India Challenges China with Border Road

Posted by Reading Time: 6 minutes

Op-Ed Commentary by: Benedict Lynn

Chinese authorities this month expressed concern when the Indian government unveiled plans to build a mountain road along the disputed Himalayan border shared by the two countries. This is the latest spat in the decades-long disagreement over the border’s demarcation, which included an armed conflict in 1962. In the face of ever strengthening business cooperation, a lingering mutual mistrust is now once again resurfacing.

A string of official visits, investment initiatives and MoUs indicate a genuine desire from both sides to improve bilateral relations, suggesting the new road is merely a necessary means of bringing much needed greater connectivity to India’s far-flung North-eastern states. However, an increasing number of border transgressions from China paint a markedly different picture; that of two rapidly growing superpowers testing each other as they vie for regional and, ultimately, global influence.

The proposed road will stretch 18,000 km along the border of Indian Northeastern frontier state Arunachal Pradesh (some of which is claimed by China as part of the Tibet Autonomous Region) to where the borders of India, China and Myanmar meet. It will cost some US$6.5 billion to complete and will be, according to Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju, “the biggest single infrastructure project in the history of India.”

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China disputes the legal status of the McMahon line, agreed between Britain and Tibet in 1914 as the boundary between China and India. With both counties holding differing versions of where the borders actually lie, “border transgressions” on both sides are not uncommon. Only last month it was China who was accused of trying to build a road on Indian territory. Troops were mobilized and subsequently pulled back by both sides after a two-week long stand off.

And despite the fact that there has been no actual fighting for over 30 years, these standoffs are becoming increasingly routine. India has been stepping up its border patrols and military officials are seeing the road as a means of bolstering India’s defenses in the face of increased Chinese military infrastructure in Tibet.

This is a stark change of attitude from India’s former congressional government who were wary of upsetting Chinese sensitivities. The incumbent Bharatiya Janata party led by Narendra Modi has repeatedly made a point of challenging China’s authority in the region; the strengthening of ties with India’s smaller neighbors and the vocal condemnation of Chinese “expansionism” have, in particular, annoyed Beijing.

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“Nobody should threaten or warn India,” said Home Minister Rajnath Singh in response to Chinese requests that India not “further complicate” the situation with the proposed highway. “India has grown in strength. Both sides should resolve the border issue through dialogue.”

This seems to be the prevalent feeling in India; that the tables have turned. A cursory glance at the Indian media and at the opinions left in the comment sections reveals a worryingly nationalist and anti-China streak. Border issues aside, a staggering US$40 billion trade deficit in favor of China, and an inundation of cheap Chinese goods, has long been stirring up resentment in India.

If Beijing isn’t worried, it should be. Its territorial aggression in the Asia-Pacific has been alienating neighbors that fast-developing India is keen to woo. It is also in China’s interest that India does not turn west into the eager arms of the U.S. Last month, Washington rolled out the red carpet for Mr. Modi despite a visa ban for his ties to the 2002 Gujarat riots – clear evidence of India’s strategic importance to the US. Simply put, Mr Modi has leverage, and he knows it.

Yet despite their unwavering stance on border issues, both nations appear keen to further their economic and business ties. There may be a huge deficit, but the trade relationship between the two is strong. Indeed, this year China replaced the UAE as India’s top trading partner, accounting for 8.7 percent of India’s total trade.

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It is also no secret that Mr Modi is a huge admirer of China’s rapid economic development, visiting the middle kingdom 5 times when governor of Gujarat. His revival plan for India is no doubt influenced by what impressed him so much in China.

President Xi Jinping for his part recognizes not only the strategic importance of India, put its vast potential as a growth market. After all, China may be forecast to be the world’s top economy by 2020, but analysts predict that, come 2050, India will hold the title.

“The true potential of our relations will be realized when there is peace in our relations and in the borders”, said Mr Modi. He is right. A trading bloc formed by the world’s two most populous and fastest growing countries as negotiations for the Asean Economic Community (AEC) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) near their respective conclusions would benefit all parties enormously.

However, bickering over the 4,057km (2,520 miles) stretch of border and the resulting distrust and suspicion are impediments to exactly this sort of progress. Someone needs to give ground somewhere, and that will not likely be happening anytime soon. For now at least, India seems to hold the better hand. 

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