Prospects for Crisis Management on the China-India Border

After shots were fired along disputed border, Sino-Indian tensions reach level not seen in decades.

After a deadly skirmish in June and shots fired in September, Sino-Indian tensions have escalated to a level not seen in decades. Both countries’ foreign ministers recently agreed to a five-point framework to manage the situation, showing both sides want tensions to plateau rather than deteriorate further.

But the Line of Actual Control (LAC) will not easily go back to a well-managed bilateral irritant—right now, it’s a dangerous flashpoint and likely to stay that way. USIP’s Vikram Singh and Patricia Kim look at the recent discussions, what’s driving the escalation, how the conflict affects the region, and what history can tell us about how it might be resolved.

China and India recently reached a five-point statement on deescalating tensions along their disputed border areas. What does the statement promise, and do you expect to see a reduction in the conflict that has been building since May?

Kim and Singh: According to the joint press statement released by India following a meeting between the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers in Moscow, the two states acknowledged that the “current situation in the border areas is not in the interest of either side” and that both sides would “continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions.” The statement also declared that China and India would “abide by all existing agreements and protocol on China-India boundary affairs,” avoid actions that can lead to escalation, and seek new confidence-building measures.

While the statement is a positive step toward reducing tensions, it critically lacks a timeline for disengagement and does not commit either side to any specific actions. It also makes no mention of a return to the status quo of any prior point in time.

It remains to be seen whether detailed measures will be proposed at subsequent commander-level meetings. And if the two parties make new agreements, it’s not clear how they will be implemented. Neither side is seeking escalation, but they also will not move first or unilaterally to operationalize the five-point statement if they suspect the other side of equivocating.
China has become more assertive throughout Asia, but the border between China and India is largely uninhabited and inhospitable. Why has Beijing decided to contest the disputed territory?

Kim and Singh: This is a longstanding dispute stretching back to the immediate post-World War II era. The territory itself is certainly unlivable, but it would be strategic in a war. Neither side wants to lose ground, and for the past 25 years, they have managed to prevent a crisis through agreements on rules of engagement and mechanisms for deconfliction. But little to no progress has been made on the underlying disagreements.

China sees its land and maritime borders—including the LAC—as vulnerabilities to be addressed as soon as Chinese capabilities permit. The Doklam standoff in 2017 demonstrated that China was ready to change the status quo to its advantage on this long-disputed border, much as it has done in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

Chinese leaders often point to some provocation as a pretext for actions that change the status quo in a territorial dispute, such as Japan nationalizing the Senkaku islands. In the case of the LAC, China watched India’s cross-border strikes against Pakistan after the 2019 suicide attack in Pulwama with concern. Then New Delhi separated Ladakh, where this dispute is centered, from Jammu and Kashmir and made it into a Union Territory under central government control as part of India’s move to end the semi-autonomy of the Kashmir region. India’s willingness to conduct cross-border strikes into Pakistan and centralize control of the disputed territory, along with Indian infrastructure upgrades, may have accelerated China’s timeline. But absent concrete negotiations on a final border demarcation, it was always a matter of when and how, not if, China would press for advantage.
What effect could continued or increased tensions have on the region at large, including Pakistan-India relations and the Afghanistan peace process?

Singh: Tensions between New Delhi and Beijing are already having geopolitical and economic impacts across the region. India is limiting Chinese investment in strategic sectors by banning Chinese apps and restricting Chinese investment in Indian technology and infrastructure. New Delhi will take a closer look at what its smaller neighbors choose to do with China, and countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka will want to take Indian concerns into account.

With regard to Pakistan, India-China tensions are welcomed in Islamabad if only because they complicate India’s military planning. Pakistani leaders count on deepening ties with China for much-needed economic investment and for support in any future flare up with India. Islamabad will expect China to be more supportive of Pakistan’s position now that Beijing has a conflict with India as well. Uncertainty around how China might support Pakistan and how India would react to threats on its disputed borders, and potentially within Kashmir, increase the risk of conflict.

For Afghanistan, it proves harder to make a determination. New Delhi and Beijing generally have complementary priorities in Afghanistan, including development, regional economic integration, and counterterrorism concerns. Both have been supportive of the peace process, with India more worried about a Taliban resurgence. However, India takes a far more proactive role in Afghanistan than China does, with over $3 billion invested into hundreds of development projects reaching every Afghan province. India’s largess is intended to help Afghans, give India access to Central Asian economies, and serve as a contrast to Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. With peace talks among Afghans underway in Doha, a key question for all the regional powers will be how they can support a peaceful Afghanistan rather than return to proxy war and competition. On this, Indian and Chinese tensions are not likely to have a major impact.
Where does the Sino-Indian border conflict rank among China’s strategic priorities and what does history tell us about how the current conflict might evolve?

Kim: While Beijing has always listed “territorial integrity” as one of its “core interests,” its border conflict with India generally receives much less attention compared to China’s sovereignty claims over Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang. A critical reason for this disparity has to do with the disputed territory between China and India being largely uninhabited, whereas millions of people live in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang—many of whom seek autonomy, and in some cases outright independence, from Beijing. Compared to these disputes—which directly threaten the Chinese Communist Party’s absolute authority and legitimacy—the Sino-Indian border has been less central to Beijing’s strategic priorities.

However, this is not to say that Beijing is likely to back down or concede territory in its decades-long dispute with New Delhi. During the most recent border tensions, Chinese media has accused New Delhi of trying to force China to “compromise its territorial integrity” at a vulnerable time, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and pressure from the United States. These articles warn that while China does not want war and prefers peace, India should not “miscalculate” China’s resolve, and that it will fight if necessary to safeguard its territory.

While statements made by Chinese officials have been much more muted than those published by officially sanctioned media, these stark warnings are not to be dismissed as simple bluster if one looks back into the historical record. In 1962, for instance, Chinese leaders were willing to go to war with India over what they believed was India strengthening its sovereignty claims at a time when China was struggling at home with the disastrous outcomes of the Great Leap Forward and Beijing’s deteriorating ties with the Soviet Union.

Today, China is much stronger militarily and is not shy about highlighting that fact quite openly. Paradoxically, Beijing’s growing confidence, mixed with its sense of vulnerability, has pushed its leaders to choose confrontation over de-escalation thus far. As such, implementing the five-point statement and establishing even a temporary peace on the Sino-Indian border will not be an easy feat.