Tue, Aug 08, 2017 - Page 8 News List

A new front opens in Sino-Indian tensions

By Joseph T.H. Lee 李榭熙

The Sino-Indian border dispute in Sikkim has shown no sign of de-escalation since the middle of June. China and Bhutan, India’s closest ally, accused each other of violating diplomatic agreements that claimed to preserve the “status quo.”

Since New Delhi refused to back down, Beijing has mobilized domestic opinion, calling for a small-scale military campaign against Indian troops in Doklam.

This border imbroglio has posed serious challenges to the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

As strong and visionary leaders, both have projected themselves as rising statesmen globally and regionally. They seize any opportunity to appear on an equal footing with US, European and Russian leaders in international summits.

Proclaiming to place their national interests above everything, they construct an appealing image of charisma, competence and charm at home and abroad.

If Xi and Modi fail to act as the guardians of territorial sovereignty, they will find it hard to pacify domestic opponents and hold onto their leadership. This immensely unattainable objective limits the actions these ambitious leaders can take to resolve the border conflict.

With the exception of the early 1950s, relations between China and India have been fraught with territorial conflicts and geopolitical rivalries.

Sino-Indian border disputes originated from Beijing’s rejection of the British-drawn McMahon Line of 1913-1914, which separated India from Tibet.

During the 1962 border war, China caught India off-guard, seizing 38,000km2 of Indian territory in Aksai Chin and another 5,180km2 of northern Kashmir that Pakistan ceded to Beijing under a 1963 pact.

Supporting Pakistan during the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, China sought to contain India south of the Himalayas. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, continuous Chinese arms transfers to Pakistan indicated their close military ties.

Despite a brief Sino-Indian rapprochement after a visit by then-Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to Beijing in 1988, China was reluctant to sacrifice its partnership with Pakistan. The idea of a “two-front threat” (Pakistan in the west and China in the north and northeast) deepened Indian leaders’ concerns about China’s containment policy.

Indian policymakers view China as an interloper in South Asia, an external superpower that deliberately challenges India’s natural sphere of influence. All Chinese geostrategic maneuvers are deemed as consolidating its control over South Asia.

In response to the Chinese encirclement, India has pursued security relations with China’s neighbors in the Pacific Ocean, especially Taiwan, Vietnam and Japan. Yet these maritime strategies fail to counter China’s growing influence in the Himalayas.

At a time when the US is reluctant to take leadership in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis and the South China Sea disputes, China seeks to fill the power vacuum in global politics and regards South Asia as the next legitimate frontier for flexing its muscles.

Without an institutional mechanism under international law to address the overlapping claims in the Himalayas, the Doklam border stand-off has highlighted the irreconcilable disagreements between China and India over control of continental space — such as mountains and plateaus — and over jurisdiction related to disputes taking place in these territories.

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