CFR Presents

Asia Unbound

CFR experts give their take on the cutting-edge issues emerging in Asia today.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


China’s Mixed Messages to India

by Alyssa Ayres
September 17, 2014

Map of the Himalayas locating disputed borders and territory between China and India (Courtesy: Reuters). Map of the Himalayas locating disputed borders and territory between China and India (Courtesy: Reuters).


As India welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping today, it’s hard to miss the mixed messages coming from China. On the one hand, India and China have had a difficult security relationship over the past half-century, with a still-unresolved border dispute over which they fought a war in 1962. On the other hand, their trade and economic ties have rapidly expanded in the last decade, such that China has become India’s largest trade partner in goods with approximately $70 billion in two-way trade. The disjuncture between these two parallel tracks—unresolved security challenges along one, with rapid progress economically along the other—has become a truism for all analyses of India-China relations.

One might think that the eve of a major bilateral visit would be the time to showcase areas of positive cooperation, and downplay the most contentious problems. (Or at least save those for the negotiating room.) The Indian press has been busy reporting the size of the deals that President Xi will bring to India, particularly infrastructure investment in railways and other sectors ranging from $100 billion to $300 billion. The Chinese consul general in Mumbai told the Times of India that China would “on a conservative estimate” invest at least $100 billion in various infrastructure projects over a five-year period, “or thrice the investments committed by Japan.” Whatever the motivation, and that quote certainly suggests some competition for Indian dosti, that’s a large sum.

The last few months have also witnessed enhanced India-China collaboration in newer multilateral forums. This year’s BRICS Summit, held in Brazil, resulted in the announcement of the new BRICS Development Bank with capital contributions and an agreed-upon governance framework. China will host, but India will get the first rotating presidency. India’s application for full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, after years of observership, has been “initiated.” And China and India are both part of the ongoing Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations in Asia.

Against this investment and diplomatic bonhomie, reports of military as well as civilian incursions into disputed territory along the India-China border have quickened.

Just as Prime Minister Modi and President Xi strolled along the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad today, reports of fresh incursions were hitting Twitter. Last week an alarming story emerged involving Chinese troops and civilians crossing into sectors in Ladakh and attempting to build a road. After a five-day standoff, both sides retreated. The Indian Army apparently believes that Chinese troops sought to connect one of their outposts to Indian territory to install a surveillance camera.

This isn’t the first example of incursions preceding major bilateral meetings. Last year, a significant mid-April incursion led to Chinese troops setting up camp in tents, also in the Ladakh area (Depsang). This extended over a two-week period into early May, and Indian media reported that the Chinese troops had extended nineteen kilometers into Indian territory. Premier Li Keqiang visited Delhi May 19 to 21 of last year.

Border incursions happen fairly regularly along the long, 4,057-kilometer undemarcated border between India and China. Most of these do not make the news, so those that do are more significant. Indian members of parliament fairly regularly request information about border incursions from the ministries of defense, home, or external affairs. But the regularity of these border crossings comes across in the official answers from ministries, noting the fact that the undelineated nature of the border leads to differing perceptions of where Indian and Chinese territory begins and ends, leading to what are technically termed “transgressions” (since the border isn’t defined). For example, in answer to a question submitted on August 13 in the Lok Sabha, the Ministry of External Affairs clarified that “situations have arisen on the ground that could have been avoided if we had a common perception of the border demarcation.”

In India’s Rajya Sabha, a question submitted to the Home ministry, also on August 13 (unstarred question 3776), requested more details about the specific “number of times the Chinese intruded into Indian territory during the last five years.” The answer, which focuses on transgressions due to differing perceptions of the border, is quite revealing.


Transgressions doubled from 2011 to 2012. Based on the seven-month data the Home ministry provided for 2014 (through August 4), Chinese transgressions appear well on track to substantially exceed the 400-plus levels of the previous two years. It’s hard to reconcile this pattern with the economic cooperation messaging happening in parallel.

India has many good reasons to seek positive cooperation with China. But it also should expect its friends and partners to respect its territorial integrity. So as President Xi brings with him offers of bountiful support for India’s economic development, Indian officials will be conscious of the other, less salubrious message coming across from the border in Ladakh.

Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Amir Ali Shah

    India is quick to complain about the Chinese so-called transgressions into Indian administered Kashmir territory, which are occasional and short duration. But India’s more or less permanent occupation of Siachen Glacier since early 1980s that clearly falls on the Pakistan Administered territory of Kashmir is more serious violation of the Cease fire agreement between the two countries after a war between the two contending parties claiming Kashmir as a part of their state. The agreed Cease Fire line or Line of Control connected to the south eastern end of the Karakoram Pass, which clearly shows the Siachen Glacier on the Pakistan side of the line. Pakistan’s repeated demand for vacation of its territory have been ignored by India. This dispute is a clear danger to peace in the Sub-Continent. The world powers need to take notice of this violation for sake of world peace.

  • Posted by Apratim Mukarji

    The basic feature of India-China relations is that the initiative has always remained with China while India is obliged to ever respond by innovating out of compulsion.This reality has prevented the latter country from following a well-considered and long-term China policy.This was the reason why China was able to take India by surprise in the 1962 war; even the reason why China unilaterally withdrew from the war has never been clear to New Delhi.The latter remains befuddled today after President Xi Jinping concluded his visit “successfully” while Chinese troops both withdrew and thereafter have come back in the Chumar sector of the Ladakh region of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.The Indian army presently holds the upper hand in this sector as its surveillance post is on a higher ground which the Chinese army seeks to change with establishing its own surveillance post on a still higher plane.Chinese incursions are likely to continue till this objective is achieved. At the same time, the Chinese army wishes to test the extent to which its Indian counterpart wishes to go to foil its objective.Probing the other side seems to constitute the Chinese army’s strategy.Unlike the ever-shifting Indian policy,however, China appears to follow a detailed and well-thought-out India policy.I remember that years ago Chinese diplomats posted in New Delhi used to tell me (I was the foreign editor of a major Indian newspaper) that Beijing had in place the broad parameters of its India policy at least for the next ten years; that this policy form part of the overall foreign policy of building an economically and militarily strong country; and that China would never do anything that might upset this long-term and principal objective.The apparent contradiction between China seeking to help India grow economically while maintaining the military pressure on the unsettled border may perhaps be explained by detecting a shrewd policy of progressively restricting New Delhi in its space of diplomatic and strategic manoeuverebility.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required