Reports Indicate That the Sino-Indo Rivalry Is Heating Up in the Bay of Bengal

Absent the comparative (Russian-mediated?) restoration of Sino-Indo trust, especially after bilateral ties nosedived this past week, their rivalry will likely only get worse.

A Tough Week For Sino-Indo Ties

Ties between China and India continued their downward trajectory over the past week as a result of three developments: China’s renaming of Indian-controlled disputed territory; both sides’ seemingly tit-for-tat visa issues with the other’s journalists; and reports about Chinese spy bases in the Bay of Bengal. The first two were addressed in this analysis here about the latest rough patch in their relations, while the last one forms the basis of the present piece.

Reported Chinese Spy Bases In Myanmar & Sri Lanka

Bloomberg reported on Friday that “India Confronted Myanmar About Chinese Spy Post on Remote Island” while the Economic Times informed their audience that “China’s Sri Lanka radar plan likely to threaten India’s strategic assets”. Both outlets claimed that there’s evidence that China is helping to enhance the intelligence-collection capabilities of its regional Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) partners, which could collectively complicate the security situation around India’s Andaman & Nicobar Islands (ANI).

That geostrategically positioned territory enables India to keep an eye on the Strait of Malacca through which the bulk of Beijing’s trade with Africa, Europe, and West Asia still traverses, thus explaining China’s reported interest in spying on it via Myanmar and Sri Lanka. To that end, those two outlets very heavily implied that the People’s Republic is leveraging its growing economic-financial influence over those crisis-beset countries to build intelligence-collection facilities for keeping an eye on the ANI.

Indirect Intelligence Collection

Chatham House provided some crucial insight late last month about what form the Myanmarese dimension of these reported plans could take following the publication of the satellite imagery that India subsequently discussed with that neighboring nation. Their two experts argued that China is unlikely to directly operate the air, radar, and whatever other bases are being built on the Cocos Islands, but could very well end up being the end recipient of the intelligence that they collect.

This is a reasonable assessment that’ll probably play out in Sri Lanka as well due to the political sensitivity of China formally establishing military bases in the Bay of Bengal. That scenario would maximally heighten India’s threat assessment of the People’s Republic, thus raising the risk from China’s perspective that it could further expand its newfound military-strategic ties with the US in ways that spike the chances of a serious conflict between those multipolar Asian Great Powers by miscalculation.

China’s Worst-Case Scenario

The US is already aggressively “containing” China in Northeast and Southeast Asia via Japan’s remilitarization, its brokering of a rapprochement between that island nation and South Korea, reinvigorated military-political ties with Taiwan, and expanding its network of bases in the Philippines. The last thing that the People’s Republic needs right now is for India to feel pressured into surrendering its hard-earned strategic autonomy to become the US’ vassal for “containing” it in South Asia.

To be absolutely clear, India still remains strictly neutral in the New Cold War between the US-led West’s Golden Billion and the Sino-Russo Entente over the direction of the global systemic transition. While sympathizing with the latter’s multipolar vision, it nevertheless seeks to go about advancing it in ways that don’t lead to it directly challenging the former. It should also be noted that India is emerging as the informal leader of the Global South amidst the impending trifurcation of International Relations.

The decades-long special and privileged Russian-Indian Strategic Partnership is crucial for sustaining each of those two’s complementary balancing acts that comparatively stabilize the aforesaid systemic transition as explained here, which is beyond the scope of the present piece to detail. The point in drawing attention to these dynamics is for the reader to realize that: India is truly independent; its growing rivalry with China is a purely bilateral problem; and India thus isn’t the US’ “ally” against China.

The Spiraling Sino-Indo Security Dilemma

Nevertheless, the Sino-Indo security dilemma makes the former inclined to suspect that the latter might surrender its hard-earned strategic autonomy to become the US’ largest-ever vassal state for completing the “containment” of China along the Northeast, Southeastern, and South Asian fronts. This explains why the People’s Republic is so interested in reportedly spying on India, and in particular its activities in the ANI, though these alleged intentions risk turning its worst fear into a partially self-fulfilling prophecy.  

India will never subserviate itself to anyone so there’s no credible reason to speculate that it’ll ever become a US proxy like the Philippines is, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t expand its newfound military-strategic ties with China’s rival in response to the latest reports. While this wouldn’t realistically take the form of a so-called “alliance”, it could see those two sharing more sensitive intelligence about China’s regional activities and much more frequently than they already do at that, for example.

Even if that happens, however, it’ll almost certainly occur in parallel with the symmetrical strengthening of military-strategic ties with Russia in order to uphold the integrity of India’s balancing act in the New Cold War. Another trend that’ll likely keep apace with the aforesaid, growing Indian-US military-strategic ties, China’s related ones with its regional BRI partners in the Bay of Bengal, and the worsening of the Sino-Indo rivalry is Russia’s continued military-strategic inroads into Myanmar.

The Importance Of Russian-Myanmar Relations

These were earlier analyzed here and here for those intrepid readers who’d like to learn more about them, but are being referenced right now in this piece to suggest that closer bilateral relations could contribute to assuaging India’s threat assessment of that country’s ties with China. That’s not to imply that Moscow intends to influence Naypyidaw’s ties with Beijing, let alone its possible passing along of intelligence about the ANI, but just that their partnership enhances Myanmar’s strategic autonomy.

This crisis-beset country is less likely to become disproportionately dependent on China so long as Russia is able to offer viable military-strategic alternatives, thus enabling Moscow to play a role in Naypyidaw’s balancing act vis-à-vis Beijing similar to what Delhi plays for Moscow in the same respect. The emerging trend is that increasingly complex triangulations are quickly becoming the norm in this phase of the global systemic transition, but the analyzed ones around the Bay of Bengal are at risk of disruption.

The Bangladeshi Wild Card

The wild card remains that body of water’s eponymous country, Bangladesh, which is actively multi-aligning between China, India, Russia, and the US. The last-mentioned of these four aspires to turn it into a citadel of regional influence, which America aims to achieve via the Machiavellian policies of manipulating its domestic political situation and exploiting preexisting tensions with neighboring Myanmar. It’s too early to tell whether it’ll succeed, but this power play deserves to be monitored.

Any disruptions that abruptly reshape the balance of influence between these four leading stakeholders in the Bay of Bengal, such as its eponymous country aligning much closer to America at the expense of its relations with some or all of its other partners, could destabilize the entire region. The Sino-Indo rivalry could immediately worsen in ways that go against those two’s objective national interests and only ultimately serve the US’ divide-and-rule ones.

Concluding Thoughts

No single actor exerts predominant influence in this increasingly complicated front of the New Cold War, but China and India could reduce the risk of their security dilemma spiraling out of control by entering into candid dialogue with one another about sensitive regional issues. Delhi needs to be reassured that Beijing won’t indirectly spy on it from those two reported outposts in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, while Beijing should be reminded that Delhi’s ties with Moscow prove it isn’t Washington’s puppet.

It’s here where Russia could play an irreplaceable role if requested to do so by its fellow BRICS and SCO partners if they both seek its mediation. Moscow could either pass along each other’s concerns or possibly even bring those two’s representatives together to discuss everything, even if this is done quietly for discretion’s sake. Absent the comparative (Russian-mediated?) restoration of Sino-Indo trust, especially after bilateral ties nosedived this past week, their rivalry will likely only get worse.

By Andrew Korybko
Source: Andrew Korybko’s Newsletter

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