Sun Tzu, perhaps one of the most famous war strategists, explicated the concept of the Divine Skein in The Art of War, which in itself is the most famous treatise on warfare. The Divine Skein was a war stratagem of hemming in the enemy by subterfuge, espionage and other non-violent means instead of military conflict.
Presently, the relations between China and India certainly has echoes of such manoeuvrings where both the rising powers are trying to corral each other in order to contain the other’s influence. Matters came to a head during the Doklam Plateau standoff in 2017, when China, India and Bhutan were embroiled in a territorial dispute which was later resolved diplomatically, albeit with each side proclaiming victory in its aftermath. China had embarked on building roads in an area which it claimed was within its territory. The roads were only 200 km from the vital artery of the link road that connects Delhi to the seven sister states of Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram, Meghlaya, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.
This sent alarm bells ringing in New Delhi since there are separatist movements in all the provinces on its eastern periphery. A Chinese presence so close to a vital logistical link led India to intervene on Bhutan’s behalf, as, according to Indian officials, Bhutan felt its territory was being violated in the Chinese infrastructure work. Eventually, cooler heads prevailed after the standoff. It must be borne in mind that India and China had gone to war in 1962, in the same region, in which India suffered a crushing defeat. India also reciprocated by attempting to make a link road in the disputed Ladakh region. But that’s just the least of both of the countries’ worries as their growing influence expands the contours of their conflict in the region on military, geostrategic and diplomatic fronts.
The attempts by China and India to expand their spheres of influence is causing new faultlines to emerge in Pakistan’s neighbourhood
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which comes under the wider ambit of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative — a modern-day iteration of the Silk Road — has been a constant source of consternation for India. New Dehli was conspicuously absent from a diplomatic symposium heralding the beginning of the OBOR in May 2017 where 29 heads of state attended the event, signifying their assent to the mega project. Even the United States sent a diplomat for the grand inauguration.
To further heighten India’s concerns, China has proceeded to woo the countries that were traditionally under India’s influence through generous loans and infrastructure development projects. The Hambantota Port and Colombo Port City Project (CPCP) in Sri Lanka have been developed with the assistance of Chinese loans and expertise, opening up the possibility of Chinese deep-sea naval vessels docking right on the southern periphery of India. In another surprising development, China is developing a Joint Ocean Observation Station in the western-most atoll of Makunudhoo in the Maldives. Even the recent state visit by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abassi to Nepal is being hailed as a Chinese bid to bring the country into its gravitational pull via Pakistani diplomatic overtures.
There are seismic shifts taking place in South Asia that will have big implications with China and Russia moving in a separate bloc along with Pakistan aiming to root out America and its Nato allies from Afghanistan and India steadily aligning itself with the Americans.
But it is really Pakistan — India’s archrival and China’s most dependable ally in the region — that is the biggest source of concern in Indian circles. The $46 billion (and rising) CPEC is the hinge upon which China’s grand vision of its future role rests. In return for infrastructure projects on power generation and road networks, Pakistan is granting generous access to China to its markets, including development and operations of the strategically located Gwadar deep-sea port. A lesser-known fact is that the largest port in Pakistan, the Pakistan Deep Water Container Port (PDWCP) — a 600-million-dollar project operated by the Hong Kong-based Hutchinson Group — would handle twice as much cargo as Gwadar would in the foreseeable future. There is even speculation that Port Qasim, handled by the Pakistan armed forces, might be handed over to the Chinese.
Policy wonks point out that, aside from their stated commercial purpose, all the ports would doubtless be used for docking of Chinese naval vessels to patrol the waters of the Indian Ocean, which could threaten India’s own presence in doing the same. In response, the scale and scope of India’s collaborations pale in comparison: the Chabahar Port (in Iran), developed and to be operated by India and Iran, and a highway that snakes through India’s eastern provinces and into Thailand and Myanmar, do not hold as much strategic importance as the ones China is involved in.
China has ventured as far as the Horn of Africa by setting up its first overseas military base in Djibouti, signalling aggressive and expansive Chinese naval ambitions in the coming times. In the meanwhile, there has been a massive overhaul of the Chinese navy, the People’s Liberation Army and the air forces. The Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter, Type 001A — the first domestically built Chinese aircraft carrier — and its ambitions of fielding the second-biggest fleet of aircraft carriers, the reorganisation in the ranks of the People’s Liberation Army, and the development of DF-16 medium-range ballistic missiles — among other developments — signal China’s military ambitions in the coming years.
On the diplomatic front too, China has sought to curb India’s influence whenever the opportunity has presented itself. It recently vetoed India’s inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It also vetoed an American resolution listing Jaish-i-Muhammad (JeM) leader Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. India has accused Azhar and JeM of staging terror attacks in India, including the deadly attack on Pathankot Air Force Base in 2016.
China has also hinted that it would review its hitherto neutral stance on the Kashmir issue. Furthermore, during a diplomatic spat with Pakistan, when the Modi government admonished its adversary that it would review the terms of the Indus Waters Treaty of 1965, China temporarily blocked one of the vital tributaries of the Brahmaputra River that originates in Tibet and flows downstream in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. China eventually plans to build a dam on one of the tributaries of the river.
Moving forward, there are seismic shifts taking place in South Asia that will have big implications with China and Russia moving in a separate bloc along with Pakistan aiming to root out America and its Nato allies from Afghanistan and India steadily aligning itself with the Americans.
These are ill omens. Two rising powers may upset the balance of power with the new faultlines that have arisen in recent years. Adding to this is the fact that China, India and Pakistan have the largest and the best equipped armies in the region. India is the largest importer of arms accounting for 13 percent of global arm sales in 2017; the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is the largest standing army in the world; while Pakistan, where half of the country’s budget goes in defence spending, has already indicated that it could use ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ in field battles against India.
For all intents and purposes, it does seem that the Chinese have hemmed in India on the geostrategic chessboard without firing a single gunshot for the time being.
The one ray of hope is that India and China have, for the most part, historically enjoyed cordial relations. The Doklam standoff and the 1962 war were exceptions rather than the rule in Sino-Indian relations. But new power dynamics imperil that order. One can only hope that the two powers realise that there is more to be gained from cooperation than conflict.
By: Raheel Shakeel