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The China-India Border Standoff: What Does Beijing Want?
And why has the Trump administration been so conspicuously silent in supporting a key ally?
After 10 weeks, the latest chapter in the long-running China-India-Bhutan border dispute has come to an end. On Monday, India and China agreed to remove their troops from a disputed region called the Doklam Plateau, claimed by both China and Bhutan. (The area is not claimed by India, but it is very close to the Indian border, and of extreme strategic importance to New Delhi.) Although the dust-up failed to attract much attention from the international community, it is nonetheless worthy of note, both for what it says about a rising China’s more forward-leaning approach to its neighbors, and also for what it says about the Trump administration’s strangely inattentive approach to an increasingly restive Asia.
The trouble began on June 16, when Chinese construction workers were spotted in disputed territory on the remote Doklam Plateau. The workers were building a road that would extend China’s strategic position further into territory claimed by Bhutan. India responded immediately, sending troops into Bhutan to halt the road-building. Soon thereafter, troops from both sides were seen pushing and shoving each other, a form of low-intensity conflict known as “jostling.”
Over the weeks that followed, each side held its ground. For its part, Beijing demanded that India withdraw its troops before any negotiations could begin. Chinese officials also fired various verbal darts at New Delhi. On August 4, Wu Qian, a Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesman, issued a thinly veiled threat to India to stand down. “Here is a wish to remind India, do not push your luck and cling to any fantasies,” Wu said. Statements by semi-official Chinese media outlets were even more blunt and aggressive in tone, assuring India that it would lose any conflict with the much stronger and richer China.
On August 21, the Chinese Foreign Ministry pronounced China “extremely dissatisfied” with Indian actions. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying faulted India for altering the status quo, stating that Chinese forces had been “obstructed” in their “normal patrols.” The dispute ended — for now, at least — with one final parting shot from Beijing: rather than acknowledging that both sides had agreed to pull back their troops, the Chinese Foreign Ministry instead highlighted the withdrawal of “trespassing personnel and equipment to the Indian side.” (A Foreign Ministry spokesperson did, however, acknowledge that the People’s Liberation Army would “make adjustments” in light of changing conditions.) Key Chinese media outlets echoed the Foreign Ministry’s somewhat one-sided account.
For many observers, the uptick in tensions and even India’s decision to increase its troop presence on and near the Doklam Plateau were nothing out of the ordinary. After all, there have been scores of such mini-confrontations between China and India over the years, most of which have led to nothing more serious than a series of sharp-edged statements by both sides. Once temperatures cool, Beijing and Delhi usually pledge to renew their efforts to find a diplomatic solution, and move on. One could argue that this is what has happened here.
One wonders, however, whether this particular standoff highlights rising China’s disinterest in actually resolving its border disputes with India and Bhutan. After all, it was Chinese border activity that provoked the standoff. Once the scuffle began, Beijing maintained an aggressive and aggrieved tone. Its public rhetoric was all stick and no carrot. Beijing also insisted, both publicly and privately, that an Indian withdrawal of troops should precede any negotiated solution, a demand that was hard to square with the fact that, in this case, it had moved first to change the status quo. None of these moves indicate that China is anxious to conclude a final deal anytime soon.
Its dispute with India and Bhutan aside, China actually has a reasonably strong record on resolving border disputes with its neighbors. According to one authoritative study, China has resolved a full 17 of 23 border disputes with other states, and in many of those cases was willing to make significant concessions in order to reach a settlement. The disputed territory on the Doklam Plateau is a key exception, as are various pieces of disputed terrain along the so-called Line of Actual Control on the China-India border.
As the political and economic relationship between China and India has grown in recent decades, many hoped that some sort of deal could be reached, thus permanently removing a potentially significant stumbling block. And yet, despite years of bilateral talks, no solution has been found. It may well be the case that, for China, the territorial dispute serves an important function: it allows Beijing to grab New Delhi’s attention whenever it ever needs to. At any time, China can create a security crisis for India, merely by placing more troops in the disputed territory. John Garver, a top scholar of India-China relations, believes that China keeps the border disputes alive to remind India that it should respect Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. This theory seems plausible: India gave up on its longstanding pre-1949 influence in Tibet only with reluctance, and would likely seek to resurrect it if possible.
No doubt the Tibet factor remains central to Beijing’s thinking. Given this context, the provocative comments by Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu in April 2017, openly suggesting that Tibet is not a part of China, were not helpful. New Delhi should warn all of its government officials to avoid such comments in future.
Khandu’s comments notwithstanding, officials in the region and in Washington need to ask whether China’s strategic evaluation of the border disputes is evolving in such a way as to require a new kind of response. Put simply, China’s rise over the past two decades has altered the balance of power between China and India: China is much stronger than it once was across Asia, economically, politically, and militarily. While Southeast Asia has borne the brunt of China’s expanding power and influence, South Asia has been affected as well: states like Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka — all closely tied to India — have seen their relations with Beijing grow, in ways that inevitably cut into India’s sway. India remains the clear leading power in the region, but the trends must be troubling for New Delhi.
In this rapidly changing context, China will likely reconsider its strategic interests and goals in the sub-continent. When it comes to the border disputes with India and Bhutan, for example, might not China start asking for more of the disputed territory, all the better to improve its strategic position in the Himalayan highlands? Or might it use the signal-sending function that the border disputes provide to send a message to India on a broader range of issues, including India’s opposition to China’s One Belt, One Road economic initiative, or its growing security relationship with the United States?
Another puzzling element of the border scuffle has been Washington’s conspicuous silence. For over a decade, both the Bush and Obama administrations sought to strengthen U.S.-India political and security ties. In its first months in office, the Trump administration has sought to build on this warming trend. In fact, word of the border spat with China broke just before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid his first visit to the United States since Trump took office. During Modi’s visit, the two sides further cemented their security relationship, with the Trump administration agreeing to sell India advanced drone surveillance equipment that could be used to track Chinese naval movements in the Indian Ocean.
And yet, neither the White House nor the State Department have given a firm and clear statement on this most recent spat. The Trump administration’s reticence may stem at least in part from the well-documented disarray within the ranks of the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus: as with many other seemingly less pressing foreign policy concerns, the Trump White House may not yet know exactly how to balance competing interests and objectives, including the need to maintain good relations with China and to allay Pakistani concerns that Washington is getting too close to its arch rival.
Any effort to formulate and execute a policy response is made all the more difficult by the fact that key South Asia posts remain unfilled. Seven months into the Trump presidency, his administration has yet to nominate either an assistant secretary for South Asia or an ambassador to India, and the State Department has offered to no sign as to when these posts will finally be filled.
On Sunday, August 27, roughly 70 days after the spat began, an unnamed Trump administration official gave what appear to be the first public comments from the U.S. government on the matter. The official told an Indian newspaper that the United States is closely monitoring the situation. “We are concerned,” the official said. “We support a return to the status quo.”
A blind quote to an Indian media outlet, provided more than two months into the border standoff, can hardly be considered a robust response. The Trump administration’s reticence is unfortunate: without some sort of signal from Washington, Beijing might conclude that it can escalate its activities in the disputed area without worrying about any interference from the United States. If India responds in kind, the potential for military conflict between the two nuclear-armed regional powers will grow.
It is still too early to tell whether the latest border scuffle represents a shift in Beijing’s strategic thinking. That said, what would a more aggressive Chinese approach to the border dispute look like? First, it would include an increased militarization of the disputed border regions by China. The second prong would be a higher prioritization of political and economic ties with Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, in an effort to make those governments more open — over time — to Chinese strategic priorities in the region. Finally, it would include a decreased emphasis on the geopolitical costs of a more assertive strategy. Beijing could conclude that, as much as New Delhi is distressed over any assertive Chinese moves, India simply won’t be able to respond for fear of damaging economic ties.
A key signal to watch for: Now that this latest squabble has been resolved, will Beijing avoid any additional provocations along the border? Or will it once again seek to provoke New Delhi just a few months down the line? Absent a firmer response from Washington, it may only be a matter of time before Beijing looks to probe India’s resolve once again. At the earliest opportunity, the Trump administration should signal to all concerned that it would not look favorably on a military buildup by any party in the Himalayas, and that the United States expects all parties to peacefully negotiate a final resolution to their border woes.
Photo credit: PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images