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To view developments in the neighbourhood simply as ‘pro-China’ or ‘pro-India’ is myopic

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Beijing is single-handedly blurring the age-old separation between South and East Asia, and New Delhi must prepare for this reality.

The rhetoric surrounding the recent turmoil in Maldives makes it clear that the conversation on India’s neighbourhood policy is increasingly framed as a zero-sum geopolitical rivalry between India and China. When president Abdullah Yameen declared an emergency, the Indian commentariat were largely convinced that the moment was ripe for military intervention in the ostensible interest of ‘restoring democracy’. It was clear, however, that the elephant in the room is China, which has steadily improved ties with the Indian Ocean littoral.

This is a story that has repeated itself around India’s borders over the past few years, with Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar all improving ties with China in one way or another. This is unsurprising: China offers millions of dollars in loans under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and its capacity to turn promises into hard infrastructure projects is unparalleled. Beijing is single-handedly blurring the age-old separation between South and East Asia, and New Delhi must prepare for this reality.

However, to view these developments solely from the perspective of containing China’s rise can have adverse consequences. As Shivshankar Menon has correctly argued, smaller countries will predictably hedge their relationship with China and India to benefit from both. China’s presence in South Asia is inevitable; it is a regional powerhouse with global ambitions. New Delhi can no longer presume that smaller countries will acquiesce to a so called Indian ‘sphere of influence’.

But states in the neighbourhood are aware that Chinese money can come with political costs. In the past year alone, Bangladesh blacklisted a key Chinese firm over dubious investments  and corruption charges, while Sri Lanka’s Maithripala Sirsena refused to provide access for China’s navy, and has initiated talks with India to develop an airport located adjacent to the Hambantota port. Indeed, India continues to exercise close cultural, economic and military ties with Bhutan and Nepal, while it has steadily improved trade relations and maritime cooperation with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Given this state of affairs, India’s approach towards the region cannot be dictated by knee-jerk reactions to Chinese encroachment. It is worth understanding that the uncertainty in India’s neighbourhood reflects a failure of Indian policy to translate geography, cultural ties, economic weight and military power into a cohesive regional architecture.

This can be rectified.

First, build capacity to deliver results. The contest for primacy in Asia will be guided by connectivity, development and trade. Asia will require nearly US $26 trillion in the coming decade to address its infrastructure deficit, and the country most capable of meeting this demand will exercise greater political sway. Despite the fact that most of New Delhi’s external aid budget is devoted to its neighbourhood, India’s development and connectivity programmes, ranging from the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway to the Bhutan-Bangladesh-India-Nepal sub-regional initiative, have been incapable of delivering results with the same speed and quality as China’s projects have.

Second, articulate norms and strengthen institutions. As the only country to boycott the BRI summit in May, India argued that regional connectivity should not be an exercise in “hardwiring” influence; and must adhere to the principles good governance, human rights, environmental protection and respect for sovereignty. Nothing has cemented the authenticity of this criticism more than the image of subdued commercial activity at Hambantota—the face of Beijing’s ‘debt trap diplomacy’. There is now a level of international awareness that Beijing’s motivations are more strategic and self-serving than altruistic.

India’s development assistance is qualitatively different from China’s: it does not take the form of loans which are collateralised by natural resources or strategic assets. Instead, it is “recipient-led”, with host countries setting the priorities and no extraneous strings attached. It is imperative that India institutionalise this approach; The Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation are but a few institutions that New Delhi can effectively use to emphasis transparent and multilateral co-operation (as opposed to Beijing’s largely bilateral and opaque approach).

Third, end binary diplomacy. To view developments in the neighbourhood simply as ‘pro-China’ or ‘pro-India’ is myopic. Domestic politics, economic priorities and a rapidly shifting international environment will dictate strategic choices. In Sri Lanka, even the avowedly China-friendly Rajapaksa expressed his solidarity with the protests that erupted over the Hambantota Port; and former Prime Minister Prachanda, a ‘pro-India’ actor, approved a wide ranging array of Chinese investments in Nepal and even signed onto the BRI. India’s diplomacy must be flexible and capable of insulating India’s long-term interests from the vagaries of domestic politics.

India’s long history with its neighbours often works to its disadvantage. These countries will seek better relations with China in a natural quest for ‘strategic autonomy’.  Having said that, China’s unsustainable financial offerings and overt strategic intent in general are likely to produce a backlash. That even Pakistan, China’s “all weather friend”, has reconsidered some of Beijing’s investment proposals and has faced a string of security issues highlights this probability.

Finally, accelerate cooperation with regional partners. As some commentators have argued, the ideation of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ is probably the most significant foreign policy initiative under the Modi government. It connects the growing wealth and security concerns of states from the eastern shore of Africa to East Asia with the actions of three important actors in the region: China, India and the United States. While Beijing is intent on creating a Sino-centric Asian order, regional democracies such as Japan, the United States, Australia and India, who are now a part of the ‘Quadrilateral Dialogue’, have the economic means and naval capabilities to ensure that a ‘rules based order’ takes root instead.

Whether or not a military intervention in Male would have restored democracy without harming India’s credibility in the region is uncertain. That it would not have limited Beijing’s growing profile is unquestionable. One must remember that while Yameen has been overtly hostile towards India, Male’s rapprochement with China began at the behest of Mohammad Nasheed, when Beijing opened its first embassy there in 2011. This only underlines an unavoidable reality: China is an actor that is here to stay.

Akhil Deo is a Research Assistant at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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