India’s reluctance to reiterate the one-China policy in the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is not without precedent in recent years. But observers say Delhi’s ambiguity is also being driven by ongoing border tensions – and its opposition to a flagship Pakistan belt and road project

Beijing’s call for New Delhi to voice its support of the one-China policy in the wake of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan earlier this month looks likely to fall on deaf ears, as bilateral tensions and more than a decade of precedent stand in the way.

Delhi last publicly referred to the policy around 2010, following a dispute between the two countries over the north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh – parts of which Beijing claims as southern Tibet – and China’s issuing of loose-leaf “stapled” visas to residents of both that state and the contested Kashmir region.

“Since then, India has never included this phrase in official documents or statements,” said Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, an international-studies professor at Nalanda University in Bihar, eastern India.

“Beijing must be sensitive to India’s concerns as well. Though India has not changed its policy, China is unnecessarily feeling insecure and asking for reassurance.”

Sun Weidong, Beijing’s ambassador to India, made the call for Delhi to “openly reiterate” its support for the one-China policy in a post on the embassy’s website last weekend, noting that “many other countries” had already done the same.

On August 12, before the ambassador’s call and a full 10 days after Pelosi’s arrival in Taiwan, a spokesman for Delhi’s foreign ministry had merely said that India urged “the exercise of restraint, avoidance of unilateral action to change the status quo, de-escalation of tensions, and efforts to maintain peace and stability in the region”.

“India’s relevant policies are well known and consistent and they do not require reiteration,” Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Arindam Bagchi said in the carefully worded statement.

China responded to Pelosi’s Taipei visit with days of aggressive military exercises encircling the self-ruled island. Beijing sees Taiwan as a province that’s part of the People’s Republic of China. Most countries do not recognise Taiwan as a sovereign nation, but some, such as the United States and Britain, only acknowledge Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China rather than affirming it.

Border, Sovereignty Disputes Add To Tensions

India’s deliberate ambiguity, reluctance to reiterate the one-China principle and “delayed and rather muted response” to Pelosi’s trip at least partly stems from heightened tensions in recent years at their disputed border, said Swaran Singh, a visiting political-science professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

On the same day Pelosi departed Taiwan, Indian defence and military sources disclosed to domestic media details of joint military exercises to be held with the US in October in the northern border state of Uttarakhand, which will reportedly focus on high-altitude warfare training.

Around the same time, Chinese state media reported on live-fire air defence drills undertaken by a brigade of the People’s Liberation Army’s Tibetan Military District “recently in a training ground at an altitude of 4,600 metres”, without specifying an exact location or date.

India wants to keep the border dispute “at the forefront” and is unhappy “that while China wants India to pay attention to its sensitivities, [it] is showing a complete disregard of India’s sovereignty”, said Sana Hashmi, a visiting fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation in Taipei.

The issue of territorial sovereignty is also at play in India’s opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative to grow global trade that passes through parts of Kashmir that Islamabad administers, but Delhi claims.

Bagchi, the Indian foreign ministry spokesman, responded on August 2 to reports of the CPEC’s possible extension to “interested third parties” such as Afghanistan by stating that this would “directly infringe on India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Delhi “firmly and consistently opposes projects in the so-called CPEC, which are in Indian territory that has been illegally occupied by Pakistan”, Bagchi said. “Such activities are inherently illegal, illegitimate and unacceptable, and will be treated accordingly by India.”

Beijing cannot “connive with Pakistan and then expect reiteration of the one-China policy”, said Chirayu Thakkar, visiting faculty at Krea University in India and a doctoral candidate in international relations at the National University of Singapore, adding that “a different, nationalist and assertive dispensation is now in New Delhi that will not shy away from flexing its muscle”.

Earlier this month, China blocked a move by India and the US to have Abdul Rauf Asghar of the Pakistan-based Jaish e-Mohammed militant group listed as a terrorist by the UN Security Council, but Thakkar said “such tactics will not work” as “blocking the listing of a terrorist makes China look like a terror sympathiser” and Asghar’s listing does not hold as much importance for Delhi as “the reiteration of the one-China policy does for Beijing”.

In what analysts described as a further tacit snub of Beijing, India on August 10 flew exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in a military helicopter to a remote monastery in the disputed Ladakh region, a picture of which was later released by the Indian defence ministry.

Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at the US-based Rand Corporation global policy think tank, wrote on Twitter that India released the photo “to throw it in Beijing’s face”.

Beijing’s ‘Belligerence’ Met With Delhi’s Defiance

India does not follow in lockstep with any other major power, said Singh from the University of British Columbia, and is instead “becoming increasingly assertive in pursuing its own national interests that demand smart balancing”.

Krea University’s Thakkar agreed, saying: “New Delhi will have to maintain a delicate balance between the expectations of its allies, its role as a regional power, and its national interests.”

“However, the current trajectory suggests that the more belligerence Beijing shows towards New Delhi, the more New Delhi will defy Beijing,” Thakkar said.

Our relationship is not normal, it cannot be normal as the border situation is not normal – S Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, on India-China ties

Qian Feng, director of the research department at Tsinghua University’s National Strategy Institute, told nationalistic Chinese tabloid Global Times that India should observe the “three mutuals” – mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interest – “on sensitive issues, including the Taiwan question and its cooperative activities with the US in the region, so bilateral relations can see a substantial improvement”.

China-India ties have suffered recently because of border tensions, India’s regional cooperation with the US and unfavourable public opinion in both countries, Qian was cited as saying.

He further noted the two side’s recent dispute over a Chinese research vessel docking in Sri Lanka, which Delhi opposed as it reportedly worried the vessel would be used to spy on its activities.

India has been proactive in its efforts to curb China in recent months, working closely with Quadrilateral Security Dialogue partners the US, Japan and Australia and taking part in joint drills with their militaries.

On August 12, India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar told reporters in Bangalore that the ongoing stand-off at the disputed border between India and China continued to weigh on bilateral relations.

“Our relationship is not normal, it cannot be normal as the border situation is not normal,” he said.

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