All eyes in southeast Asia are firmly focused on the potentially cataclysmic confrontation between the U.S., its subordinate allies, a nuclear armed North Korea that claims to possess ICBMs capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, and military demonstrations of strength along the South and East China Seas. However, tensions among three members of the increasingly relevant Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) are threatening regional stability and ambitious bilateral projects.
Latent Sino-Indian tensions appear to have been reignited over quarrelsome issues that are not dissimilar and are certainly linked to the 1962 trans-border war that was fought between the two countries, where China decisively defeated India. Political dialogue and rhetoric has deteriorated to the point of accusations, recriminations, and demands by China that India withdraw the contingency of its forces that have been stationed at the insistence of Bhutan from contested border regions in the Himalayas. The disputed territory is located at the triangular intersection of the borders between China, India, and Bhutan. As a demonstration of its resolve in the contentious region, China has recently conducted live-fire military drills to reaffirm its unwavering stance on the issue. This has been reiterated through word and deed, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, issuing a clear statement that the Chinese leadership expects India to come to its senses and withdraw troops that ‘illegally’ crossed the border back to the Indian side of the border. The Chinese have also warned that this is a non-negotiable precondition to any commencement of peace talks on the disputed Himalayan territory, presumably through the structures of the SCO. It is important to note that the immediate cause of these ramped up tensions is the decision by China to create a road in the region, and construction began in June of this year.
In a broader geopolitical sense, the root of this conflict is related to Narendra Modi’s foreign policy adventurism and practice of a conservative Machiavellian style of realpolitik. Using this strategy, India manages its bilateral relationships through a precarious balancing act designed to extract as many concessions from the world’s most eminent superpowers, such as China, Russia, and the United States, and enhance its own prestige. Under the Modi government, which identifies as being Hindu nationalist, India has been exercising an incoherent foreign policy that is devoid of any consistent national vision, while asserting its geopolitical leverage, of which it has little, in the context of rival regional powers.
With that said, India is currently positioning itself as both a buyer of expensive U.S. military hardware, a friend of the U.S. and its unpopular Israeli ally, as well as a vital member of the SCO that was co-founded by Russia, a former ally, and China, its adversary and rival. The geopolitical implications of this hostile, yet potentially promising relationship cannot be overlooked as Eurasia-Asia, under the leadership of Russia and China, looks to accelerate its integration. At the heart of these ambitious Eurasian programs are China’s New Silk Road or One Belt One Road initiative and the Indian government’s lack of accommodation and hesitation. To expand, the Indian government is reluctant to participate in full-fledged joint cooperation with the Chinese in order to construct the vast trade and logistical infrastructure that would be necessary to realize this world commerce initiative.
Moreover, Modi’s absence from the first One Belt, One Road (OBOR) summit, which hosted dignitaries and representatives from 29 nations, was blatantly intended as a snub to Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, and China’s heightened relations with its neighbour Pakistan and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a vital trade route into the Middle East for the OBOR initiative. As a result, China’s initiative, though not forestalled, has called into has called into question the immediate viability of the project because of the absence of one of its most important investors. Therefore, Modi’s intransigence to his fellow Asian partners became all the more obvious with his disingenuous counter-proposal to OBOR with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. In light of these recent developments, which seem to have resuscitated a Cold War-like atmosphere among two Asian landmasses, it is easy to assume that the latent border disputes are inextricably linked to the Indian government’s insecurity about the current Chinese-centric geopolitical trajectory of Asia. In a sense, the situations seems to be more like a manufactured crisis that was precipitated by Modi in order to justify additional billion-dollar defence contracts with the U.S. and to harness geopolitical clout through power struggles. Nevertheless, this is a shame as India has a lot to gain economically as they would be an integral part of the OBOR Asia-Eurasia interconnectivity project.
With that said, the days of the Sino-Soviet split are over and Russia no longer relies exclusively on its traditional Indian ally to counter China, but rather cultivates friendly relations with virtually all Asian states, leaving India with little room to manoeuvre. Thus, instead of seeking to expand its geopolitical influence, India should look for constructive dialogue with Pakistan and China and resolve outstanding issues like the turbulent province of Kashmir and border disputes with China through multilateral institutions, such as the SCO and BRICS. In fact, Russia, with its enhanced diplomatic activity could serve as a bridge and mediator between the respective rivals.