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China-India Relations in the Time of Border Skirmishes

CIIS Time:07 28, 2017 Writer:Li Qingyan Editor:Wang Jiapei


A month ago, India sent troops across the Sikkim border into China to obstruct construction of a road by the People’s Liberation Army in the Donglong region. The situation remains tense, with a face-off between soldiers of the two countries still ongoing. If the trespassing of the Indian troops is organized and premeditated to disrupt the status quo in the Sikkim section, it could have a dramatic impact on the future of Sino-Indian relationship.

 

Unlike previous stand-off incidents between Chinese and Indian border troops, including the one that lasted 26 days during President Xi Jinping’s state visit to India in 2014, the current situation occurred at the Sikkim section of the China-India boundary. This boundary has long been demarcated and defined, unlike incidences that took place due to undefined borders. The Sikkim section of the China-India border was defined by the Convention between Great Britain and China Relating to Sikkim and Tibet in 1890 and acknowledged by successive Indian governments since then. Documents between the Chinese and Indian governments show former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru admitted several times that the Sikkim-Tibet border was defined by the 1890 convention, on behalf of the Indian government. India, however, denies the 1890 Convention and claims that the Sikkim section of the China-India boundary is not delimited.

 

The ‘stand-off’ that took place at the demarcated border is of a totally different nature to that at an undefined border. From the historical and legal perspective as well as the status quo, it is explicit that the trespassing by the Indian troops violates the goals and principles of the UN Charter, and tramples on international laws and basic norms of international relations.

 

What does India want from its military’s trespassing?

New Delhi sent its troops illegally, crossing the delimited Sikkim section of the China-India boundary. It risked international condemnation by installing its troops on Chinese soil for as long as possible with the ambitious intention to creating disputes in Doklam. It ostensibly entered Chinese territory of Doklam to safeguard its ‘security concern’ in the northeastern region of India.

 

On the one hand, India seeks to obstruct or delay Chinese road or other infrastructure constructions in border areas in order to protects its security. According to Indian arguments, New Delhi fears that if China completes the road there, it could facilitate a possible Chinese attack on the narrow strip of land that connects India’s northeastern states with its mainland. However, the possible ‘serious security implication’ cannot become an excuse for any country’s troops to cross illegally into another country’s territory. No country can pursue its security at the cost of another country’s sovereignty.

 

On the other hand, by creating disputes in Doklam, India intends to provoke conflicts between China and Bhutan and to obstruct border negotiations between the two countries. India first claimed that its border had been encroached by China, and then changed its tune by stating its actions were in the name of ‘protecting’ Bhutan. The word of ‘protecting’ reveals the ‘unequal relationship’ between the South Asian giant and Bhutan, a relationship whose kind seldom exists in the 21st century.

 

Although the China-Bhutan boundary is not officially demarcated, both countries have a basic consensus on the practical condition of the border areas. Furthermore, China’s activities in Doklam have not violated any bilateral agreement nor have they disrupted the status quo.

 

Where are Sino-Indian relations going?

In recent years, India has enjoyed a favorable external environment and praise from the West, led by the United States and Japan. This has given a fillip to New Delhi’s global ambitions. Through expanding the bilateral defence cooperation between the Narendra Modi-led government and the Obama administration, India has become America’s major defence partner and enjoys privileges because it is designated a ‘close ally’ of the United States.

 

With defence relations as a major driver, the India-US strategic partnership has reached unprecedented heights. Although the Trump administration’s policy towards South Asia is not very clear, the strategic partnership between the United States and India is expected to stay the same. Trump probably take the same view as Obama that helping India expand in power and prosperity serves the larger geopolitical interests of the United States in the region and globally. Meanwhile, New Delhi has gradually put its traditional ‘nonalignment policy’ aside and is eager to play a more important role in balancing China within the Asian-Pacific strategy of the US. Similarly, the ‘natural alliance’ of India and Japan also sees a role for each other in its China strategy.

 

The military action taken by India in the Donglong region is the newest and reflects India’s unbridled ambition.

 

China-India relations have encountered obstacles in the past two years, even as New Delhi is stuck in a Cold War mentality and treats its relations with China as a ‘zero-sum’ game. To maintain stable and peaceful relations between China and India is in the interest of both sides as well as the entire region. As a rapidly developing country, India demands a peaceful neighboring environment more eagerly than China. Furthermore, to be a global power, it should not violate international laws and basic norms of international relations.

 

China attaches great importance to its relations with India and is ready to develop a long-term stable strategic partnership for cooperation. So far, the situation has not flared out of control. This is thanks to the great restraint exercised by China. However, a peaceful resolution must depend on the efforts of both sides. India must understand that respecting the borderline is the bottom line for sustained peace. The ball is now in India’s court.

 

 

 

Li Qingyan is Associate Researcher at the Department for International and Strategic Studies of CIIS. Her major research fields are South Asia, China’s Neighbourhood Diplomacy, CPEC, and Afghanistan.

 

 

 

Source: China-India Brief #97, Center on Asia and Globalization.

http://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/cag/publication/china-india-brief/china-india-brief-97