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Indian soldiers during a ceremony: The country is increasingly flexing its military muscle to counter an ambitious China.   © Reuters

Poking the elephant: China's Belt and Road riles India

Rivalry could provide regional balance -- or take a dangerous turn

TOKYO -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has arrived in Manila for the East Asia Summit, joining U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and bringing Asia's other big player into the ongoing jostling for position that has unfolded since Trump's Asia tour began on Nov. 5.

Modi has been a relatively quiet participant in the East Asia summit in past years, as tensions in the region have centered around the East and South China seas. Yet, with China's presence expanding to the Indian Ocean, spearheaded by Chinese President Xi Jinping's signature Belt and Road Initiative, more is now at stake for the Indian leader. 

Call it a battle of symbolic beasts. The elephant, a symbol of India, is a docile creature, but are relentless adversaries when provoked. China, the dragon, could be riling the elephant, with an ambitious drive to expand its sphere of influence. 

The two beasts will have a chance to size each other up Tuesday at the Manila summit. 

India feels threatened by China's Belt and Road Initiative, aimed at building a "new Silk Road" economic zone stretching to Europe by way of land and sea. New Delhi made its position clear in May, when Beijing hosted a summit on the initiative. While Japan and most Asian countries participated, India did not send a representative.

It is no secret that the Belt and Road would encircle India -- running through Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan and Djibouti, which serves as a gateway from the Indian Ocean to Africa. Indian resentment is building because even Kashmir, a contested area between India and Pakistan, is included in infrastructure development plans.

A former senior Indian government official likened the initiative to a resurgence of colonialism, saying China not only seeks to besiege India but is also sticking its nose into the territorial issue.

China rejects such views. In the opening speech of the Belt and Road forum in Beijing this May, President Xi Jinping said, "The pursuit of the Belt and Road Initiative is not meant to reinvent the wheel. Rather, it aims to complement the development strategies of countries involved by leveraging their comparative strengths." 

New sheriff

India has long been wary of China's expansionism but has tried to avoid stirring the pot, Indian foreign policy experts contend. 

Though India once organized joint military drills with Japan, the U.S., Australia and Singapore in 2007, it has since avoided participating in the same framework. India turned the U.S. and Japan down when they proposed creating a framework of foreign ministerial meetings with Australia, to brace for a more powerful China.

But India is starting to think its cautiousness and patience are not paying off, former government and military officials said recently in New Delhi. They explained Prime Minister Modi's mindset this way: While India has sought to coexist with China and rise together, China is evidently trying to squeeze India. 

Beijing, which China's critics say launched the Belt and Road to counter the U.S. and create a new world order, may have underestimated how its neighbor would react. In any case, India is beginning to push back. 

This can be seen along the India-China border. The two fought a war in 1962 and have had border tensions since. The disputed areas, combined, are roughly the size of Malaysia.

A "friendship" sign on the Indian side of the border with China in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh   © Reuters

There is a history of cross-border incursions by the Indian and Chinese armed forces. Indian military experts said that in the past, New Delhi generally protested the Chinese incursions but refrained from large military deployments to avoid inflaming the situation.

That has changed under Modi, who apparently concluded that weak-kneed reactions would only make China more aggressive.

For two and a half months, starting in June, Indian and Chinese forces faced off around a border tri-junction with Bhutan. India dispatched more than 500 soldiers and marshaled over 10,000 behind them -- the country's single largest deployment against China since the 1962 clash.

Two paths

India's change of attitude is apparent in foreign policy as well.

At a foreign ministers meeting in New York in September, the U.S. and Japan again brought up the framework for regular meetings with Australia. For the first time, India was reportedly receptive to the idea.

The Modi government is stepping up military cooperation with the U.S. while throwing its weight behind Vietnam and other countries locked in territorial disputes with China. 

The question, now, is whether India and China will continue to ratchet up the tension or move toward rapprochement. The deep distrust that has festered since the Sino-Indian War means the first scenario is a very real possibility.

China is unlikely to back down from expanding its influence -- after all, it is determined to become a superpower comparable to the U.S. by the mid-21st century. India, meanwhile, is likely to become more assertive as its own power grows.

India is projected to surpass China as the world's most populous country by around 2024, according to the United Nations. Although India's gross domestic product is still only about one-fifth of China's, its economy is growing faster.

This rivalry has the potential to reshape geopolitics -- not only in Asia but globally. It is sure to affect the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy" declared at Monday's Japan-U.S. summit.

If the Indian elephant serves as a counterweight to the Chinese dragon, it could help ensure stability in Asia. The other possibility -- a full-on clash -- must be avoided.

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