Let us accept this fact that India and China are potential rivals in the power hierarchy in South Asia and outside, writes Aneek Chatterjee for South Asia Monitor
The recent border clashes between India and China in the Ladakh region has put Indian foreign policy under a scanner. There is a feeling that India’s neighborhood policy has gone wrong somewhere. But this view is not supported by hard reality. There is no serious policy paralysis in India’s neighborhood. In support of this proposition, let us go for some mathematical calculations which will lead to a pragmatic analysis sans emotions. Among India’s seven SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) neighbors, India’s relations are cordial with the majority. At this point of time, India’s relations are good with Bhutan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka. Relationship with Nepal has taken a turn for the worse at this moment over the Nepalese claim of a few areas along the border. Moreover, Nepal is reportedly tilting towards China, causing a schism in India-Nepal relations. However, the bilateral relationship between India and Nepal is age-old and time-tasted. Culturally, Nepal is closer to India than China.
For geostrategic reasons, Nepal is not in a position to totally isolate India. Nepal is a landlocked country, which will have to look up to India first, and other SAARC countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka next, for sea trade. If Nepal desires to use any other seaport outside the SAARC region, it may use ports in Myanmar or China, which are far away from ports in India and other SAARC nations named above. Nepal also depends a lot on India for trade along land routes. Therefore, it would not be easy for Nepal to estrange India for a long period of time. India’s relationship with Nepal at this juncture is unsteady, but not beyond repair.
This leaves only Pakistan, with which India’s relations may be described as low at this moment. Hence, simple mathematical calculations suggest that India has good relations with five neighbors, low with one, and very low with one in the SAARC mechanism.
Countering China: India’s biggest foreign policy challenge
Outside the SAARC architecture, India’s biggest foreign policy challenge in the neighborhood is China. With China trying to spread its wings in SAARC countries, this challenge becomes more acute. Not only Nepal, China woos Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and the Maldives with financial and infrastructural support with a view to lessen India’s importance in South Asia. In the Indian neighborhood, Chinese investments in Pakistan and Myanmar are huge. These nations are actually bolstered by Chinese support to defy international criticisms on human rights issues, lack of democracy, and dependence on the army and also, terrorism-related issues. According to one unofficial estimate, in the last decade (2001-2010) China invested the US $ 150 billion in South Asia (Chinese Investments in India’s Neighbourhood, Gateway House, ICGR, March 12, 2018). One can expect it to be to the tune of US $ 600 to 700 billion (4 to 5 times of the amount invested in the last decade) now, although no official data would be ever available on such investments. So China is making steady inroads in India’s neighborhood, initially through economic investments, with eyes on long term political dividends. One such target is to marginalize India’s importance in the region, and of course, to establish Chinese influence. In a sense, this Chinese policy may be termed as neo-colonial: spreading economic tentacles first and then reaping political benefits through economic pressures. Friends of China in South Asia may ultimately land in the quagmire of Debt Trap from which it will not be easy to come out. India must be very sensitive and aware of this Chinese game plan and devise its own ways to counter China. Let us accept this fact that India and China are potential rivals in the power hierarchy in South Asia and outside.
How India can counter Chinese moves in South Asia?
To begin with, India must gradually turn into a manufacturing nation. At present, the Indian economy is over-reliant on the service sector. This scenario must be transformed. There is no alternative to manufacture your own needs, from domestic to military equipment. This will not only save valuable foreign exchanges but help the nation to gain confidence. And manufacturing is a continuous process; there should not be any relaxation in this respect. America has lost considerable grounds to China in recent years because it has stopped manufacturing in many fields, and instead ordered China and some other Southeast Asian nations to do it for them. As a consequence, China gradually captured American markets.
From the perspective of foreign policy, India must take into confidence its neighbors, and make them aware of Chinese neo-colonial plans. India must get itself involved in the infrastructural development of neighboring countries. India is currently doing it, but not as aggressively as the Chinese. Manufacturing will help India gradually increase its volume of exports in the neighborhood. But confidence-building measures are of crucial importance for India in South Asia.
India must increase its defence budget significantly in the coming years. When we face a crisis, we think of our military budgets. But it is a matter of continuing importance. Indian military must be equal to the Chinese in all respects, from manpower to sophisticated defence equipment. Indian Navy must be equipped to control the Indian Ocean, an important sea route for global and Chinese trade. This should be done on an emergency basis, say by 2024 latest. In terms of numbers, India must also match or exceed Chinese nuclear warheads.
In its international relations outside South Asia, India must side closely with like-minded nations and also with those affected by Chinese designs. The Quad of India, the US, Japan, and Australia must be strengthened. Russia is closer to India from a diplomatic point of view. Ties with Russia must also be strengthened. India should work to isolate China in international politics. But this is easier said than done. China has already reached different parts of the globe through economic activities. But at this moment, an anti-China feeling prevails in Eurasia and in the two Americas due to COVID-19. India must capitalize on this feeling.
But most importantly, India must be self-sufficient and excellent in terms of economic and military strength. We must also aggressively bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, membership of the NSG and G-7, and seek the help of favorable countries (like the US, Russia, Japan, France, and others). In foreign policy issues, India is not unfavorably placed at this moment, globally, and in the neighborhood. India must be proactive to form more close allies and friends to effectively counter China.
(The writer, an international relations analyst, was professor and head of political science at Presidency University, Kolkata. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)