A number of territorial disputes have cause for concern in the Asia-Pacific region. Popular audience may first suggest that the conflicting views of China and Japan or China and Vietnam have the greatest potential to result in a military clash between forces. However, a dispute that is landlocked, rather than oceanic, may be the greatest threat long-term to regional stability. This territorial dispute is between China and India, two great civilizations who view themselves as significant entities on the world stage. What dispute could cause a clash between the two largest populations on Earth?
In the latter half of the 20th century China gained a strategic advantage on India’s eastern border by annexing Tibet in the 1950’s, the well-known homeland of the Dalai Lama, and by occupying Aksai Chin. China also has claims, one of which being that Arunachal Pradesh is southern Tibet. Where the Line of Actual Control (LAC) truly lies continues to be a dispute for these nations, and an impediment to bilateral cooperation. China has been performing a long-established strategy of cartographic aggression against its neighbors, claiming territory unilaterally and using revisionist or historical arguments to fit its diplomatic maneuvering. These maneuverings are by the day reconfiguring the boundaries of the region.
On Wednesday, September 17 the leader of China, Xi Jinping set off on a multi-day visit to India with the intention of boosting Diplomatic and commercial ties between the nations. The border dispute sullied the trip, when Chinese troops entered India with no authorization by the Indian government on the first day of the visit. In fact, “Chinese-Indian border incursions are nothing new: according to the Indian government, 334 “encroachments” have already happened in 2014 (with 411, 426 and 213 incidents in 2013, 2012 and 2011, respectively)”. The issue was raised multiple times by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. China’s public response thus far has been to downplay the dispute and solve it “equitably” without damaging bilateral ties in other, namely economic, areas. Is war between these developing superpowers inevitable?
There are three realist perspectives that may aid in answering this deeply complicated question. China and India both hold territorial disputes and historical hostilities with at least two nations on their borders. For India it is Pakistan in the west and China in the east. For China it is India on it’s eastern flank and Japan to the West, but also Vietnam in the south. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, Pakistan, India, and China are all nuclear weapon states. Except in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have been a tactic of deterrence for major powers. This fits into the defensive realist perspective, which understands nations not as power maximizers but more so security maximizers, who will attempt to build up their strength at home (military and economic) to counter any would-be aggressors. From the defensive perspective, India and China may be nowhere close to a war because both view themselves as developing states in need of international legitimacy and creditworthiness to continue high-growth development.
The more recent news that China has signed off on a 100 billion dollar investment, thrice the offer sought from Japan recently could be describing the balance-of-power realist view. China and India may be tying one another up in so many commercial agreements that they’ll have no choice but to avoid hostilities in bilateral or international disputes. The offensive perspective has its place as well in these dynamics. China may be seeking to be the preeminent power in the world, by ushering in a larger economy than any other, securing its backyard through the threat or actual use of force, and leading a new coalition of countries tied together through China’s great investment and multilateral organizational potential. The primary lens through which this is viewed is the Sino-US relations, how will the U.S. react to its waning power. More noteworthy may be how India, a member of the same backyard to an extent, acting as a sub continental lynchpin on land and oceanic lynchpin through the Indian Ocean, may react. If both seek to maximize their power, secure border disputes to their favor, and prevent the other from establishing preponderance with the other nations of the Asia-Pacific, the entry of soldiers into one another’s land may become a more often used tactic to push one another to the limit. Down the line, these maneuverings could, in the offensive worldview, result in war for regional hegemony.