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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Bordering on Danger -- A Sino-Indian boundary dispute risks flaring up

October 22, 2009

Wall Street Journal
October 21, 2009

It has often been taken for granted that China
and India will rise simultaneously and peacefully
in the 21st century. But a recent flare-up
challenges that view. Thirty-seven years after
the two countries fought a border war and 28
years since they opened settlement negotiations,
the entire frontier from Kashmir to Burma remains
in question. It would be dangerous to ignore this festering sore any longer.

The dispute stretches back to the British Raj,
when colonial official Sir Henry McMahon drew the
boundary between India and Tibet at the Shimla
Convention in 1913. China has never recognized
the McMahon Line, and regards the Indian state of
Arunachal Pradesh as part of its Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Lately the border has been arousing more fervent
passions than usual. Indian Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh visited the state of Arunachal
Pradesh earlier this month, irking Beijing and
prompting New Delhi to assert "Arunachal Pradesh
is an integral part of India." Earlier this year,
Beijing attempted to block a $1.3 billion loan to
India by the Asian Development Bank, part of
which was meant for a watershed project in
Arunachal Pradesh. The war of words is likely to
escalate as the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader
the Dalai Lama plans to visit Arunachal Pradesh
next month. Beijing is pressuring India via
diplomatic protests and a media campaign to make
the Dalai Lama abandon his planned trip.

The causes for the recent deterioration in
relations are complex. China perceives India as
the weakest link in an evolving anti-China
coalition of democratic and maritime powers (the
United States, Japan, Australia and India).
Viewing India as a pawn in Western designs to
encircle and contain China, Chinese leaders worry
about the ramifications of India's power
particularly in Tibet, a concern fanned by the
March 2008 uprisings there. A common theme in
state media this year is the desire to capture
the lost lands and crush India for daring to compete with China.

Meanwhile, Beijing's influence in Pakistan,
Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka--all of
whom have relationships with India that range
from strained to downright hostile—fuels Indian
anxieties. Beijing's opposition to India's
membership in regional institutions like the East
Asia Community and international forums like the
United Nations Security Council; China's attempts
to scuttle the U.S.-India nuclear deal at the
Nuclear Suppliers Group; and Chinese naval forays
into the Indian Ocean region all have reinforced
Indian suspicions that China seeks to deny India
its proper place in the international system.

As a result of these rising tensions the
potential for armed skirmishes, if not conflict,
on disputed borders remains high. Since 2006,
Chinese strategic experts, bloggers, retired
diplomats and think tanks linked to the People's
Liberation Army have been discussing the
possibility of a "partial border war" to "teach
India a lesson." Parallels are being drawn to the
pre-1962 situation, when Beijing blamed India for
Tibetan uprising and New Delhi provoked China
with its "Forward Policy" on the border. China
has referred to India's current troop movements
as a "New Forward Policy." The Indian media,
always wary of China, have chimed in by
sensationalizing alleged border incursions and by
hyping "the China threat." India's military has
bolstered its presence in areas bordering Tibet.
The military forces of both sides are once again
pushing into remote and previously (for the most
part) unoccupied mountainous frontier regions.

Adding fuel to this fire is mounting confidence
on the Chinese side that China would win any
conflict and reap broader strategic rewards from
doing so. PLA generals believe India's military
remains inferior in combat, logistics and
war-fighting capability. Should the PLA succeed
in occupying Tawang, a town near the border, and
giving India's military a bloody nose, the
Chinese thinking goes, Indian leaders would be
much more deferential in dealing with China. A
short and swift victory would underscore the need
for other countries in Asia, especially U.S.
friends and allies, to accommodate China's
growing power by aligning with, rather than against, Beijing.

Though India is no match for China in
force-on-force posture, it is no pushover
militarily. Unlike the PLA, which has not seen
combat since the Vietnam War of 1979, India's
military today is battle-hardened and
experienced. If Beijing is determined to gain the
lost territory in Arunachal Pradesh, India is
equally determined not to see a replay of the
1962 war by losing large chunks of territory.
With India embarking upon a massive military
modernization plan, a punitive war may well be
too costly and its outcome unpredictable.

However, all this misses the fact that China and
India are both nuclear-armed nations with
enormous stakes in maintaining peace. Burgeoning
trade ties and collaboration on issues like
climate change have shown both capitals the
benefits of cooperation even as border tensions
rise. For Beijing, a hardline approach to India
could backfire and drive India and its other
Asian neighbors into stronger opposition to China
and deeper alignment with Washington and Tokyo.
The pursuit of aggressive foreign adventures
would destroy the benign "peaceful rise" image
that China is so assiduously striving to achieve.
A conflict will cost India dearly in terms of
economic developmental objectives and political
ambition of emerging as a great power in a multipolar Asia.

Other countries, particularly the U.S., can play
a vital role in preventing escalation. Washington
enjoys close ties with both China and India and
could exert diplomatic pressure on both sides to
reach a settlement. But ultimately this is a
border dispute between two large countries, and
they alone have it in their combined power to
resolve their differences peacefully. It's in both their interests to do so.

The writer is professor of Asian Security at the
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.
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