International Perspectives

The India-China border issue

As China finally surpassed Japan to snag the much-coveted ‘world’s second largest economy’ spot last month, all eyes are now focused on China’s seemingly unstoppable growth rates. And since Japan no longer seems an economic contender, analysts are turning to India to ask: does China’s democratic neighbor pose a threat to its future economic and political stability?

Clearly, the outlook is not altogether rosy. A recent article in the Economist argues that although India and China have much to cooperate on (climate change summits, increasing bilateral trade, energy issues), the dream of ‘Chindia’ is still largely an illusion, as both sides try to balance their economic interests with growing cross-border hostility. The article suggests that 47% of Chinese consider India a threat, and 33% of Indians return the favor.

The tension between India and China is not just inspired by general economic suspicion. Rather, the major political issue between the sides involves the 4,000 km border that separates the two states, and particularly both sides’ claims to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Chinese officials have officially protested Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s political campaigning in Arunachal Pradesh and objected to the Asian Development Bank giving India a developmental loan for improving the region.

But to what extent does the border issue really threaten the stability of Sino-Indian relations? Some are somewhat optimistic. Another article in the Economist, for example, suggests that if China has managed to successfully negotiate border quarrels with Russia, Mongolia, Myanmar and Vietnam, then its spat with India should be short-lived.

The issue runs far deeper, and is far more complicated, however. This is hardly your average, run-of-the-mill border conflict and cuts to the very heart of China’s internal struggle to maintain control over its territory, particularly over Tibet.

Deemed to be part of India by a treaty between British officials and Tibetan leaders in 1914, parts of Arunachal Pradesh are not recognized as Indian territory by Chinese officials, and were even temporarily occupied by Chinese troops in 1962. Instead, they are seen by China as Chinese lands—an extension of Southern Tibet. And that’s where the fundamental issue lies. Accepting the legitimacy of the McMahon line drawn up by the British as the official border would be tantamount to recognizing the independent authority of the Tibetan leaders.  Particularly since the Chinese government claims that Tibet has been a part of China since the Yuan Dynasty (13th – 14th century), China cannot concede India’s claim to the land and still remain consistent in their claims to Tibet. To recognize the treaty would be to recognize Tibet’s sovereignty in 1914. The Dalai Lama’s public remarks recognizing Arunachal Pradesh as Indian territory have further exacerbated the issue.

While seemingly an international conflict, this is primarily an internal Chinese issue—one that only tangentially involves India. The implications for a cessation of cross-border hostility are bleak, therefore, and bilateral negotiations seem ill-equipped to resolve this conflict. The best we can hope for, it seems, is maintenance of the current impasse.  Neither India nor China is particularly interested in another war, but the status quo stands on shaky ground.

Nayantara Mukherji is a first year student in the MIPA program at the La Follette School of Public Affairs, focusing on issues of development in India and China.

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About Sylvia Fredericks

Second-Year MPA student at the La Follette School for Public Affairs (University of Wisconsin - Madison)
This entry was posted in Economics, International and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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