Pacifying a Troubled Border

September 16, 1993

Three decades are just a blip the way Asian history is usually measured, so the border dispute between China and India hardly ranks as ancient. Still, it has been one of the more intractable disputes on that continent. Word that it is apparently on its way to peaceful resolution is welcome news.

The two giants of Asia fought a short but bloody border war in some of the world's roughest terrain in 1962. With one important exception, all of the factors that led to that conflict appear to have been eliminated. The two nations have now signed an agreement to ease their military confrontation and eventually agree on a border each can live with.

In an important sense the dispute over the Sino-Indian frontier southeast and west of Tibet is a legacy of colonialism. The British rulers of India drew lines on maps to signify borders on terrain they had never seen. A dying imperial China was in no position to challenge these borders, nor did it see any need to do so at that time. However, China's new Communist rulers reasserted Beijing's domination of Tibet and were anxious to guard its back doors. Those doors were the rugged passes between Tibet and India, through which the Dalai Lama and other refugees fled Chinese oppression.

China is still as touchy about foreign access to Tibet, as Sun correspondent Robert Benjamin noted recently. But the other factors that contributed to the surprise attack on ill-prepared Indian troops 31 years ago no longer influence Beijing's policy. The Cold War is over, China no longer fears the former Soviet Union and the internal tensions which led to the Cultural Revolution have dissipated. China and India are still rivals for dominance in Asia, but the competition is now much more political and economic than it is military.

India's northeast frontier is more important to New Delhi than it is to Beijing because of constant internal tensions in that region. It is also more logical, following natural terrain. The problem is in the west, where China claims a desolate plateau that India's former rulers considered part of Kashmir. The territory is useless India except for its symbolism as part of the disputed state. India and Pakistan still fight one of the world's stupidest skirmishes over adjoining uninhabitable, glacial territory. The makings of a trade-off are clear. It's time to scratch one border dispute.

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