India’s window of opportunity to counter China’s influence in South Asia

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Political dynamics in South Asia have captured the spotlight this year. In Sri Lanka, a serious economic crisis led to widespread protests in April, followed by the departure of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in early July and the declaration of a state of emergency. Pakistan and Bangladesh approached the International Monetary Fund for loans to stabilize their depleting foreign exchange reserves.

India’s public discourse on events in Sri Lanka has sparked renewed attention on problematic Chinese lending as the cause of the region’s economic woes, highlighting The potential of New Delhi as the most reliable partner. The broader geopolitical focus on Indo-Pacific Cooperative frameworks also portray India as the dominant power in South Asia.

So, does the current crisis offer a window of opportunity for India to reassert its presence in South Asia? The question and likely answers are complex.

Home to nearly two billion people and some of the fastest growing economies in the world, South Asia is critical to Indo-Pacific geopolitical considerations. South Asia’s maritime potential is of growing importance to broader strategic constructs and has become an area of ​​contention between small and big powers. With the Belt and Road Initiative, China has gradually broaden their relationship in South Asia. But that, along with continued acrimony on the Indo-China border, puts Beijing in direct competition with New Delhi’s regional aspirations, expressed in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech.neighborhood first policy.

Spear with great fanfare in 2014, politics faltered, due, among other things, to the slow pace of economic projects. Driven by a desire to reduce their dependence on India and pursue independent foreign and economic policies, most of India’s South Asian neighbors (except Bhutan) joined the BRI . Pakistan was the first to sign. A debilitating economic blockade imposed by India in 2015 prompted Nepal to join in 2016, followed closely by Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, each seeking diversified economic opportunities. Chinese projects are also attractive to South Asian states that see engagement with China as a hedge against traditional Indian rule in the region.

India and China compete in South Asia to offer technical assistance and infrastructure investment. The focus is on building connectivity by rail, road and sea to increase the trade and security capabilities of small states in South Asia.

Indian economic initiatives in Nepal, for example, focus on connectivity and hydropower energy projects. Manage the opening of the Indo-Nepalese border with the development of integrated border checkpoints to facilitate the movement of goods and services is also essential. In Bangladesh too, India’s lines of credit are worth 8 billion US dollars have contributed to several connectivity initiatives. Hybrid energy projects, including wind farms, are of interest to Sri Lanka, aided by Indian investment. Maritime cooperation and the development of coastal security infrastructure were at the center of India’s cooperation with the Maldives and Sri Lanka, which figure prominently in Modi’s maritime strategy for the Indian Ocean known as SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region).

Chinese initiatives in South Asia point in the same direction. While Pakistan has greatly benefited from its involvement in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, since 2015 China has stepped up its efforts in Nepal and Bangladesh. In 2018, China and Nepal have agreed on the multi-dimensional trans-Himalayan transport network to boost cross-border connectivity of rail, road and transmission lines. China has granted Nepal access to several of its land and sea ports, which is particularly important given Nepal’s landlocked status. China is currently Bangladesh’s largest trading partner and is reported having invested around US$9.75 billion in transport projects in Bangladesh between 2009 and 2019. China has also become Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner and one of its main creditors, accounting for around 10% of the total external debt of the country. Chinese funding has been used to build roads, ports and airports. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are also vital nodes in the Maritime Silk Road project.

To establish itself as the most reliable partner, India has often affirms its cultural and historical ties with South Asian states, emphasizing “common heritage and shared values”, or a “shared history” in the case of Bangladesh. Covid-19 has provided an additional platform for India to surpass China’s efforts in the region. While China’s global reputation suffered at the height of the pandemic, India provided vaccines to South Asian states, with the exception of Pakistan, generating significant goodwill in the region.

There are, however, challenges to India’s neighborhood policy. The cost of trade between India and South Asia remains high due to a lack of trade facilitation and logistical difficulties. Indian politics are often reactive to China’s growing influence, and political mechanisms are insufficient to maintain a constant level of engagement. For example, the interdepartmental coordination group organized to promote relations between India and its neighbors met for the first time only this year. New Delhi also ignored the recommendations of a bilateral agreement report aimed at resolving tensions between India and Nepal.

India’s lack of confidence in the region is another major obstacle. Anti-Indian sentiment is common in South Asia, particularly in Nepal, Bangladesh and Maldives. Memories of India’s border blockades in Nepal and its interference in internal political affairs in Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are detrimental to the Indian cause. The recent increase in religious polarization and the nationalist revivalist ideas expressed in flippant statements by Indian political leaders have also fueled concerns in South Asian states.

So, I ask the question again, is it the right time for India to reassert its influence in South Asia? Yes, but not unless some of the structural issues are resolved. While South Asian neighbors fear incurring heavy debts to Beijing, as in the cases of Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the historical baggage of being India’s “backyard” also makes them worried about the dominance of India. Countries in the region are, to varying degrees, playing the so-called China card against India, a trend that is likely to continue, despite Indian efforts.

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