The inherent paradox of the relationship between India and China -two of Asia’s biggest economic powers – came to the limelight after China’s leader, Xi Jinping visited India in October for an informal summit. The apparent bonhomie between the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chinese Premier at the summit coupled with the signing of deals enhancing regional connectivity, cultural exchange and economic integration did disseminate signals of a strong bond of friendship. However, the underlying tension between the two powers was even more resounding due to the silence by both sides on issues of grave importance. The enigmatic foundation of this relationship lies within the Sino-India jousting for a regional hegemony in South Asia despite their mutual belief in the coming of the era for Asian powers to dictate the global order.
For the past decade, China has been trying to lay its inroads into South Asia by setting up infrastructure projects and increasing its investments in India’s neighbors to accentuate its supremacy in the region. Nepal and Bhutan, the two land-locked, mountainous nations saddled between India and China, have become the epicenters of this power tussle. In Nepal, the Chinese government has capitalized on the embittering relationship between India and Nepal by incessantly investing in Nepalese infrastructure. In fact, after visiting India in October, Xi Jinping became the first Chinese premier to visit Nepal in the past two decades, a testament to the growing friendship between the two nations. Given the migration of Nepal towards China, Bhutan has become India’s strongest ally in the region. In its 2019 budget, India diverted most of its foreign funding towards Bhutan. Moreover, in 2018, the Indian army confronted a 73-day long military standoff with the Chinese army at the Doklam tri-junction to prevent a Chinese breach of Bhutanese sovereignty. As a result, these two buffer states have inadvertently become zones of convergence of mutual Chinese and Indian hegemonic desires, spurring constant conflicts and perpetuating political instability in the region.
Chinese advancements in the region are even threatening India’s maritime interests in the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. For instance, in Sri Lanka, China’s close ties with Mahinda Rajapaksa, the ex-Sri Lankan PM, resulted in China gaining a 99-year lease of the port of Hambantota along with 15,000 acres of land in the nation. The strategic location of the port not only gives China the control of an area just a few hundred miles off the southern coast of India, but also creates a massive debt trap for a crippling Sri Lanka coercing it to fall under China’s political umbrella. Even the Maldives boosted its economic integration with China with the signing of a free trade agreement and announcing its inclusion in China’s Belt-Road Initiative. However, the Sino-India inclinations of both these island nations have largely been contingent on their erratic, and often messy, domestic politics. In the Maldives, a pro-India PM Ibrahim Solih has re-cultivated stronger maritime and energy ties with India that thawed under his predecessor, Yameen Gayoom. Similarly, the inclinations towards India of the incumbent Sri Lankan PM Ranil Wickremesinghe has controlled a Chinese presence on the island; however, the general elections scheduled in November might reverse the scales. Chinese expansionism in the Indian Ocean does not only endanger the sovereignty of the island-nations, but also threatens India’s influence in its own backyard, fueling their political rivalry.
However, the biggest challenge to a Sino-Indian cooperation lies in China’s growing closeness and India’s increasing animosity to Pakistan. The foundation of the China-Pakistan alliance lies in their mutual desire to contain a growing India and limit its political clout in the region. As a result, China’s economic investments in Pakistan through the China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor and other infrastructure projects along with the growing closeness of the political elite of the two nation is forging a close alliance between these two nations. Moreover, China’s friendship also provides Pakistan with an invaluable P-5 ally that can not only put forth Pakistani interests among the elite powers of the world, but also counter the advancements of India’s interests on global fora. As a result, the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan voiced China’s support in internationalizing the Kashmir dispute in light of the revocation of special status of Jammu and Kashmir by the government of India. Yet, Premier Xi Jinping did not discuss the issue of Kashmir with Indian PM Modi at the informal summit. China’s wavering stance on this issue that has constituted the kernel of Indo-Pak tensions since 1947 illustrates the duality of the Chinese foreign policy in South Asia. Not only is it aggressively countering India’s influence in South Asia, but it is also simultaneously maintaining close links with India as an important economic ally especially due to its damaging trade war with the US. Balancing these two conflicting goals is perhaps the biggest challenge to Sino-Indian cooperation in South Asia.
Both India and China recognize each other’s importance as essential international markets and trading hubs for their commodities. However, they are also cognizant of their conflicting yearning to be the hegemon in South Asia. While insubstantial negotiations like the one in October might yield beneficial short-term gains, a long-term relationship can only be forged if the two nations stop playing a game of tug-of-war in South Asia, and together herald the incoming era of the Asian Powers.