The pre-eminence of India in the South Asian region has been contested by its regional archrival Pakistan. This historical rivalry stretches over various issues ranging from dominance in the region, territorial disputes, and border disputes to the intractable problem of Kashmir. However, in recent years, the Chinese have been trying to gain a foothold in the region, especially through financial overtures like easy loans in India’s neighbourhood. On the other hand, some scholars argue that China through the contiguity of the Himalayas have been a part of the larger Southern Asian calculus, while others claim that China is an extra-regional power in the region trying to assert its presence. China’s growing proximity and strengthening alliance with Pakistan has caused strategic concerns in India vis-a-via the formers’ combined role in the region.
Since India’s independence, a recurrent theme has been its dominant position in the region. Although widely accepted as a regional power in terms of its military prowess, combined with its image of a peaceful nuclear power image in the international system, India has faced geopolitical as well as military challenges. These challenges have come from either Pakistan or China with whom India has been involved in small scale conflicts as well as full-scale wars. With Pakistan there have been many intractable issues, the most prominent and complicated being the Kashmir issue. To overcome the geopolitical quagmire caused by the presence of Pakistan on both its western and eastern flanks, India supported the creation of Bangladesh through the 1971 War. The war resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, which was a peaceful neighbour. However, the repercussions of this geopolitical victory are still felt in the sub-continent.
The geopolitical scenario has changed drastically since 1971. India and Pakistan carried out nuclear tests in the 1970s and in 1998 respectively. Resultantly, the region now has two antagonistic neighbours with nuclear capability for military purposes. By way of emerging strategy, Pakistan, a close ally of the United States of America during the Cold War, has now aligned with China, which is a strongly emerging regional power the in South Asia. The end of the Cold War also meant a recalibration of alliances by the United States in the region, which subsequently manifested in the Indo-US Nuclear deal and the growing understanding between India and the US.
For Pakistan, bonhomie with the Chinese has yielded in overt economic and military support from the latter. The Pakistani economy has been debt ridden and China’s soft loans and the recent support in creating the transport infrastructure has been welcomed by successive governments in Islamabad. China, through its massive infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) seeks to create debt-leverage through financial support, and simultaneously expands its strategic footprint in the region. These developments have serious consequences for India as a dominant actor in the region.
The foremost challenge that the Chinese have created for India is with the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which runs through the disputed territory of Kashmir. More specifically, the corridor passes through the Pakistan Occupied territory of Kashmir (PoK), thus bringing the Kashmir issue into Indo-China relations as well as under international focus . The move to build the CPEC serves, three related purposes for the Chinese. First, it builds pressure through proximity on India. Second, it provides China access to the affairs of the region and third, it helps China increase its influence in the region. In the long run, such Chinese projects further complicate issues between India and China, as the territory still remains disputed and India has rightly objected to the CPEC’s passage through the PoK.
The geopolitical tussle with China doesn’t end with the CPEC. India’s border with China remains peaceful in general, but incursions from the Chinese military have occurred with increasing regularity. The most recent and alarming border standoff occurred at Doklam during the summer of 2017. Furthermore, in an effort to win allies, China has provided huge soft loans in India’s neighbourhood to Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, thereby developing an economic and strategic presence in the region.
India, thus, faces challenges from both Pakistan and China. However, more recently, India’s profile in the region as well as globally has seen revival. India’s efforts to isolate Pakistan on the issue of exporting terrorism have been received very seriously and widely among the international community. The current government’s policy of ‘Neighbourhood First’ emphasizes the importance of neighbouring countries in India’s foreign policy and been partly successful in countering Chinese influence in South Asia. More importantly, India’s effort to keep its neighbours engaged amidst increasing pressure from China will likely bring sustained growth of the Indian economy as well as avoid any regional confrontation. A robust Indian economy will benefit India’s neighbours and could alienate China, whose business model has been perceived as exploitative. Sri Lanka’s debt woes are an example in the neighbourhood. Also, China is geographically distant to South Asian countries. These factors work in favour of India’s geopolitical outlook in the longue durée.
*** The author is Assistant Professor at Center for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ***