Threatened by China’s rapidly growing ties with its South Asian neighbors, India is increasingly trying to penetrate Beijing’s traditional sphere of influence, and the mutual irritations are beginning to show.
Coming just after India and Vietnam agreed to jointly explore two ocean blocks just off the fiercely contested Spratly Islands, Singh’s stance in Bali prompted a frosty response from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
“We don’t hope to see outside forces involved in the South China Sea dispute and do not want to see foreign companies engage in activities that will undermine China’s sovereignty and rights and interests,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lin Weimin told reporters in Beijing.
The Chinese Communist Party newspaper put it even more bluntly in an editorial last month, accusing India and Vietnam of “reckless attempts in confronting China” and warning that Indian society was unprepared for a “fierce conflict” with China on the issue.
A 15th round of talks between leading diplomats from both sides originally scheduled for Monday was called off at the last minute, with Indian media blaming growing "dissonance" after the summit in Bali. Specifically, media reports said China had demanded the Indian government prevent the Dalai Lama from speaking at an international Buddhist conference due to take place in the Indian capital this week, a condition the authorities in New Delhi refused to accept.
On one level, the discord reflects China’s sensitivities over the South China Sea and resistance to outside interference in its dispute with nearly every country in the region over the potentially resource-rich ocean.
But it also represents a deterioration in relations between India and China over the past six years, and a new strategic contest in which each country has been increasingly active in what would once have been seen as the other’s “back yard.”
While their leaders publicly maintain that there is enough room for both countries to grow, experts and officials say Asia’s heavyweights are irritating each other more and more.
“Both footprints are going to expand, the Chinese one much faster,” said C. Raja Mohan of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “There is going to be overlap, there is going to be friction. The challenge is how to manage it.”
So far, the neighbors do not seem to be managing the frictions particularly well, and nationalist sentiment appears to be rising in both countries.
Fears of encirclement
Indian fears of encirclement by China date back decades but have been heightened in recent years by Beijing’s tighter embrace of — and investment in — other South Asian countries, from India’s arch-rival Pakistan to traditional ally Nepal, from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh to Burma.