The Sino-Indian Border Dispute and its Consequences for Asian Security, by Bruna Bosi Moreira

“When India and China shake hands, the world takes notice” (BLOOMBERG, 2013). This sentence was said by the Indian Prime-Minister, Manmohan Singh, after signing an agreement with China to resolve the border disputes between the two countries in October 2013. In the same occasion, the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying declared the agreement was evidence that the relations between the two countries were becoming more mature and rational (BLOOMBERG, 2013). Nevertheless, despite the agreements and talks, the conflict seems to be still far from an effective solution.

Two of the world`s fastest growing powers, China and India relationship is an important indicator of peace and stability in the region. Therefore, the fact that more than fifty years after the Border War of 1962 the deadlock between them still lacks resolution poses the question: what does this dispute mean in terms of Asian security?

Even though increasing levels of cooperation and economic interdependence between Beijing and New Delhi have been observed, Anand (2011, p. 66) considers the border tension as “the key issue that prevents the two countries from establishing a stable relationship”. The dispute involves the Aksai Chin region – controlled by China – in the Western Himalayas and the Arunachal Pradesh area – under Indian control – in the East Himalayas. An important geopolitical factor is that the first is located in the Xinjiang province, a separatist Chinese region.

The quarrel initiated back when India was still a colony, as the British decided to enlarge their borders, and culminated in the Border War of 1962. In 1993, it was established the official line demarcating both sides, the so-called Line of Actual Control (LoAC), but until today the division remains controversial. As Singh explains, “it appears, particularly in the eastern sector, that each side is presently trying to ensure it has a clear presence along its version of the ‘LoAC’, and once this is achieved both sides will cartographically present their respective LoAC to the other side” (2011, p. 90). In the last two decades, there has even been an escalation of tensions due to minor incursions registered in both sides of the region. Despite being almost always inoffensive, border guards usually leave behind subtle traces of their presence such as biscuits, piles of stones, cigarette packets and cans – signs left on purpose in order to ensure their presence in the respectively claimed areas (HOLSLAG, 2009; SINGH, 2011).

According to Garver (2011), one of the key reasons for the persistence of the dispute is the constant militarization of Tibet, a region that for years has been seen by India as a buffer between itself and China, but now turned into a threat to Indian northern borders. On the Chinese side, Tibet is so important to China that Garver argues that Beijing leaves the dispute intentionally unresolved so that it can avoid an unwelcomed action from India in China’s Achilles’ heel:

China wants to keep the territorial issue open as a way of keeping India sober regarding Tibet. And the reason China is so obsessed with keeping India sober is rooted in different Indian and Chinese narratives about Tibet, which Beijing fears might impel India to ‘reckless action’ regarding Tibet if the territorial conflict no longer weighed heavily on India`s calculations (2011, p. 102).

Garver explains this as the deterrence approach to state security: instead of considering the settlement of the borders as an increase in security terms, “the state maintains the threat of forceful and unacceptably costly punishment as a way of preventing a potential adversary from undertaking hostile actions” (2011, p. 108). Besides, the host of the Dalai Lama by India is also a problem. Hosting Tibet`s leader and providing him with documents that allow him to travel the world collecting support for his cause is interpreted by China as Indian support for a separatist movement (GARVER, 2011, p. 107).

Therefore, it seems that both China and India are tied in a long-lasting deadlock that appears to have no perspective of an effective short-term resolution. It is necessary thus to evaluate to which extent the Sino-Indian border dispute dynamics affects regional security. But in order to assess that, it is important to place the border issue in a wider perspective.

China and India have a long history of disputes and competition, whether in the local level, as exemplified by the difficulty to settle its borders; in the regional level, as demonstrated by the struggle for influence over the countries within the region; or in the global level, as the two countries expand their economies and seek a more relevant international role. At the same time, these quarrels seem to be softened by an increasing economic interdependence between both as well as by their presence in several international forums in which they share common objectives. As Xuecheng argues, “if one goes beyond narrow thinking, they will see that China and India do not pose a threat to each other and their common interests far outweigh their differences” (2011, p. 158). This path towards peaceful relations led some leaders from both countries to the idea of Chindia, “a partnership in which interdependence is so strong, that cooperation and peace are inevitable” (HOLSLAG, 2009, p. 812). Still, what seems to better describe Sino-Indian relations is a dichotomy in which the two powers cooperate at the global level but dispute at the regional one (SINGH, 2011).

Holslag (2009) identifies five dimensions of the Sino-Indian competitive relations. The first is the dispute involving the border area, a conflict still unresolved after decades. The second is related to China`s increasing military investments in Pakistan, which concerns India. The third is the battle for political and economic influence in the region. Fourth, there is the economic competition over international markets, as both countries are two of the world`s most significant emergent economies. Finally, there is the military race between the two powers – especially on the border.

Another characteristic of the dispute is the deepening of US-Indian and US-Chinese relations, which amplifies the bilateral relation to a triangular one. This can further unfold into more competition but the two nations can also seek cooperation in order to counterbalance US presence in Asia – intensified during Barack Obama’s administration and its pivot strategy towards the continent. As Singh argues,

[t]he context and intensity of bargaining on the dispute is unlikely to be dictated exclusively by bilateral equations. Broader variables, especially Beijing`s and New Delhi`s evolving ‘partnerships’ with Washington are impacting the timing and incentives for both sides to move forward (2011, p. 93).

India`s emergence as a power with more relevance in international politics is another factor that contributes to China’s perception of insecurity. The quest for a more significant role by New Delhi is evidenced in former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru`s speech: “India, constituted as she is, cannot play a secondary part in the world. She will either count for a great deal or not count at all” (NEHRU apud YUAN, 2007, p. 135). Therefore, as Singh argues, “at a more strategic level, India`s gradual but sustained path toward socio-economic and military modernisation is impelling Beijing to take notice of what has otherwise been viewed as an ‘asymmetric threat’” (2011, p. 96).

Nevertheless, both countries share an increasing economic interdependence: India needs investments and China needs markets. Besides, they have common positions in important international forums and arrangements such as the BRICS. The two nations may not conform Chindia, but, despite their disputes and misperceptions, they are also connected by a peaceful agenda.

In addition, it is important to understand not only the way the border dispute impacts the region but also the other way around. After all, regional and global dynamics affect the manner in which both China and India manage the border issue. The recent attempts of India for a more relevant international role changes the way China perceives its neighbour as a threat. China`s increasing relations with Pakistan also fuels India`s suspicion. Equally important is the role exercised by the United States, shaping an interesting triangular relation. Also on the positive side, increases in economic interdependence and joint international political action also influence cooperation regarding the local dyad.

The fact that two emerging giants have unsettled border issues is a matter of regional concern and represents a latent potential conflict. But all things considered, the dispute regarding the borders seems to have little impact in terms of Asian security. Despite competing on overlapping interests, both countries have different zones of influence in the region: while India`s core security interests lay in its periphery, China`s rest in East Asia (Singh, 2011).

Thus, the Sino-Indian border dispute is not a central issue both at bilateral and regional levels. Far from a completely peaceful relationship, the border question poses a challenge for Sino-Indian relations, but it is not an impediment for cooperation between them, since China and India do not consider each other as their number one threat. Consequently, the other countries in the region do not address the border question with many concerns, since it has little impact on Asian security dynamics.


Anand, Dibyesh, (2011), ‘Revisiting China-India Border Dispute: An Introduction’, China Report 47(2): 65-69.

Bloomberg (2013) “India Seals China Border Pact as Singh Hails Li Handshake” 24/10/13: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-10-23/india-seals-border-pact-with-china-as-singh- hails-li-handshake.html.

Garver, John, (2011), ‘The Unresolved Sino-Indian Border Dispute: An Interpretation’, China Report 47(2): 99-113.

Holslag, Jonathan, (2009), ‘The Persistent Military Security Dilemma between China and India’, The Journal of Strategic Studies 32(6): 811-840.

Singh, Zorawar Daulet, (2011), ‘After the Hiatus: India-China Border Diplomacy since the 1970s’, China Report 47(2): 83-98.

Xuecheng, Liu, (2011), ‘Look Beyond the Sino-Indian Border Dispute’, China Report 47(2): 147-158.

Yuan, Jing-dong, (2007), ‘The Dragon and the Elephant: Chinese-Indian Relations in the 21st Century’, The Washington Quarterly 30(3): 131-144.

Bruna Bosi Moreira, Mestranda no Programa de Pós-graduação em Relações Internacionais San Tiago Dantas (bmoreira.bruna@gmail.com)

Cite this article as: Editoria, "The Sino-Indian Border Dispute and its Consequences for Asian Security, by Bruna Bosi Moreira," in Revista Mundorama, 25/03/2016, https://mundorama.net/?p=19035.

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