Fifty years after their border war, China and India remain locked in their dispute over territory the size of Greece, populated by well over a million people. It makes the disagreements over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the South China Sea Islands – both recently in the news – pale by comparison. The clash over the Sino-Indian frontier has complex origins, rooted in the non-demarcated boundaries of British India, differing interpretations of sovereignty, and the legitimacy of Chinese claims to Tibet. While border negotiations between Beijing and New Delhi continue periodically behind closed doors, Chinese and Indian maneuvering manifests itself publicly in subtle but deliberate shifts in policy concerning mundane activities such as military interactions, the printing of official maps, and the issuing of visas. While meaningful, such messaging is occasionally exaggerated by irresponsible and ill-informed members of the media in India and nationalist bloggers and commentators in China.
Yet for a number of reasons, the prospects of history repeating itself are slim. India is far better equipped today along virtually every dimension of military preparedness. In recent years, India has expanded its mountain warfare units, redeployed its most sophisticated fighter aircraft to its northeast, and enhanced its naval capabilities as a deterrent against possible Chinese adventurism. The presence and responsible stewardship of nuclear weapons by both sides has also contributed to stability. Additionally, China and India are increasingly economically interdependent, with China now among India’s largest trade partners and foreign investors, and India an important market and source of raw materials for Chinese manufacturers. And the international environment today is far more conducive for India, which now enjoys cooperative diplomatic, economic, and military relations with most major states in the international system.
Despite China’s rapid military modernization, ongoing leadership transition, and newfound assertiveness, New Delhi is reluctant to become part of any overtly anti-Chinese military alliance. It has cooperated closely with China, and against developed states, on several matters of multilateral diplomacy, notably climate change. Multilateral cooperation has also extended to the BRICS summit, the various ASEAN-centered multilateral groupings, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (of which India is an observer). But it would be a mistake to interpret any such tactical cooperation as the emergence of a Sino-Indian bloc that seeks to undermine the power and influence of the United States and its allies.