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Tensions Escalate at the India-China Border

What is happening?

In March, Indian PM Narendra Modi visited Arunachal Pradesh to inaugurate a tunnel built to enhance year-round troop mobility in the region. The visit was denounced by China, which lays claim to Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet (藏南, Zangnan), a part of the Tibet (Xizang) Autonomous Region. China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs then listed 30 “standardized” Tibetan and Mandarin names for locations in the disputed territory. The US has also entered the fray, saying it “strongly opposes” unilateral attempts to advance territorial demands and reaffirmed its recognition of India’s claim to the region. China responded with an equally strong rebuke of the US.

 

What is the broader picture?

The border China sought to revisit was determined under a British-Tibetan convention in 1914. China initially took part in the negotiations but repudiated the outcomes as detrimental to Chinese interests. The modern PRC considers the agreement illegitimate, arguing that Tibet was not a sovereign state when its borders with British India were delineated. During the Sino-Indian War of 1962, China made an incursion into Arunachal Pradesh but retreated behind the so-called Line of Actual Control following its unilateral ceasefire. The disputed border witnessed a revival of hostilities in the 2010s after numerous attempts at negotiation. 

The recent dispute began with Modi’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, where the Indian PM inaugurated a two-lane tunnel that promises to facilitate the year-round transportation of troops and military equipment. Modi’s timing is likely related to India’s upcoming elections, during which he will stand for a third term as prime minister. Modi cultivates the image of a strong leader in the international arena, benefitting from India’s successes in defending its perceived national interests. 

China’s most recent actions are relatively meek. However, while Beijing has not yet substantially forced this issue, its “renaming” strategy – a component of China’s lawfare vis-à-vis India – undoubtedly lays the groundwork for future claims. Meanwhile, it is not unlikely that Modi will de-emphasize the dispute following the elections, with military veterans criticizing the leader for his alleged passivity.

 

Why does it matter?

China has been increasingly active in pressing its territorial demands. Building infrastructure along its southern borders, it has sparked a race with India that has resulted in the first deadly clashes since the 1960s. In the years following the violence of 2020-2021, Indian sources have decried what they see as China’s “salami-slicing tactics,” which have consumed 2,000 square kilometers of Indian territory. China is also revisiting its border with Bhutan, claiming a sacred valley and the strategically important Doklam area. 

The territorial dispute locks China and India into a hostility that may have broader repercussions. For one, it undermines the outward unity of the BRICS group, which is already challenged by its almost indiscriminate recent expansion. Furthermore, China’s claims may push India farther away from Russia and closer to the USA, which has denounced China’s ambitions. It is worth noting that Russia has been very muted in its response to China’s apparent claims over Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island and has stayed out of brawls between China and India.