Tuesday, November 29, 2011

China, India, and Their Dangerous Border

About a year ago there were several articles discussing tensions between China and India. I summarized those in China and India: Is Conflict Inevitable? There are numerous sources of stress between the two countries. They both have huge populations in desperate need of access to resources and markets. The need to project influence and solidify relationships with neighboring countries inevitably leads the two elephants to step on each other’s toes. Both fear that the other is working to isolate them, both economically and militarily. 

President Obama’s recent trip to Asia, and his indication that the US will have a continuing economic and military presence in the area, has certainly stirred the pot and raised the level of concern in China at alliances between the US, India and others that are seen as a direct counter to China. Simon Denyer wrote an article in the Washington Post that summarized the political maneuverings between the two countries: China, India perform dangerous new dance of encircler, counter-encircler. Denyer’s piece reminds us of what have been issues for a long time.

When considering the question of the inevitability of conflict, the most disturbing of the scenarios was one provided by Jonathan Holslag in his book titled China and India: Prospects for Peace. Holslag saw the long border between the two countries as the location where trouble might start. Between the disputed territories and the unstable nations in the region, there would be numerous opportunities for escalation.

There is a detailed discussion of these border issues in an article in The Economist: India and China: A Himalayan rivalry. This source lists the size of the active Chinese forces at 2.3 million with 0.8 million reserves. India’s military is placed at 1.3 million active with 2.1 million reserves. In comparison, the US armed forces are stated to be 1.6 million active and 1.5 million reserves. It is expected that China would maintain such a large force, but India might provide a bit of a surprise. India has its disputes with Pakistan that would encourage the establishment of a significant military, but it is likely that India’s intentions and planning are currently dominated by the tensions on the 4000km border with China.

This map was provided by The Economist to illustrate the issues involved.




Hard feelings between the two countries go back to 1962 when China invaded territory claimed by India.

"In a weeklong assault the Chinese seized much of Arunachal, as well as a slab of Kashmir in the western Himalayas, and killed 3,000 Indian officers and men. Outside Tawang’s district headquarters a roadside memorial, built in the local Buddhist style, commemorates these dead. At a famous battle site, below the 14,000-foot pass that leads into Tawang, army convoys go slow, and salute their ghosts."

The Chinese withdrew, presumably because they had overextended their supply lines, but neither side has forgotten the incident, and each remain prepared for military action.

"Despite several threatened dust-ups—including one in 1986 that saw 200,000 Indian troops rushed to northern Tawang district—there has been no confirmed exchange of fire between Indian and Chinese troops since 1967."

The ongoing source of friction arises from the lack of a clear definition of where the border actually is, leading to disputed claims of ownership.

"The basic problem is twofold. In the undefined northern part of the frontier India claims an area the size of Switzerland, occupied by China, for its region of Ladakh. In the eastern part, China claims an Indian-occupied area three times bigger, including most of Arunachal. This 890km stretch of frontier was settled in 1914 by the governments of Britain and Tibet, which was then in effect independent, and named the McMahon Line after its creator, Sir Henry McMahon, foreign secretary of British-ruled India. For China—which was afforded mere observer status at the negotiations preceding the agreement—the McMahon Line represents a dire humiliation."

"Making matters worse, the McMahon Line was drawn with a fat nib, establishing a ten-kilometre margin for error, and it has never been demarcated. With more confusion in the central sector, bordering India’s northern state of Uttarakhand, there are in all a dozen stretches of frontier where neither side knows where even the disputed border should be. In these ‘pockets’, as they are called, Indian and Chinese border guards circle each other endlessly while littering the Himalayan hillsides—as dogs mark 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. In official Indian parlance such proof is grimly referred to as "telltale signs". It is plainly garbage. Yet this is a carefully rehearsed and mutually comprehensible ritual for which both sides deserve credit, of a sort."

Tibet is another source of tension.

"The other great impediment to better relations is Tibet. Its fugitive Dalai Lama and his ‘government-in-exile’ have found refuge in India since 1959—and China blames him, and by extension his hosts, for the continued rebelliousness in his homeland."

Another area in which disputes will be inevitable involves the control of water emanating from the Himalayas. Both countries are in desperate need of this water. There is little reason to expect them to suddenly learn how to share.

When asked how a war between China and India might breakout, Holslag had this response.

"It wouldn't first be open war. China and India are building up their interests in conflict-prone and unstable states on their borders like Nepal and Burma — important sources of natural resources. If something goes wrong in these countries — if the politics implode — you could see the emergence of proxy wars in Asia. Distrust between India and China will grow and so too security concerns in a number of arenas. It's an important scenario that strategic planners in both Beijing and Delhi are looking at."

These border-related disputes appear as a thermostat for the overall relationship between China and India. When times are good, they discuss resolving issues; when times are bad they decry border "incursions" and threaten retaliation.

Stay tuned—there’s never a dull moment.

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