China's and India's Dangerous Game

A recent border incursion highlights the risks of further conflict between the two.


Former Chinese President Hu Jintao (L) photographed with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) in 2012. (Yuriko Nakao/Reuters)

China and the United States have the world's most important bilateral relationship. But the runner-up is surely China and India. After all, the two countries have a combined population of (roughly) 2.5 billion, amounting to around 40 percent of the world's population. They also have rapidly growing economies, nuclear weapons, and a border over 600 miles long -- one that remains unresolved after a deadly skirmish between the two countries in 1962.

As a result, when 50 Chinese soldiers crossed the border and pitched tents 12 miles into the Indian region of Ladakh last month, the world reacted with some alarm. Now that the soldiers have left, many questions remain: Was Beijing reacting to an unseen Indian provocation? Or was this the work of a "rogue" element of the PLA, acting without orders from above? Neither explanation, if true, is comforting.

Relations between China and India are generally stable. The two sides are members of the BRICS, a club of emerging market nations that periodically meets to discuss areas of mutual interest. China is India's largest trading partner, and trade between the two exceeded $75 billion last year -- a number that is trending upward. Clearly, India and China would have little to gain -- and a lot to lose -- from a major conflict. So why should we worry about one anyway? Here are three main reasons:

That Pesky Border

In late October 1962, when the Western world was consumed with the Cuban Missile Crisis, China's People's Liberation Army assaulted an India military position in the disputed territory of Arunachal Pradesh, routing the poorly-trained Indian forces. A month later, China invaded again before finally calling a unilateral cease-fire on the 21st of November: too late for the 2,000 or so who lost their lives. Ever since, the border -- referred to by the vaguely Orwellian name of "Line of Actual Control" -- remains a sticking point between the two. One reason? The part of China bordering India, alas, is Tibet -- the "autonomous region" that has caused no end of political trouble for Beijing ever since the People's Republic "liberated" it in 1950.


In the Western world, we tend to think of Tibet as a barren "rooftop" lacking in natural resources, a wasteland of imposing mountains and harsh, windswept plains. However, Tibet actually has one important resource in abundance: rivers. Several of Asia's most important bodies of water originate in the region, including the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, and Brahmaputra -- the latter of which flows into India and provides sustenance for a significant chunk of the country's population. Unsurprisingly, New Delhi pays very close attention to Chinese efforts to dam the Brahmaputra, since any ruptures in its flow would affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.

Then, there's the issue of the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan leader has resided in India since fleeing Tibet in 1959 and holds court in the northeastern town of Dharamsala. Since his departure, China has attempted to isolate the Dalai Lama through discrediting him in the media ("wolf in monk's robes" is a typical description you find in the official Chinese press) and pressuring foreign governments to ignore his visits. While this strategy has largely worked -- the Dalai Lama long ago gave up demands for Tibetan independence in favor of "autonomy", for instance  -- Beijing surely understands that the de facto capital of the Tibetan movement lies firmly within Indian territory. This is a sore point that isn't likely to go away, even after the aging Dalai Lama dies.

Warming U.S.-India Relations

It seems difficult to believe now, but during a significant stretch of the Cold War the United States actually had better relations with China than it did with India, which tilted toward the Soviet Union during the conflict. Now, of course, the Washington -- New Delhi relationship has warmed to the point where the Obama Administration explicitly endorsed India's inclusion as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. As a vibrant multi-cultural democracy with a large English-speaking population, India has been described as a "natural ally" of the United States, in contrast to authoritarian China.

This development, without question, worries China. India also has close ties with Japan, China's historic enemy, and Beijing's strategists have reason to believe that a Washington-Tokyo-New Delhi alliance may emerge as a check on Chinese power in Asia.

Will any of these problems come to a head? Probably not soon. Sino-Indian ties seem largely mended after this recent incursion; India's foreign minister plans to visit Beijing later this week and China's premier Li Keqiang is due in New Delhi toward the end of the month. But absent some major diplomatic initiative to resolve these longstanding issues, the risk of another incident occurring remains high. And next time, a peaceful resolution may not be so easy to obtain.