Features | Diplomacy | Security | East Asia | South Asia

On Sino-Indian Border, Status-Quo Unacceptable

The recent Border Defense and Cooperation Agreement is less a breakthrough than a missed opportunity.

By Jeff M. Smith for

During what was sure to be his last trip to China before national elections next year, on October 23 Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inked a new agreement with China to improve management of the longest disputed border in the world. The resulting Border Defense and Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) is designed to reduce tensions at the Himalayan border that brought China and India to war in 1962 and has served as an irritant in bilateral relations ever since. As recently as this spring the border was the site of a contentious standoff when a Chinese border patrol set up camp several miles across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Ladakh sector of Jammu and Kashmir.

Unfortunately, the final text of the BDCA was decidedly uninspiring. It brought the two sides no closer to a final settlement and did little to advance the more modest goal of improving border management. Restating previously agreed-to principles, the BDCA merely commits the two sides to non-specific “periodic meetings” of military and civilian officers. They agreed to avoid having border patrols “tail” each other through unspecified means; they “may consider” establishing a hotline between military headquarters in both countries; and they agreed to cooperate “in combating natural disasters or infectious diseases.”  

India and China have held over two dozen rounds of border talks since negotiations began in 1981. A pair of meaningful agreements reached in 1993 and 1996 created a durable framework to manage the disputed border but progress has been slow-going ever since. In 2003, the two sides appointed high-ranking “Special Representatives” (China’s State Councilor and India’s National Security Advisor) to reinvigorate the process, but after signing a modest border protocol in 2005 the talks have remained largely deadlocked.

Chinese and Indian officials interviewed by this writer over the past two years were decidedly pessimistic about the prospects for near- or mid-term resolution to the territorial dispute. In 2010 Premier Wen Jiabao raised hackles in Delhi when he admitted the dispute would take “a very long time” to resolve. “Even if we somehow miraculously get a resolution, we still have problems [with India] in Tibet, in Pakistan, in the Indian Ocean. So why try so hard? It seems every time we try and solve the dispute it only makes things worse,” Ye Hailin, the Deputy Director for South Asia at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told this writer over the summer. Privately, Indian diplomats have lamented the two sides are “no closer to a resolution than we were 50 years ago.”

Yet with no prospect of another conflict on the immediate horizon, what’s wrong with the status quo? Indian military analyst Ajai Shukla says the border could be “model for international disputes.” In contrast to the bloody exchanges that haunt the India-Pakistan Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has been virtually free of violence for 40 years. The last major military confrontation there dates back to 1967, and the last fatal cross-border incident was in 1975 (though the two sides did come perilously close to conflict during a bout of military brinksmanship 1987).

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Yet to this writer the status quo raises three distinct concerns. The first relates to the subtle arms race now taking place at the border. When Beijing initially floated the idea of a BDCA late last year, it was designed to institute a freeze on military and infrastructure projects along the LAC. While admirable in theory, in practice a freeze would enshrine a substantial Chinese advantage at the LAC in terms of civilian and military infrastructure – an advantage that has widened over the past two decades as China has gone on a spending spree in Tibet. 

For decades a perverse logic prevailed among Indian strategists, counseling against developing its border areas lest the improved infrastructure facilitate another Chinese invasion. Even today many Indian border posts can only be reached by air or via a grueling, days-long trek through mountain passes closed for half the year.

In 2006 Delhi abruptly reversed this longstanding doctrine with the introduction of a major road-building program for the border areas. Three years later, Delhi announced that it would raise two new mountain divisions for the border, deploy its most advanced cruise missiles and fourth-generation fighters, and upgrade several airstrips and advanced landing grounds. Finally, this year Delhi green-lit the addition of a new strike corps for the eastern sector of the border dispute, the first offensive military formation India has deployed to the LAC in 50 years (India’s existing three strike corps are all at the Pakistan border).

For its part, Beijing has largely shrugged off the Indian deployments while quietly bolstering its own capabilities. In addition to China’s superior road and rail network in Tibet, it hosts 400,000 PLA soldiers in the two military regions opposite India. In recent years it has upgraded its arsenal of ballistic missiles, added several new airfields in Tibet, conducted increasingly robust military exercises with neighboring Pakistan, and boosted its long-range transport capability. And the advanced Chinese fighter aircraft now arriving in Tibet are far more capable of operating at extremely high altitudes than their predecessors.

None of this suggests the two sides are predicting an imminent conflict, but a progressively militarized border is an increasingly dangerous border, particularly when paired with the second problem with the status quo – incursions across the LAC by border patrols. The Indian government records several hundred such incidents by Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) patrols each year, with many earning front-page coverage in the Indian press. China, by contrast, keeps no record of incursions by Indian patrols, but officials suggest the number of Indian incursions matches or exceeds the number attributed to the PLA. 

By and large these are petty, harmless exercises deriving from the fact that there are a dozen volatile sections along the border where there is no mutual agreement on where the LAC belongs. As The Economist explains: “In these ‘pockets,’ as they are called, Indian and Chinese border guards circle each other endlessly while littering the Himalayan hillsides – as dogs mark their lampposts – to make their presence known. When China-India relations are strained, this gives rise to tit-for-tat and mostly bogus accusations of illegal border incursions – for which each side can offer the other’s empty cigarette and noodle packets as evidence.”

However, the incursions are not without risks, and occasionally escalate into genuine crises. In 2008, reports of prolonged Chinese incursions one kilometer into the Finger Area of Sikkim prompted India to move battle tanks to the region. The aforementioned Chinese incursion in Ladakh in April sparked a mini-crisis in bilateral relations, spoiling the atmosphere of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s introductory visit to Delhi. Each of these episodes carries an inherent (albeit modest) escalation risk but more importantly, they perpetuate the atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust that shadows Sino-Indian relations.

This brings us to the final problem with the status quo. The principal reason a resolution to the dispute has eluded the two sides for so long is that it would require at least minor territorial concessions from both Beijing and Delhi. And yet, the appetite for such concessions in both countries appears to be shrinking in the 21st century, not growing. Despite a 67-fold expansion of bilateral trade between 1998 and 2012, public mistrust between the two sides is arguably as great as it has ever been. Nearly two-thirds of Chinese had an unfavorable view of India in a 2012 Pew poll, while 73 percent of Indians surveyed in a 2013 Lowy Institute Poll thought war with China was a “big threat.” Among India’s strategic community, China has comfortably surpassed Pakistan as the country’s principal security threat.

This mutual suspicion is effectively shrinking the already-limited political space in both countries to pursue concessions. In India, where anti-Chinese sentiment is politically and financially profitable, territorial concessions would have to be sold to an opportunistic political opposition and a highly skeptical public, and would likely require an amendment to the Indian Constitution. In China, a new brand of PLA-inspired nationalism is pushing Beijing toward a harder line on its territorial disputes. And while India is generally dismissed in Beijing as a second-tier regional power, among Chinese nationalists it is increasingly viewed as a troublemaking antagonist in league with the U.S. and Japan to try and “contain” China.

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With more opportunities for unintended flare-ups at the border and less space for political compromise, a strong border agreement could have helped balance against the lure of rivalry. In this context, the BDCA looks less like a minor victory and more like another missed opportunity.

Jeff M. Smith is the Director of South Asia Programs and Kraemer Strategy Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, a Washington DC-based think tank.