The month of June has seen tensions between New Delhi and Beijing being ratcheted up a notch. On June 8, Chinese troops crossed into Sikkim to destroy two makeshift Indian Army bunkers. This intrusion came in the wake of a scuffle that took place a few days earlier, when troops from both countries faced off without weapons. Then, on June 23, China denied pilgrims on the Kailash Mansarovar yatra entry into Tibet from Nathu La, on the Indo-China border in Sikkim.
Such standoffs between India and China in this sector are rare, unlike at the Line of Actual Control in Jammu and Kashmir, which has seen major incursions by armed Chinese troops in the past – for instance, in the Depsang, Chumar and Daulat Beg Oldie sectors in 2013.
The tensions between the two countries are not new. India remains one of the few neighbours that China continues to have a border dispute with. Nineteen rounds of bilateral talks between two special representatives have failed to end this historical impasse.
Some analysts suggest that the renewed aggression on the Chinese side is due to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in April, which displeased China. Beijing claims the state as South Tibet. But that cannot be the sole reason since the Dalai Lama also visited the state during the United Progressive Alliance government’s tenure.
Indian intelligence analysts, however, say that there could be another reason.
India has been cold towards China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative, which aims to create a network of road and sea links and infrastructure projects connecting China with South and Central Asia, West Asia and Europe. In May, India said that it would not be part of it, adding that it was a project that ignored New Delhi’s concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity. That, most analysts agree, seems to have been the trigger for the renewed Chinese aggression.
One Belt One Road
At the Second China-India Think Tanks Forum in Beijing last week, Chinese scholars studying economics and trade took pains to explain the One Belt One Road project to their Indian counterparts. They believe that the Made in China 2025 initiative, which was launched in February, is key to continuing China’s dominance in manufacturing. This initiative aims to take China’s manufacturing capacities to the next level. However, an increase in manufacturing capacity also means the need for new markets, and One Belt One Road hopes to achieve that by setting up links with South Asia and Europe. This, they feel, will ensure that the Chinese economy continues to grow at a steady trot in the decades to come. Thus, One Belt One Road is crucial to the success of Made in China 2025.
New Delhi, on the other hand, has always been suspicious of Chinese intent. It therefore chose to stay away from the One Belt One Road summit in May. In a detailed statement issued at that time, while refusing to participate in the initiative, India said that “connectivity projects must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity”. Decades ago Pakistan ceded territory in occupied Kashmir to the Chinese. This created trilateral issues, with New Delhi protesting that the illegal ceding of territory to China has changed the nature of a disputed territory.
Addressing a select audience at Vivekananda International Foundation on June 14, RN Ravi, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, explained why India chose to stay away from the One Belt One Road project in detail. “In India’s estimate the OBOR is for China’s comprehensive growth,” he said. “There are major issues [with it] such as sovereignty [and] if we join this bandwagon we endorse it.”
India was also concerned that One Belt One Road would mess up the economies of countries that signed up for it, increase their dependence on China and finally undermine regional security. India’s official statement reflected these concerns, which evoked a quick reaction from the Chinese. The official spokesperson of the ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement pointing out that the large acceptance of One Belt One Road by major powers nullified India’s concerns.
But clearly, New Delhi is not ready to play ball. It has been keenly watching the consequences of Chinese investments in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, and views them as hostile moves to undermine Indian influence in the region. It also believes that Chinese investments lead to national debt traps, as has been the case in eastern Sri Lanka and with the development of the Gwadar Port in Pakistan.
The presence of Chinese Naval ships in the Indian Ocean Region has also caused worries for Indian planners for years. In 2016, 19 Chinese naval ships, including submarines, were deployed in the region, increasing worries about China’s intentions. Indian intelligence analysts also believe that China abuses principles of the free market economy and pushes investments with strategic and security objectives.
In a bid to counter Chinese influence, India is busy building its networks with Iran and Russia, while beefing up its presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands on the East and the Lakshwadeep Islands in the West. Both sets of islands offer India an immense strategic advantage. They are considered floating aircraft carriers, giving India tremendous strategic reach to dominate the Indian Ocean region as well as the crucial Malacca Straits, where crude oil from West Asia passes through on its way to China and South East and Far East Asia.
As Chinese scholars articulated at the opening session of the Second China-India Think Tanks Forum, One Belt One Road is a way for China to take over the role being vacated by the United States under President Donald Trump. At this session, speakers pointed out that if President Trump’s policies were leading to a “de-globalisation” then “re-globalisation” was China’s initiative for the taking.
This clearly sends out several messages to India on several levels. The aggression seen on the borders will probably see a spike in the near future. Indian analysts point out that the rules of engagement between the Indian and Chinese armies has usually been without weapons. However, when Chinese troops moved into Sikkim and demolished two bunkers earlier this month, the Indian Army asked for a flag meeting to defuse tensions. The Chinese military rejected the overture twice. Both sides finally agreed to meet on June 20, which led to a temporary resolution.
However, Beijing seems to have taken note of New Delhi’s hardening stance, and government insiders say that this will lead to more confrontations on the military and diplomatic fronts. As both sides manoeuvre against each other, tactical flashpoints are now threatening to overtake the promise of strategic engagements.