Recent developments in the bilateral equation between India and the People’s Republic of China, especially successive developments in the summer of 2017, increasingly indicate the near-term magnitude of strain amid two of Asia’s prominent players that jointly constitute nearly 37% of global population.
The summer of 2017 itself began with a steep build-up in bilateral tensions, when Beijing hosted the biggest ever Belt and Road Forum in May, with more than 130 participating nations from around the world. India decidedly took a call of not attending the BRI event, given its firm opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is being projected as the flagship project of BRI in South Asia. The CPEC’s credentials remain questionable at the very core as far as legal principles and rules are concerned. A significant section of this corridor runs through the Indian territory of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. Delhi’s objections primarily stem from the fact that it cannot compromise its sovereignty and territorial integrity in any way. In fact, by skipping the BRI Forum, New Delhi handed a major diplomatic and political snub to the Xi Jinping administration, which was seeking to pronounce the Forum as a runaway success.
Exactly a month later, on 16 June, China launched a brazen offensive inside Bhutanese territory in what can best be described as a revisionist, expansionist and combative attempt to alter the existing status quo in the Himalayas. Doklam is hardly the first time China has tried to rework statuses quo in its favour in the context of territorial and boundary disputes. Asserting dubious claims by firstly providing a “Chinese name” to the area—“Donglong”, in this case—and then engaging in revisionist intimidation to get its way and revise the narrative, is now becoming an oft-repeated Chinese pattern in contentious regional security issues. The 73-day Sino-Indian military standoff that ensued thereafter has been the longest-ever since the Sino-Indian war of 1962.
As the Doklam standoff unfolded and began precipitating, almost coinciding was the June Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) plenary convened in Bern (with Switzerland now being Chair of the NSG, taking over from Korea). In comparison to the hype built around the Seoul plenary, the Bern meeting was rather low key from an Indian viewpoint. The hopes surrounding India’s NSG membership getting through were bleak since the very outset of the Bern plenary, given China’s tenacious obstruction and antagonism to Delhi’s candidature. It is well known and acknowledged that during the earlier 2016 NSG plenary at Seoul, China blocked a consensus vote on India’s application for membership and was decidedly prepared to scuttle New Delhi’s application, even if it was to be the last man standing. By undertaking the plea/route of “criteria procedure” to ultimately reach its desired end, that of blocking India’s NSG membership, Beijing managed to achieve what it initially set out for—block India’s entry into the NSG club, at any cost.
Finally, as the year was drawing to a close, Beijing, yet again, put a spoke in India’s relentless fight against terrorism by stonewalling its attempt to brand Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. In early November, China blocked listing of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed chief and Pathankot terror attack mastermind Azhar as a global terrorist by the UN under the Al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee of the Council. This is the second year in succession that China has blocked the resolution. The JeM is already listed in the UN’s list of banned terror outfits.
All the highlighted incidents that took place in quick succession spell out distinctly China’s long-term intent of rewriting international rules in accordance with its own vision of a Sino-centric Asia in the short-term, and that of China being a global power centre in the distant future. It also is a grim indicator of the constant banes in Sino-Indian relations that are likely to carry forward to 2018.
In order to achieve this objective, coercive diplomacy backed by military stealth will clearly be the most obvious political strategy employed by Xi Jinping. The threat of military coercion, as the Doklam incident saw, would just be enough of a forewarning to credibly demonstrate Chinese resolve in achieving the set objective of redrawing borders and misrepresenting history.
Dr Monika Chansoria is a Tokyo-based Senior Visiting Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA).