Recent statements by the Indian Army have shown a softened stance toward the ongoing dispute with China along the Line of Actual Control — an area that has long been a source of tension for the two countries. In an e-mail interview, Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explains the current situation along the China-India border.
WPR: What are the core unresolved issues regarding the India-China border?
Douglas Paal: The principal disputes are over territory. The Sino-Indian territorial dispute is one of China’s few remaining border disputes after a decade of resolving tough disputes with 11 other important neighbors. At the western end of the Sino-Indian border lies Aksai-Chin, which China conquered in the 1962 border war with India. This high, flat plateau embraces the only road connection between Tibet and far-western Xinjiang near the border, and is viewed by China as a strategic requirement. In the east, the dispute is over Arunachal Pradesh, controlled by India. Observers have long expected that a swap of these two territories would end their dispute and allow the border to be settled. But the political atmosphere has not been right at the same time in both capitals to do so since the 1962 war.
WPR: What explains the heightened Chinese activity there (i.e., provocative intrusions and military infrastructure development) over the past year, and what considerations are guiding the Indian response (i.e., restraint on the intrusions while hardening its side of the border)?
Paal: The question assumes that there have been higher incidents of Chinese provocation, as alleged commonly in India’s media. Chinese and foreign observers who have visited the Indian border area from China, however, have not supported these allegations. It would be interesting to know the truth.
WPR: What impact has this had on bilateral relations, and are there any mechanisms in place to prevent it from becoming a flashpoint?
Paal: Interestingly, India has shown creative diplomacy in recent months, seeking to defuse the rising tensions. Delhi sent a new ambassador to Beijing — an expert on relations with the United States, S. Jaishankar — to find some means of resolving Sino-Indian disputes. An early fruit of his efforts is an agreement for the first joint exercise between the two countries’ militaries since 1962. It remains to be seen whether this will develop into a pattern of diplomatic cooperation that institutionalizes itself.