Spearhead Analysis – 17.07.2017
By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
With both India and China refusing to back down, the stand-off at the tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China is nowhere near over. Instead, the skirmish seems to be heating up as China recently upped its fleet presence in the Indian Ocean. For India, tensions at the Indo-China border have intensified the threat of a slow but steady ‘Chinese encirclement’.
Unrest at the border started making headlines as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his much-awaited visit to Washington last month.
Though China wasn’t mentioned by name, there were some subtle references made to China and the ambitious One-Belt-One Road Initiative in the joint statement released following the June 26 meeting. The two leaders agreed to invest in enhancing regional economic connectivity: “…while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment…”
The joint statement further contained two paragraphs dedicated to highlighting the significance of “respect for freedom of navigation and over flight”, and another on the “peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes”.
When China’s Belt and Road Forum (BRF) was held in Beijing, India refused to send any representatives to attend it. India made its objection to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) clear; it takes issue with how the project runs through Pakistan-occupied disputed territory. Any support for the project it fears will validate its foundation. Already sharing a contested border with China, India has concerns related to containment and the emergence of new pathways for aggression from Pakistan, especially now that CPEC is expanding. The Ministry of External Affairs in India went as far as issuing a statement outlining the reasons behind India boycotting the BRF.
Indian foreign secretary S Jaishankar communicated New Delhi’s position again at the 2017 Raisina Dialogue:
“China is very sensitive about its sovereignty. The economic corridor passes through an illegal territory, an area that we call Pak-occupied Kashmir. You can imagine India’s reaction at the fact that such a project has been initiated without consulting us.”
The OBOR may well be perceived as a means to carry out the strategic encirclement of India since it stretches: from the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, moving through west China via Gilgit-Baltistan all the way to the Gwadar port in Baluchistan and a road from the Yunan province also cuts through Myanmar to end at a deep-sea port in Kyaukpyu.
India has been vocal about the OBOR possibly having hegemonistic designs that could potentially complicate its security calculus.
CPEC gives China a footing in the western Indian Ocean with the Gwadar port, which is located strategically at the mouth of the Straits of Hormuz, where Chinese warships and a Chinese submarine have already surfaced. This provides China an opportunity to control maritime trade in the region—which threatens to put India’s interests as risk since it sources more than 60% of its oil supplies from the Middle East.
In wake of these concerns, the resolution drawn at the end of the Trump-Modi meeting may be a win for India since according to the joint statement Washington might be on board with opposing CPEC on the same grounds as New Delhi—more specifically, for passing through the disputed portion of Kashmir.
At the same time it is important to recall that the US did in fact send a delegation to the BRF. Also, it has not yet clearly stated any opposition to CPEC. At best, the US stance on CPEC remains non-committal to moderately interested.
Regardless, the released statement does indicate some agreement between US and India over the larger questions concerning CPEC and undeniably China. The language used to perhaps refer to CPEC may be taken as a sign of India’s growing influence over Trump on major contentious issues. Growing closeness between India and the US is concerning for foreign policymakers in Pakistan as well, which enjoys close ties with China and has high stakes in CPEC.
Now that the afterglow of the Trump-Xi meeting at Mar-a-Lago has long faded, there is news of Trump drifting away from China. The US-India statement could potentially be a sign of changes to come. Whether this holds true or not, it can be said with certainty that China will figure prominently in the future course of the US-India bilateral relationship.