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The Himalayan landscape: A hot bed of tensions between India and China

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Although India and China are jointly working on modalities to end tensions arising out of the four-month-long face-off between the Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in eastern Ladakh, the fact remains that the relations between the two countries were never based on sufficient trust and mutual understanding necessary for a stable bilateral relationship.    

It is worth remembering that following the 74-day Doklam standoff between the Indian and Chinese militaries, the two countries attempted to reset their relations, starting from an informal meeting between their leaders in Wuhan, China, in April 2018 and followed by meetings on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Qingdao in June and the BRICS summit in July 2018.

The key outcomes of the meetings were discussions pertaining to partnership in economic projects and capacity-building in Afghanistan and setting up a hotline between their military headquarters to strengthen communication and build trust and mutual understanding to avoid any future Doklam-like situations.

While these discussions were yet to see results on the ground, Beijing’s move to block New Delhi’s attempts at seeking United Nations Security Council sanctions against Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) founder Masood Azhar, the alleged mastermind of attacks on India’s Uri military base in 2016, and its announced sale of 48 high-end drones to Pakistan close on the heels of India’s agreement with Russia to procure the S-400 missile system, pointed to the existing volatility in relations between India and China.

While unresolved territorial claims since India’s independence shaped bilateral perceptions on peace, security and development, the more recent Doklam standoff in the high Himalayas raised a geopolitical question as to how both could reconcile their positions in ‘overlapping peripheries’. China’s heavy infrastructure building exercises in its neighborhood such as ports, railways, airports and interconnecting roads under the BRI corroborated the perception that the former was incessantly engaged in multiplying its influence in what the latter considers its strategic periphery. India’s commitment to a strategic partnership with the US on the one hand and attempts at forging bilateral ties with China on the other also did not convince China that the strategic partnership between India and the US was not directed at undercutting Beijing’s geopolitical influence.

The border clashes between India and China can no more be viewed merely as the Chinese attempts at redrawing the border between the two rather it is integral to China’s larger claims over the Himalayan landscape.

Until the Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) were launched by China, use of Chinese card by India’s neighbors did not lead to Chinese interference in determining India’s relations with its neighbors nor did it give rise to India-China standoff threatening India’s predominance in the South Asian region. China maintained distance from the Indo-Pak dispute over the Kashmir issue by considering it as a bilateral problem as was evidenced from its neutrality during the Kargil War between India and Pakistan in 1999.

The Chinese footprint in the region became more pronounced with the launching of the BRI and Maritime Silk Route initiatives. Chinese economic engagements with the South Asian countries under these initiatives were viewed with suspicion in New Delhi. Indian strategic and foreign policy experts perceived a threat of ‘encirclement’ (Chinese strategy of encirclement has been conceptualized as ‘String of Pearls’ strategy by India’s strategic and defence experts) in the growing Chinese engagement with the South Asian region although its stated objective was enhancing connectivity. There is no denying the fact that roads, railways, bridges, and ports can be used both for civil and military purposes.

Nepal’s strategic ties with China have been affirmed by frequent bilateral visits between the countries to discuss the construction of trans-Himalayan multidimensional connectivity and Nepal’s unflinching commitment to the one-China policy, which underlined that the Himalayan country would never allow any forces to make use of its soil for anti-China activities. A new great-game scenario characterizing geopolitical struggle for influence between India and China is more of a fact with reference to Nepal than Bhutan, which is not a part of the BRI. Close India-Bhutan strategic ties were also noticed in the small Himalayan country’s refusal to the Chinese offer of a much larger portion of disputed territory in the north where Bhutan has higher economic stakes, in exchange for the relatively small plateau with limited domestic interests – Doklam – underlining the Bhutanese sensitivities to India’s security stake in the plateau. Indian concerns as regards Chinese influence have prevented Bhutan from allowing China a diplomatic presence. However, India cannot take Bhutanese support for granted.

Former prime minister Jigme Thinley’s suspicious move to court China and discuss with his Chinese counterpart issues allegedly pertaining to formal diplomatic presence and a land-swapping deal involving the strategically located areas in the tri-junction of India-Bhutan and China led India to withdraw subsidies on kerosene and cooking gas as a measure to pile up pressure on Bhutan to force it to change its stance. This was subsequently withdrawn, and the succeeding Prime Minister Tobgay Tshering maintained close relations with the Indian leadership by putting a pause on diplomatic overtures to Beijing. There are instances when Bhutan due to its geographical location between India and China – two large countries required stressing its independence despite the historical bonding with India. Bhutan’s desire for independence was palpable not only when the then Bhutanese king declined to provide base to Indian troops during the Sino-India war in 1962, it was felt in certain quarters within Bhutan that India continued to discourage the small South Asian country from opening diplomatic relations with other countries especially China. Geopolitics of the Himalayan country suggests that while India would try to preserve its influence and prevent it from drifting towards China as happened during Thinley’s regime, China would try to swing the change away from India’s orbit. Meanwhile, Bhutan would make adept attempts at maintaining a fine balance to preserve its independence in the midst of two big powers. For New Delhi, the task would be to create enough trust and mutual stakes so that the country would not be swayed by Chinese overtures.


The Himalayan countries are not only small in size and population, but they have also had continuously looked for capital, investment and a reliable security provider.  India and China have looked upon these states primarily from a strategic perspective given their prized strategic location in the Himalayas where both shared land frontiers and competed for influence through aid, investment and coercive measures as well.

Nepal clearly demonstrated its desire to overcome limitations imposed by its India-locked geography and diversify its relations with many significant state actors outside the South Asian region. The Nepal-China Trans-Himalayan Multidimensional Connectivity Network, including the Nepal-China cross-border railway, has been named in a list of projects under the BRI. China kept pouring massive economic capital into Tibet specifically targeting infrastructure projects that could facilitate connectivity, infrastructure and energy projects in Nepal. Nepal’s commitment to the Chinese projects and its one-China policy can be inferred from the unequivocal support that the Nepalese Consulate in Lhasa lends to Beijing’s claims to both Tibet and Taiwan.

During a visit to Beijing by Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli in June 2018, the two sides sealed eight deals worth US$2.4 billion pertaining to connectivity, infrastructure and energy projects. The agreements included the targets to develop hydropower projects, cement plants and agri-food parks. The Chinese foray into Nepal looked promising and became more entrenched, and Beijing turned out be Kathmandu’s largest source of foreign direct investment and its second-largest trading partner by the end of 2019. India, on the other hand, keep expressing the strategic concerns that Nepal must be cautious against opaque loans and financing conditions offered by China that were directed at spawning debt traps and seizing control of strategic assets.

The US has been witnessed making concerted efforts at cultivating the Himalayan countries Nepal and Bhutan in a bid to strengthen its Indo-Pacific strategy and build a resolute response to China’s BRI as well as mitigate strategic concerns emanating from Beijing’s connectivity projects. Nepal’s inclusion in the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy was claimed by the US after Nepalese Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met during the former’s visit to Washington in December 2018. Later, two US representatives visited Nepal in order to discuss and pitch the strategy with the Himalayan state. However, the report of Nepal’s inclusion drove China to enlist the Himalayan country’s continued support for its BRI and the US sought clarifications from Nepal as to its stance on Indo-Pacific policy.

Meanwhile, India is focusing on ways and means to keep the Himalayan countries within its sphere of influence and seems poised to throw its weight behind the American Indo-Pacific strategies to counter Chinese influence, considering the fact that New Delhi has not been able to match Beijing’s sway through connectivity and infrastructure.

India has been supplying significant aid and soft loans to Nepal with development as a priority as compared with China which has targeted at hard infrastructure and connectivity. Poor infrastructure on the Indian side has not only prevented both countries from strengthening bilateral connectivity, the Himalayan country has been unable to harness the full potential of transit facilities to third countries through India. India has failed to float a coherent strategy that could interlink infrastructure-building and regional connectivity with its emphasis on development. Its aid and investment in the neighborhood gravitate more toward soft areas such as housing and shelter, water and sanitation, livelihood, education, research and training, health care, industrial development, arts, culture and sports, with a thrust on “grassroots-level development” without similar emphasis on infrastructure-building and connectivity.

Carnegie India research paper notes: “New Delhi has been slow in identifying, initiating, and implementing a coherent approach to connectivity in the South Asia and Indian Ocean region. Although India has identified countries such as Japan as key partners in formulating a response, there has been little progress on a plan of action.” However, this lethargic response from India is bound to change as China and the US invigorate their efforts to enhance strategic influence under the BRI and the Indo-Pacific strategy respectively.

The spread of the pandemic Covid-19 across the globe from Chinese soil and China’s surreptitious role in managing the public reporting of the pandemic ranging from its outbreak to total cases affected by and deaths resulted from is poised to place India in a favorable place in its neighborhood compared to China. The pandemic has not only strengthened the American resolve to tighten its strategic partnership with India, the latter, in this context, is poised to throw its weight behind the US and its allies strengthening the Indo-Pacific strategy spanning the Himalayan landscape as well to roll back Chinese influence in the region. However, China’s entrenchment in the region through enhanced connectivity, infrastructure-building and loans would pose difficult challenges for the Indo-Pacific allies.    

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra, Lecturer in Political Science, S.V.M. Autonomous College, Odisha, India. Previously worked as the Programme Coordinator, School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India

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East Asia

Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China

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image source: chinamission.be

There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.

Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.

By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.

The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.

China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.

Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.

The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.

A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.

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Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question

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image credit: kremlin.ru

The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.

Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.

Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.

However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.

Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.

During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.

Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.

Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.

If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.

From our partner RIAC

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Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?

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Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.

One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.

In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.

To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.

The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.

Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.

Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.

From our partner RIAC

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