This week some New Delhi newspapers carried stories that the Narendra Modi government just gave the Indian Army permission to deploy a hundred pieces of an advanced version of its supersonic cruise missile, Brahmos. The weapon, co-developed by Russia and India, has a 290km range and has apparently been perfected for mountain warfare with "steep-dive" capabilities. The regiment in charge is to be located in Arunachal Pradesh, a sprawling and thinly populated province bordering Tibet that China claims in its entirety.
Since it is rare that defence ministries reveal such specifics as deployment of key weapons, it is a fair bet that the target audience for the story was not in India but several thousand miles away, in Beijing. It is meant to counter the perception of dominance that China, with its smooth roads running up to the corners of Tibet, has over an India that has been rather slow to build its own border infrastructure.
The signalling is the latest evidence of the deteriorating relationship between the Asian giants. While most eyes are focused on the South China Sea, where China's aggressive island-building, arming and patrolling has sparked fears of a conflict, the developing situation in South Asia bears watching too.
Last week, the chief minister of the Indian state of Uttarakhand, which borders China, loudly spoke of "incursions" by Chinese troops into land that India believes belongs to it, only to moderate his remarks a few hours later under pressure from New Delhi.
Uttarakhand is in the so-called "middle sector" of the 4,000km, undemarcated boundary between China and India. It was one of the areas that was considered to be relatively tranquil whereas the Western sector, off Pakistan, and the eastern sector off Arunachal, was always seen as more prone to be "live". That makes the development more worrisome.
Even though the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the Indian Army have not exchanged a single shot since 1967, and their last war was in 1962, the unresolved border question clouds the relationship and holds back prospects of a bigger Asian resurgence. What's more, despite 19 rounds of talks by special representatives, the last of which was held this April, as well as several boundary talks before, the two are nowhere near a solution. China has settled its land disputes with 12 of its neighbours. But the one with India, and tiny Bhutan whose foreign policy is influenced by New Delhi, seems intractable.
COSYING UP TO AMERICA
What's behind the tension? Until 2005, when India signed its civilian nuclear deal with the United States - seen as a landmark in the strategic ties between the two large democracies - there was much hope of relations between China and India developing swiftly. There seemed to be energy in the border talks. Trade, particularly, was growing at a canter and steadily advancing towards the US$100 billion (S$134 billion) mark. Indeed, China, under President Hu Jintao, had bowed to US persuasion to allow India a special waiver to receive US civilian nuclear technology, even as it was not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
India's leadership publicly insisted that the US relationship stood on its own merits and was not targeted at another country. Asia was big enough to accommodate the aspirations of both India and China, said Dr Manmohan Singh, prime minister of the time. Its raucous media was another matter. Shrill and strident - "We have the US at our back. China, here we come" - was often the underlying sentiment in news reports.
Did India have its own compulsions? With its traditional strategic friend the Soviet Union having long collapsed, and Russia, the successor state, in disarray, it needed new friends. China's steady ascent and tendency to assert itself internationally was also getting New Delhi nervous. The US was dangling the carrot of access to high technology and promising to help turn India into a "major power in the 21st century". The bait was taken.
Posted in New Delhi as The Straits Times bureau chief for South Asia, I once stood in a room where Commerce Minister Bo Xilai, the now-disgraced and jailed Chinese princeling, made a forceful plea for India to stay its neutral course and to not forget its civilisational linkages with China.
"Six hundred years ago, the admiral Zheng He visited India no less than seven times," he told his audience. Yet Zheng He was never accused of a single misdeed against the country. "We welcome you to take a share of our market. It is something we also want emotionally," Bo said to applause.
By 2008 China seemed to have decided that the US was gaining traction in using India as a tool against it. Its patrolling of the boundary got more aggressive and its forays into South Asia, India's backyard, more determined. After India turned down a request from Sri Lanka's Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa to build a transhipment port in Hambantota, on the island's southern tip, China stepped in and built the facility. It also built up influence in Nepal, which has an open border with India.
In 2010, Dr Singh complained of a "new assertiveness among the Chinese" and that it is "difficult to tell which way it will go". Saying it is important to be prepared, he said it appeared that China wanted to keep India in "low-level equilibrium".
Since Mr Modi took power in 2014, the US relationship has moved with even greater speed. For most eyes, the nation is steadily shedding its old doctrine of non-alignment and turning towards what can only be described as a non-treaty ally of the US. Washington now calls India a "major defence partner". The two are poised to share military logistics.
CHINA PUSHES BACK
As the US-India strategic relationship grows, China is pushing back. It is building an economic corridor through Pakistan to reach the Arabian Sea. A section of this runs through an area held by Pakistan and claimed by India. Two divisions of PLA troops are at work there, protected by a specially-raised Pakistani army division. Since 2008, it has also been aggressively patrolling the fuzzy boundary with India, once moving in nearly 30km south of the line and pitching tents. Indeed, President Xi Jinping's 2014 visit to India, months after Mr Modi was installed, soured on that very issue.
The Washington-New Delhi link will only get stronger as India seeks to build its Asian footprint. The US now conducts more military exercises with India than with any other nation. Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, his nation's former envoy to China, said in Singapore last year that New Delhi aspires to be a "leading power rather than just a balancing power". Consequently, he added, "there is also a willingness to shoulder greater global responsibilities... reflected in our role in peace- keeping and keeping our maritime commons secure and safe".
This clearly irks China. For more than a decade, but more frequently now, India has been sending warships into the South China Sea. A joint statement issued after a landmark second visit to India by US President Barack Obama early last year, spoke of affirming the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, "especially in the South China Sea".
In his Singapore lecture last November, Mr Modi said "India will lend its strength to keep the seas safe, secure and free for the benefit of all".
These things rub up against China's vital interests. And it has retaliated. It has repeatedly blocked India's attempts to have three key figures of the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba listed by the Al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee of the United Nations Security Council. In April, India granted a visa to the Uighur leader Dolkhun Isa, who had been scheduled to visit the hill town of Dharamsala, headquarters of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan "government in exile". While it rescinded the visa subsequently, the initial act of granting entry was to flag annoyance at China's blocking the listing of Jaish-e- Muhammad chief Masood Azhar as an international terrorist at the UN. Azhar was held by Pakistan after his outfit was accused of orchestrating an attack on an Indian Air Force base in north India.
Historically, both sides have missed opportunities to settle their boundary dispute and move on. In 1960, Zhou Enlai offered a package deal that would involve India keeping Arunachal if it could give up its claims over the Aksai Chin area of Kashmir. But New Delhi turned him down. Today, when India seems ready for a package deal, that offer is no longer on the table.
Mr Dai Bingguo, who negotiated with four Indian Special Representatives over a decade, published a book recently where he indicates that the two missed an opportunity when Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in charge of India. He was keen to settle the matter quickly but was unexpectedly voted out of office in 2004. The Congress-led government that took power thereafter was too weak to clinch a deal. One of Mr Dai's Indian counterparts, Mr Shivshankar Menon, said last year that most of the technical work for a border accord had been done. What was needed now was political will to make the "adjustments" on maps.
At one level muscular leadership on both sides - Mr Modi in India and Mr Xi in China, complicates the situation and makes it more difficult to make those adjustments.
But in that also lies opportunity. After all, both men dominate their nations as few have before.
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