The unresolved ‘border dispute’ is undoubtedly the core issue in Sino-Indian relations. Border issues are not only important for the two sides’ territorial and military security but also concern many non-traditional security issues, such as water resources and ecological environmental issues. In view of the fact that both countries are currently strengthening the exploitation and utilisation of related resources and carrying out infrastructure construction in the border areas, both China and India should pay more attention to protecting the local ecological environment. Otherwise environmental deterioration around Sino-Indian border areas may deepen mutual grievances and upgrade the current security dilemma between two Asian giants.
The intrusion of border issues in the development of bilateral relations between China and India in recent years is obvious. In addition to regular border negotiations, the two countries have spent much time and diplomatic effort in dealing with their differences and friction incidents on border issues, including the 2013 tent confrontation and 2017 Donglang crisis, which had significant negative impact on bilateral ties.
Admittedly, Sino-Indian border issues are very complicated and there are many reasons for dispute that are difficult to resolve. For instance, the present upsurge of nationalist sentiment in the two countries is undoubtedly one of the important reasons for this. It is worth mentioning that both sides intensifying their development and utilisation of related resources such as water and minerals, as well as infrastructure construction in the border areas over recent years, also seem to have deepened each other’s suspicions and divergent attitudes. Both regard the other side’s actions as seeking to change the status quo.
Fortunately, both China and India are willing to make efforts to manage differences and avert conflict escalation. The two countries agreeing on the establishment of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs in 2012 can be regarded as one such effort. Thanks to these bilateral mechanisms, they have been able to maintain consultations and dialogue during crises. In addition, the respective top leaders having various meetings through multilateral platforms such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) has provided a productive channel to ease the tense situation and manage differences. This may be an important reason why the two countries can safely weather all kinds of border crises.
However, numerous potential risks still exist and many issues need to be addressed by two sides. For instance, ecological environmental challenges in Sino-Indian border areas are one issue that deserves more attention from both China and India. The warming of the earth’s climate is accelerating the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas, and is inevitably threatening the ecological environment of border areas to some extent. Other potential challenges also cannot be ignored. Both countries have attached great importance to the development and utilisation of water and mineral resources projects in border areas. If these projects are not carried out according to strict green environmental regulations, they may have a negative impact on local ecological environments.
It is clear that if environmental problems are not taken seriously, they are likely to complicate the Sino-Indian border dispute further. Another salient example of the negative effects of these problems on the interaction between the two countries is the uneasiness both have concerning the other’s dam construction along the Yarlung Zangbo River Basin.
In the future, China and India should ensure that every project in border areas is thoroughly studied and rigorously planned so that project aims and the need for ecological environmental protection can be taken into account. Water resource projects should take environmental protections especially seriously. Due to the growth of domestic water demand in both countries, it is foreseeable that their water development and utilisation projects around the Yarlung Zangbo River Basin will keep growing. It is necessary for both to ensure that those projects will not change and damage the quality of local soil and water resources.
In addition, the two countries should strengthen green cooperation more widely. Given the sensitivity of border issues, China-India green environmental cooperation in border areas faces certain difficulties. But much wider cooperation between the two sides should be enhanced, such as through joint reduction in air pollution, tackling global warming, improving wastewater treatment and other waste disposal, and engaging in other areas where their interests align. Exchange and cooperation between both sides’ environmental protection agencies should also be encouraged.
If possible, China and India could also try to jointly launch a Himalayan Regional Environmental Action Initiative and invite other countries in the region to create a multilateral platform for environmental information-sharing about the Himalayan region. They could both also strengthen joint actions in dealing with natural disasters and reducing environmental pollution with other stakeholders in the region.