As also reported by the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, in the past month there has been a significant increase in Chinese and Indian military deployments around the Doklam area, on the border between China and Bhutan, where last summer there was a two-month confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops. In that case, the Indians intervened because the Chinese were building a road in a disputed area between China and Bhutan, a country that has no diplomatic relations with Beijing but has a defense agreement with New Delhi.
At the same time as the article, the news appeared that the head of Indian diplomacy, Shri Vijay Gokhale, former ambassador to Beijing and fluent in Chinese, arrived in Beijing. The purpose of the mission, according to a dispatch from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, was «to build on the convergences between India and China and address differences on the basis of mutual respect and sensitivity to each other’s concerns, interests and aspirations».
On the one hand, the visit indicates a positive step forward in the midst of tensions. On the other hand, this meeting demonstrates that the level of tensions has risen to the point that there are frictions over «concerns, interests, and aspirations» of both countries.
Since the Doklam crisis, there have been significant developments in South Asia, around India. China has cemented relations with Nepal and expanded its ties with the Maldives so much as to push the archipelago, traditionally part of the Indian area of influence, to host bases for supplies for Chinese ships as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Finally, the Rohingya crisis in Burma is exacerbating social situation strains in Bangladesh, a burden also felt in neighboring India. Meanwhile, Bangladesh is increasingly attracted by the economic offers of Chinese investments.
To this are added two traditional friction points: the ever closer relations between China and Pakistan, and the not-so-new, but increasingly important relations between China and Sri Lanka. The view, if we take a step back, is that from north to south, from east to west, India appears surrounded by a growing Chinese presence that is carving out more spaces in traditionally Indian areas of influence.
This is due to the increased Chinese economic strength, which can offer greater business, support, and economic aid to various countries compared to that offered by New Delhi. There is also a political aspect. Nepal, the Maldives or Sri Lanka, or even Bhutan think they are being mistreated by New Delhi, and the new relationship with Beijing strengthens them in their relations with their large neighbor.
All of this makes many in New Delhi believe that Beijing is intent on an encirclement and isolation effort against India. In fact, it is difficult to think of a great Chinese strategy against India. But what is most likely is that Beijing, in its effort to expand the BRI, has decided to fit into every available space, and these spaces include the discontent of the «Indian satellite countries» against New Delhi. This is happening without China realizing what is involved in the relationship between Beijing and New Delhi.
The reaction of New Delhi is triple. Look first for a more frank diplomatic confrontation with Beijing, then more stringent pressures exerted on the fugitive «satellites,» and third a counter-encirclement strategy, tightening major security and intelligence relations with Japan, Vietnam, and the USA, and not forgetting the old reliable ally, Russia. This last has had shifting attitude with Beijing, cold with China when it was warm with Washington and vice versa.
This circle of tensions creates a new horizon of increasing danger in Asia. Clashes, incidents in the Himalayas or the Bay of Bengal; or confrontations between Indian and Chinese troops, planes, or ships have the potential to make the situation escalate. A Chinese withdrawal on Nepal, Maldives, or Doklam could be considered a sign of military weakness or defeat to the ambitious BRI project, which has the imprimatur of President Xi Jinping. But an accommodation would be very delicate.
Another important point is that India is not part of the BRI, and the trade relationship between two countries is not good. India has a strong trade deficit with China. But even when India was in surplus in past years, the quality of the trade displeased the Indians. New Delhi exported raw materials and imported industrial products. Beijing simply does not appreciate India’s quality of production, even in cutting-edge sectors, such as pharmaceuticals or software.
It takes a new way of thinking about Beijing, New Delhi, and the entire Asia-Pacific.