Much media attention has been given to the dramatic rise of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a statesman in the international and regional political theaters since his electoral victory in May last year. US President Barack Obama’s visit to India this week was of vital significance because it affirmed Washington’s determination to forge an alliance with India against a rising China. After a decade of antiterrorism efforts concentrated on Central Asia and the Middle East, the US has become an active player in shaping the balance of power between India and China.
As modern nation-states in the Cold War era, with the exception of the early 1950s, diplomatic relations between India and China were characterized by border conflicts, regional rivalries and strategic and economic competition.
Sino-Indian border conflicts resulted from the rejection by Beijing of the British-drawn McMahon Line of 1913–1914 separating India and Tibet, the flight of the 14th Dalai Lama to India after the 1959 Tibetan Uprising and the dispute following the 1962 border war in which China seized 38,000km2 of Indian territory in Aksai Chin, and another 5,180km2 of northern Kashmir that Pakistan ceded to Beijing under a 1963 pact. China has been keen to avoid confronting a powerful India south of the Himalayas.
Outraged by India’s support of the creation of the Dalai Lama’s exiled government in Dharamsala, Beijing responded by supporting Pakistan during the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, continuous Chinese arms transfers to Pakistan indicated the close links between Beijing and Islamabad.
The wider Cold War conflict greatly complicated Sino-Indian relations, as shown by the Soviet alliance with India and US support for China from the 1970s onward. Despite the gradual Sino-Indian rapprochement after the visit of then-Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to Beijing in 1988, China refused to sacrifice its strategic partnership with Pakistan. This “two-front threat” (ie, Pakistan in the west and China in the north and northeast) gave rise to Indian leaders’ worries about China’s containment policy.
Two security issues have affected the latest development of Sino-Indian relations. One issue has to do with China’s concern about the spread of Islamic extremism from Central Asia to Xinjiang. An unstable Pakistan threatens the security of China’s western frontier. In May 2009, several identifiable groups with al-Qaeda links attacked Chinese investors and workers in Pakistan. Seeing the escalating instability in Pakistan, China worried about the political vacuum left by the US military withdrawal from Central Asia and the use of Afghanistan as a training ground for Islamic militants in its Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
Another security issue concerns the Chinese naval expansion into the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Since 2013, China has launched a “Maritime Silk Route” initiative to establish a comprehensive system of oceanic ports, harbor infrastructures and special economic zones in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
To further protect its lines of communication across the Indian and Pacific oceans, China has constructed new ports, maritime communications and overland transport routes in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In December 2011, China announced it would build an anti-piracy naval base in the Seychelles to counter US maritime power.
All these geostrategic efforts were designed to consolidate China’s control over its extensive overland and maritime frontiers.
Indian policymakers always view China as an interloper in South Asia, an external power that challenges India’s natural sphere of influence. As a rising power, China perceives South Asia as a legitimate area for flexing its muscles against India and the US. In response to this Chinese encirclement, India has pursued security relations with China’s neighbors in the Pacific Ocean, especially Taiwan, Vietnam and Japan.
Evidently, both India and China have adopted defensive security concerns to balance against each other in the wider Asian region.
As the global balance of power is gradually shifting from China to the US and its allies, India will seize the opportunity to counter Chinese influence and reclaim its status as a regional power in Asia. Although the future is contingent upon many circumstantial factors, the US pivot toward South Asia has opened a new door for Taiwan to reset its diplomatic agenda and to boost its business and cultural ties with India.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is a professor of history and codirector of the Global Asia studies program at Pace University in New York.
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