The Most Dangerous Border in the World

Why is China picking a fight with India?

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.

Mutual antagonism persisted for decades amid periodic border skirmishes. Only in this century have the two sides begun to improve relations, with bilateral trade growing from less than $3 billion in 2000 to over $70 billion in 2011. And leaders are sticking to a $100 billion target for 2015, despite a roughly 12 percent contraction in 2012. But as China's rocky relationship with its second largest trading partner Japan shows, economic interdependence is no guarantee of friendly relations, and severe trade imbalances in China's favor have been an ongoing source of tension in India.

Numerous other friction points persist between the two nuclear powers. China frequently complains that India's offering of refuge to both the Dalai Lama and the headquarters of the exiled Tibetan government constitutes tacit support for China's territorial disintegration. And India is dismayed by Chinese plans to build a series of dams on the Brahmaputra River, which originates in Tibet but flows into India. Tens of millions depend on the river, and water competition between the two countries will likely continue to grow.

Chinese expansion into the Indian Ocean -- which India regards as its backyard -- also raises hackles in New Delhi. Indian media reported in April that a classified Defense Ministry document alleged Chinese submarines have been making routine forays into the Indian Ocean. In February, a Chinese company assumed administration of Pakistan's strategic Gwadar port, reviving fears that China is seeking a stronger foothold along India's periphery. Geostrategic competition also extends to Myanmar, where China and India have long competed for influence, and is complicated by China's friendship with India's archenemy, Pakistan.

And popular mistrust aggravates these political disputes: A 2012 poll by the Pew Research Center found that only 23 percent of both Indians and Chinese hold a "favorable" view of each other.

Now, with Chinese troops in Indian-controlled territory, it is New Delhi's move. There will be immediate diplomatic implications on the content and atmospherics of upcoming high-level visits. The Indian military will have to consider augmenting its presence and capacity at the border, as it has during previous crises. Some Indian commentators are also suggesting that Delhi re-open the question of China's legitimate rule over Tibet, which would certainly anger Beijing.

Over the last decade, India has conducted a landmark naval exercise with Japan, trained Vietnamese fighter pilots, and held increasingly sophisticated maritime exercises with Singapore. Even if diplomacy prevails and both sides find a face-saving resolution to the current standoff, the incident will likely cause India to strengthen its political and military relations with countries throughout East and Southeast Asia. Delhi should lend "a shoulder to countries such as Japan, Vietnam and even Singapore who are fearful of China's hegemonism," argues Swapan Dasgupta, a leading Indian journalist.

A rerun of the 1962 conflict is unlikely; neither country is mobilizing for war and the presence of a few dozen PLA troops does not harbor the potential for rapid escalation like the high-seas gamesmanship in the South and East China Seas. Nevertheless, if the two sides cannot reach a lasting political solution soon, competition could overwhelm the positive tenor that has defined Sino-Indian relations in recent years. There are few worse things that could happen to Asia than its two biggest giants backsliding into rivalry.

BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images


Neighbors in Arms

How U.S. guns are turning Central America into one of the most dangerous places in the world.

When President Barack Obama meets with various Central American leaders in Costa Rica this weekend, he will likely face criticism of U.S. domestic firearm laws. Like Mexico, where he met with President Enrique Peña Nieto on May 2, Central American countries have increasingly raised concerns about U.S. firearms trafficking. They have good reason to do so: more and more arms that originated in the United States are being used in violent crimes across the region. And given the recent death of background check legislation in the U.S. Senate, Obama may find it difficult to reassure his critics that the United States is effectively tackling the problem at home.

According to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) on U.S. firearms trafficking and an analysis of related U.S. prosecutions, thousands of U.S.-origin firearms (firearms that were either manufactured or imported into the United States) are finding their way to criminals in Central America in the last few years. The flow of U.S. weapons is heaviest to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras -- all among the top 10 most violent countries in the world.

According to a new Woodrow Wilson Center report focusing on Guatemala, ATF discovered that 2,687 (or 40 percent) of the 6,000 seized firearms it analyzed from just one Guatemalan military bunker in 2009 originated in the United States. In the past five years, there have also been at least 34 U.S. prosecutions related to American firearms trafficking to Guatemala involving a total of 604 U.S.-origin firearms.

U.S. entities opposing stricter gun control laws have often claimed that Central American countries -- and not the United States -- are the major source of firearms trafficked to Mexican organized crime. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, made exactly that case on Fox News in 2011, claiming that drug cartels are getting their guns "largely through Central America." But it is clear that many U.S. firearms are also flowing illicitly in the opposite direction: from the United States through Mexico to Guatemala and other Central American countries. (For accurate information on the magnitude of U.S.-origin firearms seizures in Mexico, see ATF's data from 2007 to 2012.)    

Examples of north-south arms trafficking abound. As Los Zetas, a notorious Mexican drug cartel, has pushed into Guatemala in recent years to secure narco-trafficking routes, they have brought with them their U.S.-purchased weapons. After an apparent Zeta killing of 11 members of the Guatemalan Leon organized crime group in Zacapa in 2008, for instance, U.S. authorities traced two Beretta 92FS 9mm pistols found on the perpetrators to a McAllen, Texas gun store.  In another case in May 2011, Zetas reportedly killed 27 farm workers, including two women and three teenagers, in Los Cocos, Guatemala,   

At the same time, organized crime groups and common criminals from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are also accessing U.S. firearms purchased at gun stores and gun shows throughout the United States. In September 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed that Honduran nationals had purchased hundreds of firearms -- including Glock and FN Five-Seven semi-automatic pistols, and AR-15-style rifles -- at gun shows in Florida for the eventual illicit transfer to Honduras and other Latin American destinations. 

According to sources at the ATF, traffickers are smuggling some U.S.-purchased firearms to Central America through lesser-known shipping companies by land and sea -- often hiding firearms in shipments of older cars, clothes, and audio equipment. After a weather-related accident totaled a Guatemala-bound truck near the U.S. border with Mexico in 2009, for instance, U.S. authorities discovered that one of the boxes in the debris contained five U.S.-origin Glock pistols, among several other firearms hidden inside speakers. In Honduras, the ATF says, auto shops are even offering catalogues of various firearms to purchase that they will then smuggle into the country in old vehicles from the United States.

The new Woodrow Wilson Center report also reveals that Guatemalan authorities seized 46 U.S.-origin ordnance items in recent years, ranging from M-67 hand grenades to M-406 40mm grenades to an M-72 light anti-tank rocket. Except for the M-72 rocket, which the United States sold to Colombia, most of these items were part of U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to El Salvador in the late 1980s and early 1990s. According to ATF, MS-13 transnational gang members are smuggling these items from El Salvador into Guatemala, for sale to Los Zetas and other Mexican cartels.  

In recent years, U.S. and Central American authorities have begun to address arms trafficking -- though much more could be done to combat the problem. Since the ATF placed its first firearms regional advisor in El Salvador in 2009, for instance, it has begun to sketch a better picture of U.S. trafficking there and in Guatemala. In February 2013, the ATF trained 56 Central American officials -- mostly from Guatemala's National Crime Laboratory -- and since then, Guatemala has sent more than 100 firearm-trace requests per month to the ATF. Likewise, El Salvador also recently allowed the ATF to evaluate and trace thousands of firearms it has seized over the last few years. Still, U.S. authorities are struggling to get a picture of firearm-trafficking patterns elsewhere in the region, as other governments -- Honduras and Nicaragua, in particular -- have been slower to submit firearms trace requests. 

As President Obama meets with Central American leaders this weekend to discuss regional security issues, citizens of these countries may want to urge their governments to step up efforts to trace firearms to their origins. Timely tracing data not only provides the ATF with critical information needed to identify and stop traffickers in the United States, it also assists Central American governments in mapping how criminal networks in their countries operate and intersect.

Obama could also support efforts to establish a permanent ATF presence in the U.S. embassy in Guatemala and potentially other U.S. embassies across Central America. Since government-owned stockpiles of firearms and ordnance have been a major source of illicit arms transfers to organized crime here as well as in Mexico, Obama would do well to continue to fund efforts to destroy large surpluses of arms in these countries. According to a September 2012 U.N. study, both El Salvador and Guatemala have enough arms to provide each of their soldiers with seven firearms.

This weekend's summit in Costa Rica provides an ideal opportunity for the United States and its Central American partners to commit to addressing the scourge of arms trafficking. The region is already one of the most violent places on Earth and the U.S. arms have clearly contributed to that mounting death toll.