The Himalayas mountain range in Asia is a geographical marvel. Its highest peak, Mount Everest, reaches a towering 29,029 ft. It also divides the two most populated countries on the planet: India and China. In his book, Prisoners of Geography, journalist Tim Marshall notes that the steep and rugged terrain virtually cuts the two off from each other “militarily and economically” and that despite being neighbors, “very little trade has moved between China and India over the centuries,” which is unlikely to change anytime soon.
The mountainous topography also serves as a formidable stopping power, preventing each nation from ever hoping to invade the other by land. Despite possessing this natural barrier, conflict still occurs between the two, albeit in a limited manner. Ongoing border disputes have erupted into bloody skirmishes throughout the past several decades. The latest one – the first in 45 years – took the lives of 20 Indian troops and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers back in June.
The fighting ignited sharp backlash in both countries, with India going as far as banning Tik Tok, WeChat, and several other Chinese apps shortly after. India-China relations have significantly cooled as a result, with India’s Minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, indicating that there will be “serious repercussions” on their long-term relationship.
Perhaps that tilt towards deeper and broader hostilities has arrived: it is reported that India recently deployed a warship in the highly contested South China Sea – a rare move for the South Asian nation.
The decision highlights a widening battleground between India and China beyond their Himilayan border as the United States and regional actors grow increasingly wary of China’s rise.
When these broader geopolitical shifts are considered with the compounding force that the latest border skirmish has exerted on the bilateral relationship, it is likely that India will begin projecting a far more forward-deployed diplomatic, economic, and military presence across Southeast Asia.
Evidence of this is materializing. In recent years, India has indicated a desire to increase engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional intergovernmental organization comprised of ten countries in Southeast Asia.
Upon assuming office in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the “Act East” policy initiative, which has sought to expand economic and cultural intercourse with the region by vastly increasing things like trade and tourism.
In 2018, Mr. Modi expanded his efforts to the naval domain, stating that, “India shares the ASEAN vision for rule-based societies and values of peace. We are committed to working with ASEAN nations to enhance collaboration in the maritime domain.”
That is just what India has done with its recent deployment of its front-line warship to the South China Sea. The ship is reported to be in constant contact with U.S. naval forces and is coordinating positions with regional counterparts.
India, along with Britain, Japan, and Australia, are also reported to be signaling greater interest in joining a U.S-sought alliance to balance against China. The Quad, as it is currently known as, has been a loose and informal coalition throughout its 15-year existence. That is likely to change in the coming years. China’s growing aggression and territorial expansion throughout the region is forcing states like India to draw a line and pick sides. This can be attributed to the fact that cautious ambiguity is becoming a less practical line to toe as Chinese power grows and U.S.-China competition heats up. Countries such as India would prefer to side with a distant great power like the United States over a regional one, such as China, which undoubtedly has territorial designs and a goal to ultimately dominate the region. India’s top diplomat, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, indicated this sentiment when he recently proclaimed that the “era of great caution is behind us.” Furthermore, a former head of Indian naval intelligence, Sudarshan Shrikhande, argued that the absence of more concrete and robust counterbalancing force has “made it easier for China to pressure every country individually and nibble away at territory.”
This growing strategic imperative is forcing India to look beyond the Himalayas in its desire to thwart China and expand its own power throughout the region. Going forward, this will likely translate to a closer bilateral relationship with the United States, a more formalized alliance structure with the U.S. and regional partners, and the construction of a far more powerful navy in the decades ahead.
In terms of that desire for sea power, India had 32 submarines and ships under construction in 2018 with another 62 planned over the next decade. By 2050, Indian navy chief Adm. Sunil Lanba stated that India plans to possess a “world-class navy.”
A world-class navy means that India will need to become a world-class power. For the most part, Admiral Lanba’s words align with that reality. India’s fast-growing economy and large population means that it is likely to continue becoming more powerful throughout the 21st century. It is expected to become the world’s second-largest economy by 2050, following just behind China. This will only lead to sharper disagreements between the two as both vie for influence and power throughout Asia. Including the rise of Indonesia, three of the four largest economies on earth are projected to be in Asia in the next 30 years.
As the global center of gravity continues to tilt towards Asia, the battleground between India and China is only widening. Their shared mountainous border will soon be just one of many locations where a deadly clash may erupt; the main difference being that the stakes will be far higher.