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As China-India border dispute continues, New Delhi scrambles to shore up South Asia influence

ISSUE-1-ENG-31-08-2020-SA

India has embarked on a hectic programme of outreach over the past month in an effort to re-engage its neighbours in South Asia, as Beijing’s growing influence in the region amid rising political tensions between the pair fuels discomfort in New Delhi.

Since the start of August, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been in touch with his counterparts in Nepal and Sri Lanka, dispatched his foreign secretary to Bangladesh with a “special message” of support, and instructed his external affairs minister to announce a US$500 million financial aid package for the Maldives.

This flurry of activity is set to be capped off by a high-level weeklong US-India summit, beginning on Monday. Organised by a non-profit group known as the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, the event will feature speeches by US Vice-President Mike Pence, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and other senior officials, including Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat, who is the main military adviser to Modi’s government.

While the forum’s discussion topics are focused on economic issues, Chinese expansionism is sure to be high on the agenda, said observers.

Both Washington and New Delhi are increasingly concerned about “a congruence of threat perceptions” when it comes to China, according to Navtej Sarna, a former Indian ambassador to the US.

He said Beijing had been “exercising a muscular foreign policy” in many areas, including the South China Sea and along the border with India, adding: “This appears to be a follow-up to the aggressive design and implementation of the [Belt and Road Initiative], and its efforts to rival the United States on the global stage”.

For decades, India has enjoyed diplomatic pre-eminence with many of its South Asian neighbours thanks to the various cultural, linguistic and religious affinities that they share, but China has been making major inroads in recent years – pouring an estimated US$100 billion into infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, according to the US-based American Enterprise Institute think tank.

These investments, many of which are linked to Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative aimed at boosting regional connectivity and trade, have been seen as an attempt to encircle India by some in Modi’s administration – which has attempted to counter with its own “Neighbourhood First” policy focused on improving regional ties.

New Delhi has, among other things, committed billions of dollars to assisting Bangladesh with port and railway construction, as well as funding housing and port projects in Sri Lanka and rail-road connectivity projects in Nepal.

Yet diplomats argue India’s outreach has been flawed, with delays in implementing promised projects and New Delhi exhibiting a “big brother” attitude towards its smaller neighbours, rather than treating them as equals.

“India talks down, it doesn’t engage with neighbours,” said M. Assaduzzaman, a lawyer and political commentator in Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka.

Among the South Asian nations of concern for Modi’s administration is neighbouring Bangladesh, which reportedly sought out a loan of almost US$1 billion from Beijing recently to fund infrastructure work aimed at maintaining water levels in the Teesta River – one of more than 50 waterways that flow into the country from India.

Indian media reports, citing a letter written by Bangladesh’s Water Resources Ministry in July, did not indicate whether Dhaka’s request had been granted, but the sharing of water resources has long been an issue between Bangladesh and India – with a proposed agreement to solve the problem on hold for years because of political opposition in West Bengal, an Indian state bordering Bangladesh.

Further fuelling concerns was a July phone call between Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan – a staunch China ally – which touched upon the disputed Kashmir region that both New Delhi and Islamabad claim ownership over.

China has also invested heavily in northern Bangladesh, near the border with India, and attempted to step up ties with the country’s navy for better access to the Bay of Bengal.

“The Indian Navy wants to build on its inherent advantage in the Indian Ocean but is aware that choking China in the Malacca Strait is neither feasible nor desirable,” said Nitin Gokhale, editor-in-chief of defence and foreign policy news website StratNewsGlobal.

“What is achievable for the Indian Navy is to raise its capabilities against the Chinese navy and enhance multinational partnerships, such as the Quad, to limit Chinese expansionism in the Indian Ocean.”

A three-day conference of Indian naval commanders last week focused on improving operations in near Andaman and Nicobar Islands and speeding up procurement of submarines and predator drones, Gokhale said.

Earlier this month, Modi held a meeting with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla to discuss China’s growing influence, according to a report in the right-wing Swarajya magazine, which is known to have close links to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Ranjit Rae, a former Indian ambassador to Nepal, said that New Delhi needed to address the reality that China is “here to stay” – though he admitted this was not a popular opinion given the current state of bilateral ties, which has seen India banning dozens of Chinese apps and reviewing agreements signed between Indian educational institutes and Chinese universities.

It need not be this way, however. Rae said both countries could collaborate on hydropower and electricity generation projects in the region – pointing to how, in happier times, India and China had agreed to jointly train the Afghan civil service.

“The Indian foreign minister has spoken about a new equilibrium with China,” Rae said.

“Maybe once the boundary problems are resolved the rivalry between India and China could even give way to possible cooperation in sectors like hydrocarbon that has a huge potential in the region.”