Hostile border dispute with India could damage China’s global trade plan, experts warn
Beijing’s strong-arm approach could make an enemy of New Delhi, whose strategic position is key to the success of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’
The protracted border row between China and India has not only raised tensions between the two Asian giants but could also threaten Beijing’s ambitious trade and infrastructure outreach plan, the “Belt and Road Initiative”, experts have warned.
Chinese and Indian troops have been locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball stand-off for over 40 days in a desolate region of the Himalayas that is also claimed by India’s ally Bhutan. Both sides blame each other for escalating the dispute by deploying troops in the area.
Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Dong warned that Beijing’s hardball politics are pushing New Delhi further away and could end up making it an enemy.
“China is playing psychological warfare ... but it should realise that even if it defeated India in a war on land, it would be impossible for the PLA navy to break India’s maritime containment,” he said, pointing to the importance of the Indian Ocean as a commercial lifeline.
China is heavily reliant on imported fuel and, according to figures published by state media, more than 80 per cent of its oil imports travel via the Indian Ocean or Strait of Malacca.
“Unlike Southeast Asian countries, India has never succumbed to China’s ‘carrot and stick’ strategies,” Wong said. “India is strategically located at the heart of China’s energy lifeline and the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, and offending India will only push it into the rival camp, which [Beijing believes] is scheming to contain China by blocking the Malacca Strait and the Indian Ocean.”
Sun Shihai, an adviser to the Chinese Association for South Asian Studies, echoed Wong’s views. He said he was concerned that the worst military stand-off in more than three decades would fuel anti-Chinese sentiment in India, as mistrust and hostility between the two countries run deep.
If not properly handled, the border row could have a long-term impact on China’s efforts to expand its diplomatic and economic influence beyond the Asia-Pacific region with its “Belt and Road Initiative”, he said.
“India is one of the most important strategic partners for China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ because of its geographic location,” Sun said.
“Beijing has been trying to lure India to join ‘Belt and Road’ projects because both countries stand to benefit from them strategically and economically. [But] The latest tensions have soured bilateral ties and the growing mistrust will only make New Delhi more reluctant to make a decision,” he said.
The latest border dispute on the remote Doklam Plateau, also known as the Donglang region in Chinese, came as the world’s two most populous nations continued to jostle for dominance in the region.
In July, India, the United States and Japan completed their 10-day Malabar 2017 naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal, while around the same time the US approved the US$365-million sale of military transport aircraft to India and a US$2-billion deal for surveillance drones. All three should be “warnings” to China, Wong said.
According to the Business Insider website, India’s interest in enhancing its naval capabilities, especially its fleet of submarines, is thought to have been prompted by China’s military modernisation and its increased activity in the Indian Ocean and the narrow Malacca Strait, which connects it to the waters of East Asia.
India’s growing focus on submarine warfare was underscored after it was included as part of the joint naval drills in Malabar, the website said.
After several weeks of stand-off in Doklam, China’s defence ministry on Monday issued its strongest warning yet to India regarding the border dispute, saying it would protect its sovereignty “at all costs”.
Dr Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, a research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, said Beijing’s assertiveness had deepened the political trust deficit between China and its Asian neighbours.
“There are other inherent problems in China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, which have resulted, for example, in the abandonment or postponement of several of China’s high-speed rail projects,” Chaturvedy said.
“China’s ‘my way or the highway’ approach has complicated problems further,” he said.
India refused to join China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ and affiliated infrastructure projects due to sovereignty concerns over the US$50 billion “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor”, which runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, both of which New Delhi considers Indian territories.
In India, China is widely blamed for the stand-off in Doklam after it attempted to build a motorway in the area. Beijing, meanwhile, has insisted that the road construction project was on its side of the border and accused Indian troops of crossing into its territory.
“China’s behaviour is only likely to make India even less willing to reconsider its objection to the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, said Rajeswari Rajagopalan, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “Even the few voices in India that have suggested India should reconsider its position are unlikely to support it [China].”
Regardless of exactly who did what in Doklam, experts on both sides of the argument agree that the odds of the two countries going to war are slim.
Alka Acharya, a professor of Chinese studies at the Centre for East Asian Studies in New Delhi, said that although the Indian public wasn’t well informed and could be influenced by hawkish talk online, “nobody has come out in favour of war – they support a resolution by diplomatic means”.
Beijing-based Zhou Chenming added that China was well aware of the futility of an all-out war for a desolate border area that is “frozen for up to eight months of the year”.
“Besides the [human] casualties, the logistical cost of a border conflict between China and India would be inestimable,” he said.
Meanwhile, the dispute between China and India has had the knock-on effect of slowing down discussions at the ongoing Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad.
China has zealously promoted the trade pact in the hope it could replace the United States-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement that was abandoned by US President Donald Trump in January.
However, the talks, which got under way on July 18 have been hampered by India’s reluctance to compromise on its demands for greater market access for its skilled workers.
The partnership was initiated by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which also invited China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India.