Doklam face-off a turning point in Sino-Indian relationship

By Xie Chao Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/15 20:08:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

India has been intensifying its military presence in the Doklam area since it trespassed into Chinese territory on June 18. The aggressiveness demonstrated in the move shows that the Modi government is strengthening its intention for a comprehensive strategic confrontation with China. By challenging China's sovereignty in the Doklam region, India aims to maintain and showcase its hegemonic status in South Asia.

Before Modi took office, India's economy and thus its national strength had maintained years of relatively high growth. However, during the same period, China's national strength was growing even faster, and therefore the gap between the two countries was getting bigger. Beijing's influence has been expanding quickly in South Asia in recent years as it is dedicated to developing friendly cooperation with all countries in the region. The construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has further deepened Beijing-Islamabad friendship. Border negotiations with the Bhutan government have made periodic achievements. China has improved its ties with Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and other South Asian countries.

Traditionally, India's elites have insisted on the country's military and diplomatic dominance in South Asia. But they have now realized that India is not capable of maintaining its absolute advantage over other South Asian countries, and its dominant status in the region is being weakened and challenged.

India's hard-line leadership is attempting to take advantage of structural conflicts between Beijing and Washington. New Delhi's growing national strength encourages itself to push the Beijing-New Delhi bilateral relationship into conflict and confrontation and therefore to contain China's growing influence in the region. That's why we see after a short period of sounding out the Chinese government, Modi is actively leading the two nations into the direction of confrontation.

India's political environment makes it easier for politicians to confront China than improve ties with it. Modi has opted for confrontation with China, with the consideration that by challenging China, the Modi government can maintain India's influence and hegemony in South Asia.

The standoff in the Doklam area has already triggered strong confrontational sentiments in both Chinese and Indian society. No matter how it ends, the Beijing-New Delhi bilateral relationship is highly likely to enter into a confrontational stage. India's current domestic political environment is favorable for Modi to remain in office for a long period, and thus it is highly likely that the Doklam face-off symbolizes a long-term confrontation between Beijing and New Delhi.

Hence it is safe to predict that even if the standoff is peacefully addressed, it will only temporarily suspend the Sino-Indian strategic confrontation, and the Modi administration will take provocative actions against Beijing on other issues.

Modi's handling of China affairs has shown such a tendency. India has taken an aggressive attitude against China on the Belt and Road initiative, the CPEC, the South China Sea disputes, the bid for the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the reform of the UN Security Council and other issues.

The strength gap between China and India determines that New Delhi cannot contain China by itself and has to enlist the help of Washington and Tokyo. The timing of the Doklam face-off coming shortly after Modi's visit to the US is not a coincidence. Taking advantage of Washington's strategic aspiration of using New Delhi to contain and confront Beijing, Modi is attempting to strengthen political and military cooperation with the US. Meanwhile, India-Japan collaborations in the Malabar drill and cooperation in the nuclear and military fields will give New Delhi more bargaining chips to counter China. Modi is hoping such engagement will help maintain and strengthen its hegemony in South Asia.

India's economic gap with China means that India cannot prevent China from deepening economic cooperation with South Asian countries. At this point, China's Belt and Road initiative has a strong basis of support among the public and governments in South Asia. However, New Delhi believes that it could utilize Beijing's structural conflicts with Washington and Tokyo to obtain some political support from the international community, and thus it would be feasible to confront Beijing politically and militarily. With nuclear weapons, India is also confident of its military capabilities.

Given the above, India's provocation this time is not a simple border dispute, but a turning point of the Sino-Indian relationship. No matter how the standoff ends, Beijing and New Delhi will enter into a stage of long-term strategic confrontation and the confrontation will be mainly reflected in political and military matters.

The author is a PhD candidate at the Department of International Relations, Tsinghua University. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion


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