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The India-China Border Dispute amidst the Sino-American Great Power Rivalry

-By Amrita Jash

-Research Article available here


Drawing a link between the US-China rivalry and the India-China boundary dispute, Indian Chief of Army Staff, General Manoj Pande, stated that “Contested border and boundary transgressions ‘remain a potential trigger for escalation’ and resultantly, the bilateral ties between the two nations [India and China] do stand influenced by the great power rivalry currently playing out between China and the US”. [1] To understand the influence that the US-China rivalry has on the territorial issue between the two Asian neighbours, it is crucial to examine the shifting attitudes of the West towards India, mainly of the US. Washington’s interest and understanding of South Asia and India in particular has been dominated by focusing on the rivalry between India and Pakistan. Resultantly, India’s border dispute with China received little attention. What has caused the US to attach greater importance to the tensions at the India-China border?

There is now a common perception in the US that India could act as a “counterweight” to China as in Washington’s view: India plays a vital role in achieving a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific. This American attitude towards India is further vetted by the four-foundational agreements signed between the two countries: the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2002; Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016; Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018; and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) in 2020. Besides, in 2016, the US also recognised India as a “Major Defence Partner”, and recently, in January 2023, the two countries elevated the strategic partnership with the initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET). Furthermore, Washington and New Delhi are also partners in groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and I2U2 (India, Israel, UAE and US). Furthermore, in the recent times, the US tilt towards India can also be attributed to two key factors: first, the deteriorating US-China relations under the repercussions of the trade war since 2018. Within the five years from 2017 to 2022, the share of imported Chinese goods among total US imports fell to 16.6 per cent, (it was 21.6 per cent in 2017); while the share of US goods exported to China among the total US exports in 2022 fell to 7.3 per cent, from 8.4 per cent in 2017. The divide between Washington and Beijing was further exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine War, and the tensions over Taiwan. Second, while US-China ties decline, US-India ties are on the upswing given their common democratic values, national interests and common security concerns over China that connect the two countries and are driving their “global strategic partnership”.

The disputed border between India and China has emerged into a flashpoint in the Indo-Pacific, similar to that of Taiwan, the South China Sea and East China Sea- making the border dispute a defining characteristic of the Indo-Pacific security environment in recent years. According to Timothy Hoyt, flashpoints have three elements: first, they must be at the forefront of a significant and long-standing political dispute; second, they tend to become greater concerns if proximate to both adversaries; and third, they threaten to involve or engage more powerful actors in the international community, raising the possibility of escalation to a broader war.[2]

Taking a departure from the axiom of ‘peaceful-coexistence’, India and China today show a relatively confrontational coexistence, caused by the unresolved border issue which contains the potential of bringing unwarranted risks, as in the case of the Eastern Ladakh stand-off. This has not only been the longest deadlock, but also the most violently disputed territory between India and China in recent years as it was the scene of the Galwan Valley clash in June 2020, which led to multiple casualties on both sides. Despite 18 rounds of Commander level talks, the Eastern Ladakh stand-off remains far from being settled. On the one hand, disengagement has taken place in the western sector with the creation of “buffer zones” in five areas: (i) PP-14 in Galwan Valley in July 2020; (ii) the north and (iii) south banks of Pangong Tso in February 2021; (iv) PP-17 A in Gogra in August 2021; and (v) PP-15 in Gogra-Hot Springs area in September 2022. On the other hand, signs of tensions are now building up in the eastern sector, as evident from the clash within the Tawang sector in Arunachal Pradesh in December 2022.

In conclusion, the growing challenge China poses to both New Delhi and Washington gives rise to joint efforts of the two countries in balancing the threat. In this light, the US-China rivalry is increasingly impacting the Indo-Chinese border dispute, especially when framed in the larger context of the changing security environment within the Indo-Pacific.

[1] Bloomberg, 29 Mar, 2023 [2] Timothy Hoyt (2003), “Politics, proximity and paranoia: the evolution of Kashmir as a nuclear flashpoint” India Review, 2(3), p. 119.


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