The last few decades a resurgent People’s Republic of China has made aggressive economic and diplomatic moves into the subcontinent (as it has in other parts of the world) that includes deepening and extending its military partnership with the Himalayan states of Nepal and Bhutan and enhancing its military and economic infrastructure partnership with India’s eastern neighbor Bangladesh. It has also emerged as a leading supplier of military hardware to Pakistan (including nuclear reactors, missiles, and jet fighters). China and its South Asian partners view these exchanges as benign and part of the normal relations among sovereign states, but not so in New Delhi. India increasingly views China’s moves into the “Indian Sphere of Influence” with a high degree of trepidation and skepticism and do not see the benign dimension. China’s expanding relationship with India’s smaller South Asian neighbors is described as String of Pearls—a policy of strategic encirclement of India with China friendly countries.
The unresolved border issues, the Tibet and Dalai Lama matter, memories of a military conflict in 1962, armed skirmishes in 1967 and 1987, accelerating military and security partnership between Pakistan and China, and now with Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, all have made Sino-Indian relations highly volatile, and it is characterized by high levels of mistrust. Increasing bilateral trade that is expected to cross the 100 billion mark next year has not produced the interdependence for reduction of the enormous distrust in Sino-Indian relations. Deep-seated anxieties and insecurities dominate this pivotal bilateral relationship with India being the anxious, nervous, and insecure partner. This asymmetric relationship has introduced a high degree of instability and produced aggressive military postures on both sides and militarized the Indian subcontinent and made security dilemma the central feature of the regional security architecture. Beijing has made remarkable infrastructural developments in the upper reaches of the Himalayas, enabling it to bring troops to the Tibetan frontier region as rapidly as possible.
New Delhi has become extremely wary of China’s growing soft and hard power, and it has sought to confront this with its own diplomatic, economic, and military moves both inside and outside the region. Whether these moves are successful or not is altogether another matter, but the fact that India is attempting to match China through military spending, competing for new avenues for its growing energy demands, and seeking a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council points to the growing urgency in New Delhi about wanting to deter Beijing.
Unburdened by the end of the Cold War, India has sought to move closer to the United States and subtly balance against China. While India’s growing alliance with the United States has yielded some positive results, India remains wary of being drawn into a broader conflict with China. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has maintained that India will not join any formal containment alliance aimed at China and that it would maintain strategic autonomy.
The U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal, first announced in July 2005 and subsequently approved by the U.S. Congress in October 2008, is one of the clearest signs that India has moved closer to the American orbit, and China has taken note of India’s growing chumminess with the United States. Since 2008, weapons sales from the United States to India have gone up from zero to eight billion dollars. However, the U.S. has remained somewhat lukewarm to the idea of bolstering democratic India as a strategic bulwark against China because of the concern that it might alienate Pakistan. Doubts also persist in Washington policy circles regarding India’s commitment to be a true American ally and play a balancing role vis-à-vis China. India for its part has been reluctant to pursue an all-out formal U.S.-India alliance so as not to provoke any counterforce action from Beijing.
During the 2012 BRICS Summit in New Delhi, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met with the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and reiterated that India “will not participate in any strategy aimed at containing China” or allow any “anti-China activities by exiled Tibetans.” Instead, India has sought to build a complex multilateral relationship with China. While on the one hand it has sought to align with China in forums such as the BRICS and G20 and even in the United Nations, to counter American and European trade and intellectual property rights regulations, it has sought to challenge China in several bilateral fronts and increased its defense spending to counter Chinese entry into the South Asian sphere by moving closer to Central, East, and South East Asian states. These moves and counter-moves have unsettled the smaller South Asian states that are wary of being made a pawn in big-power politics. But Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka have been able to balance against India by defiantly moving close to China, which has only heightened the already tense and asymmetric relationship with India.
Bangladesh is seeking Chinese assistance in developing road links, railway lines, the Chittagong port, and the deep-sea port in Sonadia Island. All of these infrastructural developments would provide China a beachhead on the eastern side of India. Burma and Bangladesh are developing road and rail links that would connect China’s Yunnan Province with the Chittagong area of Bangladesh, which will surely boost economic activities, but New Delhi fears that it would also enable Beijing to move its troops just an hour east of the Indian territory.
The People’s Republic has emerged as a major supplier of arms to the Bangladeshi armed forces. The Bangladesh-China Defence Co-operation Agreement was inked in 2002, expanding strategic and military cooperation. Since then, China has supplied 65 artillery guns, 114 missile systems, 155 mm howitzers, and large cache of small arms and ammunitions. The Bangladesh army is in the process of procuring 2,000 Main Battle Tanks from China at the cost of 162 million dollars, which is a significant purchase for a country the size of Bangladesh with a GDP per capita of 700 dollars. The Bangladeshi navy (Nou Bahini) is collaborating extensively with the Chinese Navy (PLAN) in acquiring missile boats, torpedo boats, gunboats, and submarine hunters. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has argued that a strong navy is needed as a “deterrent force” and she aims to usher in a process of developing a three-dimensional naval force by the next decade.
With Chinese assistance, Bangladesh has built a missile launch pad near Chittagong Port that India perceives as highly provocative. Missile tests have been conducted without informing India in advance, which signifies a break in protocol. All this military modernization and the strong military and strategic cooperation between China and Bangladesh have raised serious security concerns in India. The larger question being asked around in the policy circles in New Delhi is: why does Bangladesh need all these modern weapons including advanced battle tanks, long-range bombers, missile systems, and anti-ship weapons? Chinese arms sales to Bangladesh and enhancement of its strategic infrastructure has exacerbated Indian fears of encirclement and produced a new arms race in the subcontinent that was heretofore limited to India and Pakistan.
Bangladesh’s move towards the Chinese is well timed to put pressure on India. Given that India and Bangladesh have several outstanding problems, especially related to border disputes, water sharing, refugees and migration, drug trafficking, terrorism, and several insurgencies along the border areas. Indian insistence that Bangladesh address these matters first has only pushed Bangladesh further into the welcoming arms of Beijing. As such, India’s policies are often portrayed as coercive and hegemonistic in the Bangladeshi media, and there is deep distrust in Bangladesh of Hindu India and its policies towards Muslims. India is forced to walk a tightrope in confronting several outstanding bilateral issues with Bangladesh without appearing as being pushy. Both Beijing and Dhaka have stressed that their growing alliance is based on mutual understanding and the desire to expand trade and economic relations. Nonetheless, Bangladesh has become a part of the Chinese grand strategy that is aimed at putting pressure on India on multiple fronts and heightened Indian vulnerabilities.
China and Sri Lanka have forged a strong economic, military and technical relationship, a direct outcome of India’s withdrawal from the Sri Lanka affairs because of the disastrous policy of sending the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka (1987-1990) to resolve the ethnic conflict between Tamil minority and the majority Sinhala that was exacerbated by the terror unleashed by the LTTE. Sri Lanka moved closer to Beijing by supporting the One-China policy and ignoring questions on Tibet and other human rights concerns. The Sri Lankan mission has lobbied assiduously for the inclusion of China as an Observer nation in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SARRC). China has reciprocated Sri Lanka’s goodwill by expanding major infrastructure projects such as the $1.5 billion flagship Hambantota Development Zone, which includes an international deep-sea container port, an oil refinery, and an airport. Although the Hambantota project is viewed as an engineering marvel and it is acknowledged that only the Chinese are capable of building such mega infrastructure projects, Indian analysts see the dual-use purpose of this project and interpret it as a clear sign of the growing strategic relationship between Beijing and Colombo.
China’s expanding footprint in Sri Lanka has amplified India’s anxieties and elevated concerns about Chinese intentions. The larger fear is that China is encircling India with a series of strategic alliances and mega infrastructure projects such as the port in Chittagong and Sonadia in Bangladesh, Sittwe in Burma, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Gwadar in Pakistan. The series of ports ringing all sides of India from the East to the West has raised hackles in New Delhi, which fears that India may one day wake up to find itself strangled by this Chinese strategic pearl necklace. The agreement for the construction of a Chinese naval base in island of Seychelles has further elevated the level of anxiety in New Delhi to a level that the Indian security establishment sees threats and vulnerabilities everywhere. The String of Pearls strategy has not only given raise to deep anxieties in New Delhi, but it has also drawn the attention of Washington, which has taken note of the Chinese Navy’s growing assertiveness and global reach. The United States is concerned that these deep-water ports could easily be fortified to target American carrier fleets from secure bunkers. Furthermore, the Chinese claim of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea and its growing presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has forced India to assert herself in the region with increased naval patrols and regular port calls to friendly states in South East Asia.
The push back against Chinese encroachment into India’s traditional sphere of influence has started with the new Annual India-Sri Lanka Defense Dialogue, and India has embarked on several major infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. These initiatives show that India is eager to offset the significant disadvantage it finds itself vis-à-vis China when it comes to its own neighborhood. But there is growing realization that it has been outplayed in several fronts and that it simply lacks the capability to counter every Chinese move in all South Asian States.