By William Tucker
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Delhi today to discuss a range of economic issues, but it was the discussion of the shared/disputed border in Aksai Chin that was the most pressing. Just a few weeks ago, Chinese troops positioned along the Line of Control, the present boundary that separates the two nations, drove some 19 kilometers into Indian controlled Ladakh. The incursion prompted a tense three week standoff between the two Asian giants that was ended peacefully once both militaries pulled back to their previous positions. Though incursions and firefights do occur in the disputed Kashmir area they are often of short duration, but because all three players that dispute the border are declared nuclear powers, neighboring nations and international powers have a vested interest in preventing escalation. Though the dynamics of the disputed area are unlikely to change in the near-term, China and India have a stronger desire to cooperate economically as opposed to fighting militarily. In terms of each nation’s security, there are other issues that warrant a higher priority.
To say that India and China are economically important to one another is an understatement. Two-way commerce between the nations is roughly 66 billion dollars and is expected to hit 100 billion in the next two years. This partially explains why the two neighbors typically go to great lengths to prevent escalation on any cross border incursion. Considering that Chinese troops have crossed into Indian controlled territory some 500 time since 2010, this is no easy task, and yet, is regularly accomplished. Economics is but one way to explain this dynamic, however. Also worth considering is the numerous issues each nation faces in the realm of security. India is in a constant struggle with indigenous insurgencies of the Maoist, Islamist, and nationalist varieties, while China sees its access to world markets at risk due to the crowded waters of the South and East China Seas. This is on top of other region issues such as the stability of Pakistan, North Korea, and Myanmar. Essentially, the region is more volatile than typically acknowledged and the desire to prevent an unnecessary military escalation is reflective of this.
The agreements and statements made today by the leaders of India and China may not lead to a permanent settlement of the border dispute, but it certainly is demonstrative of how the world’s two most populous nations view their respective economic and security standings. It may seem all but certain that India and China will clash given their large populations, regional proximity, and growing regional influence, but the economic issues that bind them trump these issues. At least for now. Should China manage to spread and consolidate its influence in the South China Sea, then it is conceivable that the two nations would clash in the Indian Ocean. Though that possibility is a ways off, it’s not too early to consider. Especially given the desire of the U.S. to pivot towards east Asia. This is a future dynamic that is not lost on the U.S., nor the rest of the region.