May 2024

Countering China

Amit Agnihotri considers India’s firm stance on off-setting Beijing’s growing involvement in South Asia

India is standing up to Chinese interference in South Asia, ranging from attempts at renaming areas in the India border state of Arunachal Pradesh and continuing the Line of Actual Control row in eastern Ladakh since 2020, to pushing infrastructure projects in Himalayan nations Nepal and Bhutan.

The latest retort from India came when a miffed New Delhi termed yet another attempt by China to rename 30 areas in Arunachal Pradesh as ‘senseless’ and reminded the Asian Dragon that the bilateral ties had gone off track and needed a course correction.

‘China has persisted with its senseless attempts to rename places in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. We firmly reject such attempts,’ the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said in an April 2 statement. ‘Assigning invented names will not alter the reality that Arunachal Pradesh is, has been, and will always be an integral and inalienable part of India.’

This strong reaction came after the Chinese Ministry for Civil Affairs released the latest list of standardised geographical names in Zangnan, the Chinese term for Arunachal Pradesh.

Nor is this the first time that China has provoked India. In April 2023, China changed the names of 11 places in Arunachal Pradesh, inviting a sharp rebuke from New Delhi.

The problem is that China illegally claims Arunachal Pradesh is part of South Tibet, while India believes the border state is an integral part of that country.

Himanta Biswa Sarma
Himanta Biswa Sarma, chief minister of Assam, called for the Indian government to‘give a list of 60 geographical names of areas around Tibet in China’

For its part, India had been taking steps to send an unequivocal message to China. In 2017, New Delhi allowed Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh, despite opposition from Beijing.

In March this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Arunachal Pradesh, provoking Beijing to lodge a diplomatic protest and note that India’s moves will ‘only complicate’ the unresolved boundary question.

Ignoring Beijing’s rant, the Indian Premier kept the pressure on when he described Sino-Indian ties as ‘abnormal’ and flagged the need to address the issue with urgency in the middle of national elections.

‘For India, the relationship with China is important and significant. It is my belief that we need to urgently address the prolonged situation on our borders so that the abnormality in our bilateral interactions can be put behind us,’ Modi said in an interview with the US magazine Newsweek.

China illegally claims Arunachal Pradesh is part of South Tibet

He added: ‘Stable and peaceful relations between India and China are important for not just our two countries but the entire region and world. I hope and believe that through positive and constructive bilateral engagement at the diplomatic and military levels, we will be able to restore and sustain peace and tranquillity on our borders.’

India-China ties took a deep plunge after the 2020 Galwan Valley clashes in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed and an equal number of Chinese troops perished. The bloody clashes resulted when Indian troops foiled a Chinese attempt to violate the LAC in the Ladakh region. Full disengagement is yet to take place, despite several rounds of talks between the senior army commanders of the two sides.

China’s provocation in changing the names of Indian territories not only contributed to the already existing public distrust, it also raised demands for a fitting response from federal authorities within India.

India is now helping Bhutan build two rail links between the two countries,

Pema Khandu, chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, termed the move ‘another gimmick from China’, while Himanta Biswa Sarma, chief minister of another north-eastern state, Assam, said, ‘My request to the Indian government is that we should give a list of 60 geographical names of areas around Tibet in China.’

China has been very sensitive regarding any references to Tibet, which it annexed in 1951 and where it has been asserting itself despite strong protests from the Tibetans, who believe they have a separate cultural identity distinct from the Han Chinese-dominated mainland.

In another counter to China, India will soon start work on the strategic 1,748 km Frontier Highway in Arunachal Pradesh. The highway will run close to the India-China-Tibet-Myanmar border and allow Indian security forces to monitor Chinese troop movements in the region, as well as boosting the local economy.

Another bone of contention has been China’s efforts to expand its presence in the Himalayan nations of Nepal and Bhutan.

Nepal came under Chinese influence in 2017, when two of its communist parties united to form a government headed by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, alias Prachanda.Since then, the establishment in Kathmandu has shifted gears between pro- and anti-India slants, although a recent political realignment that led to the installation of a pro-China government headed by Prachanda has sent alarm bells ringing in New Delhi.

As expected, a Chinese military delegation visited Nepal days after the power shift and pledged to boost defence cooperation between the two nations.

Beijing’s other long-term focus in Nepal is to push stalled infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which have earned notoriety for dragging the host economies into debt-traps.Aware that it is not possible to erase the cultural links that Nepal shares with India, Beijing’s plan has been to mark the Chinese presence felt in the Himalayan nation through big infrastructure projects. As part of the plan, China has invested in the building of airports, highways and hydropower projects in Nepal.

Pushpa Kamal Dahal
PRO-CHINA: Pushpa Kamal Dahal, alias Prachanda

While Prachanda had a natural ideological inclination towards the Chinese Communist Party, the wily politician did take care to make his first trip abroad to India after taking office in December 2023. (After all, a land-locked Nepal is dependent entirely on India for its oil supplies and is a recipient of decent investment from New Delhi.) During the visit, Nepal and India signed up for several projects, including a cargo railway line and two border checkpoints to boost mutual ties.

In January this year, Indian external affairs minister S Jaishankar travelled to Nepal to sign a pact for the purchase of 10,000 MW of power over the next ten years, denting Beijing’s plans. 

Over the past years, New Delhi decided not to purchase power from another country if the project was funded or built by China. As a result, Nepal removed Chinese developers from six hydropower projects and gave contracts for four of them to Indian companies. At present, India is developing ten such hydropower projects in Nepal, against five by China.

In another Himalayan nation Bhutan, two recent mutual political visits indicated the bond that Thimphu shares with New Delhi.

As China pushed Bhutan into signing a border deal which could compromise India’s security interests in the strategic tri-junction Doklam area, Prime Minister Modi visited Thimphu in March to reassure it neighbour, ruled by King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk. A week before that, Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay was in New Delhi to discuss mutual ties.

India is now helping Bhutan build two rail links between the two countries, including the Kokrajhar-Gelephu rail link and the Banarhat-Samtse rail link. India will also supply oil to Bhutan, and push space cooperation.

Amit Agnihotri is a Delhi-based journalist who has worked with several national newspapers and focuses on politics and policy issues