However much India and China quarrel over their unsettled borders and their competing influences in South Asia, their burgeoning economic ties would ensure a level of normalcy in bilateral relations. Or so went the old assumption. Hence the two quietly defused the 2017 Doklam crisis, and India time and again underplayed Chinese border adventures. The Indian establishment was most reluctant to blame China for the recent skirmishes in Ladakh as well. It was nothing big and everything would soon be settled amicably, it kept saying. Then the Ladakh crisis reached a tipping point.
The Chinese kept escalating, and it became impossible for India to fudge it anymore. China was intent on making a point. There has been a shift in China’s attitude towards India following the latter’s amendment of its national map in November 2019. The new map placed all the disputed territories in Jammu & Kashmir, including those claimed by Pakistan and China, under Indian flag. Removing all doubts about India’s intent, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah later told parliament that India was also most definitely claiming the Pakistan- and China-occupied Kashmir. This meant India now claimed a vital component of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the flagship BRI project.
Despite their growing trade ties, Indian and Chinese strategic visions are increasingly at odds. China is more and more estranged from the US; at the same time India and the US are steadily inching closer. Indian Army Chief M.M. Naravane could have been venting his frustration at Chinese actions in Ladakh when he implicated Chinese hand in Nepal’s renewed claim over the Kalapani region. For him, with border skirmishes with China escalating, the Indian troop presence in Kalapani is a non-negotiable. Forget tri-lateral economic cooperation. The new game is all about getting a strategic upper hand.
This will exacerbate the tendency in India to see Chinese hand everywhere in South Asia. China for its part had not been that bothered by India’s actions in the neighborhood, for India was always an inconsequential regional player on its own. But as the American and Indian interests converge, China can no longer feign nonchalance.
China finds itself isolated by a ‘concert of democracies,’ with worse to come over the Covid-19 fallout. Thus shunned, it’s getting close to Russia. The two countries have just agreed on a new missile defense system for China. They also plan a joint mission to the moon. Beijing and Moscow see no alternative to working together to minimize the US presence in the Indo-Pacific. As I have written before, it is no more farfetched to imagine China and Russia banding together to foil ‘American designs’ on Nepal. Not long ago, the Oli government was subtly advised from up north to invite Vladimir Putin, say to inaugurate an international Buddhist conference in Lumbini.
The global Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting ‘China-bashing’ have only exacerbated the old US-China rivalry. China’s hope that India would keep a safe distance from the US and help it counter anti-China Covid-19 narrative has proven misplaced. As has India’s calculation that the ‘mercantilist’ China is ready to ignore its strategic interests in South Asia. Countries like Nepal will have to live with the upshots of their growing differences. The way the Kalapani dispute has resurfaced is only the start of this new, multi-pronged geopolitical drama.