by Baibhav Kumar Panda

If there ever was a real-world replication of the August 26 boxing bout between Conor Mcgregor and Floyd Mayweather, which was billed as the “Money Fight” or “The Best of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) vs The Best of Boxing”, then it would have to be at the recently concluded, two month long, border stand-off between Asia’s giant pugilists, India and China at the disputed Doklam region near Bhutan, another huge incident that would serve to polarise Asia’s loyalties between India and China.

June 16, 2017 saw Chinese troops with road construction equipment extend into the plateau of Doklam, a region located near Tibet's Chumbi Valley to the north, Bhutan's Ha Valley to the east and India's state of Sikkim to the west and claimed by both China and Bhutan with no break to the gridlock in sight despite years of negotiations between the two. India, abiding by its past friendship treaty (2012) with Bhutan that mandates the former to handle the latter’s foreign affairs and defence, interceded on behalf of Bhutan and responded with 270 soldiers and 2 bulldozers of its own on June 18, 2017 (Chinese Foreign Ministry, Ministry of External Affairs India) that produced a military standoff for two months until both countries backed off on August 28 and heightened tensions in both the rival nuclear powers.

Bhutan is the latest addition to countries that China seeks to insert into its sphere of influence and while China has largely been successful in asserting its hegemony in the South China sea and Spratly Island disputes, angering most of the South East Asian Nations, India has been wary of restricting China’s growing advances into the Himalayan Countries and South Asia, regions where India would like to see its regional supremacy remain unquestioned. China has tried to woo many of India’s erstwhile allies in South Asia-In Sri Lanka, China has financed several projects for a good part of a decade, most notably the building of a port city. In Bangladesh, China has announced a huge, 20 Billion US Dollar low cost loan for infrastructure projects and in Nepal, China has taken advantage of the anti-Indian sentiment caused due to the Nepal-India Border Blockade of 2015. This, combined with China’s proximity to the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (CPN-UML) and other Nepalese Maoists has seen Nepal gradually shift away from India.

Thus, China’s growing influence in South Asia has seen India desperately rebound with offers of its own to waylay these Chinese deals. India has, to considerable success, availed its religious affinities with Sri Lanka and Nepal to counter in a sphere where China has no advantage. The newly elected, pro-Indian prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena chose India for his first state visit in 2015, a visit that involved participation in the Hindu festival of Kumbh Mela and prayers at the most devout Buddhist site of Bodh Gaya. Equivalently, the Incumbent Nepalese President, Bidhya Devi Bhandari’s visit to India in April of 2017 involved her spending a good chunk of time in temples. Financially, India has tried its best to match the might of the Chinese purse, offering to pump $205 million dollars into the struggling Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport of Sri Lanka for a 70 percent share over 40 years. India even got Sri Lanka to scrap permanent ownership of the Chinese financed port of Hambantota, now instead, it would only be offered on a 99 year lease. Bangladesh has seen a counter offer of a credit line grant of 4.5 million dollars along with 500 million for military expenditure from India, in what was a direct response to China’s salvos. Nepal has received very favourable energy, electricity and petroleum trade deals from India, in efforts to obverse China’s recent grant of 150 million dollars in reconstruction aid to Nepal.

Apart from trying to increment its natural dominance in South Asia, India has tried to punch holes in traditional Chinese spheres of influence, allying with China’s traditional South East Asian foes. Vietnam and India have signed deals to explore Oil in the South China sea (much to China’s chagrin) along with a much larger cooperation in Defence ties which includes India’s sale of the fastest cruise missiles in the world, the BrahMos, to Vietnam. 

Japan and India ties have transformed in recent years, with China’s old enemy allying with India on many fronts. As I write, Japan and India have jointly announced India’s first bullet train project from the Indian Cities of Mumbai to Ahmedabad. Japan has become India’s largest Donor and the two premiers, Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe have increasingly delivered joint statements that are obvious messages to China with , for example, a recent condemnation of “countries that have supported North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs” was thinly veiled towards China. Coming back to the Doklam military stand-off, Japan was the only major country to unequivocally reiterate its support for India and Bhutan in the dispute, triggering China to issue a warning to Japan for making “unrelated comments”.

The Doklam dispute is but just yet another episode in the rivalry between Asia’s two regional superpowers and with a massive diplomatic tussle underway in South Asia and South-East Asia, the foreign policy of all of Asia's states will subscribe to either an Indo or a Sino alliance.

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