Written by Jingdong Yuan.

The three-week stand-off between units of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Indo Tibetan Border Police was finally defused last Sunday as both sides de-camped from their face-to-face positions in the frozen Himalayan plateau in the disputed areas along the yet to be demarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC). [1]

The incident, though widely reported in the Indian media, was kept in low profile by both governments as New Delhi and Beijing looked for ways to head off a potential diplomatic debacle with the Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid set to visit China ahead of a planned visit to India by the newly-installed Chinese premier Li Keqiang.

While a crisis has been temporarily defused to the relief of all concerned, the causes of such periodic flare-ups are much deeper and solutions remain elusive. Asia’s two emerging powers are entangled in complex ties where opportunities and the benefits of cooperation are often overshadowed by their protracted rivalry and unresolved territorial disputes.

Sino-Indian relations experienced a brief period of friendship and brotherhood in the early 1950s, which was quickly succeeded by conflicts over Tibet and the 4,000-kilometer un-demarcated boundary involving close to 130,000 square kilometers in disputed territories. The two countries fought a brief war in 1962 and relations remained largely frozen until the late 1970s. [2]

Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s historical visit to China in December 1988 began the process of normalization. Since the 1990s, the two countries have gradually expanded economic, political and diplomatic ties without being impeded by the intractable territorial issues. Indeed, boundary negotiations have taken numerous rounds since the early 1980s without any major breakthroughs. But that has not prevented significant growth in bilateral trade, close to $67 billion last year and expected to reach $100 billion by 2015.

Efforts to resolve the territorial disputes resulted in important agreements and mechanisms being put into place early in the 21st century. Special representatives for negotiations were introduced in 2003, while political understanding of the principles of resolution of the border disputes was reached in 2005. Maps of certain segments of the disputed areas were exchanged, raising hopes and expectations.

However, 2005 seemed to be a turning point, but unfortunately, not for the better. Bilateral relations seem to have entered a new phase, with both Beijing and New Delhi assessing each other’s intentions and capabilities, weighing options, and hedging against future developments. Their entangled ties are informed by at least four sets of factors.

First is their respective rapid rise as emerging powers in Asia. Implicitly or explicitly, both countries—and India more so—take measurement of each other, and engage in competition for influence, resources, and comprehensive national strength, in particular with regard to their defense capabilities. Given their past history and outstanding territorial disputes, their arms buildups and defense postures further heighten a security dilemma between the two once, and potentially future, adversaries. [3]

Second, and related to the dynamic of security dilemma, are their growing apprehension and misperception of each other. Warming US-India relations since 2005, and especially the bilateral nuclear deal of 2008, in addition to New Delhi’s growing ties with Japan, Australia, and Vietnam along with Washington’s pivot to Asia, feed into Beijing’s paranoia about encirclement, even if India hasn’t the slightest interest in acting as a junior partner of a US-led containment of China. Perceptions—and in this case mis-perceptions- matter.

Likewise, China’s hardened positions on territorial issues, its alleged hundreds of intrusions into India-controlled areas along the LAC, and continued support of Pakistan through defense and nuclear cooperation with Islamabad, convince New Delhi that Beijing seeks to keep India down and entrapped in the perennial Indo-Pak conflicts over Jammu and Kashmir, even though Beijing’s interests in maintaining stable Sino-Pakistani ties are driven as much by a South Asian strategy as by its concerns over the link between ethnic separatist elements at home and the Islamic radicals using Pakistan as the base.

Third, China’s rise has led it to extend its presence in what traditionally has been viewed as India’s sphere of influence—the Indian Ocean and the sub-continent, driven largely by its insatiable needs for energy and resources.[4] Over 80 percent of China’s energy imports are shipped through the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Malacca, essential for the country’s continued economic growth. As a result, China has reached out to some of the littoral countries of the Indian Ocean, building or improving port facilities with a view to developing potential land transport lines, thus shortening or bypassing sea-borne lines of transports of these critical commodities.

For New Delhi, such inroads into its sphere of influence, and especially the potential of these ports being converted to naval bases for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)—the much-talked about misnomer ‘string of pearls’- raise serious questions about Beijing’s strategic intentions in the Indian Ocean and poses real challenges to its interests close at home. Similarly, India’s ‘Look East’ policy toward expanding its presence in East Asia is drawing China’s attention. Beijing maintains deep suspicions of New Delhi’s meddling in Tibetan affairs, including providing a safe haven to the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetans.

Finally, Sino-Indian interactions have increasingly moved beyond the purely bilateral context, with both actively pursuing multilateral diplomacy at both the regional and global levels. As emerging economies and developing countries, Beijing and New Delhi share similar views on major issues ranging from climate change, the environment, the Doha Round of negotiations, nuclear disarmament, space non-weaponization, and a new multipolar global order. In addition, the two countries are members of the G-20 and the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) group of emerging markets that is proposing global financial reform and coordinating their economic policies.[5]

This last set of factors provides ample opportunities for cooperation. Indeed both Beijing and New Delhi recognize and have benefited from cooperative rather than confrontational interactions. However, they will have to overcome significant obstacles at a time when the odds are not in their favor. There is growing nationalism in both countries and sovereignty is something neither side can afford to show weakness on. The Singh government is being pebbled by the media and the opposition as incapable of standing up to ‘China’s bullies’, while the Xi leadership is trying to demonstrate its resolve on territorial issues that span from the Himalayas to the South and East China Seas in its pursuit of the ‘China Dream’.

However, this does not mean that the two rising Asian powers are doomed to entangled adversity. The silver lining of the recent stand-off is that the dispute management mechanisms set up over the years at least provided avenues for direct communication, even though negotiations at times appeared protracted and a resolution elusive. While both sides have deep reservations about each other’s intentions, one thing they seem to have a common understanding of is that uncontrolled conflicts can escalate to major confrontation neither side can prevail in and any perceived gain is not worth the dire spectre of huge costs.

Jingdong Yuan is Associate Professor in the Centre for International Security Studies, University of Sydney.  He is the co-author of China and India: Cooperation or Conflict?


[1] ‘India and China End Himalayan Stand-off’, The Financial Times, 6 May 2013.

[2] John W. Garver, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2001.

[3] Mohan Malik, China and India: Great Power Rivals. Boulder and London: First Forum Press, 2011.

[4] C. Raja Mohan, Samudra Manthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012.

[5] Ashley J. Tellis and Sean Murski, eds., Crux of Asia: China, India, and the Emerging Global Order. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2013. http://carnegieendowment.org/files/crux_of_asia.pdf

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