Why India and China need to turn down heat on simmering border dispute

While neither India nor China wants current tensions in their unresolved border dispute to escalate, the crisis risks destabilising their fragile relationship if they cannot find a face-saving solution. It can no longer be seen in isolation from wider inter-regional developments in the Indo-Pacific.

China India land border

By Antoine Levesques, Research Associate for South Asia

In the past month, a series of localised, low-level moves by security forces from both countries in the high altitude area of Doklam – at the ‘tri-junction’ with Bhutan and India’s Sikkim state – has escalated into a ‘face-off’ with possibly 3,000 men facing each other and reports of Indian forces setting up camp. Gaining practical control of the terrain in question appears, on its own, to have little added value compared to other areas of the de facto border. But the incident at Doklam (the Bhutanese name for the area; it is known as ‘Doka La’ in India and ‘Donglang’ in China) has become a landmark in India–China relations. It has already cost them the suspension of a 2015 confidence-building measure. Also, for the first time, Bhutan is involved, and both India and China have resorted to tactics similar in nature to those seen in the South China Sea dispute.

From the South China Sea to the Himalayas

This diplomatic-military scuffle is the longest and most serious in years, at least since President Xi Jinping’s first presidential visit to India in 2014, or the stand-off in the Depsang valley, Ladakh, further west along the Line of Actual Control, in 2013.

At a 29 June media briefing, a Chinese military official urged India to ‘learn lessons from the past’, likely referring to China’s short 1962 border war, which India lost. China’s foreign ministry spokesman caused nationwide indignation in India when he produced photographs said to prove Indian trespasses in Sikkim, and made references to historical documents and traditional pastoral practices to lend legitimacy to Beijing’s stance on the territory. Historical exhortations laced with rhetoric have similarly been used in the South China Sea dispute.

India and China both assert that the other seeks to unilaterally change the ‘status quo’, an accusation common among opponents of Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. India and China have both been bolstering their military and transport infrastructures in their respective territories near the border, in a move not dissimilar to China’s militarisation of islands in the South China Sea.

Among the differences between the South China Sea and the India–China land border, one is that the former has many stakeholders including an arbitration court, whereas the latter does not. Another difference is that there is no space along the border that is unclaimed by either government. Yet the terse entry of Bhutan into the spat, whose sovereignty China does not fully recognise even though it has been a member of the United Nations since 1971, has exposed asymmetries in legal claims and perceptions, which are also found in the South China Sea problem.

Neither side has officially called the other out for ‘changing facts on the ground’ – another accusation used in the South China sea disputes – but this could change as a result of those legal asymmetries compounded by the lack of a settled demarcation. India essentially believes China is seeking to move the tri-junction south; Beijing contends that the Sikkim situation relates to China–Bhutan relations.

Making an uneasy bind stick

The situation on the ground is still evolving. In common with previous comparable incidents, there has been far less public attention on the issue in China than in India. The 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement could yet contain the situation with existing hotlines reportedly currently being used. Even if there are no further escalations, this uneasy bind will be hard to address.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met informally on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg on 7 July after the Chinese had warned that a precondition for ‘meaningful dialogue’ would be India’s withdrawal from the area. But as both leaders had carefully avoided addressing the issue in public, an informal conversation (later denied by China, though photographed by the Indian side) remained possible.

Both sides will be eager to find a face-saving solution to the question of Sikkim. This may become possible when Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval travels to Xiamen in China on 27–28 July to meet his BRICS counterparts, including host Yang Jiechi, director of the Foreign Affairs Leading Group Office. The two men are also due to meet for the 20th bilateral Special Representative talks on the Boundary Question before 2018.

Neither India nor China want the current tensions to turn into a crisis. Both governments are keen to uphold mutual strategic restraint and the four-decades-old ceasefire in the territory so that they can continue to promote economic growth at home. India’s Defence and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is focused on implementing a sweeping set of tax reforms across his country. China’s political elite, meanwhile, is gearing up for the 19th Communist Party Congress this autumn.

Circuit-breakers for diffusing crisis

Both Indian and Chinese former officials have long argued that the border dispute should be a discrete area of policymaking with its own management regime and framework.

The strategic dynamics of the Indian Ocean could provide a useful cautionary tale. Trends in the Indian Ocean have long remained separate from those east of the Straits of Malacca. But two IISS Strategic Dossiers (2016, 2017) have investigated the gradual erosion of this separation of the maritime domain, with policymakers widening their horizons and seeking to capitalise on the opportunities for cooperation across the wider ‘Indo-Pacific’ region. But these opportunities also bring with them a risk of contagion, whereby local issues begin to be felt across a wider geography. So it is possible that the so-called ‘circuit-breakers’ for diffusing crisis at sea, especially in the Indian Ocean, are becoming underdeveloped as a result.

Since 2014, tensions between India and China arising from the border have been compounded by wider geopolitical factors. These have included: the first meeting between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Trump in June; Beijing’s principled refusal to accept India’s participation in the Nuclear Suppliers Group; China’s growing strategic presence in the Indian Ocean and South Asia, including through the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor; India’s refusal to attend President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Forum in May; and a visit by the Dalai Lama to a monastery situated within disputed territory in April, with which China took umbrage.

India has reminded China that the land border regime had ‘not come easily’. Last week, China said India’s actions had ‘undermined the political basis and overall atmosphere of bilateral relations’. It is clear that India and China need to strengthen their political and military management of the dispute over Sikkim in the interests of preserving the broader stability of their uneasy relationship.

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IISS Manama Dialogue 2017

India in the Gulf

IISS Senior Fellow for South Asia Rahul Roy-Chaudhury speaks at the 2017 IISS Manama Dialogue in Bahrain.

About the conference

The 11th IISS South Asia Security Conference, in partnership with the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the US National Defense University, took place in Muscat, Oman, on 13–15 October 2017.