Making Friends Out Of Enemies: China And India Attempt To Expand Their Influence

In Vietnam’s northernmost forests, three Vietnamese soldiers are currently being trained in counter-insurgency tactics by members of the Indian military. The soldiers, in turn, will be expected to pass their knowledge on to other units within the Vietnamese army, thus helping Vietnam develop a plan for defending its northern border. While preparations for jungle warfare between two large, rapidly developing nations may smack of an odd paranoia, Vietnam’s distrust of China may, in fact, be justified. In recent years, Beijing has abandoned its earlier maxim of comparative isolationism, and has increasingly attempted to bolster its military clout through an expansion of its armed forces, and repeated agitation against its traditional adversaries in arenas like the South China Sea.

Though anxiety in the face of this ambition is a common affliction among Asian states, China’s expansionism is of particular concern to Vietnam. In 1979, the two nations fought a border war which, in spite of lasting a mere 3 weeks, managed to claim the lives of as many as 70,000 Vietnamese soldiers. While China has not agitated this border recently, Chinese encroachment into parts of the South China Sea that Vietnam perceives as its own, and China’s increasing willingness to assert its territorial interests against other powers have created a great deal of fear. While such caution is reasonable, the recent involvement of India may seem curious to the casual observer. In fact, India’s willingness to come to the aid of Vietnam is symptomatic of growing insecurity in Asian geopolitics more broadly, and the new friendships and rivalries that this insecurity has created. This reciprocal relationship is best described by a perennial expression of political pragmatism first laid out by a Sanskrit treatise in the 4th Century BC: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”. If India’s attitude towards Asian security is any indication, the land that gave birth to Sanskrit seems to have taken these words to heart.

With populations of 1.1 and 1.4 billion respectively, India and China are by far the largest countries on earth. While India’s economic development has lagged considerably behind that of China, its projected economic development and population growth (it will out populate China by 2022, according to the UN) have led China to perceive India’s growing strength as a considerable threat to its claims of military superiority. Compounding this concern is India’s newfound interest in expanding its own influence. Under the leadership of Narendra Modi, India has shown an interest in tightening its influence over and integration with other South Asian countries, and in partnering with some of China’s traditional rivals in East Asia. This competition has sometimes taken the form more direct attempts by both nations at bolstering their own security. India has invested $8 billion in the construction of new warships intended to ward off potential Chinese encroachments into the Indian Ocean and has pledged to construct 54 new posts along its border with China.

The potential costs of a conflict between the two largest nations on earth would be enough to discourage any attempts at direct aggression, but in an increasingly globalized world, these superpowers have taken to strengthening and partnering with each other’s neighbourhood rivals in an attempt to expand their regional influence. In addition to training Vietnamese soldiers in counter-insurgency tactics, India has committed to selling Vietnam a missile defence system intended for use in the South China Sea, providing it with a US $500 Million defense loan, and further commitments to assist in training Vietnamese troops to pilot Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 Jets, and Kilo-class Submarines. In the context of this race towards regional dominance, India’s increasing support for Vietnam has likely developed in response to China’s involvement in the economic and defense-related affairs of Pakistan, India’s longtime strategic rival. This drive for integration has included the sale of eight diesel-electric submarines for $5 billion, and most contentiously, a $46 billion “One Belt One Road” project connecting Pakistan and China’s northern Muslim-Majority Xinjiang province. In addition to furthering a relationship that makes India deeply uncomfortable, China’s commitment to providing “security” along CPEC’s land and sea routes involves the positioning of forces within territory in Kashmir that India perceives as its own. Thus, by providing security and moving goods through this territory, China is both affirming Pakistan’s perception of this territory as it’s own and actively violating India’s perceived territorial integrity. Chinese pursuit of major commercial port projects in Sri Lanka and Myanmar has also signaled an attempt to build relations with nations in close proximity to India. Such agreements are of vital importance. Economic ties create dependency, meaning that each trade agreement, project or arms sale from China or India to a smaller country plays a small part in creating a dependence that feeds into greater economic cooperation, and makes the undertaking of military opposition considerably more difficult. In light of these dynamics, attempts at expanding influence in the fight for Asia’s future are manifested not only through the movement of troops and battleships, but through the movement of capital and the ties of diplomacy.

For instance, late last year, China provided Bangladesh with $25 billion in credit and supplied it with two new submarines. Earlier this month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India would, in turn, be providing Bangladesh with $4.5 billion in loans, and announced that it would be supplying Bangladesh with an additional $500 million in weapons technology. It is unlikely that China and India made these two announcements without consideration of the impact they would have on each other. Just as Vietnam’s historical rivalry with China makes it a tempting security partner for India, Bangladesh’s history of tension with India creates an incentive for China to draw it closer through financial and military aid. These politically calculated alliances will likely play an important role in defining the future of geopolitics in Asia.

In a number of ways, the future remains unclear. Currently, India cannot hope to match China’s economic clout, a reality manifested in the lesser nature of the loans and concessions it has so far provided. Yet, the future is uncertain, we know that India’s population will quickly outgrow that of China, but cannot be sure whether it will continue to languish in underdevelopment. For their part, the smaller nations of South and East Asia have usually shown a willingness to accept favourable loans and military technology from both powers. In the absence of an impetus to pursue direct conflict, leveraging India and China’s desire to expand their influences may, in fact, help these countries. For now, all we know is that the coming years will see China and India working to expand their influence over other Asian nations and that this will have important implications for the future of the region as a whole.