May 8, 2013

The Great Sino-Indian Alpine Tent Party of 2013

My article on the Chinese border incursion at Depsang appeared in Foreign Policy on May 8, 2013. An excerpt is included below. The full article can be accessed here.

The incursion will undoubtedly provoke greater skepticism in India about China's peaceful intentions. In recent years, an aggressive China has had a poor record of managing its disputed borders. Unlike Japan or the many Southeast Asian countries, India has been reluctant to identify itself as a U.S. partner in any attempt to hedge against China's rise. Yet repeated Chinese provocations, as well as concerns about India's ability to compete economically and militarily with China, might force India's policymakers to cooperate more closely with other states that share its concerns. Moreover, India's accelerating defense modernization might produce additional confrontational Chinese responses, perpetuating a classic security dilemma.

Although the incursion may not have had domestic political implications in Beijing, it does raise worrying questions about China's ability to destabilize the region. For example, it is plausible that the PLA's advancement was the product of a simple civil-military disconnect. This is a problem that bedevils every government with a strong military, but a more transparent system of governance -- such as in the United States or, for that matter, India -- would have certainly limited the damage.

The question of transparency also cuts the other way. China cannot expect other governments to muzzle their media as it does. For example, a recent editorial in the Chinese newspaper Global Times about the incursion blamedthe Indian government for "indulg[ing] Indian media habits," fomenting "border hysteria," and writing "nonsense." Instead of blaming the foreign press, it would benefit Beijing to become better attuned to public sentiment in countries like India -- not exactly its strong suit. As Harvard University professor Joseph Nye recently noted, this is not the kind of problem that can be solved with more Confucius Institutes.

As China's new leadership continues to consolidate itself, its recent missteps with India -- coming at an otherwise opportune time in bilateral relations -- ought to provoke some introspection. Many in India, as in other Asian states, are willing to cooperate with an increasingly affluent China. But actions like April's incursion will only give more weight to the perspectives represented in an influential 2012 Indian foreign-policy paper that noted: "The better way of responding to limited land-grabs by China" is to respond in kind. Surely that's not an outcome China's leaders want.