China tests its borders again, this time in the mountains

India is alleging a Chinese border incursion in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, putting diplomatic pressure on an otherwise warming relationship between the two Asian giants.

Dar Yasin/AP
Vehicles run through the Zojila Pass, 68 miles north of Srinagar, India, April 6. The Srinagar-Leh National Highway connecting Ladakh to the Kashmir Valley was re-opened to traffic April 6 after remaining closed for nearly six months. The highway passes through the 3,510 meter-high Zojila pass which lies on the lower depressions of the Himalayan range.

Chinese and Indian troops are camping 900 feet apart from each other six miles into Indian territory, according to India's External Affairs Ministry, which describes the Chinese incursion and resulting standoff as a "face to face situation."

Indian media reports say that eight days ago a platoon of 50 soldiers from the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) crossed six miles into Ladakh, a Himalayan region next to the Kashmir Valley, and remain in pitched tents near Burthe. China is denying the allegation, saying their soldiers have not trespassed across the effective border between the two Asian giants. The area is part of disputed territory claimed by both countries.

The long border between China and India remains disputed, in some cases leaving overlapping claims over large swathes of land. A 1993 agreement maintains peace across the effective Line of Actual Control. Years of talks aimed at finalizing the border have so far come up short, but the two countries have agreed at least to not let the issue derail bilateral relations.

China's relations with India have been on a positive track lately, even as China has irked other neighbors in East Asia over territorial disputes. The two countries recently started a new dialogue on counterterrorism and the future of Afghanistan. And the new Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, is expected to visit India in May, which would be his first foreign trip since taking over in March.

Yet, Indian concerns about rival China are never far from the surface. Border incursions rarely result in skirmishes, but Indian media and opposition pressure may force New Delhi to take a cooler and more cautious diplomatic approach with Beijing

"This should not be seen as an event that could lead to military confrontation," says C. Uday Bhaskar, a retired Commodore of the Indian Navy and a leading defense analyst. "But it is definitely a few notches above routine border incursions and a cause for anxiety. It is a challenge for the political mechanism between the two countries to solve this."

So far, Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai has summoned the Chinese ambassador to ask that the Chinese troops withdraw. And two meetings in the area have been held between local commanders from both sides. But the Chinese troops have not withdrawn. 

"This reflects China's assertiveness against its neighbors, just as in the ocean with the Philippines and Japan," says Brahma Chellaney of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. "This is a grave provocation and India will have to ensure that the Chinese troops withdraw, or it may lead to a border skirmish," he adds, echoing sentiments in the Indian media.

The Indian government has expressed confidence in resolving the issue under the 1993 agreement, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry has described the allegations as "speculation" but also asserted that China stood for strengthening ties with India.

"The border between China and India in the Ladakh region is undemarcated, undefined, and disputed. Stories of 'incursions' are related to the two countries posturing as well as local commanders' initiatives," says Dibyesh Anand, professor of International Relations at London's Westminster University.

He adds that there appears to be no obvious rationale for the Chinese government to ratchet up tensions with India at this time. "China has a troublesome relation with countries in East Asia, especially Japan, and the relations between India and China are stable. It would be unnecessary for China to raise tensions."

(For more on how Chinese incursions are spurring Indian development in the Himalayas, read this 2009 Monitor story.)

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