Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

India-China border crisis: It is not about the U.S.


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nine dash line, Natuna Islands

Mains level : Paper 2- India-China relations

India’s growing closeness to the U.S. could be the reason for China’s aggression along India’s border. This is the explanation we often come across. But is it really the case?. This article probes the same question. Example of China’s dispute with Indonesia and Philippine help us analyse the U.S. angle to Indo-China border dispute. So, what is the conclusion?

An easy explanation to India-China border crisis

  • Why has China precipitated a fresh military crisis with India in eastern Ladakh?
  • Among the many explanations making the rounds in Delhi, there is always the easy and attractive one — it’s all about America.
  • Delhi has incurred Beijing’s wrath by moving closer to Washington, goes the argument.
  • India’s renewed enthusiasm for the US-led Quad, it is said, is encouraging China to teach a lesson to Delhi.

But does this explanation applies to the other countries as well? Look at Indonesia

  • No!
  • This theory does not hold up in relation to other countries having problems with China.
  • Let us turn to the South China Sea, where China is on a bold and ambitious drive to expand its control over the disputed waters.
  • Let us start with gathering tensions over the territorial dispute between Beijing and Jakarta.
  • Over the last year and more, Jakarta is coping with a Chinese challenge in its waters off its Natuna Islands.
  • The Natuna are nearly 1,500 km from the Chinese mainland.
  • The Natuna themselves lie outside Beijing’s nine-dash line that claims nearly 80 per cent of the South China Sea.
  • The dispute is over the exclusive economic zone that the islands confer on Indonesia.
  • China says it has historic rights to these waters and has been dispatching its fishing fleet into these waters.

Maybe China sees a problem with Jakarta-Washington relations: Let’s analyse

  • Jakarta did not support the US approach to the Indo-Pacific.
  • and went to great lengths to develop a concept of its own and get it endorsed by the ASEAN.
  • Indonesia is not a member of the much-maligned Quad.
  • Its foreign policy is wedded to non-alignment.
  • And as the host of the historic Bandung Conference in 1955, Indonesia is a founding member and champion of Non-aligned Movement.

Now, let’s consider second example: Philippines

  • The story of the Philippines — one of the oldest military allies of the US in Asia — nicely complements the non-aligned Indonesia’s troubles with China.
  • When he came to power in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte decided to distance the Philippines from the US and embraced China.
  • He had a hope of finding a reasonable settlement to the substantive maritime territorial dispute with Beijing.
  • In February this year, Manila announced the decision to terminate the agreement that lets American troops operate in the Philippines.
  • But last week, the Philippines “suspended” the decision to terminate military cooperation with the US.
  • The reason: The PLA’s relentless military pressure on the South China Sea islands claimed by Manila and including them in a new Chinese administrative district.

So, what the two examples suggest?

  • Neither Jakarta that is scrupulously non-aligned nor Manila that was ready to break its alliance with the US has been spared from Beijing’s current muscular approach to China’s territorial disputes.
  • China has long-standing claims, right or wrong, on the territories of its neighbours.
  • The other is the dramatic shift in the regional power balance in favour of China.
  • Unlike in the past, China now has the military power to make good its claims and alter the territorial status quo, if only in bits and pieces.
  • This is what China is doing in the South China Sea.
  • And the situation may not be any different in Ladakh.

Consider the question “The shift in the regional power balance and not the growing Indo-U.S. relations explains the assertive nature of China in India-China border issues. Elaborate.”


The real challenge for Delhi in managing its expansive territorial dispute with Beijing, then, is to redress the growing power imbalance with China. The rest is detail.

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