Tension in the India-China relationship

A map of the Himalayas and the countries in the region
The Himalayas have formed an effective border between countries in the region for centuries, but new Chinese infrastructure links could tip the balance of power (source: dpa)

Until recently, the news had been full of reports on the military standoff between China and India at the Doklam Plateau, where the borders of India (Sikkim State), Bhutan and China meet. Fortunately, there appears to have been a de-escalation, but the dormant conflict across the Himalayas continues.

The Himalayas form a powerful barrier separating India from China. However, there are several areas where the border is disputed, creating constant tension. The long frontier between India and China is interrupted by two countries south of the Himalayas’ main range and open to India’s heartland: Nepal and Bhutan. Since these countries are strategically crucial to India, New Delhi has exercised its enormous influence over these countries, and may, from time to time, overstep. India not only tries to control these countries’ foreign affairs, but also to influence their internal policies, including by imposing trade restrictions.

The Himalayas are an effective line of defense for India against possible Chinese aggression, since traversing them is extremely difficult. But a strong Chinese influence on Nepal and Bhutan could be strategically lethal for India.

India and (especially) China are emerging world powers with hegemonic aspirations

India and (especially) China are emerging world powers with hegemonic aspirations. India has several concerns aside from its Himalayan border. China has become a close commercial and strategic partner of its longtime adversary, Pakistan. The Chinese navy is increasing its presence in the Indian Ocean. Chinese influence is rising in Africa, on the other side of the Indian Ocean, and its sway is growing in neighboring Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, India strongly supports Vietnam, which has recurring disputes with China over the South China Sea and works closely with the United States.

In the 1950s, China annexed Tibet, Asia’s central highland, which is sparsely populated due to its elevation and climate. It lies just north of the main section of the Himalayas. It is not only strategically important, but it is also a major source of water for vast parts of South Asia, Southeast Asia and China.

A Chinese train in the Tibetan Himalayas
China has brought modern infrastructure – such as this rail connection – to Tibet. It is now working on similar links to neighboring countries in the Himalayas (source: dpa)

China is now bringing greater access to this area with modern railroads and highways. It is also increasing its presence in the region with huge road and rail projects across the Himalayas, connecting it with Pakistan, and plans similar links to Nepal. This will connect these countries to the entire Chinese transportation system, which has been improved and modernized. China might also use the control of water as means of influence.

This is a situation to be closely watched.

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