The Snake-Ladder Game :The twists and turns of Bharat-China relations

Recently Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded their second informal summit in southern Bharat’s ancient temple town of Mamallapuram. Mr Modi, fulfilling his earlier promise of breaking conventional norm of hosting guests in mostly Delhi’s periphery, took Chinese President on an tourist amble through the world heritage site of Panch-rathās and arranged a banquet at the picturesque sea-side Shore temple; in a town which shares rich heritage of Indo-China relations. 

The summit was continuation of last year’s quick rendezvous – the inaugural informal summit – held at Wuhan, China with the immediate objectives of cooling the situation post Doklam heat and charting a new perspective for Sino-Bharatiya relation. The positive atmospherics of Wuhan was dubbed as the ‘Wuhan Spirit’; a new turn to the relation.

A year later the already labyrinthine strings of Sino-Bharatiya relations has further entangled and the brittleness of ‘Wuhan spirit’ has drastically frayed; putting both the countries into the same hassled situation as earlier. After the abrogation of article 370 relations between both the countries has nosedived from a already conflictive point to an increasingly scuffling one. 

China – to Bharat’s dislikes – has openly endorsed Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir considering it a ‘issue left from history’ which should be solved ‘based on the UN Charter, relevant UN Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements’. China views Pakistan rightful in its quest ‘to safeguard its own legitimate rights and hopes’ and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with its ‘iron brother’.

Though China has sometimes, in light of the atmosphere, insisted that the Kashmir issue should be resolved between relevant parties Bharat and Pakistan through dialogue; its overall slant has been, to what New Delhi sees, as closer to its rival Pakistan. The widening rift between two Asian giants has become exceedingly unavoidable, as evident from China’s earlier action at UN when it revived the “Bharat-Pakistan Question”, one of the oldest issues before the UN Security Council (UNSC) which was in the cold storage for over 4 decades.

Earlier the two countries had, very professionally, dodged another strife when they were stepping into troubled waters regarding Bharatiya Army’s newly formed 17 mountain corps’ exercise in the state of Arunachal Pradesh – to which China lays claim as part of southern Tibet – some 100 km away from the de-facto border Line of Actual Control (LAC). There were reports that China has raised objection to it, but it dropped the objection – or rather brushed it aside – after being informed that the said exercise was for familiarisation and acclimatisation during the months preceding winters and post-winters. 

It’s unambiguous that both countries are in a state of conflict but don’t want to acknowledge that formally. Then despite their unwillingness to carry on with scrimmage, what ails Bharat-China relations? 

Constantino Xavier, Foreign Policy research fellow at Brookings India, pointed out that post-Wuhan both countries’ focus of engagement is again back ‘on transactional relations’ but with Bharat’s levels of trust remaining atypically low. Bharat’s scepticism about China is driven by more fundamental reasons, as made clear from the recent melees. The irritants in engagement are manifestation of the larger fundamental disagreements and range of contentious issues that are now characterising the engagement between the two countries. 

Even though Modi and Xi met informally twice, they came nowhere near in addressing the real problems clogging the cooperation between the two countries. China sees itself as the all powerful ‘big dog’ in South Asian and Indo-Pacific periphery which is evident from its actions in South China Sea and the Doklam region in the past. Bharat, on the other hand considers South Asia as its backyard and China’s attempt at increasing its influence and power in South Asian nations of significant strategic importance like Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives; puts it in direct conflict with Bharat. New Delhi takes Beijing’s muscle flexing in its backyard as China’s attempt to undermine Bharat’s global rise. 

From past few years, ‘The Dragon’ has been flying close in the region which threatens Bharat’s long term strategic stability. As in Nepal, ever since the formation of its new communist government, China has galloped to gird it through all possible means – increasing its presence with greater influence and power than ever before; creating an economic-political and ideological conformity towards it; encouraging mandarin in Nepali schools and a promise to decrease Nepal’s ‘dependence’ on Bharat.

Bharat is also sceptical about China’s military build up and show of strength along the critical points, throughout the 4,056 km LAC, such as Pangong Lake in Ladakh and Doklam. Despite 21 rounds of diplomatic talks, the border disputes are nowhere near end. Situation on Bharat-China border is like a dangerous chemical formation waiting for any catalyst to flare up and cause a fissile reaction of conflicts all-over of all caliber. China’s unwavering support to India’s arch-rival Pakistan; Chinese opposition to Bharat’s entry in Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and prime hindrance in Bharat’s bid for UNSC Security Council seat; China’s $53bn surplus in the $96bn trade between the two, are some of the other irritants pushing repulsion.

China, on the other hand, is disturbed with Bharat’s growing bonding with US and US’ military allies. Bharat’s balanced engagement with Quad comprising of US, Japan, Australia has had China on edge. Bharat being the safe and free home to Tibetan refugees has been the one of the biggest dam on China’s part in the Brahmaputra of Sino-Bharatiya relations. Ever since China’s invasion of Tibet; thousands of Tibetan refugees including His Highness Dalai Lama live in Bharat, carrying forward the version of Tibetan Buddhism that China doesn’t endorse. And significant presence of them in Arunachal Pradesh, operating freely and to dislike of China; has caused many fracases among the two nation.

China’s multi-billion dollar infrastructure initiative of Belt and Road and its flagship CPEC have seen the most vehement protest coming from Bharat as New Delhi has all guns blazing on it. Bharat, with its GDP five times smaller than China, three times less defence spending, absence of any mega geo-strategic project and a five times smaller diplomatic corp, has a weaker hand dealing with ‘The Dragon.’

But, in spite of being the weaker Pahalwan in the Dangal, Bharat holds some advantages over China and now it has shown that it is not shy of making moves of those advantages in its own favour. As Harsh Pant, director studies and head strategic studies programme at ORF, evinces that “In New Delhi, there is now a more realistic appraisal of China and Bharat foreign policy has evolved in directions which demands reciprocity from Beijing.”

Despite the fundamental contentions and unresolved border disputes between two world’s most populated countries, both of their leaders held an informal summit  – though with seemingly low expectations – and dodged every strife, ending with a similar positive atmospherics as in Wuhan. Indo-China relation is perhaps at the most illusionary point in decades, when prospects of improvement are thin and chances of radical escalation high, and still the outer atmosphere portrays positivity.

The serpentine twists and turns in Indo-Chinese relations characterised with brimming capacity of both development and dissension reminds me of the game of snake & ladder – the unwonted metaphor that aptly describes the current scenarios of Bharat-China relations.


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About the Author

Yogendra Thakur
A student and two time state topper in Astrophysics and Art of Lecturing. Primary focus areas are Indology and Economics.