In contemporary Asian geopolitics, India and China persist to be the hegemonic superpowers, accounting for over 15% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product and 37% of the world’s population. The countries also possess two of the largest and most formidable standing militaries in the world – equipped with nuclear warheads – and thus have a considerable influence in determining the intricate yet volatile geopolitical dynamics of Asia.
Consequently, a head-to-head battle between the Asian superpowers is inevitable, be it literal or figurative. With regards to its neighbours, India has a single important focus: to make sure that there are no imminent threats to the national security of the country, especially from the ever-hostile People’s Republic of China. China, for quite a few years now, has felt threatened by India’s inroads to the higher ranks of the world diplomatic fraternity, as indicated by a recently declassified United States document on Indo-Pacific policy, which focuses on how “a strong India, in cooperation with like-minded countries, would act as a counter-balance to China.”
At the same time, China has proved that it will go to any extent to preserve and retain its autonomous manipulation and oversight of the region, be it the unfounded ingress into Indian territory in the Line of Actual Control (LAC) or exercising authority in the Indian ocean through its ‘String of Pearls’ policy or antagonizing other Quad members like the USA, Japan and Australia, which remain India’s closest allies abroad. All these instances go by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) aim to achieve its goal of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049.
The Wolf-Warrior: China
Of late, Beijing has been openly pursuing its infamous rendition of diplomacy – the belligerent tact of ‘Wolf-Warrior’ diplomacy, which essentially translates to the conduct of negotiations in a manner which is conservative, blatantly passive-aggressive, and conspicuously confrontational. Several countries, both immediate neighbours and adversaries of China like the United States and Australia, have fallen for it, and India remains no exception. Notably, this policy has backfired on China; yet at the same time it has incited China to continue on a similar erratic trajectory of provocation, which can be seen as a threat to the geopolitics of Asia. In contrast to Chinese foreign policy, India’s foreign policy continues to waver onto the side of benevolence, which is indeed necessary in situations where mutual cooperation is guaranteed; but not at a juncture where China continuously tries to provoke India by constantly undermining its efforts in the Asian peninsula and at times, even ‘poaching’ India’s immediate neighbours and turning them against India. It is no surprise that this is orchestrated by China with the help of its principal enabler, Pakistan.
It is also to be noted that India hasn’t been left hung to dry by the world order. India’s strongest strategic allies, the United States, Israel, Australia, Japan, to name a few, have pledged their relentless support to India and have condemned Chinese offensives in the region. At the same time, China has unapologetically used every method at its disposal to thwart the threat of an anti-China coalition led by India in Asia. An aspect that China has done right by in its policy is making sure India doesn’t get too amicable with its neighbours. India has to realise the importance of having reliable allies that are in literal physical proximity to assist her to promptly ward off anticipated conflicts.
Out of its plethora of authoritarian foreign policy agendas such as seizing control over places in the South China Sea or curbing of freedom in Hong Kong and Taiwan, neutralizing India both in Asia and in prominent international institutions like the UNSC, where India started a new term this year, is of prime importance to China. To achieve this, China turns to our immediate neighbours through its seasoned diplomacy by entering into an imperative and a non-mutual alliance, like in the case of Pakistan, or by investing exorbitantly in these countries, thereby creating a debt trap, such as in the case of Sri Lanka. China also enjoys outright subduing nations which refuse to cooperate with it, like in the case of Bhutan. In the end, China, by one way or another, finds a way to drag India’s neighbours to its side and pushes for a complete blockade against India to isolate it from the Asian landscape.
Although India’s neighbours like Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka maintain a considerably close relationship with India, they are unwilling to assist India against a Chinese alliance due to their military and economic inferiority. In addition to this, these are among the list of countries China has repeatedly tried to detach from India. India often falls out with its neighbours for multiple reasons, ranging from border disputes and economic disagreements to cross border terrorism and refugee crises. Quite noticeably, China has been opportunistic and uses these rifts to exaggerate India‘s role in these conflicts.
Question of Alliances
Despite tensions and differences, India has maintained a justifiably cordial relationship with its neighbours through agreements and fora such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). However, at the same time, SAARC is plagued by inefficiency, lack of cooperation among members and a shortage of functional autonomy. SAARC, currently, is not as successful as the other regional groupings like the European Union (EU) or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). China, being an observer nation, has been desperately trying to secure itself a membership, which India predictably has been opposing to make sure it does not lose its influence over the other members. Nevertheless, China has found a way to infiltrate the process of decision making of SAARC by politically leveraging Pakistan and other smaller vulnerable countries to bear its views in the apex bodies. Even if India tries to alienate China in the standing committees of the SAARC, China has been engaging with South Asian countries bilaterally in a way that excludes India.
The Indo-China Rivalry
India and China did get a decent start in terms of foreign policy when Nehru constructed India’s flagship foreign policy, the Panchsheel, with the help of Chinese diplomat, Zhou Enlai, in 1954, which called for the five principles of peaceful coexistence between India and China. But ever since then, relations have gone downhill, accompanied by the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and several other conflicts, including the most recent wave of standoffs in and around the LAC in 2020. India and China have multiple hostilities with each other including border disputes, the question of human rights, China’s debt-trap diplomacy, Pakistan, Tibet and so on. Hence, the fundamental cause for conflict ultimately boils down to exerting a hegemonic influence over the region and exercising complete control over trade, economy, military, politics, and foreign affairs.
The competition between India and China isn’t unheard of, be it in trade or economy or military or even in international organisations. So far China seems to be having the upper hand in these aspects. Over the past few decades, China has virtually penetrated India through trade. As of the first half of the financial year 2020-21, China remains India’s biggest trading partner despite India’s efforts to work towards a higher degree of relative self-sufficiency. On the other hand, India also has some high cards such as location, demography, and support from the US, which the new Biden administration has pledged, and backing from other countries which desire to counterbalance China’s rise.
But at the end of the day, China seeks to circle out India from its neighbouring countries with an aim of pushing India into a plight similar to that of Pakistan and Sri Lanka. While China has already achieved its aim partially, India has been trying to thwart this danger by strongly opposing the BRI; thereby, challenging China’s position as the hegemonic power in Asia and its aim of making India a debtor.
China’s BRI commitments in the subcontinent, excluding Myanmar, amount to over USD 100 billion; this eventually leads to a debt-trap and China, in turn, tactfully forces the debtor nation to offer them political and economic concessions. Therefore, China doesn’t restrict itself to the economies but also seeks to interfere in the politics of other countries; a few instances include brokering unity between the two Nepalese communist parties to bring them to power, offering to mediate between Bangladesh and Myanmar on the Rohingya refugee crisis, and making its preferences loud and clear in the Sri Lankan and Maldivian elections.
Relations between India and China remain tense at all times, not merely because of border clashes or explicit disagreements, but also because both sides are constantly trying to pull countries to it’s side. In the next part, we will look at several countries in the larger Asian region, and understand where they stand.