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International relations

Vijay Sakhuja -- Indo-Chinese tensions heat up

The struggle for political and strategic dominance in Asia between China and India is now out in the open. On June 24, China blocked India's bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a 48-member organization that controls the export of nuclear weapons-related technology and materials, on the grounds that New Delhi is not a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty.

The Chinese rejection of India's application to the NSG during a plenary session of the organization in Seoul is particularly painful for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who made a valiant effort to convince Chinese President Xi Jinping to "make a fair and objective assessment of India's application on merit." His effort failed despite clear evidence that the two leaders have developed a personal rapport.

Meanwhile, India has signaled concern about China's attempt to make a case for Pakistan, a nuclear weapons state and a longstanding ally of Beijing's, to join the group. There are several other political and strategic reasons that may have provoked China to take a hard line on India's application.

Political considerations

First, India's role in jeopardizing a Chinese-funded port project in Sri Lanka had angered Beijing. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena put on hold the $1.4 billion Colombo port reclamation project, ostensibly due to India's insistence. Strong Indian reactions to the docking of Chinese submarines in Colombo harbor also infuriated China, which had difficulty in explaining the presence of these vessels in the Indian Ocean.

Second, the growing friendship between Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who are considered "nationalistic and center-right" leaders by Beijing, caused nervousness in China. India and Japan are concerned about Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and the rapid military modernization of the Chinese navy.

Third, India had irked Beijing with its insistence that China support a vote in the United Nations -- in accordance with Security Council resolution 1267 dealing with terrorist groups and individuals -- to take action against Pakistan for releasing from jail Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. China took the position that India did not provide "sufficient information" on the issue. Similarly, China blocked for the second time an Indian move to ban under the resolution the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohamed, whose leader Masood Azhar is the alleged mastermind of the terrorist attack on the Pathankot military base in north India in January. China's Permanent Representative at the U.N., Liu Jieyi, claimed that Masood did not qualify as a terrorist.

Fourth, India, in response to China's stance on Lakhvi and Masood in the U.N., decided to grant a visa to Dolkun Isa, a German national of Uighur ethnicity and leader of World Uighur Congress, to attend a conference in Dharamsala, home to the exiled Tibetan leader Dalai Lama. Beijing was evidently distressed since it considers Isa a terrorist, who is listed by Interpol and the Chinese police. Without naming India, the Chinese foreign ministry stated that "bringing him to justice is a due obligation of relevant countries."

Strategic mistrust

There is clear mistrust between the two Asian powers and China is carefully monitoring Indian initiatives to "contain" its moves. The 2015 "Joint Vision Statement on Asia-Pacific" announced by Modi and U.S. President Barack Obama called for contending parties to the South China Sea dispute to refrain from the "threat or use of force" to ensure peace and stability in the region. China was rattled by the statement and advised India that it should not "fall into the trap of rivalry set by the West."

China is also closely watching the growing naval cooperation between India, Japan and the U.S. It reacted cautiously to the expansion of the India-U.S. joint Malabar naval exercises to include Japan, and the Chinese foreign ministry warned that the "relevant country [Japan] will not provoke confrontation and heighten tensions in the region."

In June, China dispatched an intelligence vessel to monitor the Malabar exercise. The ship was spotted by a Japanese maritime patrol aircraft as tracking two Indian warships taking part in the exercises. The U.S.-India-Japan trilateral foreign minister dialogue has also bothered China, particularly since Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida observed that the three countries would not hesitate in shaping the Indo-Pacific region both individually and collectively.

India and Vietnam are meanwhile bolstering closer bilateral security and defence cooperation. India is supplying Brahmos cruise missiles to Vietnam as the centerpiece of this cooperation. The missile can be launched from Russian-made ships, submarines and fighter jets that are being used by both countries' armed forces. India is also training the Vietnamese navy in submarine operations. India regularly uses Vietnamese naval facilities for port calls during deployments in the South China Sea. In this context, a Chinese naval ship challenged in 2011 an Indian warship, INS Airawat, while it was sailing from Nha Trang to Hai Phong, nearly 45 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast, warning the Indian warship of intrusion in "Chinese waters."

China believes that India has deliberately discredited Xi's Maritime Silk Road project by criticizing it as a "string of pearls" strategy aimed at containing India. The Indian defense minister recently told his Chinese counterpart that such initiatives can jeopardize "peace in the Indian Ocean." Meanwhile, India views the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor linking Kashgar to Gwadar, in which China plans to invest $42 billion, as an intrusion into disputed territory since it passes through a part of Kashmir occupied by Pakistan.

End game

India and China will conduct hard diplomacy in the coming months on the NSG issue. China, through the NSG debate, hopes to push India to sign the NPT, but India is averse to the idea and remains committed to "no first use" of nuclear weapons, a policy which is similar to that of China. Beijing also took the high moral ground that India's entry into the NSG should be considered separate from its bilateral ties with India. It is worth nothing that India had cited China as "an overt nuclear weapon state" on its borders and also mentioned "distrust due to the unresolved border problem" as among justifications for its nuclear tests in 1998.

Pakistan's nuclear program has a strong Chinese footprint and Beijing will explore Islamabad's entry into the NSG despite the fact that Pakistan is a suspected supplier of nuclear technology to rogue states such as North Korea and Libya, with A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, being at the heart of these networks. Significantly, before the NSG meeting, Xi assured Pakistan President Mamnoon Hussain that China would follow a "criteria-based approach" for NSG membership that was sure to preclude India's entry into the NSG.

India would have to convince not only China but also Brazil, Austria, Ireland, New Zealand and Turkey, which also failed to support India's NSG application on procedural grounds.

India can be expected to invest additional political and defense capital in its strategic partners, particularly Japan and the U.S., but this can complicate the India-China NSG dispute. The U.S. will attempt to boost defense cooperation with India by selling advanced military hardware, provide access to cutting-edge military technology and make India a Non-NATO military ally in moves clearly aimed at containing China. Likewise, Japan will actively engage India through military sales and joint naval exercises in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

India has directly blamed China for raising procedural hurdles in New Delhi's NSG membership bid. Modi conceded in a recent TV interview that India has a "whole lot of problems pending with China," but noted efforts to find solutions on an individual basis.

The U.S. believes there is "a path forward" for India to become a full member of the NSG by the end of the year, but China may not easily abandon its position on India's entry and instead pursue an aggressive agenda to challenge India.

Vijay Sakhuja is director of the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. A former navy officer, he is author of Asian Maritime Power in the 21st Century.

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