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.
A 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.