The Sino-Indian border: is it worth the trouble?

This question may seem to be a strange one. Of course, countries care about the position of their borders: it affects their natural resources, strategic positions and populations. But a closer inspection of this particular border dispute yields something of a puzzle. The main area of clash is in Aksai Chin, an inhospitable, almost uninhabited desert of salt flats, positioned around 16,000 ft above sea level. And for most of history, there was no need for any official border in this region: an alphabet soup of lines were drawn at various times as footnotes in treaties, based mostly on inaccurate maps of a region few had dared to explore. With all of the geopolitical challenges they face, why are two of Asia’s great powers squabbling over a line in the sands of an uninhabited desert?

It is true that China refuses to recognise the state of Sikkim as part of India, but Hindu nationalist media has focused on that very little.

The answer, as is often true when nationalism is involved, is largely rooted in history. The Indian government recognises the official border between the countries as the “McMahon Line” which was negotiated in 1914. The important point here is that the British Empire agreed on the treaty with Tibet at a time when China was weak, divided, and able to do little more than verbally condemn the agreement. The Chinese government, as you can probably tell from its occupation of the province, regards Tibet as part of China, or at least a tributary state, and therefore unable to negotiate treaties on its own. Anyone acknowledging the 1914 border hits a nerve with a Chinese government that does not appreciate challenges to the legitimacy of Chinese control of Tibet.

The situation with India is more complex. It is true that China refuses to recognise the state of Sikkim as part of India, but Hindu nationalist media has focused on that very little. The Indian military has been constructing roads in the region to improve its strategic position, which is understandable given that it is also close to the border with Pakistan in Kashmir. What the Indian government really seems to care about is having a “befitting response”: not being seen to back down in the face of supposed ‘Chinese aggression’.

Both sides are reading from a different score sheet, engaging in nationalistic tit-for-tat, and that is unlikely to end well.

Accounts of the current standoff flagrantly contradict one another: what you read heavily influences which side you think is in the right. The Chinese government claims to have proved that the incursion was first by Indian troops, and therefore demands an apology. The Hindu nationalist government is hardly a fan of showing deference to a rival, while it is also thoroughly concerned about the massing of troops on the Chinese side of the border. Nor does it accept that India started it. China sees India increasing its military presence in response and, concerned by the proximity of this area to strategic links between Xinjiang and both Tibet and Pakistan, more troops are sent. Both sides are reading from a different score sheet, engaging in nationalistic tit-for-tat, and that is unlikely to end well.

By Patrick Stephens

Illustration: by Rachel Cottrell

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