Within two weeks of assuming office, Prime Minister Modi has successfully completed his first tour abroad, to neighbouring Bhutan. He had earlier met the six heads of government of the region during his swearing in ceremony.

The PM also met the Chinese foreign minister and had his first overseas crisis the hostage negotiation in Iraq. That is a lot to pack in the first month. The PM, however, had to cancel his tour to Japan, scheduled for later this month, due to the Budget session of the Parliament.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves at people who lined up in Thimphu to say goodbye, while he was on his way to the airport. File Pic/PTI
Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves at people who lined up in Thimphu to say goodbye, while he was on his way to the airport. File Pic/PTI

The Indo-US-Japan tri-lateral dialogue, planned for June 24 in Delhi, has been postponed due to scheduling issues from the Japanese side. The Japanese are reportedly unhappy, mainly because Modi will meet the Chinese leadership at the BRICS summit in Rio de Janeiro before he meets Shinzo Abe, despite sharing warm personal ties with the Japanese PM. Japan and China are shopping for allies in Asia. For strategic and geopolitical reasons, each would like India to be on its side.

Their rivalry has gone beyond sensible jockeying for power. The two East Asian giants have territorial disputes over Senkaku islands, a theoretical claim over Okinawa and indulge in power play in South and East China seas. China has territorial disputes with over a dozen countries, including India. And it will not let up on any of them.

Flying into airspace of other countries be it India, Japan or heckling soldiers of the Bhutanese Royal Guards, the Chinese believe that keeping neighbours in a constant state of anxiety benefits them. While Beijing wants to be seen as a responsible global player, it continues to trouble its democratic neighbours by interfering in relationships that don’t concern China.

For example, Modi’s visit to Bhutan has aroused its suspicion. China wants to somehow end the protectorate status that Bhutan enjoys vis-à-vis India. Bhutan shares 420 km of land border with China. The disputed areas include Doklam on the border and further to Sinchulumpa: about 816 sq km. Despite a Panchsheel like peace pact between Bhutan and China, the latter has started building roads on the border leading to anxiety in Bhutan.

China has offered territorial concessions in Central sector as quid pro quo for Bhutanese concessions in the Western Sector, including in the Doklam plateau. If Bhutan accepts the Chinese offer, the Indo-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction at East Sikkim would shift 12 km southwards.

Some Bhutanese MPs are keen on this package as it would end their long standing boundary dispute with China. But Bhutan ceding parts of this Chumbi valley (tri-junction) would put India’s Siliguri corridor or the Chickens neck at risk.

The corridor was created in 1947, when Bengal was partitioned between India and Pakistan (East). After the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, this thin corridor assumed further significance as it connects north-east India to the mainland, and has Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan along its narrow stretch.

China would like to resolve the dispute with Bhutan bilaterally, without India’s presence in the room. But its diplomatic and economic clout in Bhutan is not yet as influential as in many other countries. China would ideally like Bhutan to be its strategic depth into India’s north-east. The plan seems to be to keep pushing south till it gets access to the Bay of Bengal.

China has already acquired strategic depth in India’s west by being Pakistan’s all weather friend. It has also been able to cultivate effective relationships across the political spectrum in Bangladesh, while the Indian influence seems to be waning.

China’s influence in Nepalese politics is growing, which India has ignored in the past decade, either due to pre-occupation with other matters or because it lost the urge to put up a fight. Building dams, roads and ports and winning influence is a Chinese geo-strategic tactic.

India’s strategic planners will have to realign their thought process that the old hyphenation of Indo-Pak has changed and the world has now begun to hyphenate India with China. Granted that China is more developed, a richer country, has more resources and therefore more influence in the polity of nations.

But despite all that, Asian countries look towards India as the balancing factor the mature democracy that can balance China’s naturally hegemonistic behaviour. The world will be keenly watching how the new BJP government in Delhi deals with the Chinese challenge by projecting itself as an equal partner and a tough rival, both at the same time.

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash