Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

A New Himalayan Game

Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

A New Himalayan Game

Article excerpt


Asia's two giants, India and China, have historically had an uneasy relationship. Bilateral relations recently improved as both concentrated on rapid economic growth, but new tensions are contributing to a growing rivalry between the two rising superpowers. While the outcome of these tensions remains uncertain, two distinct camps have emerged among observers. Pessimists see the regional giants on track for an inevitable collision, and optimists believe cooler heads will prevail to stave off a damaging rivalry.

Several factors have contributed to a new cold war across the Himalayan Mountains. Media-driven Sinophobia in India has exacerbated minor incidents along the disputed border with China, heightening mutual insecurity regarding access to water. Shifting geopolitics are testing old bargains that linked Indian acquiescence to China's Tibet policies with Chinese non-interference in India's regional sphere of influence.

Other nations in the region are playing a key role in this budding rivalry, too. Nepal, a small nation recovering from a ten-year insurgency and sandwiched between the giants, finds itself at the center of this new Himalayan "great game." Maoists in Nepal have upset their country's prior benevolence toward India, which has exacerbated Indian fears that China will challenge their traditional alignments with smaller countries in the region. Similarly, China's aggressive investment in energy infrastructure and its increasing presence throughout the Indian Ocean have contributed to Indian fears of strategic encirclement by states allied with and supported by the Chinese. India, equally concerned with securing access to energy, is eager to wrest Burma from China's grasp.

While both nations remain suspicious of the other's intentions, calmer voices have recognized the mutual benefits of bilateral cooperation. Acknowledging shared threats, focusing on economic partnerships, and capitalizing on common policies toward specific neighbors will allow both China and India to ease tensions and work toward deeper collaboration.


In recent months, Indian media have emphasised a spike in Chinese activity in areas normally under India's sphere of influence. A border incident in Ladakh in mid-September triggered a flurry of alarmist news coverage of the "Chinese threat." A few examples illustrate this: Reflecting the Indian media's tabloid sensationalism, one news program paired a graphic of a map of India with a fire-breathing dragon approaching from the north. Another introduced a special program on how China was undermining India, with ominous music accompanied by the text, "India's #1 Enemy." Comments made by the Indian army chief indicating that China constituted "a bigger threat than Pakistan" only added to the media fervor. The Sinophobia reached a crescendo after a Chinese blogger wrote that Beijing should strategically dismember India through ethno-separatist conflicts. Many Indian commentators took this to be official Chinese policy, which Beijing immediately denied. As Maoist violence in India grows, Indian media have started broadcasting speculative reports that the rebels receive their arms from China via the porous Indian borders with Burma and Nepal. Sources in New Delhi believe that these reports are based on leaks from retired members of India's military intelligence establishment.

The Chinese mass media have so far been less strident, with the official CCTV International news channel and newspapers restraining themselves to reproducing formal government statements. These tend to be bland repetitions of China's territorial claims of disputed Himalayan territory and veiled warnings, most of which are far less emotionally charged than the reports by Indian media.

The media attention reflects deeper insecurities. Despite their size, both India and China are deeply sensitive about separatist forces within their borders-Beijing about Xinjiang and Tibet, and New Delhi about India's Northeast and Kashmir. …

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