Why border stand-offs between India and China are increasing

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image captionChina and India fought a brief war over their disputed Himalayan borders in 1962

After a two-week standoff, India and China have agreed to pull back troops from their disputed border, but such incidents have been increasing and are unlikely to go away, says analyst Harsh V Pant.

Minor incursion by troops are common on the ill-defined 4,057km (2,520 miles) border between China and India.

There are differing perceptions on where the border lies and overlapping claims about the lines up to which both sides patrol. As a result, both Indian and Chinese troops routinely transgress into areas claimed by the other side.

According to the Indian Home Ministry, there have been 334 "transgressions" by Chinese troops over the Indian border in the first 216 days of this year.

Departing from their past practice, however, Indian security forces are now more aggressive with daily patrolling along certain areas on the border and ready to forbid Chinese troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de-facto border.

This is partly responsible for the increase in stand-offs between the two sides in recent years, but there is a bigger story too.

Serious dimension

Border incursions have been repeatedly used by China to keep India on the defensive. Before every major bilateral visit, such incursions tend to take a serious dimension.

In May 2013, Indian officials accused Chinese troops of straying into Indian territory and putting up tents in the Depsang valley in Ladakh, just before Prime Minister Li Keqiang's visit to India. The matter was resolved days before the visit started.

But the latest stand-off coincided with a visit to India by Chinese President Xi Jinping, resulting in embarrassing media headlines.

It is possible that after feting Mr Modi's landslide election victory, Beijing was annoyed by his government's foreign policy moves, in particular with Mr Modi condemning "18th century expansionist mindset: encroaching on other countries, intruding in other's waters, invading other countries and capturing territory" during his recent trip to Japan and India, giving a boost to its ties with Japan and Vietnam days before Mr Xi's visit.

The Chinese forces might also be probing Indian defences along the disputed border and testing India's willpower to stay the course.

The Chinese have invested in border infrastructure much more efficiently than India, where border management continues to suffer from serious deficiencies.

With its repeated transgressions, Beijing has underscored Indian vulnerabilities and the potential costs of challenging China. And with every intrusion, China changes the ground realities at the border, gaining ever more territory in the process and redrawing the map in its favour.

However, it is not readily evident if such an approach would benefit China strategically.

Damp squib

Many believe China has failed to use the opportunity that Mr Modi coming to power gave to Beijing to re-examine the assumptions of its bilateral ties with India.

Mr Xi's visit was widely viewed in India as a damp squib. Even on the economic front, the visit was a disappointment.

There were media reports in India of China pledging $100bn (£61bn) of investment in India. However, only $20bn-worth of deals could be finalised over the next five years.

Officially, Beijing has maintained that Mr Xi's visit to India helped in removing "some suspicions" between the two nations, pushed the ties to a "new age", and that an "important consensus" was reached on politically resolving the border issue through friendly consultation.

But on the eve of his visit to the US, Mr Modi is challenging Beijing by asserting that India cannot close its eyes to problems underscoring that "we are not living in the 18th Century".

Given the turmoil it faces on its eastern flank, it is in China's interest to ensure that India does not join the US-led balancing coalition in Asia.

But with its hard line on the border issue, Beijing might just push New Delhi into a tighter embrace of Japan and the US.

Harsh V Pant is Professor of International Relations at King's College, London.

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