Editor's note: On Monday, India's foreign ministry announced that India and China had agreed to withdraw troops from their disputed Himalayan border and end a tense three-week standoff between the world's two most populous countries.
The night before Beijing released its biennial defense white paper in mid-April, avowing that it would not "engage in military expansion," roughly 30 Chinese troops marched 12 miles into Indian-controlled territory. For at least the last five years, the Chinese military has routinely made forays across the disputed 2,400-mile-long Line of Actual Control that divides the two countries. The Indian government counted 400 similar incursions last year, and already 100 in 2013.
But for the first time since 1986, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops refused to return home after being detected. They instead pitched three tents. New Delhi quickly summoned the Chinese ambassador, and Indian military officials protested to their Chinese counterparts. The Chinese soldiers responded by pitching two more tents, and erecting a sign, in English, that said "You are in Chinese side." Three rounds of unsuccessful negotiations broke off May 1, with Beijing demanding that New Delhi unilaterally withdrawal from its own territory before it would consider removing its encampment. Meanwhile, China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman denied that PLA troops had even penetrated the boundary, paradoxically noting, "China is firmly opposed to any acts that involve crossing the Line of Actual Control and sabotaging the status quo."
On April 25, India's External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid situated the crisis in the context of Sino-Indian relations: "One little spot is acne, which cannot force you to say that this is not a beautiful face. That acne can be addressed by simply applying ointment." Khurshid will likely regret this remark, not only because it is a bad metaphor, but because it is wrong. Initial diplomatic efforts have failed, and even though war is unlikely, the standoff is a reminder of the deep and potentially dangerous rivalry that simmers below the Sino-Indian relationship.
It is a strange time for China to pick this fight. With potential instability on the Korean Peninsula and sovereignty disputes in the East and South China Seas, it belies strategic logic for Beijing to open a new front of territorial revisionism. And it seems India agrees: One Indian general called the move "an inexplicable provocation."
Perhaps it was a case of a PLA officer going rogue. Perhaps China wanted to send a message of strength in advance of high-level visits in May, when foreign minister Khurshid goes to Beijing and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang visits Delhi on his first official trip abroad since taking office in March. Or perhaps, as many in the Indian media are speculating, Beijing is signaling it will no longer tolerate India's stepped-up patrols and infrastructure development along the border.
While China's motivations remain unclear, the potential implications are massive. The Sino-Indian dynamic is often seen as a sideshow to Beijing's more immediate rivalries with the United States and Japan. But more intense strategic competition between India and China would reverberate throughout the continent, exacerbating tensions in Central Asia, the Indian Ocean, and Southeast Asia. Disruptions to the Asian engine of economic growth caused by these tensions could debilitate the global economy.
The history of today's crisis predates the founding of both the People's Republic of China and the modern Indian state, in 1949 and 1947 respectively. The now-disputed border was established between Britain and a then-independent Tibet in 1914; China and India confirmed it as the de facto border in a 1954 treaty. In 1962, tensions stemming from India granting asylum to the then 27-year-old Dalai Lama, Chinese official maps claiming Indian-administered territory, and Indian border patrols in disputed areas boiled over into a one-month conflict. Although the Sino-Indian War was a decisive victory for China, it resulted in a return to the status quo.