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Although Beijing and New Delhi have repeatedly demonstrated a mutual desire to prevent conflict and mitigate tensions when they arise and have avoided a serious violent clash since 1967, the potential for their relationship to deteriorate is ever present. No single issue or crisis is likely to produce this result. However, a series of disputes in quick succession or their simultaneous emergence could lead to an armed confrontation worse than any since the 1960s. A border clash could inflict dozens of casualties, jolt global markets, hurt regional economic growth, and undermine cooperative China-India efforts on regional and global issues of concern to the United States, including counterterrorism and counterpiracy, even if both sides managed to avoid a more serious military escalation.
The United States has a major interest in preventing armed confrontation between China and India. If preventive efforts fail, however, U.S. policymakers should work to limit the immediate costs of a confrontation and to avoid unnecessary new points of friction with Beijing. But in doing so they should seek to resolve the crisis on terms that favor a closer U.S.-India partnership.
India is often perceived as a regional power, but a closer look reveals that it is in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis China in South Asia. The first reason is that Indian governments never had the political, economic, and military capacities to pursue their regional power ambitions with their neighbours in the long run. South Asian countries could always play the China card in order to evade India’s influence. Second, India’s new South Asia policy with the focus on trade and connectivity has improved regional cooperation since 1991.
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