Were it not for the lingering historical acrimony between the two countries, one could have mistaken Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting this week for an unalloyed love-fest between two close friends. They smiled a lot, spoke the language of partnership, exchanged gifts, walked a riverfront and even shared a quiet dinner. There was also a promise of Chinese investments in India.
Even so, what remained by the time Xi left were not fond memories of a visit aimed to build bridges but unusual levels of tension and uncertainty along a disputed border where their soldiers stood eyeball to eyeball.
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On a contested border stretch, an apparent incursion can sometimes be a matter of perception. The two countries have disputed their 3,500 km border, especially after a 1962 war in which China seized much of the Himalayan high ground that India sees as a strategic buffer against invaders. So, what one side views as a patrol along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), another side views as a violation, and vice versa.
But the frequency of Chinese border crossings betrays a pattern, one that has often been explained as a sign of a wider, growing territorial assertiveness by a country keen to alter the balance of global power.
While that may be true, it only partly explains the continuing Chinese incursions into India.
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A calibrated escalation of the border dispute may, in reality, reflect Beijing's more deep-seated concern about a younger, restive generation of Tibetans growing up in India that their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, does not control.
An analysis of military statistics shows a sudden spike in Chinese incursions from 2007, around the same time young, restless Tibetans began speaking out against the “middle path” of the Dalai Lama and sharpened their anti-China protests. This included groups asking for an armed insurrection inside Tibet.
Chinese cross-border forays almost doubled from 140 in 2006 to 270 in 2008 and have since kept that level.
For a government already saddled with unrest by Uighurs in Muslim-dominated Xinjiang province, the possibility, however remote, of a Tibetan insurgency is clearly unsettling.
Add to that the fears that a new generation of belligerent Tibetan exiles could become a bargaining chip for India.
Clearly for China, India has kept the Tibetan culture and political identity alive by sheltering the Dalai Lama, who was the bone of contention that led to the 1962 war.
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It still certainly is the real bone of contention today.
In a militarily stronger Beijing’s worldview, a calibrated escalation of border tension can keep India in check.
(Views expressed by author are personal)