The Great Sino-Indian Alpine Tent Party of 2013

China's latest border squabble with India might seem trivial, but the consequences could set Asia on edge.

BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images
BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, May 5, several dozen soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) pulled down their tents and withdrew from disputed territory claimed and administered by India, thus ending a bizarre but tense confrontation between two of the world’s largest armies. The three-week encampment by Chinese forces in the remote and desolate Depsang plain generated little comment in China but caused a political and media storm in New Delhi, where Beijing’s actions were seen as a clear violation of the territorial status quo.

As the dust settles, questions remain about the motives behind the Chinese troop advancement, which came at a delicate juncture for both Sino-Indian relations and China’s own evolution into a regional and global superpower. What were the Chinese security forces and their leaders thinking when they authorized the incursion? More importantly, what does this mismanaged and unnecessary provocation augur for Asia’s future stability?

The PLA troops’ precise motivations are hard to discern and may never be fully explained. Chinese forces might have wanted to stall the development of roads on India’s side of the Line of Actual Control, as the de facto border is known. India’s 2008 reactivation of a remote military airfield near Depsang — less than 70 miles from the crucial highway connecting western China’s vast, unstable regions of Xinjiang and Tibet — may also have been viewed as threatening. Some Indian commentators claimed that the PLA’s advancement was a "sincere" move resulting from different understandings of where the border lies. But that view found little sympathy in New Delhi, as images of Chinese soldiers holding banners emblazoned with "You’ve crossed the border, please go back" flashed across Indian television screens.

The timing is even more puzzling. China-India relations have been growing warmer; Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held his first meeting with China’s new president, Xi Jinping, in March, and Li Keqiang was preparing to make India the destination for his first international trip as China’s premier, later in May. The diplomatic setback also followed a year of deteriorating relations between Beijing and other Asian countries, including a sharp downturn in Sino-Japanese ties, the embarrassing release of a new Chinese passport that outraged several Asian states (including India), a severe test of Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang, a diplomatic reversal in Burma, and the release of worrying information on China’s cyber-espionage capabilities. Antagonizing India at this juncture seems inexplicable.

The incursion will undoubtedly provoke greater skepticism in India about China’s peaceful intentions. In recent years, an aggressive China has had a poor record of managing its disputed borders. Unlike Japan or the many Southeast Asian countries, India has been reluctant to identify itself as a U.S. partner in any attempt to hedge against China’s rise. Yet repeated Chinese provocations, as well as concerns about India’s ability to compete economically and militarily with China, might force India’s policymakers to cooperate more closely with other states that share its concerns. Moreover, India’s accelerating defense modernization might produce additional confrontational Chinese responses, perpetuating a classic security dilemma.

Although the incursion may not have had domestic political implications in Beijing, it does raise worrying questions about China’s ability to destabilize the region. For example, it is plausible that the PLA’s advancement was the product of a simple civil-military disconnect. This is a problem that bedevils every government with a strong military, but a more transparent system of governance — such as in the United States or, for that matter, India — would have certainly limited the damage.

The question of transparency also cuts the other way. China cannot expect other governments to muzzle their media as it does. For example, a recent editorial in the Chinese newspaper Global Times about the incursion blamed the Indian government for "indulg[ing] Indian media habits," fomenting "border hysteria," and writing "nonsense." Instead of blaming the foreign press, it would benefit Beijing to become better attuned to public sentiment in countries like India — not exactly its strong suit. As Harvard University professor Joseph Nye recently noted, this is not the kind of problem that can be solved with more Confucius Institutes.

As China’s new leadership continues to consolidate itself, its recent missteps with India — coming at an otherwise opportune time in bilateral relations — ought to provoke some introspection. Many in India, as in other Asian states, are willing to cooperate with an increasingly affluent China. But actions like April’s incursion will only give more weight to the perspectives represented in an influential 2012 Indian foreign-policy paper that noted: "The better way of responding to limited land-grabs by China" is to respond in kind. Surely that’s not an outcome China’s leaders want.

Dhruva Jaishankar is Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings India in New Delhi and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. He is also a Non-Resident Fellow with the Lowy Institute in Australia.

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