Reports of more than a dozen Chinese incursions during July-August across the poorly-defined Line of Actual Control (LoAC)—the de-facto border separating India and China—have surfaced, barely three months after a tense border face-off in mid-April when a Chinese platoon set up tents about 12 miles inside Indian Kashmir. That standoff almost derailed the first ever visit to India by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in late May, and ended with the withdrawal of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops on May 6.
Mutual antagonism has persisted along the border ever since the 1962 China-India border war with frequent border skirmishes and standoffs. Negotiations over drawing the official borders have dragged on for so long that they now carry the distinction of being the longest-running border negotiations in the world. This is fitting as the LoAC is the longest border in the world that has yet to be demarcated and delineated.
Premier Li Keqiang expressed optimism about resolving the border issue in the near future when he finally visited India in late May. Moreover the latest incursions occurred soon after Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony visited China in June to discuss measures to maintain “peace and tranquility” along the LoAC. Recently, Chinese and Indian Special Representatives also held their 16th round of boundary talks.
Still, the prospects of an early border settlement are not bright—indeed, the two sides have failed to even exchange maps showing each other’s “perception” of where the LoAC runs.
Some had hoped the growing economic interaction between China and India would help resolve the border dispute. In fact, the opposite has proven true; namely, trade itself has become a source of friction as India’s trade deficit with China has soared from $1 billion in 2002 to $40 billion in 2013. A 2012 Pew opinion poll showed that only 23 percent Chinese and Indians hold a “favorable” view of each other.
The failure to resolve the border row has little to do with the substance of the issue, and everything to do with the interests of some of the parties. There is indeed a fairly good understanding of where the LoAC lies. This is evident from the fact that no incursions were reported for a decade from 1988 to 1998.
It was only in 1998—notably, the year India tested nuclear weapons— that PLA border patrols again began routinely made forays across the disputed 2,400-mile-long LoAC to try and establish new territorial claims. Indian military has recorded nearly 600 incursions over the last 3 years alone. For their part, Chinese officials deny any transgressions and accuse the Indian side of patrolling on the Chinese side of the LAC.
It’s therefore clear that some in China view the unresolved border dispute as working in Beijing’s favor. China’s aggressive patrolling along the unsettled border keeps India’s military forces tied down on multiple fronts, tests Delhi’s resolve, heightens its anxiety, exposes its strategic vulnerabilities, and diverts scarce resources away from its naval modernization.
Moreover, independent analysts see parallels between China’s land forces penetrating the LoAC into Indian Territory and China’s maritime forces attempting to expand its maritime presence eastwards. Also indicative of this trend is Chinese maritime forces harassment of Japanese, Vietnamese and Filipino forces well within their exclusive economic zones. Whether on the high seas or in the icy Himalayan ranges, the PLA does not shy away from using assertive military tactics and an implicit threat of force to seize what it claims to own. Belligerence, brinkmanship, intimidation, risk taking, and controlled escalation have long been part of Chinese diplomacy.
But by engaging in simultaneous territorial disputes and coercive diplomacy China has renewed fears across Asia over its wider territorial ambitions. This has led to discussions in regional strategic circles about a “Triple Entente involving Tokyo, Hanoi, New Delhi to counter the Chinese octopus spreading its tentacles all around Asian periphery.” There is a growing consensus in Asian capitals that a robust regional response to the PLA’s rejection of the territorial status quo may well be needed to maintain peace and stability in Asia.