China-India Border Disputes: An Appraisal – OpEd


As China and India continue to gain economic and military prowess, analysts express concern if a miscalculation along the disputed Sino-India border could escalate to a full-scale war.

Geographically, the ill-defined 3,440km long border is located in the treacherous terrains of the Himalayas, where, almost the entire length of it is contended. Being the de facto border, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has often been the cause of major confrontations between the two countries. 

The table below summarizes the disputes that have occurred till now:

Serial No.YearRegion Name
11962Aksai ChinSino-India War
21967Northeast Sikkim stateNathu La and Cho La clashes
31975Arunachal PradeshTulung La Ambush 
41987Thag La Ridge, Arunachal PradeshSumdorong Chu Valley  clashes
52013Northern Ladakh Daulat Beg Oldi incursion
62014Leh, LadakhDemchok construction 
72015Ladakh Burtse region incident
82017DoklamDoklam Standoff
92020Ladakh Galwan river valley brawls

The core border dispute between the two countries can be categorized into three regions, namely; Aksai Chin, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. In the Western part of the border is the Aksai Chin territory which is claimed by India but is under the occupation of Chinese. While the dispute over the Sikkim region is mostly settled, the surrounding states of Bhutan and Nepal have often been termed as potential flashpoints.

Moving eastwards, the territory of Arunachal Pradesh is claimed by China but controlled by India. The disagreement stems from Indians unilaterally making the region a part of their territory. The Chinese stand firm on the stance that the area has historically been part of Southern Tibet and that Beijing never partook in any agreement signed during the India-Tibet negotiations 1912, thus wholly rejecting the British drawn McMahon line. It is worth mentioning that due to its size and population, the state of Arunachal Pradesh holds utmost significance in the Sino-India border dispute. 

In view of changing international dynamics, US has designated India as its strategic partner to counter growing Chinese influence in the region. Because of this, it has been made an integral member of the QUAD. In addition, India’s admission to the NSG, US renaming its security architecture from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific are indicative of a larger Indian role in the region. India’s embodiment of a counter-weight to China has made it a major recipient of US arms, with sales reaching almost USD 20 billion. This is bound to inculcate a bloated sense of superiority in New Delhi, thus posing a risk of war between the two.  Current statistics suggest that China is overwhelmingly superior to India, both; in conventional and nuclear capabilities, therefore, the world’s second most populous country is in no position to counter China force for force.

Geopolitically, in recent months, there has been a favorable diplomatic tilt in Moscow’s relations with China in which Russia-Ukraine war has played the role of a catalyst. This became more evident after the imposition of severe sanctions on Russia when Kremlin began exploring stronger ties with China. Therefore, in the long-term, Moscow’s growing reliance on Beijing for diplomatic, strategic and economic reasons can cause India to worry, especially when the Asian giants (China and India) are competing for Russian crude to sell it in refined form to European Union. Reports indicate that both countries were the biggest importers of Urals, and, that too at a price slightly above the Western cap of $60 per barrel. Therefore, given the triangle of conflicting interests, China at any stage may use its growing influence over Moscow to forestall the export of Russian crude to India which will impact its emerging oil market. China can therefore use this relation to compel India to pursue a softer approach in the disputed border region and gain major concessions. 

As the probability of a limited conflict and minor skirmishes will remain high, the possibility of a full-scale war between the two ascending powers is debatable. Both nations share deep trade ties, worth USD136.26 billion annually. These deep economic linkages are projected to grow and can open doors of commonalities which may help in averting a full-scale war. Due to deep economic linkages and emerging domestic challenges at home, it is therefore possible that in the medium-term, the likelihood of a conflict between the two countries remains low.  

From 2009 onwards, India formally fortified its two-front war strategy. Even though experts have been questioning its sustainability, and whether its sole target is Pakistan, its mere existence indicates that the policymakers in New Delhi are fully aware of the possibility of a large scale conflict with China. Moreover, India’s deepening strategic collaboration with the US in the realm of defense, technology and development can provide it with an exaggerated sense of superiority which along with the growing Hindu nationalism can prompt it to make a pre-emptive move to appease the audience at home.

Recent reports suggest that Indian oil refiners have started purchasing Russian oil in Chinese Yuan with Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited also expected to join. Despite sharing strategic ties with the US, the move suggests that New Delhi’s diplomatic moves are precisely planned to fiercely guard its interests. One can therefore predict that in case of a US-China conflict, it is unlikely that India will bandwagon the US and ignite the border dispute with China unless the benefits outweigh the costs. 

Whichever scenario unfolds, the Sino-India border dispute will continue to expose Indian vulnerabilities to the Chinese. The cultural and territorial integration of the Tibetan region into the Chinese territory is central to the dispute. Therefore, the eastern boundary, the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh, poses serious concerns for New Delhi not only due to its proximity to the strategic Siliguri corridor but also because Beijing enjoys infrastructural, logistical and military advantages. It is worth mentioning that the Tibetan region is significant for its vast glacial reserves and abundant fresh water resources. Being upstream, China exerts control over the waters flowing into Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Yangtze and Mekong rivers. According to Aquastat (FAO, UN), 718 billion cubic meters of water is estimated to flow out of the Tibetan plateau annually out of which, 48.33%, flows directly into India. This gives Beijing unparalleled advantage to “weaponise” water in its favor by blocking the hydrological flow to India through dams and diversions, making water downstream unfit for consumption and by flooding the region through water fluctuations.

The burgeoning US-China competition and India’s strategic partnership with the US has allowed New Delhi to leverage its position internationally. One can therefore conclude that regardless of how the situation at the border unfolds, Sino-India border tensions are bound to hold greater geopolitical and economic ramifications for New Delhi. The coming years will not only test India’s resolve in the matter but also pose a formidable challenge when it comes to making tough diplomatic and economic decisions. The Sino-India border dispute presents numerous challenges as well as multiple opportunities for Pakistan in the geo-political, diplomatic and security domains. Pakistan therefore must keep a close eye on latest international developments so that it is able to take advantage of the environment for furthering its national interest. 

Fatima Saleem

Fatima Saleem is an Islamabad based political analyst.

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