India and China Vying for Influence in South Asia

Image credit: Mana Mostatabi

by Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra      7 August 2018

The author of the books ‘China’s India War: Collision Course on the Roof of the World’, and ‘The Costliest Pearl: China’s Struggle For Indian Ocean’, Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist known for his expertise on Southeast and South Asia, views the Chinese mega connectivity initiatives like ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) and ‘Maritime Silk Road’ as Beijing’s attempts to realize its ambitions for a robust presence in the Indian Ocean where China did not have any presence for the last 600 years, and he is of the opinion that the Indian Ocean would be the site of significant conflicts between India and China in future. His prognosis implies that India Ocean is considered more important in Chinese strategic calculations rather than its claims in the Himalayas where both powers fought the last border war in 1962.

However, going by the past examples of India’s policy towards the South Asian region, India would be equally sensitive to Chinese encroachments in the Indian Ocean as well as the Himalayan region and would eagerly safeguard its predominance in the security sphere. A 74-day long military stand-off between India and China in Doklam located on the strategic tri-junction of Bhutan, China and India substantiate this. India’s resoluteness to defend its security interests resulted in the outcomes which went in India’s favor with Beijing bringing its road construction activities in the area to a halt. It is reasonable to believe that the contours of India’s security concerns in the Indian Ocean will largely depend on India’s relations with its South Asian neighbors like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Maldives. India is collaborating with the US, Japan, and Australia in the strategic realm to undermine Chinese threat perception in the Indian Ocean. Notwithstanding India’s security concerns in the Indian Ocean, the entire South Asian region would remain the area where New Delhi would enthusiastically strive to defend its predominance in the security sphere.

Until the beginning of the 21st century, use of Chinese card by India’s neighbors did not lead to Chinese interference in determining India’s relations with its neighbors nor did it give rise to India-China standoff threatening India’s predominance in the South Asian region. China maintained distance from the Indo-Pak dispute over the Kashmir issue by considering it as a bilateral problem. Chinese focus remained in the Asia-Pacific region throughout these years. The Chinese footprint in the region became more pronounced with the launching of OBOR and Maritime Silk Route initiatives. Chinese economic engagements with the South Asian countries under these initiatives were viewed with suspicion in New Delhi. Indian strategic and foreign policy experts perceived a threat of ‘encirclement’ (Chinese strategy of encirclement has been conceptualized as ‘String of Pearls’ strategy by India’s strategic and defence experts) in the growing Chinese engagement with the South Asian region although its stated objective was enhancing connectivity. There is no denying the fact that roads, railways, bridges, and ports can be used both for civil and military purposes. Beijing is engaged in the construction of roads, railways and airports in landlocked Nepal to the creation of ports, bridges and airport facilities in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives under the banner of its mega connectivity projects.

While India is inclined to be accommodative of Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region (the nomenclature was changed from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific to project the importance of India in the region) by showing less interest in the US containment policy in the region and declining to throw its weight behind the Quadrilateral group consisting of Japan and Australia as other members, India is inclined to guard its interests in the South Asian neighborhood with all efforts in the security and diplomatic realms. India’s palpable distance from a containment strategy in the Indo-Pacific region is borne by its overture to expand ties with Russia. It is noteworthy that India’s Ambassador to Russia Pankaj Saran remarked that expansion of ties and partnership with Russia was an integral of India’s Indo-Pacific policy. India, along with the line of its vision of the region, declined a request from Australia to join the Malabar naval exercises with other squad members. India’s Prime Minister stated at the Shangri-La Dialogue forum in Singapore on June 1, 2018, that “India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members.” Entirely different from its perception of Chinese influence and role in the Indo-Pacific region, India perceives serious threats from Chinese sway in the South Asian region.

New Delhi’s Neighborhood Policy Driving a Wedge between India and its Neighbors
India’s neighborhood policy which was primarily driven by the impulses of New Delhi’s security concerns has given way to a recent surge in its neighbors’ inclinations and interests for growing Chinese economic presence in the region. India, which shared its border with other South Asian countries in the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean, treated the South Asian region as its sphere of influence to maintain its security against external influence as other countries were considered vulnerable to external pressures due to their incapacity to provide for their security. Keeping this in mind, Nehru’s leadership retained the protectorate arrangements of British India in the Himalayas as a legacy of and successor to the imperial rule. The three bilateral agreements that Nehru signed with Bhutan, Sikkim, and Nepal during 1949-50 retained the spirit of the agreements concluded by the former British Indian administration to secure its imperial rule.

Underlining the importance of the Himalayan region in India’s defence concerns, Lintner argued that it was China which provoked India first to adopt a forward policy and then fight a border war in 1962 contrary to the viewpoint of Neville Maxwell who based on the Henderson report drew attention to the failure of India’s forward policy in making correct assessment of Chinese reactions which allegedly culminated in the border war. He perceived China’s wise move in the southern direction towards India’s South Asian neighbors with the occupation of Tibet and gradual and secret expansion of its sway into the Tawang region of Arunachal Pradesh leading to the Indian fear of Chinese ambitions in the Himalayan region. This led Nehru to react to the situation with a progressive policy which endorsed the measures like erection of military outposts and launching of aggressive patrols in the disputed India-China border areas.
India under Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi’s leadership adopted assertive regional policies known as ‘Indira doctrine’ in academic discourse. She perceived the South Asian region was becoming vulnerable to the external pressures when the impact of the Cold War on the South Asian region became clear – the US moved its Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal during 1971 Indo-Pak War in support of Pakistan and Pakistan facilitated lines of communication between the US and China. US-Pakistan-China axis to support insurgents and force the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan was also visible to the then Indian leadership. India’s efforts at insulating the South Asian region from the impacts of the Cold War resulted in robust and assertive regional policies which were perceived by the small neighbors as hegemonic primarily because they were designed primarily to prohibit the neighbors from seeking assistance from external powers to resolve internal and bilateral disputes while, at the same time, Indian involvement could not be looked over. Instances of frequent use of the Chinese card by neighbors to evade India’s predominance in the region which very often led to the unsavory phenomenon of New Delhi’s meddling in their internal affairs led the latter to offer trade benefits to states such as Nepal and Bhutan in return for their allegiance. After Bangladesh became independent with India’s assistance, its leadership concluded a friendship agreement with India which was later considered unequal and invited criticisms from dissenters within Bangladesh. India under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi scrupulously followed the earlier policy of incorporating the smaller powers into India’s security architecture. India’s role in Sri Lankan civil war with Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) dispatched in 1987 did not reach the desired objective of disarming the rebels rather the effort turned into a vicious cycle of violence which cast India more in a hegemonic gesture than as a regional balancer. India’s intervention in the Maldives in 1988 following closely on the heels of Sri Lankan misadventure was a successful move to dislodge an authoritarian regime in the neighborhood, but New Delhi’s muscle flexing in quick intervals seemed to have raised more suspicions towards India’s policy in the neighborhood.

Beijing’s Growing Sway in the South Asian Region and New Delhi’s Security and Diplomatic Response
The neighbors for long viewed India’s neighborhood policy as an encroachment into their internal affairs which bound India and the South Asian countries in a web of asymmetrical relationships. The initiatives at regional integration were perceived India-led, and the economic engagements among the South Asian nations were abysmally low compared with other regions. India’s attempts at forging sub-regional cooperation reached nowhere given the lack of enthusiasm for a leadership role in New Delhi. The shortage of resources also played its part in hindering such initiatives. India was also perceived as a non-reliable economic partner given its failure to complete its projects in the South Asian countries in time. Within this broader context, China, with more resources and resolve was viewed favorably by the countries of the region. China has the advantage of being a relatively new player in the region which did not have to encounter the negative perceptions that were plaguing India. In the past, the small South Asian countries while used the Chinese card to dissuade India from embarking on sound regional policy, China’s presence in the region was insufficient and did not pose a threat to India’s security interests. However, with the introduction of Beijing’s mega connectivity projects, the South Asian countries were receptive to Chinese proactive economic gestures with a hope not only to balance India’s predominance in the region, they saw opportunities of economic development and modernization in these initiatives.

China’s mega connectivity project ‘OBOR’ received a warm welcome from the small states as they saw a huge development potential from the initiative and some expressed their willingness to see China as a full member of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). For instance, neighbors like Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives expressed their willingness to induct China from an ‘observer’ status to full membership in SAARC in the 18th Summit held in Kathmandu in November 2014. India is considered to have lost ground to China in Sri Lanka when the Sirisena government leased out land to China for 99 years towards developing the Hambantota port. Similarly, China is engaged in developing the Gwadar port in Pakistan in its overtly economic gesture. The description underlines the military and strategic importance of the port by a former Pakistan’s Navy Chief as Pakistan’s third naval base after Karachi and Ormara and an improvement in Pakistan’s deep-sea water defence. New Delhi views China’s activities in the construction of roads, railways, and airports in Nepal and creation of ports, bridges and airport facilities in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives from the ‘String of Pearls’ strategic perspective.

As a reaction to Chinese foray into the South Asian region, India has enhanced its collaboration with its neighbors in the security sphere. India has not only established the Indian Military Training Team to train Bhutanese forces, but the number of soldiers trained by India is also steadily rising. Both countries have set up India-Bhutan Joint Group on Border Management and Security. India has expressed its willingness to extend regular logistic support to Bhutanese forces. With Bangladesh, India is forging close security ties in the forms of joint border patrols, a joint military and naval exercises and by concluding agreements on fighting terrorism, organized crime and drug trafficking. Apart from training Nepalese soldiers every year, India lent support to train and equip Nepali police. Both India and Nepal have established security mechanisms like Nepal-India Bilateral Consultative Group on Security Issues.

India has special Gurkha regiments comprising soldiers recruited from Nepal within its armed forces to bolster security ties between the two countries. India and Sri Lanka agreed to conduct annual defence dialogues and regular talks between different wings of armed forces in 2011 despite their differences over Tamil minority issue. Both not only conducted joint naval exercises in Sri Lankan waters, but India also offered to train Sri Lankan military officers as well. India and the Maldives held annual military exercises and joint naval patrols regularly since 2009.

India has also set up radar units on the Maldives with an objective to bring it under a surveillance system. It is noteworthy that India’s penetration into the region in the security sphere is well-entrenched compared to China. However, in India’s neighborhood, there is a surge in arms imports from China outgrowing India causing concerns in New Delhi and recent economic penetration of China into the South Asian region can turn into a security concern if India is unable to pursue its neighbors that Beijing’s connectivity drive is limited to commercial purposes alone. For instance, India could elicit support from the Sri Lankan leadership when it quickly responded to India’s security concerns on Chinese maritime strategy around Hambantota port facilities and made it clear that Beijing would limit its activities to the commercial development of the port and no maritime strategy would be allowed.

At the diplomatic level, New Delhi has opposed Beijing’s inclusion either as a dialogue partner or as a full-fledged member of SAARC. India has been able to persuade other South Asian countries in placing a 5-year moratorium in 2015 preventing discussions on the issue of China’s inclusion as a dialogue partner. New Delhi wishes a very limited role for Beijing in the South Asian region as its attempts at confining Chinese role as an observer is aimed at preventing the latter from participating in discussions and initiating any proposal within the forum.

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