The study that shows why China and India probably won’t clash over border dispute

May 3, 2013

A 2008 photo shows Chinese and Indian border troops on the Chinese side of the ancient Nathu La border crossing between India and China. (DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images)

Both China and India have claimed the Maryland-sized territory of Aksai Chin near India's northeast border for decades, and even fought a brief war over it in 1962. But the issue was mostly calm until about three weeks ago. The territorial dispute flamed up once again when a few dozen Chinese troops marched across the de facto border and set up tents on the India-administered side. The troops are still there, causing growing "alarm in the Indian capital," according to the New York Times. A spokesperson for India's external affairs ministry said on Thursday, "There is no doubt that in the entire country this is a matter of concern.”

The incident appears to be worsening, at least momentarily, relations between the world's two most populous nations. The Wall Street Journal reports that, as a result, "other areas of potential dispute are widening, as well." India is insisting on installing monitors at a new Chinese dam that will affect Indian waterways, for example.

The question of "why now?" is a difficult one to answer. Jake Maxwell Watts suggests in Quartz that it may be a deliberate Chinese expression of military might or that the Chinese troops might simply have gotten lost and don't want to admit it.

Either way, we can probably breathe easy on this one, and not just because neither China nor India would be served by a conflict. China, despite its sometimes-bellicose rhetoric and its otherwise deep interest in territorial integrity, has actually shown remarkable flexibility in resolving border disputes, according to a fascinating 2005 study by the scholar M. Taylor Fravel.

Fravel, who published his research in the journal International Security, found that China has "frequently used cooperative means to manage its territorial conflicts, revealing a pattern of behavior far more complex than many portray. Since 1949, China has settled seventeen of its twenty-three territorial disputes. Moreover, it has offered substantial compromises in most of these settlements, usually receiving less than 50 percent of the contested land."

China has not used its power advantages to bargain hard over contested land, especially with its weaker neighbors. Nor has it become less willing to offer concessions over disputed territory as its power has increased. Instead, China compromised in eight disputes as its power grew rapidly in the 1990s. For constructivists, the legacy of “unequal treaties” that ceded land to foreign powers in the 19th century and the central role of national unification in modern Chinese history suggest that conflicts over territory should be highly salient for China’s leaders and basically nonnegotiable. In its many compromises, however, China has accepted the general boundaries that these treaties created, except in the cases of Hong Kong and Macao.

Fravel also found that "China offered many concessions despite clear incentives that its simultaneous involvement in multiple conflicts created to signal toughness and resolve, not conciliation." In other words, just because China might have wanted to project a tough image – something still true today with its island disputes in the Pacific – did not actually make it any more assertive in individual disputes. And he notes that China actually proposed a plan in 1960 to resolve Aksai Chin with India by divvying it up, along with another territory. The proposal "failed spectacularly," but the point is that China was interested in seeking a peaceful, negotiated agreement.

Though China's island disputes have been in the news a lot lately, Fravel points out that these have been contested for decades and that China has not made new territorial claims even as the nation has grown in power. This is surprising because you might expect that a stronger China would become more aggressive in pushing for new or disputed territory, it would do so. But it hasn't, suggesting China is a "status quo" rather than a "revisionist" power, meaning it's happy with the current state of territorial affairs, those islands aside. All of which should calm any fears that a border dispute between India and China could devolve into something worse.

Fravel's study concluded that China is more likely to compromise territorial disputes when it's worried about internal stability, and that doesn't seem to be the case right now.  That suggests that the latest Aksai Chin dispute isn't likely to achieve a full resolution just yet, even if it also isn't going to lead to a conflict. Here's Fravel:

Regime insecurity best explains China’s pattern of cooperation and delay in its territorial disputes. China’s leaders have compromised when faced with internal threats to regime security—the revolt in Tibet, the instability following the Great Leap Forward, the legitimacy crisis after the Tiananmen upheaval, and separatist violence in Xinjiang. The timing of compromise efforts, official documents, and statements by China’s leaders demonstrate that internal threats, not external ones, account for why and when China pursued cooperation.

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