When two countries have gone to war over an unresolved border and one of these announces the deployment of 50,000-60,000 troops and nuclear-capable combat planes along this border, the reader would likely expect the second country to sit up and take notice.  This is exactly what happened over the last month between India and China.

  In response to India’s military buildup, China has published two scathing articles, one in English and the other in Chinese, lambasting India’s move.

In early June, former Indian Army Chief and current governor of Arunachal Pradesh General J.J. Singh announced that between 50,000 and 60,000 troops will be deployed along the Line of Actual Control on top of future infrastructure and road development projects.  In addition to the infantry placements, the Indian Air Force will also open a newly refurbished airbase in Tezpur near Assam.  Four nuclear-capable Sukhoi-30 MKI fighter jets arrived there June 13, with plans to increase this to squadron strength of 18 aircraft.

From the Indian perspective, this bolstering of defenses along the border is in response to well-established Chinese fortifications on the other side, including transport infrastructure.  In April 2008, Indian Defense Minister A K Antony visited the region and expressed surprise at the sophistication of Chinese military structures within the area.

On June 9, the Chinese Global Times published an editorial entitled “India’s Unwise Military Moves,” which denounced India’s troop deployment.  A thinly veiled warning was explicit within the article: “India’s current course can only lead to a rivalry between the two countries.  India needs to consider whether or not it can afford the consequences of a potential confrontation with China.”  An affiliate of the People’s Daily published a Chinese language article on June 12 which translates to “India is a paper tiger and its use of use will be trounced, say experts.”  It is a provocative article, even referring to India as a paper tiger is a throwback to the language of Mao.

However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang was much more conciliatory, saying on June 11, “China and India have never demarcated their border. To resolve the border issues at an early date is one of the ten strategies of developing China-India relations set by leaders of both countries.  We are willing to pursue a fair and reasonable solution through negotiations with India.”  President Hu and Prime Minister Singh met last week on the sidelines of the SCO and BRIC summits at Yekaterinburg, Russia.  Indian officials then announced that “the next meeting of the Special Representatives tasked with resolving the boundary question was slated for August 7 and 8 in New Delhi.”

After fighting a brief border war in 1962, the demarcation of the 3500km border between China and India remains unsolved.  China came out in a better position after the confrontation, due in part to superior forces and supply lines.  Of the 14 countries that China borders, it is only with India that the issue of territorial demarcation remains unresolved.

In particular, Arunachal Pradesh province in northeastern India has continued to be a bone of significant contention with increased rhetoric from both sides over the past year.  Last January, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had a very successful three day visit to China.  Yet, later that month, Singh went on a two day visit to Arunachal Pradesh and publicly stated that Arunachal Pradesh is part of India.  This drew strong protests from Beijing, where the Chinese Foreign Ministry lodged an official complaint with the Indian Embassy.

Still, the likelihood of a military border confrontation between India and China remains a low, but existential, possibility.  Human error or a misreading of events could be the unintentional trigger for confrontation.  An Indian military transport plane crashed very near the Chinese line of control, resulting in thirteen fatalities, on June 10; to date this crash has been reported as an accident.

Bilateral trade between the two countries has shown dramatic growth over the past eight years.  In 2000, China exported approximately $1.5 billion worth of goods to India; in 2008 that figure was $32 billion.  India’s exports to China in 2000 totaled only $760 million, but by 2008, this figure had grown to over $20 billion.  Both countries classify themselves as developing, and both will become more relevant in global affairs as their economies continue to grow.

Yet, there are notable elements of distrust between the two countries, which will need to be carefully managed in the future.  Both traditional and non-traditional security threats – climate change, water resources and energy needs – pose obstacles to bilateral relations.

South Asia has enough problems and does not need a military confrontation between India and China added to that list.  China has successfully negotiated border boundaries with former Soviet states; earlier this year, Vietnam and China agreed upon the final demarcation of their land border.  This unresolved border dispute between China and India is an unnecessary impediment to furthering ties between the two states.

China and India combined have over one third of the world’s population living within their borders; it is for the benefit of these people that the leaders of both countries must resolve the border question.  The status quo has existed for over 45 years, and it is difficult to understand why two leading states like China and India cannot negotiate and agree on a political resolution to this matter.  Bilateral relations will dramatically improve, as will economic ties, once these two determine the international boundary that separates them.  In the current scenario there are two losers, China and India, and this need not be the case.

Damien Tomkins is an intern with Atlantic Council’s Asia Program