NEW DELHI – For more than 50 years, a smoldering dispute over who should control a swath of land larger than Austria has pitted India against China. Two militaries have skirmished. A brief, bloody war was fought. And today, thousands of soldiers from both countries sit deployed along their shared frontier, doing little but watching each other.
But even as Beijing confronts countries across the South China and East China seas, displaying its diplomatic and strategic strength in a series of increasingly dangerous territorial disputes, the India-China standoff creates almost nothing beyond regular diplomatic talks and professions of international friendship.
The last thing the world’s two most populous countries want right now is war with each other — not when things are going so well.
“The territorial issues and the sovereignty issues have not gone away,” said Sujit Dutta, a China scholar at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University. “But the Chinese are not pushing farther” into the disputed regions, “and neither are the Indians.”
“Today, India and China have a new context for their relationship,” he said.
That context comes down to two key components: an understanding that the disputed land has lost its strategic luster, and money.
Just a couple of decades ago, India and China were dismissed as nations hobbled by widespread poverty and hopelessly lagging behind the West. Today, China has the world’s second-largest economy, an immense and well-equipped military, an increasingly educated population and a vision for itself as one of the leading nations on Earth. India, while economically far behind China, has become a global center for information technology and sees itself as a major player in Asia and elsewhere.
Even though both countries still struggle with widespread internal troubles — poverty, corruption, ethnic and class divisions — the rest of the world can no longer write them off.
When it comes to turf wars, Beijing is largely focused on expanding its maritime influence in East and Southeast Asia, where there are vast untapped mineral reserves.
So in the East China Sea, China created an air defense perimeter to back up its claims to a speckling of uninhabited islands that are also claimed by Japan. In the South China Sea, Beijing temporarily moved an oil rig into waters that are also claimed by Vietnam, setting off a series of naval confrontations.
At first glance, the Himalayan border that India and China share seems ideal for similar clashes. China says the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, an immense territory of nearly 84,000 square kilometers (more than 32,000 square miles), is part of China. India, meanwhile, insists China is illegally occupying the region of Aksai Chin, a rocky and largely empty 37,000-square-kilometer (14,000-square-mile) region far to the east.
The two fought a monthlong border war in 1962 that left some 2,000 soldiers dead following a surprise Chinese attack that still embarrasses India. Skirmishes along the frontier continued into the 1970s. While border squabbling occurs every year or so, often when Chinese soldiers are reported spotted in Indian territory, there have been few serious showdowns since the late 1980s.
Today, cross-border cooperation is far more common than frontier standoffs. India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, spoke repeatedly to top Chinese officials in the first weeks of his administration. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently called the potential for India-China ties “the emerging tip of a massive buried treasure.”
While experts believe diplomatic infrastructure has helped keep things calm — there are now regularly scheduled border talks, military hotlines and designated meeting areas deep in the Himalayas to ensure that unexpected incidents do not flare into warfare — both countries have more to gain by increasing trade and cooperation.
Underlying everything else, the Himalayan border region doesn’t have the strategic importance it once did.
The 1950s and 1960s were a time when tensions regularly erupted in the region. The Dalai Lama fled across the Himalayas into India after a failed uprising in Tibet in 1959; American-supported Tibetan rebels made small-scale raids into China from secret bases in Nepal; China secretly built a strategically important road linking two of its most restive regions — Tibet and Xinjiang — through a deeply isolated part of India.
But India’s support for the Dalai Lama has waned, the CIA long ago abandoned the Tibetan rebels, and China now has plenty of roads to Tibet and Xinjiang.
Over the past few years, however, Beijing has pressed ahead with its territorial claims elsewhere, expanding coral outcroppings, constructing schools on rocky shoals and dispatching the occasional fighter jet. It has argued territorial rights with South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. It has urged the United States to stay out of the disagreements and made clear to all the countries involved that it sees the region as its own sphere of influence.
“We will never trade our core interests or swallow the bitter fruits that undermine our sovereignty, security and development interests,” Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, said recently at the World Peace Forum.
But if things are peaceful now along the Indo-Chinese border, plenty of people on both sides believe trouble could flare anew.
Willy Lam, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, noted India has become the world’s largest arms buyer as it tries to catch up to China’s growing military might.
“Although both sides have been very scrupulous and careful not to produce new incidents, the prospects for a solution are nowhere in sight,” Lam said. “The arms race is going on despite the obvious improvement of economic and financial relations between the two countries.”
China’s military presence along the border with India has been growing for years, and India has recently rushed to catch up by refurbishing air strips, deploying more armored units and frantically constructing new roads high in the Himalayas.
If politics and trade have led the two countries to get along for now, that will almost certainly not last forever, said T.C.A. Rangachari, a former Indian ambassador and longtime China expert.
And the land that doesn’t matter today could very well matter tomorrow.
“In 20 years, maybe 30 years,” said Rangachari, “things could all be very different.”