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The Age-Old Sino-Indian Contest for South Asia

Oct 30 , 2014

The new Indian government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pursued its foreign policy with exceptional vigor. One bout of “fast track” diplomacy came to an end with his euphoric visit to the U.S. and another has just begun with Modi hosting Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. The first round also included successful visits to Bhutan, Nepal and Japan. The visit of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to India was likewise a success, even if understated. The success of the summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping however, cannot be stated as convincingly. Xi was given a grand welcome in Ahmedabad by Modi. In Delhi, Xi committed to a $20 billion investment in India over five years, yet while they were touring Gujarat, hundreds of PLA soldiers crossed the border into the Indian territory of Chumar.

Past Trends

The larger question is: Why did China choose to do this? Why did it send such a mixed signal at such an inopportune time? An easy answer can be found by looking at past trends. Previous visits of Chinese presidents and premiers have been a means for delivering disguised messages. The 2013 visit by Premier Le Keqiang was preceded by PLA soldiers camping on the Depsang Plains of Ladakh. Just a week before the arrival of Premier Wen Jiabao in 2006, the Chinese envoy to India Sun Yaxi declared Arunachal Pradesh to be part of China. The history of calculated measures coinciding with high-profile visits should have prepared India for similar actions this time. It was the scale of the incident (with reportedly 1000 PLA soldiers participating) and the timing that took Indian strategic thinkers aback.

Battle of Influence Over South Asia

The more complex and nuanced explanation of what happened in Chumar can be found in a book published in 2001. Protracted Contest by John W. Garver explores in detail the Sino-Indian rivalry during the twentieth century. A substantial part of the book focuses on their competition for influence over South Asia. Traditionally India has considered South Asia to be its sphere of influence. Various smaller nations of South Asia have found themselves locked in an asymmetric relationship with India, whose size and economy overshadows them. In their quest to counter perceived Indian hegemony, they have often reached out to China. Not having the best of bilateral relations with India, China has keenly established diplomatic, economic and even military relations with many of the countries.

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