By: Toh Han Shih

Relations between Asia’s two Asian superpowers appear to be thawing to the point that India may be softening its opposition to China’s grandiose, trillion-dollar global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to connect with other regions through infrastructure projects including roads, ports and railways.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has met three times with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the past three months, with Modi tweeting after the BRICS summit in July that it was “Always a delight to meet President Xi Jinping. Our talks were fruitful and will add vigor to the ties between India and China.”

That may be diplomatic tactfulness of the type usually issued by national leaders. India and China are in intense competition for regional dominance of both the Indian Ocean and the eastern Himalaya region including Nepal and Bhutan, as well as being wary of each other in Afghanistan.

Reviving the Quad

In addition, India has joined to revive the 10 year old idea of the Quadrilateral, usually called the Quad, banding four democracies – the US, Japan, India and Australia, which Australia pulled out of in 2007 for fears it would antagonize China. And, on July 31, the US, Japan and Australia announced a partnership to build infrastructure and boost economic growth in the Indo Pacific, as Asia Sentinel reported earlier.

Although Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo denied this that the tripartite partnership is a plan to counter China’s BRI, Belt and Road, some perceive it as the three countries ganging up against China. Significant by its absence from this group was India, which is likely due to warming ties between Xi and Modi.

Modi was quoted in the website of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying that his third meeting with Xi in three months indicates a high in Sino-Indian relations. Xi and Modi met in the Chinese city of Wuhan in April and at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in the Chinese city of Qingdao in June. They are expected to meet again at the G20 summit in Argentina at the end of this year.

Xi has accepted Modi’s invitation to visit India next year. Modi told Xi of the need to maintain “momentum” generated by their earlier meetings.

“Both leaders have reaffirmed once again their readiness to give their militaries the necessary directions…to maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas,” said Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale at a media briefing in Johannesburg on July 26.

Doklam Issue Resolved?

On August 1, Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj told the Indian Parliament the meeting between Modi and Xi in Johannesburg was highly successful and could build up trust between both leaders. She said the Doklam issue between India and China “has been resolved by diplomatic maturity”.

However, it was only months ago that Indian and Chinese troops had a tense stand-off at the Doklam plateau in the common border region of India, China and Bhutan, reflecting tensions between China and India that go back to a border war in 1962.

The Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have expressed a desire to improve relations along the Line of Actual Control at the Sino-Indian border, India TV quoted an Indian defense official saying on August 3. 

A ceremonial Border Personnel Meeting was held on August 2 on the occasion of China’s PLA Day at a meeting point in Eastern Ladakh, Indian defense spokesman Colonel Rajesh Kalia said in a press statement. The ceremonial address by both delegation leaders reflected both nations’ desire for improving relations.

But Modi’s suspicions over the BRI have not been totally dispelled. At the SCO Summit in Qingdao on June 10, India was the only country among the eight participating states to refuse to endorse the plan. Modi’s suspicion is partly due to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which passes through Kashmir, a region disputed between India and Pakistan, and partly because of China’s growing presence in Sri Lanka, which India regards as part of its backyard.

China and India are investing in two separate ports in Sri Lanka, the website of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority announced on July 25. The Sri Lankan Minister of Ports and Shipping Mahinda Samarasinghe recently said China would invest between US$400 million to US$600 million in the third phase of Hambantota port. The Indian government has pledged US$40 million to upgrade Kankesanthurai port.

By allowing India and China to invest in its ports, Sri Lanka hopes to be on good terms with both Asian giants. This can also be seen in Sri Lanka’s request to India to take over Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, a loss-making airport built by Chinese state-owned companies.

The Sri Lankan government was in talks with India for Indian parties to take over this airport, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told Sri Lanka’s parliament on July 5. At a press conference on July 25, Sri Lankan health minister Sajitha Senaratne admitted the Sri Lankan government asking India to take over this airport, while granting Hambantota port to China, was a balancing act to prevent diplomatic conflict between India and China.

To avoid upsetting India, the Sri Lankan government refused a port call by a Chinese submarine in 2017. In contrast, a Chinese submarine had been allowed to dock in Sri Lanka in 2014, which sparked protests by the Indian government. New Delhi’s protest at that time reflected India’s fears of expanding Chinese influence in South Asia. Sri Lanka’s relatively more friendly overtures to India in recent times may possibly allay Indian fears of Chinese hegemony.

If Sino-Indian tensions are eased, it would make it harder for the US to enlist India as an ally against China. The National Security Strategy unveiled by US President Donald Trump in December 2017 called for the US to partner India to contain China’s expansion in South Asia.

The National Security Strategy report said, “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor. The United States must marshal the will and capabilities to compete and prevent unfavorable shifts in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East.”

“We will expand our defense and security cooperation with India and support India’s growing relationships throughout the region. We will help South Asian nations maintain their sovereign as China increases its influence in the region,” the report added.

Although Indian mistrust of China is not totally removed, India is unlikely to unambiguously side with the US against China, given Xi’s ability to successfully woo Modi, if indeed he has. It remains to be seen if diplomatic bafflegab translates into something more tangible.

Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer based in Hong Kong.