India's China Obsession

On June 21, two Chinese military helicopters swooped low over Demchok, a tiny Indian hamlet high in the Hima-layas along the northwestern border with China. The helicopters dropped canned food over a barren expanse and then returned to bases in China. India's military scrambled helicopters to the scene but did not seem unduly alarmed. This sort of Cold War cat-and-mouse game has played out on the 4,057-kilometer India-China border for decades. But the incident fed a media frenzy about "the Chinese dragon." Beginning in August, stories about new Chinese incursions into India have dominated the 24-hour TV news networks and the newspaper headlines.

China claims some 90,000 square kilometers of Indian territory. And most of those claims are tangled up with Tibet. Large swaths of India's northern mountains were once part of Tibet. Other stretches belonged to semi-independent kingdoms that paid fealty to Lhasa. Because Beijing now claims Tibet as part of China, it has by extension sought to claim parts of India that it sees as historically Tibetan, a claim that has become increasingly flammable in recent months.

Ever since the anti-Chinese unrest in Tibet last year, progress toward settling the border dispute has stalled, and the situation has taken a dangerous turn. The emergence of videos showing Tibetans beating up Han Chinese shopkeepers in Lhasa and other Tibetan cities created immense domestic pressure on Beijing to crack down. The Communist Party leadership worries that agitation by Tibetans will only encourage unrest by the country's other ethnic minorities, such as Uighurs in Xinjiang or ethnic Mongolians in Inner Mongolia, threatening China's integrity as a nation. Susan Shirk, a former Clinton-administration official and expert on China, says that "in the past, Taiwan was the 'core issue of sovereignty,' as they call it, and Tibet was not very salient to the public." Now, says Shirk, Tibet is considered a "core issue of national sovereignty" on par with Taiwan.

The implications for India's security—and the world's—are ominous. It turns what was once an obscure argument over lines on a 1914 map and some barren, rocky peaks hardly worth fighting over into a flash point that could spark a war between two nuclear-armed neighbors. And that makes the India-China border dispute into an issue of concern to far more than just the two parties involved. The United States and Europe as well as the rest of Asia ought to take notice—a conflict involving India and China could result in a nuclear exchange. And it could suck the West in—either as an ally in the defense of Asian democracy, as in the case of Taiwan, or as a mediator trying to separate the two sides.

Beijing appears increasingly concerned about the safe haven India provides to the Dalai Lama and to tens of thousands of Tibetan exiles, including increasingly militant supporters of Tibetan independence. These younger Tibetans, many born outside Tibet, are growing impatient with the Dalai Lama's "middle way" approach—a willingness to accept Chinese sovereignty in return for true autonomy—and commitment to nonviolence. If these groups were to use India as a base for armed insurrection against China, as Tibetan exiles did throughout the 1960s, then China might retaliate against India. By force or demand, Beijing might also seek to gain possession of important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries that lie in Indian territory close to the border. Both politically and culturally, these monasteries are seen as key nodes in the Tibetan resistance to Chinese authority.

Already Beijing has launched a diplomatic offensive aimed at undercutting Indian sovereignty over the areas China claims, particularly the northeast state of Arunachal Pradesh and one of its key cities, Tawang, birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama in the 17th century and home to several important Tibetan monasteries. Tibet ceded Tawang and the area around it to British India in 1914. China has recently denied visas to the state's residents; lodged a formal complaint after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the state in 2008; and tried to block a $2.9 billion Asian Development Bank loan to India because some of the money was earmarked for an irrigation project in the state. All these moves are best understood in the context of China's recent troubles in Tibet, with Beijing increasingly concerned that any acceptance of the 1914 border will amount to an implicit acknowledgment that Tibet was once independent of China—a serious blow to the legitimacy of China's control over the region and potentially other minority areas as well.

The reports of Chinese incursions can be read as a signal that it is deadly serious about its territorial claims. The exact border has never been mutually agreed on—meaning one side's incursion is another side's routine patrol—but the Chinese have clearly stepped up their activity along the frontier. The Indian military reported a record 270 Chinese border violations last year—nearly double the figure from the year before and more than three times the number of incidents in 2006, says Brahma Chellaney, an expert in strategic studies at New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research, an independent think tank. Noting that there was a reported incursion nearly every day this summer, Chellaney says this amounts to "a pattern of Chinese belligerence." In June the People's Daily criticized recent moves by India to strengthen its border defenses and declared: "China will not make any compromises in its border disputes with India." It asked if India had properly weighed "the consequences of a potential confrontation with China."

To many Indians, China is an expansionist power bent on thwarting India's rise as a serious challenge to Beijing's influence in Asia. They are haunted by memories of India's 1962 war with China, in which China launched a massive invasion along the length of the frontier, routing the Indians before unilaterally halting at what today remains the de facto border, known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC). They are fearful of China's expanding naval presence in the Indian Ocean, seeing its widening network of naval bases as a noose that could be used to strangle India. They blast Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for alleged weakness in the face of this growing threat. Bharat Verma, editor of the Indian Defence Review, predicted in a widely publicized essay this summer that China would attack India sometime before 2012. With social unrest rising within China due to the worldwide economic slump, he says, the leadership in Beijing needs "a small military victory" to unify the nation, and India is "a soft target," due to Singh's fecklessness. In recent weeks India's defense minister and the heads of the Army and Air Force have felt compelled to reassure the public that "there will be no repeat of 1962."

These warnings completely misread China's intent. While India worries about the larger army and wealth of China, China worries about the larger military and economy of the United States. In Asia, its stated aim is to follow a "peaceful rise" that benefits all its neighbors, India included, and there's little reason to doubt this goal. Beijing is an insecure power, not an aggressive one, because of the real threat of social and economic unrest at home. China's growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean reflects a legitimate interest in protecting the sea lanes upon which Beijing depends for its supply of oil and natural resources from Africa and the Middle East. The border movements should be seen in the same light: it's not about an external threat from India per se, but India's relationship to the internal threat from Tibet.

Still, if Tibet is the new Taiwan, it requires extremely delicate diplomacy. If anything, the West tends to under-estimate China's willingness to fight independence moves in Taiwan—it has fired missile warning shots as recently as 1996—and the same may now be said of Tibet. Taiwan, however, has maintained the parlous status quo by arming itself to the teeth, while avoiding any rhetoric or action that crosses Beijing's red lines.

India is trying a similar approach. Last year it denied the Dalai Lama permission to visit Tawang—ostensibly because of parliamentary elections—and now he has scheduled another trip in November. It would be prudent for New Delhi—and perhaps others with influence on the Dalai Lama, such as the United States—to find a face-saving reason for the Dalai Lama to indefinitely postpone the trip. India needs to be especially vigilant against militant activity within the Tibetan exile community, the single most likely trigger for a Chinese attack, and it might be wise to end the policy of simply avoiding any discussion of Tibet in its dealings with China. "There are ways to highlight the centrality of Tibet without being provocative or confrontational," says Chellaney. "If New Delhi were to say in public that Tibet has ceased to be the political buffer between India and China, and India would like Tibet to be the political bridge between New Delhi and Beijing, that, in one stroke, would change the narrative fundamentally."

India's position in talks needs to be backed by strength in arms. New Delhi has already started repositioning border forces, launched a road-building program to match the roads and airfields that China has built on its side, and recently conducted a three-day combined air-and-land war game, seemingly designed to show that it is on guard. But India needs to be careful not to overreact: it views with alarm the tens of thousands of troops China has deployed to the border region since the 2008 Lhasa riots, but most of these moves are designed to reassert control over Tibet. M. Taylor Fravel, an MIT expert on the India-China border dispute, says many of the troops deployed in Tibet are internal-security forces, lacking heavy armor or artillery, representing less of a threat to India than Indian hawks believe.

India would be wise to invest in -longer-range weapons—such as missiles and advanced-strike aircraft—that allow it to maintain a standoff deterrent, without the need to go toe-to-toe with Chinese troops on the border. India has also begun deploying sophisticated radar systems along its frontier with China—a way to police inhospitable terrain while avoiding direct confrontation. India might also seek to share intelligence with other nations—such as the United States, Japan, and Taiwan—about China's actions and troop movements in Tibet, both to prevent being taken by surprise and to avoid an accidental conflict.

A final lesson from Taiwan is that New Delhi should pursue ways to open the border to commerce and communication, binding itself closer to China. Shirk says China is now opening ties to Taiwan, as part of an effort to "win the hearts and minds of the people," raising hopes that China may eventually pursue a more tolerant approach toward Tibet and other minority regions. Amid all the reports of border incursions, both India and China have sought to lower the volume. Chinese military officials invited Indian generals from all three of the regional commands that face off against it across the LAC to visit China for confidence-building measures, including a rare visit to Lhasa. Indian officials have pleaded with news organizations to tone down reporting on border incursions. Indian national-security adviser M. K. Narayanan warned that the beating of war drums might become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to "an unwarranted incident or accident" with China. This is now an issue that should be handled at the highest levels—not left to hotheads—on all sides.