India’s Lingering Concerns over Chinese Influence in Indian Ocean, South Asia

Mutual suspicions would dictate relations between China and India for a long time to come.

[Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra]

The perception of the Chinese threat gained ground within the Indian strategic circles, with India’s defeat in the 1962 border war between China and India. The war not only was considered a breach of trust and violation of the spirit of ‘Panchasheela Agreement’ signed between the two countries, but also ended India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of a friendly China and “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” (the Chinese and the Indians are brothers) slogan.

It is noteworthy that among the non-communist countries, India was the first to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which was created on October 1, 1949. Under Nehru’s leadership, India reportedly rejected the US offer of permanent membership within the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and supported China’s candidature instead.

However, India’s slide towards China ended with the end of Nehru’s idealism. The relations between the two neighboring countries further plummeted due to India’s concerns over the continuous supply of Chinese arms and nuclear technology to Pakistan, a country perceived as the arch rival of India.

Other factors that contributed to New Delhi’s suspicions over Beijing’s intentions were the latter’s flexing of muscle in the former’s neighborhood, [taking over] Tibet and the territorial claims by portraying Arunachal Pradesh as part of China.

Furthermore, China was palpably intriguing in its unwillingness to disrupt its ally Rawalpindi’s (i.e. Pakistan army’s) alleged connection with the religious radical groups. For instance, Beijing defended the blocking of New Delhi’s move to seek UNSC sanctions against Jaish-e-Mohammad’s (JeM) leader Azhar Masood, the [alleged] mastermind of the attacks on the Uri Indian military base in 2016 and officially stated that the bid to sanction Masood would only be successful after producing solid proof on his involvement.

China’s power reserve which expanded exponentially during the paramount Communist leader  Deng Xiaoping’s period due to his insights and reforms began to assume a hegemonic design during the succeeding [governments] with assertion of claim over disputed areas and muscle flexing in the neighborhood.

Chinese assertion of indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea at the expense of the territorial claims of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines was manifestly driven by Beijing’s geopolitical interests to gain control over strategic sea-routes.

China continued its military modernization as its economy kept expanding. In addition, the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, anchored the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) primarily as the commercial endeavor to build infrastructures and forge connectivity across Asia, Europe and Africa. Both the factors, the Chinese military modernization and the BRI, have brewed Indian concerns that China would likely promote its strategic interests across the Himalayas and Indian Ocean.

Chinese acquisition of a naval base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, Chinese warships and nuclear submarines reportedly making port calls in Sri Lanka, the instance of Sri Lankan government leasing out Hambantota port to Beijing for 99 years and the reports that China planned to deploy nuclear submarines at the Gwadar port of Pakistan — all these developments corroborated Indian suspicions and deepened its concerns.

There’s more to Indian suspicions and concerns. The outgoing Maldivian President, Abdullah Yameen Abdul Gayoom, announced plans to build a Joint Ocean Observation Station in Makunudhoo, and there’s the speculation that China would build a military port in the archipelago state.

New Delhi has also raised objections to the BRI saying the initiative “violates India’s sovereignty” particularly with reference to the inclusion of the Gilgit-Baltistan region into the ‘China Pakistan Economic Corridor’ (CPEC) project, a flagship project within the BRI, without any consultation with India, which considers the Gilgit-Baltistan region as its integral part.

Further, China had been the largest supplier of arms to two of India’s neighbors — Pakistan and Bangladesh. Beijing had also supplied arms to Nepal and Sri Lanka. China concluded major agreements with Pakistan on defense production as well as on the transfer of military technology. China’s $2 billion military supplies to Myanmar had raised lingering Indian suspicions over Chinese intentions.

These aforesaid activities have led many Indian scholars to argue that China adopted a ‘play now, fight later’ tactic. This tactic was explicit in its aggressive moves in the South China Sea following a ‘period of peaceful cooperation,’ during which China’s economic penetration enmeshed countries around the South China Sea in a web that neutralized their ability to resist.

Quite similarly, Beijing in its apparent gestures of peace, growth and trade with India, it actually bought time to strengthen its military and economic strength. While China began to improve its relations with India in the mid-1980s, it took advantage of the improved relations by quietly building a network of roads and airfields which later turned into China military strategic assets along the Indian borders. The 74-day long Doklam standoff at the strategic tri-junction of Bhutan, India and China serves as an apt instance of India’s frictions with Chinese BRI.

Apart from this, New Delhi must have warily noticed that China has not only accumulated trade surplus and occupied Indian market with its cheap products over the years, but notwithstanding its economic engagement with India, it has not stayed away from bolstering Pakistan’s military strength.

While India and China have, after the Doklam standoff, made concerted efforts at resetting their relations through the Wuhan meeting in April 2018, a meeting on the sidelines of the SCO summit, and the BRICS summit meeting in July 2018, it is the mutual suspicions that would dictate relations between these two neighbors for a long time to come.

Author Avatar | Oped Column SyndicationDr. Manoj Kumar Mishra, Lecturer in Political Science, S.V.M. Autonomous College, Odisha, India. Previously worked as the Programme Coordinator, School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India


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