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Former Indian diplomat says 'nothing can be ruled out' in border spat with China

Key Points
  • An India-China border standoff in the Himalayas is unresolved after three months, but back-channel talks are raising hope there could be a resolution.
  • Both superpowers continue to have troops at the faceoff site and a former Indian diplomat, when asked about the possibility of a wider conflict, said "nothing can be ruled out."
  • Experts say it's uncertain if the U.S. would get involved to help India militarily if there were an outbreak of war.
Indian activists of the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party protest outside the Chinese embassy in New Delhi on July 7, 2017, in the wake of border tensions between the neighboring countries.
Money Sharma | AFP | Getty Images

An India-China border standoff in the Himalayas is now going on three months, and while both sides have yet to pull troops, there's hope the dispute may be resolved soon.

China has insisted that India first remove its troops as a precondition for formal talks, but there already appears to be back-channel dialogue underway.

"There are some indications that the two (India and China) are engaged in back-channel dialogue and negotiations to try to resolve this," said Jeff Smith, director of Asian security programs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a Washington-based conservative think tank.

India and China have little reason to go to war today, but that's exactly what happened in the 1960s. Experts insist a full-blown war today seems very unlikely since the costs for both sides could be high.

"This is serious, going by how aggressive and vulgar the statements are coming out of the Chinese," said veteran Indian diplomat Neelam Deo, director of Gateway House, a Mumbai-based foreign policy think tank. "Nothing can be ruled out, but chances are not high of a real military conflict."

Deo, a former Indian ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast, said the border dispute so far has been limited to soldiers going after each other throwing punches or stones.

"We haven't had a shooting war in a long time with China," she said.

The border dispute involves a plateau area known as Doklam in the western Himalayas. The standoff started when Chinese troops in June reportedly tried to build a road in territory claimed by Bhutan, an ally of India. India brought in its own bulldozers to build a military road and also blocked soldiers from China, which has territorial claims to Doklam.

China has been urging India to withdraw more than 270 troops that crossed into the disputed area.

On Friday, China's official news agency, Xinhua, in an op-ed accused India of "insincerity and self-contradictions in resolving the Sino-India border issue peacefully."

Xinhua stirred up controversy last week when it released a propaganda video that mocked India's Sikh community. Indian papers charged that the video was "racist."

Smith, author of the 2014 book "Cold Peace: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the 21st Century," said the outbursts by China's official media outlets were unusual because they typically are "more restrained." Also, he said nonofficial media in China also weighed in and became "quite outspoken, nationalistic and confrontational."

The U.S. State Department has been urging both sides to "work together to try to come up with some better sort of arrangement for peace."

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump gave a national address in which he discussed Afghanistan and South Asia strategy, and one of the points he made was India, the world's largest democracy, was also "a key security and economic partner of the United States."

While India is a nuclear power, it would probably come up short in conventional military power in a conflict with China, say defense analysts.

Regardless, it's uncertain if the U.S. would get involved militarily to help India if there were a wider conflict.

Experts say the Trump administration might want to steer clear of upsetting Beijing, especially given it wants help resolving the North Korean nuclear threat.

The Pentagon didn't respond to a request for comment.

"The U.S. reaction would depend very much on the exact circumstances," said Smith. Factors that would matter include who initiated the conflict, where it's taking place and whether it's contained to the disputed area or spilling over into Indian territory, he said.

Beijing has reportedly tried to resolve the dispute by offering money to Bhutan, which is roughly the size of Switzerland.

"China values peace and the interests of innocent people on both sides of the border, that is why it has remained patient in the face of such encroachment," said Xinhua. "China has never made the first move in wars fought since 1949 but it would not flinch if a war were to be inflicted upon its people."

The two countries together represent about a third of the world's population. They also have bilateral trade in excess of $70 billion annually, although it has been declining in recent years.

In India, there have been recent calls by some groups to boycott Chinese products.

A BRICS Summit starting Sept. 3 and hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping could be a chance for the leaders of the two nuclear superpowers to meet face to face. BRICS is a group of major emerging economies that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Deo, the ex-ambassador, said there's discussion in New Delhi about whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi should attend given the rhetoric coming from Beijing.

"The Indian government should think about it pretty seriously on whether you want to go and act like everything is business as usual," she said. "Because it's not."