While Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent unofficial summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made global headlines, the two rival nations’ subsequent moves were arguably more telling of their strategic intent.
Asia’s most populous nations are locked in an intensifying competition for South Asian influence, one where China is increasingly stealing a march in a region India has long considered its sphere of influence.
Underscoring the point, a Xinhua report quoted Xi as saying that the “dragon and elephant dance is the only correct choice for China and India” and that differences should be handled in a “correct way.”
Sun Shihai, a Chinese India expert, was quoted in regional media as saying that “despite the leadership summits, there’s still deep-rooted suspicion and antagonism between the two countries.”
Core to that antagonism is a still festering border dispute in the Himalayan Doklam region, where the two sides engaged in a weeks-long standoff in 2017, and the long-time presence of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader Dalai Lama in India.
Mutual suspicions also explain while Xi made a high-profile visit to neighboring Nepal, home to a thousands-strong population of Tibetan refugees which Beijing eyes with apparently rising suspicion.
Before the October 11-12 visit, to prevent any embarrassment to Xi, Indian police before the visit detained twelve Tibetan activists who planned to stage protests while the Chinese leader was in the country.
But the gesture was more form than substance. Shortly before Xi’s tour of the Indian subcontinent, India had persuaded neighboring Bangladesh to allow it to install at least 20 surveillance radar along its Bay of Bengal coast.
Neither India nor Bangladesh elaborated on the purpose of the monitoring equipment, but the Indian Navy said shortly before the agreement was made that it had tracked seven Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean, an increasingly common presence in the waterway.
India has reason to worry about Chinese encroachments in the ocean, as well as in the Himalayas. Soon after what many viewed as his strained meeting with Modi, Xi traveled to Nepal, his first ever visit to the long-time Indian ally.
In recent years, to the consternation of policy planners in New Delhi, Nepal has drifted into China’s orbit, including as a major beneficiary of Xi’s global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Xi and Nepal’s Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli signed a reported 20 bilateral agreements spanning railroads, roads, ports, energy and agricultural development during the visit.
During his visit to Kathmandu, Xi also issued a stern warning to unspecified enemies. “Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones,” Xi was quoted saying in Chinese state media.
The stern message was most likely directed at Tibetan exiles, 20,000 of whom live in Nepal, with an estimated 9,000 in Kathmandu alone.
But unlike the 150,000 Tibetans in India, who are free to be politically active when Chinese leaders are not there on a visit, those in Nepal face growing curbs on expression, including bans on publicly criticizing Chinese policies and showing support for the Dalai Lama.
Even so, the Chinese are well aware of the fact that between 3,000 and 5,000 Tibetans fleeing Chinese repression reach India every year traveling through Nepal.
Xi did not get everything he wanted in Nepal. According to Indian and Nepalese press reports, Xi had brought with him an extradition treaty aimed at deporting all Tibetan refugees in Nepal back to China.
Nepal did not sign, recognizing the international outcry that would have ensued. Xi had to be content with a Pact on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, which covers criminal offenses and not political cases.
Xi’s threatening words, which he strategically chose to utter in Nepal rather than India, could also be interpreted as a warning to not only agitating Tibetan refugees, but also to anti-Beijing protesters in Hong Kong and the pro-Western leaders of Taiwan, which China views as a renegade province that must be ”reunited” with the mainland.
Xi also said that “any external forces backing such attempts at dividing China will be deemed by the Chinese people as pipe-dreaming.” Xi’s message to Nepal’s likewise communist leader, however, was more conciliatory.
Underlining the two sides’ burgeoning ties and connectivity, Xi and his Nepali hosts agreed to announce a re-measured height of Mount Everest, “recognizing that Mount Everest, also famous as Sagarmatha in Nepali and Zhumilangma in Chinese, is an eternal symbol of the friendship between Nepal and China.”
The results of the joint survey are expected to be released early next year amid speculation that the mountain might have shrunk after the 2015 Nepalese earth quake.
It was conveniently omitted in the announcement that “Zhumilangma” is a Chinese distortion of Chomolungma, the mountain’s name in the language of Tibet, where Everest is also located. China had previously laid sovereign claim to Everest in but is no longer pushing the issue.
China’s push south over the Himalayas began in 2006 when China completed a 1,956-kilometer railroad connecting Xining in northwestern Qinghai province with the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. In 2014, an extension to Xigaze, or Shigatse in Tibetan, 270 kilometers to the southwest of Lhasa was opened.
If all goes to plan, the last 70-kilometer stretch to Kathmandu will be completed by 2024 – at the same time as a 28-kilometer tunnel will be built on the road from Tibet to Nepal, cutting travel times between the Nepalese capital and Chinese border in half.
When those projects are completed, Nepal will be more firmly connected to China than at any time in its history and hence less dependent on India for foreign trade and energy supplies.
India’s move in 2015 to blockade landlocked Nepal, which included restrictions on crucial energy imports, are believed to have contributed to Kathmandu’s recent lean towards Beijing.
Nepal’s growing cooperation with China also entails Chinese assistance to the Nepalese army, to which it now supplies military hardware. The procurements are known to have raised hackles among Indian strategic planners.
Despite rising criticism of China’s loans and credits, including under its BRI scheme, that may lead to sovereignty-eroding debt traps for comparatively poor nations, Xi’s BRI is going full steam ahead in Nepal.
Viewed more broadly, China’s Nepalese projects mirror those in Laos and Myanmar, where Chinese companies are pushing through rail projects that will variously connect to the Lao capital Vientiane, and the Myanmar port city of Kyaukphyu which opens on to the Bay of Bengal.
As Xi’s recent visits to India, Pakistan and Nepal show, the geopolitical balance in South Asia is quickly shifting, with rising signs that China is eroding India’s long-time dominance in the region.
India’s countermoves, including the radar installations in Bangladesh and a mooted agreement with Nepal to build a railroad from Raxaul on Indo-Nepalese border to Kathmandu may all be too little, too late to turn back China’s rising tide.