Asia’s geostrategic game of chess intensifies with Xi’s visits to India

Asia’s geostrategic game of chess intensifies with Xi’s visits to India

Chinese President Xi Jinping wrote a commentary that was published on Wednesday, Sept. 17, in the prominent Indian newspaper The Hindu in which the head of state reflected on the promise of improved bilateral relations between China and India, especially in the economic realm.

In the article written in the run-up to his visit to India on Sept. 17-19, Xi described China as “the world’s factory,” i.e., the hub of global manufacturing and hardware, and India as “the world’s back office,” i.e., the center of global services and software, therefore hinting that when combined, the joint capabilities of the two countries would create an unparalleled consumer market and deeply competitive business environment. According to Xi, China can help India consolidate its infrastructure and manufacturing capabilities, which would in turn facilitate the trade of IT services and pharmaceuticals between the two countries and encourage both to upgrade their technological bases. Moreover, it would also serve to narrow the $30 billion trade deficit that New Delhi has with Beijing.

Indeed, state-run newspapers in China such as the Global Times and Xinhua have been praising Indian PM Nahendra Modi for a while now, underlining his potential to set India on a trajectory of sustained economic growth similar to that of China’s that started with the Deng Xiaoping era. But there is still a lack of trust between the two countries, fueled by protracted disputes and clashes over their Himalayan borders. Additionally, China’s relentless endeavor to establish a “String of Pearls,” referring to a medium-term policy to build ports and other maritime facilities throughout the Indian Ocean as part of its global energy and maritime security strategy, has also been causing frictions between New Delhi and Beijing, along with the Tibet and Pakistan issues.

Making matters worse, India has been taking firm steps to improve maritime cooperation with Japan and Australia, especially since Modi came to power. These countries embarked on major economic bilateral initiatives that encompass projects which aim to boost cooperation in the extraction and trade of energy resources such as oil and uranium, and to promote investments in energy generation with special emphasis on constructing and supplying nuclear power plants in India. Likewise, India and Vietnam agreed on tightening relations in the fields of arms procurement and offshore oil drilling (by India’s ONGC) within the waters of the disputed South China Sea. Such a general agreement was met during the Indian president’s visit to Vietnam earlier this month, from which he returned the same day Xi arrived in India. Added to this trend that seems to be working to the detriment of China is the proposed cooperation in arms manufacturing and defense between the United States and India, the details of which will be revealed during Modi’s upcoming visit to the U.S. later this month.

Despite the deteriorating context, China wants to offset the decades-old tensions with its southwestern neighbor. At a time when Beijing is confronted by maritime disputes with various major countries in the region including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, in addition to the United States, it cannot risk losing South Asia, which remains its only peaceful outlet to the maritime trade routes that are so vital for its continuous supply of energy. Moreover, possible diplomatic isolation and exclusion from collective security constellations throughout the region will cost China its developmental goals as well. Therefore, Beijing believes if it does not reinvigorate its peripheral diplomacy toward South Asia and keep up with the times, an economic and strategic nightmare of maritime containment could soon become a reality.

In this vein, Beijing has recently been bolstering its ties with South Asian countries, the most important sign of which is seen in the construction of two deep-sea ports by China in Sri Lanka. Moreover, Xi just wrapped up an official visit to Sri Lanka and the Maldives en route to India. But as China grows more active within a maritime region traditionally seen as India’s backyard and another standoff between Chinese and Indian forces to the south of the disputed region of Aksai Chin took place just before Xi’s visit to India, deep-seated mutual suspicions between New Delhi and Beijing have once again been ignited. And despite the generous $100 billion investment scheme that was unveiled by China during Xi’s recent visit to India, political relations are unlikely to expand beyond economic pragmatism in the forthcoming period.  

Acknowledging the dilemma in its relations with India, China finds it useful at this juncture to carry on with a policy of carrots and sticks. The overall sentiment in Beijing is pro-cooperation and pro-dialogue, so we can expect the border dispute to persist in a symbolic fashion, like the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of the Indian leaders. Nevertheless, although the leaders of both countries will do anything to avoid increased tensions leading to a hot conflict, the sustainability of the sensitive balance between cooperation and competition for New Delhi and Beijing is rather precarious.