India-China Border Incidents

Depending on how close you have your ear to the ground, you might have picked up some buzzing about Chinese military incursions across the “Line of Actual Control” that comprises its vaguely defined border with India. The incursions have included a helicopter flyover, as well as an “Animal House”-type incident where Chinese soldiers apparently tagged stones on the Indian side of the line with “China” graffiti in red paint. But they occur in the context of a significant Chinese infrastructure buildup and militarization — one that has caused a good deal of concern in New Delhi — along its side of what amounts to a border-in-progress.

There’s a reason there hasn’t been a whole lot of noise about the latest incidents — namely, because China has denied they took place, and because India’s civilian leadership has preferred to handle the matter very discreetly. But now reports are emerging that there’s a growing rift — between the Indian prime minister and foreign ministry on the one side, and the military command on the other — on how to respond to the Chinese provocations, with the military desiring a more “assertive” approach.

Now, the funny thing about American coverage of the Great Asian Rebalancing is that it tends to focus on American interests, while minimizing the concerns of the Asian parties involved. So, for instance, Pakistani concerns about a possible Indian invasion are dismissed out of hand as unreasonable. The fact is, though, that sabre-rattling hawks of the John Bolton variety really do exist in India, and they say things like this about Pakistan. So it should come as no surprise that they say things like this about China.

Of course, this theme of China eventually using a combination of nationalism and militarism to deflect potential domestic unrest because it thinks the U.S. lacks the political will to engage in a war also concerns some American analysts. And the truth is, there’s reason for concern, so long as China continues to engage in these sorts of provocative little nibbling actions.

I would argue, though, that the possibility is neither as alarming nor as outlandish as the two extremes of the China-policy spectrum have made it seem. The U.S. response in the South China Sea — a combination of non-escalation, engagement toward dialogue and a muscular display of resolve — did not satisfy the alarmists, but I found it reasonable.

It looks like India has yet to find its own balance in this regard. What that balance looks like when it does emerge, though, will be an important trend to watch.

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