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Asia

China, India struggle to put a lid on their border row involving Bhutan

The continuing standoff between India and China along their shared border has cast a dark shadow on their bilateral relationship. It has also stoked nationalism on both sides, making it tough to resolve the issue.

Beijing is intensifying its warnings to Indian troops to get out of a contested region high in the Himalayas where China, India and Bhutan meet. 

Chinese defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said late Thursday that Chinese armed forces had shown "utmost goodwill" and a "high level of restraint." India should "give up the illusion of its delaying tactic" and not underestimate China's "confidence and capability" to defend its national sovereignty and development interests, Ren said in a statement.

Chinese state broadcaster Central Television on Friday aired a video that showed a Chinese artillery unit carrying out live-fire exercises in Tibet. The report did not mention the dispute with India and said the unit has been training for three months.

Watch video 00:58

China displays military might as standoff with India intensifies

For the past several weeks, Chinese and Indian troops have faced off close to a valley controlled by China that separates India from Bhutan - a close Indian ally - and gives China access to the so-called Chicken's Neck, a thin strip of land that connects India to its remote northeastern regions.

Read more: Is India turning its nuclear attention to China?

Beijing alleges Indian forces crossed into a region known in China as Donglang, called Doklam in India, early in June and obstructed work on a road on the Himalayan plateau. Chinese officials say the Indian side's actions infringe upon an 1890 border agreement between China and Britain, India's colonial ruler until 1947.

India, meanwhile, claims Chinese troops entered and tried to construct a road in Bhutanese territory. Landlocked Bhutan, a small Himalayan nation tucked between the two Asian giants, is hugely dependent on New Delhi and does not have diplomatic relations with Beijing. Bhutan has said the construction of the road on its territory is "a direct violation" of agreements with China.

Although China and Bhutan have been negotiating the precise border for decades without serious incident, Bhutan this time sought help from India, which considers the particular patch of mountain to be a strategically vital territory and sent troops to the plateau to stop the Chinese workers. Both sides have failed to fix the issue since then.

Read more: India aims to woo Bangladesh away from China

The blame game

On Wednesday, August 2, China released a statement blaming India for the problem and accused New Delhi of "concocting" excuses for sending its troops to the region.

"What India has done not only severely violates China's territorial sovereignty but also poses a grave challenge to regional peace and stability and the international order, which will not be tolerated by any sovereign state," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang was quoted by the Xinhua news agency as saying.

Beijing also rejected any role for India in the boundary issue between China and Bhutan. "As a third party, India has no right to interfere in or impede the boundary talks between China and Bhutan, still less the right to make territorial claims on Bhutan's behalf," the foreign ministry said. "China will take all necessary measures to safeguard its legitimate and lawful rights and interests," it added.

Read more: China's new Silk Road - perception and reality

India later responded to the Chinese statement by reiterating that Chinese road construction work in the disputed area "would represent a significant change of status quo" and urging "utmost restraint" by all sides.

"India considers that peace and tranquility in the India-China border areas is an important pre-requisite for smooth development of our bilateral relations with China," India's foreign ministry said in a statement on Wednesday evening.

While China has repeatedly called on India to withdraw its forces, reports suggest that there hasn't been any change in the ground situation and the two sides are continuing their standoff.

Xi Jinping with Indian Prime Minister Modi

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian PM Narendra Modi are set to meet at the BRICS summit in Xiamen in early September

Indian military expert Nitin Gokhale was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying that India was prepared for a long haul. "The decision is to stay resolute on the ground and reasonable in diplomacy," Gokhale said. 

Appearing strong

Both sides have resorted to talks behind the scenes to resolve the problem, but with little apparent progress. Ajit Doval, India's national security adviser, visited Beijing last week for a BRICS security meeting, and held bilateral talks with China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi, who outranks the foreign minister. But a Chinese government statement on that meeting did not mention the border issue.

"Neither side feels pressure to tone down the dispute, and the political calendar in China limits flexibility on matters involving sovereignty and territorial integrity," Ryan Hass, a foreign policy analyst at Brookings, wrote in a report published by the prominent US-based think tank.

Watch video 01:10

China displays its military might

As the Communist Party of China is set to hold a once-every-five-year party congress this autumn, "there is every incentive for Chinese officials to guard against being perceived as 'weak,'" Hass underlined.

"Similarly, for India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has limited political space to unilaterally back down, given concern that such a decision could invite further pressure from China in the future, in addition to undermining the credibility of India's security commitment to Bhutan," the expert pointed out.

Observers say the crucial issue for both sides is to appear strong and not lose face, particularly as media outlets in both nations take a jingoistic approach and stir up hyper-nationalistic passions. 

The tensions appear to have an impact on the countries' economic ties as well, with India reportedly seemed poised to reject Chinese firm Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group's proposed $1.3 billion takeover of Indian drug maker Gland Pharma.

"With time, though, odds favor a peaceful resolution to the standoff. Both sides have accumulated wisdom in dealing with prior standoffs, hold frequent senior-level engagements, and lack a strategic rationale to initiate war over a remote road in the Himalayas," reckoned Brookings expert Hass. 

Map India China disputed borders

China and India share a 3,500-kilometer (2,175-mile) frontier, large parts of which are disputed

Power struggle

Deep-seated mutual distrust has long characterized Sino-Indian relations, plagued by the legacy of the 1962 border war, India's playing host to exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and China's ever-deepening ties to India's regional rival Pakistan.

Over the past decade, New Delhi has looked warily at Beijing's strengthening economic, military and diplomatic muscle, which has let China expand its footprint and clout even in South Asia, a region India views as its strategic backyard.

China, meanwhile, has been concerned at India's growing closeness with countries like the US and Japan. The mutual suspicions have been compounded by the competing and unresolved territorial claims between the two most populous nations in the world. The disputes have occasionally flared up, leading to minor border skirmishes. 

China claims about 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 square miles) in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, referred to informally by some Chinese as "Southern Tibet." India, on the other hand, claims sovereignty over 38,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) of the Aksai Chin plateau.

More than a dozen rounds of talks have failed to make substantial progress in the dispute, although there have been relatively few confrontations in recent years.

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