WASHINGTON – During three days in China recently, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed more than $22 billion in business deals with Beijing. However, it did not necessarily seem to be an improvement regarding the complicated bilateral relationship.
Underlying this positive new sign of cooperation are still a number of fundamental problems, the most central of which is regional security. Most foreign policy experts foresee the long-running border dispute will continue to diminish the partnership, no matter who’s in power.
“The structure of rivals is kind of the major affecter,” said Brookings India Project fellow Tanvi Madan on May 20, at a panel discussion that assessed the Modi government after one year. “On security it’s not negotiable. If there is a border incident, we [India] are going to push you [China] back and we are going to do it in a much stricter way.”
The 3,500 km border between the two Asian giants has been in dispute since 1914, when Britain signed an agreement with Tibet placing the de-facto border along the Himalayas from Bhutan in the west to the Brahmaputra River in the east.
Since then, both sides were unable to reach a political accommodation on the disputed territory until an informal cease-fire line, the “Line of Actual Control,” was drawn after the 1962 Sino-Indian War, which broke out because of the Himalayan border. However, it is neither marked on the ground nor on mutually acceptable maps, which has led to exacerbated tensions.
The summit talks in China were an attempt by the Modi government to formalize the LAC to ease border tension, but failed to make any headway in resolving the problem because of the size of the disputed territory and the complexity of the issue, the Defense News reported on May 23.
“Beijing wants to keep the boundary dispute alive and India will have to be prepared to fight a war with both Pakistan and China simultaneously at a future date because the boundary dispute can suddenly flare up,” defense analyst Nitin Mehta said to the Defense News.
The dispute, moreover, is not something only about India and China.
“The enemy of our enemy is our friend,” Baoping Liao, a Chinese columnist, said when describing the close tie between China and Pakistan, whose relationship with India has been plagued by hostility and suspicion due to numerous historical and political conflicts.
As one of the most important allies of China, Pakistan provides a bridge for China to connect with the Middle East in terms of economic activities and counter-terrorism efforts. It also prevents China from being fully targeted by India by keeping India’s military power engaged through a series of conflicts.
Seeing the China-Pakistan relationship as one that is built on the foundations of anti-Indian sentiment, New Delhi is so concerned that it started to lean on the U.S. to put a tight rein on China, Liao said.
During a trip to India four months ago, President Barack Obama concluded a series of agreements with Modi, which, for the first time ever, included issues relating to the disputed South China Sea. Both sides pronounced their joint support for the principle of the freedom navigation in the contested waters and for resolving territorial disputes under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which defines the rights and the responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the world’s oceans.
“It’s apparent that India is attempting to establish a strategic alliance relationship with the U.S. to make sure it has its own benefits,” Liao said. He concluded in a Chinese article that it would limit the India-China relationship from going further despite the healthy collaboration on economy and trade.
Madan said the best way for Beijing to make sure India does not take part in any containment strategy, a military policy to stop the expansion of an enemy, is to actually engage and cooperate with India.
“Deal with it on equal terms. Sort the border dispute out,” Madan said the same goes for India, with respect to Beijing.