Beijing has invested in people, projects and more and it’s paying big dividends. New Delhi has to work doubly hard to reclaim its clout.
The worth of India’s clout in its neighbourhood, especially after the Nepal election results, has come under sharp focus.
Although domestic political considerations guide the onslaught against the government on this count, it’s important to face the hard truth – ground realities in the region have changed.
This, in fact, has been clear for a while now. Which is why India has no choice but to fashion a different approach, anchored around a new understanding of regionalism.
But first, what has changed?
Three broad factors – the rising influence of China; the weakening of the United States; and India’s inability to build interdependencies for the future.
And to be objective, this has nothing to do with which party is in power.
China in the ascendancy
Indian policy has for long rested on a basic assumption that it could manage or deal with the consequences of a rising China and simultaneously, somehow, discipline Pakistan. Both haven’t happened .
China’s growing influence is now a dominant factor in the domestic politics of most countries in the region, as is evident from the developments in Nepal and Maldives.
This has not happened all of a sudden. Which is why it would be fair to say India has over the past decade underestimated the implications of China’s rising profile in the region.
In the 1990s, China saw merit in investing in the ‘militaries of South Asia’. Two principles guided that logic – first, the army is the only stable entity in the volatile internal politics of South Asia; second, such investment increased interdependency of the kind that would always keep India wary.
So, Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka saw a steady flow of Chinese military assistance, which explains their equipment being predominantly of Chinese-origin.
By 2017, this strategy had changed and the effects of it are now visible. China, with the help of Pakistan where possible, is investing in at least one key political stakeholder by way of financial backing, political advice and bailout packages.
K.P. Oli in Nepal, Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka, Abdulla Yameen in Maldives, and even Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh, have clearly been marked out.
Along with this, investments into flagship infrastructure projects are a significant attraction to the political leadership they patronise. The railway line in Kathmandu, the Hambantota project in Sri Lanka or the great new city near Male are some instances.
Not that any of this is sudden but it’s both more visible and accelerated, largely due to the waning influence of the United States that has consistently backed Indian pre-eminence in South Asia.
India has traditionally found itself on the wrong side of ‘regionalism’ in South Asia. In fact, smaller countries in South Asia used regional capital to counter India. SAARC, for instance, has failed miserably as a regional outfit but remains a successful security move against the biggest power in the region.
So, India over the past few decades devised strong bilateral strategies to deal with each country, ensuring it doesn’t allow a ‘ganging-up’ at any point. This included developing covert intelligence capabilities to manage regimes, secure constituencies of support and build allies.
China’s ambitious outreach challenges this traditional domination. Here, India will have to do a hard rethink.
Despite its political and geographical pre-eminence, the fact remains that India has failed to overlap a modern connectivity map on an otherwise, historically, well-connected sub-continent.
Put more simply, how many new trans-South Asian roads, rail and power lines has India built? Similarly, access to Indian ports remains a big issue with India’s neighbours. Sri Lanka, for instance, is likely to get access to a second Indian port only this year.
It’s only now that India has shown signs of adopting a regional approach to South Asia. The power supply to Kathmandu and improving grid connectivity with Bangladesh, which now lifts 600 MW from India, are some recent examples but they need to be scaled up manifold for India to drive home its geographical advantage in the region.
The way India and Japan are coming together to build a LNG terminal in Sri Lanka is one model through which India could bridge the capability gap in its competition with China.
The problem is New Delhi needs to work double time to come up with more such workable and innovative models to meet the challenges that China’s Belt and Road Initiative presents in India’s backyard.
A new, India-centric regional initiative backed with credible security and financial guarantees may be the first pit stop; and not necessarily old fashioned games to effect regime changes that in any case will become difficult as the stakes increase by the day.
In other words, India must recognise that China has ripped open the South Asian balance. It now has no choice but to respond.