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The Unresolved Sino-Indian Border Disputes: Limited Room for Engagement


The Sino-Indian border has never been clearly demarcated. China and India both claimed sovereignty of certain regions such as Demchok and Chumar simultaneously and they also stationed troops there. Although the two governments have met numerous times to find a solution to their dispute, they never succeed in resolving the border issues in the recent six decades. Since 2020, China and India have even engaged in a series of skirmishes and melee fights along their border, which occasionally result in the deaths and injuries of soldiers. Although resolving the border disputes could help China gain more support in its competition for influence in the Indo-Pacific region, their hostility is likely to remain because the two powers are becoming increasingly assertive, which could cause failures in finding the common ground in the border disputes. The room for engagement can shrink, with both countries seeing each other as a geopolitical threat.

Given India’s growing influence and close geographical distance from China, it is playing an increasingly important role in China’s strategic framework which aims to improve its ties with developing countries and its neighbours to gain a greater international discourse power. This is especially important because of the United States’ adoption of the Indo-Pacific strategy, in which Washington is collaborating with its allies to contain China’s expansion. China is in need of engaging its neighbours and forming new alliances to defend itself from American pressure.

While India has formed a ‘strategic partnership’ with the United States to ‘promote stability’ in South Asia and the Indian Ocean under the Indo-Pacific strategy, some Chinese strategists do not perceive this friendship to be a strong alliance. India is now a potential emerging superpower with a great population, high contribution to the global GDP, and nuclear weapons, which could become another leading power on the international stage. Apart from increasing India’s importance in the Indo-Pacific geopolitical arena, India’s rising national strength has given rise to a so-called ‘great power complex’, which causes India to be unwilling to be subordinate to the United States and remain a sheer regional power. Aspiring to become a major power, India may not sincerely follow the United States’ instructions to contain China as if it is a secondary power.

The stability of a United States-India friendship is further hindered by their complicated history. For a long time, the two countries have had a strained relationship because of New Delhi’s dissatisfaction with Washington’s handling of relations with China, Russia, and Pakistan. Despite the warming of ties in recent decades, deep structural distrust still exists, which could cause a United States-India friendship to be shaky. This provides an opportunity for China to exploit their relatively weak ties to tempt India to get closer to it instead. Given India’s critical role in the Indo-Pacific region, this move could even break Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, so China is incentivized to improve its relations with New Delhi, which could be its potential friend in this geopolitical competition.

Accordingly, China has made efforts in alleviating its tensions with New Delhi, including on border matters, which are the main cause of their hostility. They have held multiple rounds of talks to seek a consensus on the border issues and avoid an outbreak of war. For example, since the 2020 clash in the Galway river valley, the two countries have held 14 rounds of military and diplomatic talks. Starting on 9 September 2022, troops from both sides have begun disengaging from the frontier in the western Himalayas, so as to maintain “peace and tranquility in the border areas”.

Nonetheless, such alleviations of tensions could only be at best temporary relief and at worst an illusion of limited success. With a soaring national strength and a rising eagerness to gain dominance in Asia, the two countries are becoming increasingly aggressive and assertive on the international stage, so as to signify their major-country status. China is eager to project itself to be a major power, so it avoids backing down in the border dispute to show any sign of weakness. Particularly, since India is now rising as an important power in Asia, China is determined to assert its strength to shape itself as the greatest power in the region and to check New Delhi. Similarly, with the aforementioned great power complex, India is reluctant to be seen as weak, especially in its competition with China, so its incentive to compromise is low. Both governments and their media outlets have therefore pushed out bold statements to support their claim to the disputed territories. For instance, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning still stressed that China refused to accept the status quo on the Sino-Indian border, which provides no room for meaningful negotiation.

This reluctance to cooperate is further strengthened by the sense of encirclement felt by India. As a region located between India and China, Tibet could arguably act as a buffer between the two countries when conflicts broke out. However, in 1950, the newly established People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet and ended its independence as well as the time when China had no border contact with India. This also implies strategic gains to China as the gain of border contact could facilitate China’s incursion in India. Tibet’s loss of independence, therefore, aroused New Delhi’s security concerns. Meanwhile, China has built close relations with India’s neighbor Pakistan following the outbreak of the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Both countries consider India a mutual adversary in the region, so they wish to cooperate to counterbalance India’s growing strength. Their partnership has also been strengthened by the two countries’ recent economic and cultural cooperation like flood aid and pandemic cooperation, which has made Pakistan one of China’s closest friends. Considering the ever-growing connections between China and Pakistan, India feels that it is being encircled by the two countries and risks a two-front war if its tension with China intensifies.

It should also be aware that a three-front or multi-front war is possible, given China’s active naval investment. Under the String of Pearls hypothesis, China is expanding its network of naval bases and logistics support bases along its sea lines of communication to support its naval deployment. It is now investing heavily in Hainan Islands in the South China Sea, ports in Chittagong in Bangladesh, islands within the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and other regions, which can form a chain to surround India. Together with China’s growing ties with neighbouring countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka, China could open more fronts with its potential allies to encircle India when a war breaks out. Such geopolitical risk would exacerbate India’s strategic distrust towards China.

Consequently, India will be reluctant to further make concessions on the border conflict, so that it can minimize the risk of encirclement. Moreover, the fear of encirclement could drive India to continue to support Tibet’s independence and nationalist movements as it has been doing at least since the 1959 Tibetan Uprising, so as to create regional instability and reshape Tibet’s regional dynamics. Nonetheless, this could trigger China’s discontent and reduce the room for cooperation.

Since Beijing and New Delhi are increasingly reluctant to make compromises, talks could hardly help the two countries reach a consensus on the border issues, while both countries would continue to claim sovereignty of the same region simultaneously. Both countries are likely to continue to build military infrastructure along the border without each other’s consent to claim control of the land, even if this could exacerbate their already shaking relations and trigger tense standoffs with violent flights or military deployments again. It is therefore becoming more difficult for China to resolve their border disputes, not to mention improving its relations to provide a favourable circumstance for engaging with India and attracting New Delhi to side with Beijing.

Ultimately, there is still a long way to go for China and India to completely solve their deep-rooted disputes. Both countries are taking a tough stance on the border issues at the cost of damaging their relations, so China may not offer an olive branch to New Delhi, even if resolving the border disputes could improve their ties and India’s support is crucial to China’s expansion in the Indo-Pacific. Each side would continue to seek control of the area, so soldiers along the border would still face confrontation and risk military provocations.

Ho Ting (Bosco) Hung is a Research Assistant at the LSE Department of Government. He writes about Sino-US relations, Chinese politics, foreign policy, and political economy. Recently, he presented at the Oxford Hong Kong Forum 2022 and his presentation topic is ‘We are Writing the World History – Hong Kong as the Geopolitical Forefront of Sino-US politics’. He is currently an analyst at the Nicholas Spykman International Center for Geopolitical Analysis.

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