China-India relations

China and India border tensions flare up again ahead of Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit

Chinese officials urge India to ‘respect’ existing frontier as high level talks aim to clear way for Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Qingdao

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2018, 7:04pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2018, 10:53pm

A fresh war of words has broken out over the long-simmering border dispute between Beijing and New Delhi just weeks before an expected visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China.

Although the two sides have been working to repair relations since last year’s stand-off in Doklam, analysts have cautioned there is still a high degree of mistrust between the two sides, especially given Delhi’s caution about China’s growing influence in India’s backyard. 

Officials in China and India have been working on a series of intense high-level engagements. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman are expected to visit China later this month to attend ministerial meetings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

The visits are designed to pave the way for Modi to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping when he attends a summit of the bloc, which India joined as a full member last year, in the eastern port city of Qingdao in June.

In the latest test for their rapprochement efforts last year’s stand-off, Beijing urged New Delhi to respect the so-called Line of Actual Control – the de facto border between the two.

China is also reported to have protested over recent Indian military patrols in Arunachal Pradesh, a region that China has never recognised as Indian territory.

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“Prior to the resolution of the border issue, it is hoped that the Indian side abides by the agreement protocol, respects and obeys the Line of Actual Control and refrains from hyping up the issue and works with China to jointly maintain peace and tranquillity in border areas,” Geng Shuang, the spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on Monday. 

“China’s position on the Sino-Indian boundary issue is consistent and clear. The Chinese government has never acknowledged the so-called Arunachal Pradesh,” Geng told a press briefing in Beijing. 

“Both China and India are negotiating to resolve the boundary issue between the two countries and seek a fair and reasonable solution acceptable to both sides.”

Geng’s remarks came as the Press Trust of India news agency cited sources as saying that during meeting to discuss the border last month, officials from a People’s Liberation Army delegation had strongly protested about the extensive patrols carried out by Indian troops in Arunachal Pradesh’s Asaphile region. Beijing claims the territory for itself, and says it is part of southern Tibet.

Geng did not confirm that Beijing had protested, saying only that the two governments have “close contacts at all levels”.

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China and India have held 20 rounds of talks to resolve the boundary disputes, starting in the 1960s, and different mechanisms have been set up to maintain peace along the 4,000-kilometre (2,485-mile) line.

However, little progress has been made and tensions over the issue periodically flare up. 

Last year’s confrontation escalated after China started building a road in Doklam, which is claimed by India’s ally Bhutan.

The stand-off became the worst crisis between the two sides since they went to war in 1962 and lasted for two months before they agreed to pull back their troops in late August. 

However, without a common understanding of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), tensions in the border areas remain deep and disputes will continue, said Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, a visiting fellow at Research and Information System for Developing Countries, a New Delhi-based think-tank. 

“There is a greater acknowledgement of differences in perception about the LAC. Both countries’ troops make patrols up to their perceived LAC,” Chaturvedy said.

However, he added: “As long as there is a political understanding between the top leaders, such matters will be kept under control.”

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Liu Zongyi, a senior fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, agreed.

“As Modi has said, not a single bullet has been fired on the Sino-Indian border in the last 40 years despite simmering disputes. The key is how both sides keep such disputes under control as the problem would be long existing and I think both sides want to see improvement in bilateral relations.”

However, some Chinese analysts remain sceptical, especially given India’s caution about China’s growing influence as it seeks to develop the Belt and Road Initiative. 

China’s investment and infrastructure works under the initiative have strengthened its ties with Pakistan, India’s main rival, as well as other countries in what Delhi sees as its backyard including Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. 

Meanwhile India has joined the so-called Quad, or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, with the US, Japan and Australia, a move Beijing sees as an effort to counter its rising influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

“India is feeling uneasy about China’s growing presence in South Asia and the strategic mistrust between the two sides is deep, so seeking improved relations with China is unlikely to be high on the foreign policy agenda for Modi’s government,” said Hu Zhiyong, an associate professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.