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Why is the India-China border stand-off escalating?

India and China have a long history of border disputes

If you browse through the latest headlines about the now month-long border stand-off between India and China, you might think the Asian rivals are teetering on the brink of an armed conflict.

If you read the latest headlines about the month-long stand-off between India and China along part of their international border, you’d believe the Asian rivals are teetering on the brink of an armed conflict.

The rhetoric is full of foreboding and menace. A Delhi newspaper says China is warning that the stand-off "could escalate into full-scale conflict". Another echoes a similar sentiment, saying "China stiffens face-off posture".

In Beijing, the state-run media has begun reminding India of its defeat in the 1962 war over the border, digging out old reports and pictures of the conflict. The Global Times has been particularly bellicose, first accusing India of undermining Bhutan’s sovereignty by interfering in the road project, and then declaring that if India "stirs up conflicts in several spots, it must face the consequences of all-out confrontation with China".

The latest row erupted in mid-June when India opposed China’s attempt to extend a border road through a plateau known as Doklam in India and Donglang in China.

The plateau, which lies at a junction between China, the north-eastern Indian state of Sikkim and the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, is currently disputed between Beijing and Bhutan. India supports Bhutan’s claim over it.

India is concerned that if the road is completed, it will give China greater access to India’s strategically vulnerable "chicken’s neck", a 20km (12-mile) wide corridor that links the seven north-eastern states to the Indian mainland. And since this stand-off began, each side has reinforced its troops and called on the other to back down.

There is a dreadful sense of deja vu about the way the stand-off appears to be escalating.

An Indian soldier on the China border – Beijing has reiterated what it says is its right to territory

This is not the first time the two neighbours who share a rocky relationship have faced off on the ill-defined border, where minor incursions by troops have been common. The region saw armed clashes between China and India in 1967, and a prolonged stand-off and build-up of troops along the border in Arunachal Pradesh in 1986-87.

Delhi believes that Beijing is testing India’s commitment to Bhutan in the latest stand-off, writes analyst Ajai Shukla. "China has always been galled by this close relationship, which has withstood sustained Chinese pressure to divide it," he says.

This time China has upped the ante against India. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters in Beijing on Tuesday that Indian forces should leave the area to avoid an "escalation of the situation".

‘Not a bluff’

Indian analysts believe China’s warnings cannot be ignored. "In general, the Chinese pattern of use of force has been to prepare the ground with adequate statements and warnings. Hence, I think we should not take them lightly or see it as a bluff," a China expert told me.

In 1962, the state-run news agency Xinhua warned well in advance that India should "pull back from the brink of war". During the Korean War in 1950 which pitted the US and its allies against the USSR, North Korea and communist China, the Chinese warned the US through India that if they crossed the Yalu River the Chinese would be forced to enter the war.

To be true, this doesn’t mean that China is girding up for war. As things stand, both sides can share some blame for the stand-off in what is a strategically important area.

In 2012, India and China agreed that the tri-junction boundaries with Bhutan and Myanmar (also called Burma) would be finally decided in consultation with these countries. Until then, the status quo would prevail.

India and China fought a bitter war in 1962. Photograph: Hulton Archive

India believes China violated the status quo by building the road. Indian troops were sent to resist their Chinese counterparts in the area only after Bhutan, which has close ties with India, requested India to help.

China insists Indian troops invaded Doklam/Donglang to help Bhutan, and it was a violation of international law. Mr Lu says India should not "take trespass as a policy tool to reach or realise their political targets".

Some analysts say India possibly made a mistake by openly conflating the building of the road with talk of potential "serious security implications for India".

"I agree that there were security concerns, but it was wrong for India to voice them strongly. We could have just said that China had breached the status quo. By overplaying the security angle, we may have scored an own goal, and the Chinese are exploiting it," an analyst told me.

Tricky situation

He has a point. Long Xingchun, an analyst at a Chinese think-tank, says "a third country’s" army could enter Kashmir at Pakistan’s request, using the "same logic" the Indian army has used to stop the Chinese troops from building the road in Doklam/Donglang. "Even if India were requested to defend Bhutan’s territory, this could only be limited to its established territory, not the disputed area."

Clearly, for the stand-off to end, all three sides need an agreeable solution without losing face. As China hardens its position, many believe that finding a "three-way, face saving solution" would be tricky and time consuming. Relations between the two countries are also at their lowest ebb in many years.

Both sides possibly passed up an opportunity to resolve the crisis earlier this month when a potential meeting between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg did not happen. India said a meeting with Mr Xi had never been on Mr Modi’s agenda; and China’s foreign ministry had said the atmosphere was not right for a meeting.

Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping are both in Hamburg for the G20 summit

There’s another window of opportunity coming up. India’s influential National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is to visit Beijing for a meeting of Brics nations later this month. Mr Doval, who is also the special representative for the India-China border, is likely to meet his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi.

"Both sides have made it a prestige issue. But diplomacy is all about keeping things going in difficult circumstances," a former diplomat told me.

Despite the deteriorating relationship, a war is unlikely to break out.

"I don’t think either side wants an armed conflict. Nobody is interested in a war. Nothing in the [stand-off] area is worth a conflict. But both sides see their reputations at stake and that could lead to a prolonged stand-off," Srinath Raghavan, a senior fellow at the leading Delhi Centre for Policy Research think-tank told me.