Unfortunately for India, it has a longer disputed and unresolved length of border than any other major country in the world. This means that it will inevitably find itself in endless boundary imbroglios, minor and major. It also means it must also be permanently on guard against attempts to adjust the border against its own interests.
Pakistan’s claims, the most important of the country’s territorial disputes, are really about an entire state, the border being an inevitable but incidental part of the larger issue. The problem with China, however, is largely about tiny bits and pieces of land. Which is why this is the border dispute that keeps intruding into the public domain. India has poorly demarcated borders with almost all of its other neighbours, but it is understood that none of these are of strategic concern.
The Chinese picket that has reportedly been set up 10 km inside the Indian claim area in the Depsang sector, south of the Daulat Beg Oldi area of eastern Ladakh, is a bilateral irritant but not a security threat. These parts of the border are often marked with “aggressive patrolling” by both sides, sometimes on orders from on top and sometimes because of a rush of testosterone by local officers.
The real question that should be asked is whether there is something more to the Chinese intrusion than the traditional tit-for-tat game that both militaries play. It has been assumed that the ascension of Xi Jinping would mark an ebb tide in China’s erratic and assertive policies in the 2008 to 2010 period. Yet this intrusion has taken place at a time guaranteed to cloud the coming state visit by their premier, Li Kejiang.
In the past, pinpricks along the border have been used by Beijing to test New Delhi’s resolve, communicate unhappiness with Indian policy or sometimes to merely slow down Indian attempts to shore up its woefully inadequate border defence infrastructure. But they have also been linked to internal squabbles inside Beijing, particularly to help assert the military’s authority.
While the motives of China are often obscure, they are probably best treated as academic. New Delhi’s policy response should be broadly the same. The basic assumption that India needs a stable, though not necessarily friendly, relationship with China is unquestionable. But it must also be recognised that Beijing is ruled by men who take realpolitik as a behavioural norm. They understand firmness, often treating conciliatory gestures as weakness.
Thankfully, New Delhi has become a lot more forceful about border incidents in the past three years. On the other hand, it has allowed its defence relationship with the US — a key reason why China backed down to India during the 2008-2010 problem period — to wither on the vine. India’s ability to hold the line with China is a function of both domestic and foreign actions by New Delhi.