Today, while the pandemic has caused immense economic recession worldwide, South Asia exponentially simmers with territorial disputes, extra-maritime activities, border skirmishes, militarization of states and mapolitics.1 In the Covid 19 scenario when the world has turned inimical towards China under the shadow of conspiracy theories and the unnerved China is grappling to lead the world playing unfair, its challenge appears to be sunk by the confident India as it had to withdraw at Galwan after a border standoff. In the meantime to divert the global attention while China flexes its muscles in South China Sea and pricks on the Indian borders at Ladakh in the light of the implications of its BRI project, a new power axis of Beijing, Islamabad and Kathmandu (BIK) has taken shape against India making its position a bit discomfited and evocates special attention as after Tibet another buffer between India and China significantly dilutes. The release of new political map by India after the abrogation of special status of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 has been retaliated by Nepal and Pakistan that lacks legitimacy even within these states and this has further aggravated the scenario.
While China loses the comfort of concurrence from Russia and Saudi Arabia about its South Asia policy, the coastal states of South China Sea have also consolidated their firmness against its incursions as on June 29, 2020 Vietnam issued a statement after the meeting of ASEAN leaders that “we reaffirm that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones”.2 Recently the unwillingness of several companies to carry in China and shift to the other South Asian states like India and Bangladesh where cheap labour is available mark the beginning of a new order featured by a strengthened Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), renewed US-India collaboration about Indo-Pacific, and a vibrant Indian Ocean zone. The Indo-Chinese rivalry over the region is not new but after the leasing of the Hanbantota sea port of Sri Lanka to China in 2017, the end of US Combat Mission in Afghanistan, and the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that runs through the Indian territory of Pak Occupied Kashmir their ties have further strained. The strategic rivalry between the two is so sharp that India for the first time fought against China in a foreign territory of Bhutan during the Doklam crisis in 2017.
The timing of the Chinese assertions along the north-western frontiers of India at Ladakh near Galwan and Pangong Tso is also critical as Covid 19 has not even peaked in India till date and the situation turns more precarious in the coming months. The decision of China to prick the borders is not new but this time the intent appears to be different. The major Chinese concern is the bleak prospects of the $62 billion CPEC project that faces stiff opposition in Baluchistan and people of POK. The military coordination between Pakistan and China has been established as “Indian intelligence agencies have recently noticed activities of the Chinese Air Force at Skardu Airbase in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). More than 40 Chinese fighter jets, J10, have been witnessed in Skardu in the month of June itself. The Chinese Air Force is understood to have been preparing to use the Skardu airbase to launch an attack against India.”3 While India faces a two-pronged battle in Ladakh at the Lipulekh trijunction between India, Nepal and China, the setting up of a new post near it by Nepal’s Armed Police Force (APF) after India’s inauguration of the new road to Kailash Mansarovar irks India. This led to Indian Army Chief Manoj Mukund Narvane remark that Kathmandu is acting on “behest of someone” (China) over the Lipulekh issue. Nepal’s Defence Minister Ishwor Pokhrel has said that the statement was an insult to the nation’s history and was made ignoring its social characteristics and freedom.4
Against the emergence of Indo-Pacific strategic alliance and the troubled waters in the South China Sea that stifles the Chinese trade route through Malcca the CPEC provides China an easy access in the Indian Ocean through Xinjiang-Gwadar highway. China’s troubled relations with the South East Asian states over the control of South China Sea, the reduction of APEC vis a vis the newly forged Indo-Pacific and the strategic forum QUAD further increase the significance of CPEC which will remain an unrealisable dream until India approves which is a distant possibility. Now China is willing to execute a forcible solution but to be repulsed by India. However the dragonomics has worked as it has succeeded in trapping the small Indian neighbours like Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh through its debt trap strategy. After CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act 2019) Bangladesh has also registered protest with India and distanced by cancelling few official visits to India. China also controls 17 islands of Maldives on lease basis and its network of maritime expansion has significantly increased in the last few decades.
The Provocative Mapolitics
Inching forward has been an old policy of China to gradually expand territorially against its neighbours. In recent times China has followed a policy of rechristening the islands and underwater locations in South China Sea. It has named 25 islands and reefs in the South China Sea in a move to cement its territorial claims in the disputed waters. China has set up two new district governments on the Paracel and Spratly islands, known as Xisha and Nansha in China. This has been done with a purpose to deter what it said were “intrusions” by US ships and planes. Several of the newly named islands fall within these two new districts. Beijing also named 55 underwater locations to claim rights over resources. The Chinese moves are in violation of Exclusive Economic Zones of several neighbouring states like Philippines and has escalated tensions with them.5 In July 2016, an international tribunal rejected China’s nine-dash line in the South China Sea, concluding that Beijing’s claim violated international law. While the United States takes no position on the competing claims in the South China Sea, Washington does reject Beijing’s claim and has deployed two carrier strike groups in dual-carrier operations through the contested waters. Punctuating this position is US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent announcement that China’s claims are “completely unlawful”6
China is being closely followed by Pakistan and its new born ally Nepal, whose communist regime has recently raked up several controversies with India like Lipulekh, calling Covid 19 as Indian virus and river waters. In an act of provocation, that was lauded and hailed by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi as an “unprecedented step”, Pakistan has shown some Indian territories in Pakistan. The new map was released by Islamabad on August 4, 2020 that showed the union territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh as Pakistani territories illegally occupied by India. The controversial map also shows the erstwhile state of Junagadh in Gujarat and Sir Creek within Pakistan’s borders. The Pakistani government confirmed that the map will henceforth be used in curriculum across the country.
Before this on June 13, 2020 Nepal’s lower house of Parliament Pratinidhi Sabha too had unanimously passed the historic Second Constitution Amendment Bill guaranteeing legal status for the updated political map of Nepal which included India’s Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura in Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district as part of Nepal. Nepal and India have disagreement over Kalapani since 1815 when British and Nepal signed treaty of Sugauli but till 1998 Nepal remained silent over it and showed little interest. It was only with electoral battles and the increased role of Communists (patronised by China) in Nepal that it became a convenient tool for flaring up the electorate resulting in the amendment now. The Nepalese and Pakistani actions are in retaliation of the New Indian Political Map released by Indian government on October 31, 2019 after the abrogation of special status under article 370 to Jammu and Kashmir. The map had shown whole of Pak Occupied Kashmir as part of India and created two new Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. While the Indian action was over a longstanding disputed territory occupied illegally by Pakistan and later partially (3400 sq.kms.) ceded to China the retaliations are less legitimate and more of unnerved frowning. So the new mapolitics has engulfed South Asia that surely is going to deepen the difference between the three states.
The distanced neighbours and the inimical trio against India has to be handled skillfully by the Government of India and a new process of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), at least with the smaller neighbors, should be initialed to check the things turn worse.
Notes & References
1Mapolitics refers to the strategy of a state showing the territories of others in its own official map, a step short of war to gain legitimacy through internationalizing the issue.
2Jim Gomej, “ASEAN takes Position vs China’s Vast Historical Sea Claims”, Diplomat, June 29, 2020.
3Defence Aviation Post, 30 June, 2020.
4The Times of India, May 25, 2020.
5Didi Tang, The Times, UK, April 20, 2020.