China-India: Talk is Cheap, But Never Free

Nations often hesitate to negotiate with opponents during conflict. But Oriana Skylar Mastro urges that this is precisely what India and China need to do in order to curb the potential for a protracted, costly war with devastating geopolitical implications.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) talks with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (L) during a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in 2013. Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) talks with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (L) during a meeting in 2013.

This article by Oriana Skylar Mastro originally appeared in The Interpreter, a daily publication of the Lowy Institute.

There is no end in sight for the ongoing China-India border crisis. In June, China and India’s border dispute along the LAC (Line of Actual Control) resumed after a decades-long halt to the fighting, with the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of casualties on the Chinese side. After a few months of relative calm, tensions erupted in late August with “provocative military movements” near Pangong Tso Lake and a Tibetan soldier’s death in India’s Special Frontier Forces. Only a few weeks ago, both sides accused each other of firing warning shots, the first use of live fire in 45 years.

Although China and India’s foreign ministers recently agreed to disengage at talks in Moscow during the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting, troops remain massed at the border. China is reportedly building military infrastructure. Many worry that increased tensions could lead to war, especially given India’s limited options.

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As the second- and fourth-largest militaries in the world – and two nuclear powers at that – soon enter the fifth month of a standoff, the world has been relatively silent. All countries, especially the United States, should help China and India avoid an armed confrontation. Wars happen, especially over territory. And it wouldn’t be the first time the two countries have fought over this issue. Fifty-eight years ago, the two countries found themselves at war when massed Chinese artillery opened fire on a weak Indian garrison in Namka Chu Valley, in an eastern area China considers Southern Tibet and India calls Arunachal Pradesh. China launched a simultaneous assault against the western sector, clearing Indian posts north of Ladakh. After 30 days of sporadic fighting, the war came to an end with a unilateral Chinese withdrawal from much of the territory it had seized.

But such a unilateral ceasefire is extremely rare. Most contemporary conflicts end through a negotiated settlement. This means getting the two countries to talk to each other face-to-face during a war can be necessary for war termination. But my research shows this does not come easily – states are often concerned that a willingness to talk will communicate weakness to their adversary, who, in turn, will be encouraged to continue the fighting. Only when states are confident their diplomatic moves will not convey weakness, and their adversary does not have the will or capabilities to escalate is a belligerent willing to come to the negotiating table.

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