the United States. China might interpret both moves within the context of the American “pivot” to the region and feel increasingly boxed in by powers that are hostile to its own designs.
Buddhist unrest in southern China could also play a role. The number of Buddhist self-immolations is rising. There have also been reports of unrest in Sichuan Province. Usually, Tibetan protests are violently suppressed by Chinese security services.
The political headquarters of Tibet’s refugees is situated in India’s northwestern city of Dharamshala. China tends to believe that all Buddhist political activity is orchestrated by the Dalai Lama there, the Tibetans’ religious leader. India does nothing to stop him and may therefore be held partly responsible for the uprisings by policymakers in Beijing.