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Rahul P. Singh asked: How can the Chinese reluctance to solve the boundary dispute be explained from a neorealist perspective?

Prashant Kumar Singh replies: The essence of the neorealist perspective in international relations is that the structure of the international system is anarchic and that the states are "unitary rational actors existing in a ‘self-help’ system". A “self-help” system means that “each state must fend for itself”. The security dilemma is intrinsic to the neorealist “self-help” system and the states are, thus, motivated by the idea of security maximisation in which the balance of power is a critical tool.

One could assume that the questioner has India–China boundary dispute in mind. The boundary dispute between India and China is a complex issue that involves the colonial history, the complicated China–Tibet relations, the Chinese communist perceptions of the world, and the difficult Himalayan terrain in the border areas and other broader strategic and geopolitical contexts.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Chinese communists analysed the world ideologically. The fledgling People’s Republic of China (PRC) was deeply driven by a sense of insecurity and took a highly alarmist and conspiratorial view of international politics. They apprehended an international imperialist conspiracy behind the unrest in Tibet. This view enmeshed the boundary dispute with the unrest in Tibet. One can argue that by pressing for expansive border claims, the Chinese sought to maximise their security in Tibet.

At present, while many old contexts persist, many new contexts have emerged with the rise of both China and India. China’s anxiety in Tibet persists and so does “the Tibet-territorial dispute linkage”. It is widely believed that China uses “the territorial dispute as a game of bargaining leverage” and as a tool of “coercive diplomacy” aimed at extracting assurance and compliance from India. It has been felt that the spate of border intrusion incidents and stand-offs that began in the second half of the 2000s has had a Tibet connection. The same logic of using the boundary dispute as a tool of “coercive diplomacy” is also employed to substantiate the argument that China desires to keep India off-balance and boxed in the South Asia region.

In the latest instance of the military stand-off in Eastern Ladakh, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seeking to change the status quo in the border area, China has given ample indications that it is to convey its displeasure over India’s deepening of relations with the United States (US), particularly in the QUAD format. China has also used the border aggression to project its strength, in the wake of a sustained US-led campaign to hold it accountable for the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thus, from the neorealist perspective, one can perhaps argue that an unresolved boundary dispute provides China with a certain strategic advantage, in its quest to leverage its bargaining power and coercive diplomacy.  

Posted on 26 April 2022

Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.