Geopolitical flux in Asia

Much to India's discomfiture, Beijing has found a new ally in Russia, which is keen to side with China, to scuttle western interests.

Relations between Asia’s two rising powers, China and India, are in trouble with Beijing refusing to take Indian security concerns seriously and New Delhi deciding to take the challenge posed by China head-on.

Sino-Indian ties are presently passing through a turbulent phase with China extending its “technical hold” on India’s move to get Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar listed as a terrorist by the United Nations in December last. Since March 2016, China has been blocking India’s move to put a ban on Azhar, under the sanctions committee of the UN Security Council, despite support from all other members of the 15-nation body. And in response to India testing its long range ballistic missiles — Agni IV and Agni V — in the last few weeks, China has indicated that it would be willing to help Pakistan increase the range of its nuclear missiles.

China’s official mouthpiece, Global Times, contended in an editorial that “if the Western countries accept India as a nuclear country and are indifferent to the nuclear race between India and Pakistan, China will not stand out and stick rigidly to those nuclear rules as necessary. At this time, Pakistan should have those privileges in nuclear development that India has.”

China’s $46 billion investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has also been troubling India as it creates a land corridor through the contested territory in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir which India claims as its own.  India views CPEC as an insidious attempt by China to create new realities on the ground and a brazen breach of India’s sovereignty and territory.

Chinese media has suggested that India should join CPEC to “boost its export and slash its trade deficit with China” and “the northern part of India bordering Pakistan and Jammu & Kashmir will gain more economic growth momentum.” New Delhi has wondered if China would accept an identical situation in Tibet or Taiwan or if this is a new phase in Chinese policy when China is accepting Pakistan’s claims on Kashmir as opposed to viewing it a disputed territory.

Faced with an intransigent China, India under the Narendra Modi-led government is busy re-evaluating its China policy. After his initial outreach to China soon after coming to office in May 2014 failed to produce any substantive outcome, he has decided to take a more hard-nosed approach.

New Delhi has strengthened partnerships with like-minded countries like the US, Japan, Australia and Vietnam. It has bolstered its capability along the troubled border with China and the Indian military is now operationally gearing up for a two-front war. India is ramping up its nuclear and conventional deterrence against China by testing long range missiles, raising a mountain strike corps for the China border, enhancing submarine capability and basing its first squadron of Rafale fighter jets near its border with China.

More interesting perhaps is a significant shift in India’s Tibet policy with the Modi government deciding to bring the Tibet issue back into the Sino-Indian bilateral equation. India will be openly welcoming the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader who has lived in exile in India since 1959, at an international conference on Buddhism to be held in Rajgir-Nalanda, Bihar, in March 2017. And ignoring Beijing’s protests, the Dalai Lama will also be visiting Arunachal Pradesh which China claims as part of its own territory.

After initially ceding ground to Chin­ese sensitivities on Tibet and refusing to explicitly acknowledge official interactions with the Dalai Lama, a more public role for the Dalai Lama is now being seen as an essential part of Indian response.

In his first meeting in decades between a serving Indian President and the Dalai Lama, President Pranab Mukherjee hosted the Dalai Lama at the inaugural session of the first “Laureates and Leaders for Children” summit held at the official residence of the President in New Delhi in December. China has not taken kindly to these Indian moves and vehemently opposes any move to rehabilitate the Dalai Lama.

There is growing disenchantment with Chinese behaviour in New Delhi. Appeasing China by sacrificing the interests of the Tibetan people have not yielded any benefits to India, nor has there been tranquillity in the Himalayas for the last several decades.  This Sino-Indian geopolitical jostling is also being shaped by the broader shift in global and regional strategic equations.

Anti-West posturing

Much to India’s discomfiture, Beijing has found a new ally in Russia which is keen to side with China, even as a junior partner, to scuttle western interests. Historically, sound Indo-Russian ties have become a casualty of this trend. In order to garner Chinese support for its anti-West posturing, Russia has refrained from supporting Indian positions, something New Delhi has long taken for granted. 

And worried about India’s growing proximity to the US, Russia is warming up to Pakistan. The two held their   first ever joint military exercise in September 2016 and their first-ever bilateral consultation on regional issues in December.

After officially lifting an arms embargo against Pakistan in 2014, Pakistan’s military will be receiving four Russia-made Mi-35M attack helicopters in 2017. It is also likely that China-backed CPEC might be merged with Russia-backed Eurasian Economic Union.

Jettisoning its traditional antipathy to the Taliban, Russia is now indicating that it is ready to negotiate with the Taliban against the backdrop of the growing threat of the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. Towards that end, Russia is already working with China and Pakistan, thereby marginalising India in the regional process.

As the Trump Administration takes office in Washington this month, it will be rushing into these headwinds generated by a growing Sino-Indian tensions and budding Sino-Russian entente. Trump’s own pro-Russia and anti-China inclinations will further complicate geopolitical alignments in Asia. Interesting times indeed!

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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