Andy Wong, file, Associated Press
NEW DELHI — For more than 50 years, it has pitted India against China — a smoldering dispute over who should control a swath of land larger than Austria. Two militaries have skirmished. A brief, bloody war has been fought. And today, thousands of soldiers from both countries sit deployed along their shared frontier, doing little but watching each other.
But 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 results in almost nothing beyond regular diplomatic talks and professions of international friendship.
Because 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 further (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 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, 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.
If both countries still struggle with widespread internal troubles — poverty, corruption, ethnic divisions, growing class divisions — the rest of the world can no longer write them off.
When it comes to turf wars, Beijing today is largely focused on expanding its maritime influence in East Asia and Southeast Asia, with its vast untapped mineral reserves and importance to global trade.
So in the East China Sea, China created an air defense perimeter to back up its claims to a speckling of uninhabited islands also claimed by Japan. In the South China Sea, Beijing temporarily moved an oil rig into waters 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, and 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.
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