India’s Relations Changing With Chinese Influence Droning Over Closest Neighbours
With the recent rise of China’s aggressive posturing in the Asian region, India’s concern regarding its immediate neighbourhood has had a lot of reason to grow. Developments in countries such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan (amongst others) have resulted in New Delhi having to recalibrate its bilateral relations and quickly respond to the increasing pace of economic and diplomatic challenges.
In the context of a very dynamic geopolitical scenario in the Indian subcontinent, it is now imperative to look at India’s relationship with some of its closest neighbours who have come under Chinese influence.
Regaining Foothold In Sri Lanka
For almost a decade, New Delhi had been losing ground to Beijing regarding relations with Colombo. From providing technical assistance to funds via investments and loans- China offered it all to Sri Lanka.
However, this three-way dynamic changed when Sri Lanka’s deepening economic crisis made news worldwide. Amidst the complete collapse of the island nation’s economy and the following upheaval, the public ousted Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the country’s China-friendly president. The public sentiment against the Rajapaksas, experts believe, might be pushing Beijing to remain quiet about the situation. It could also be in China’s interest to move its strategic focus away from the economically turbulent Sri Lanka.
While China continues to dilly-dally on the debt restructuring request raised by Sri Lanka, India is already aggressively moving ahead to fill in. As of last month, New Delhi has already extended credit lines worth $4 billion to Sri Lanka for fertiliser, food, fuel, and medicines. In comparison, China provided a relatively meagre $76 million, all while setting tough conditions regarding the nation’s debt. The political leadership of Sri Lanka is now leaning extensively towards aid from India and the West (especially the International Monetary Fund)- the latter being a prospect it had repeatedly declined in the past.
Given that China is now on the backfoot both perception-wise and on the front of economic aid it has provided, India has a chance to swoop in and revitalise its once flourishing relationship with Sri Lanka. The internal pressure on New Delhi from Tamil Nadu and the possibility of external support from Western nations and the IMF could provide the extra push.
However, one can expect replenishing a relationship that has been dormant for around a decade will be challenging.
Nepal’s Tricky Game
Nepal is another country that has had a long-standing relationship with India and has recently begun succumbing to Chinese influence.
Kathmandu and New Delhi have historically shared a deep relationship- politically and economically. India has been a feature of every democratic uprising that its landlocked neighbour has seen from 1950 onwards. Nepal has also been reliant on the country in times of emergencies (such as the pandemic) and for trade. In fact, over two-thirds of Nepal’s total trade is with India.
At the same time, the two countries also have multiple border issues, and there is often an anti-Indian sentiment in Nepalis when it comes to asserting their own identity; India is also seen as a significant geopolitical threat.
Recently, Beijing’s influence has been starkly visible in Nepal. The Chinese Communist Party had managed to work behind the scenes to bring the Nepal Communist Party to power in 2018. K.P. Sharma Oli, former Nepali prime minister, was perceived to be China’s man. In return, the Nepali government was bound to support China when it came to issues such as Taiwan and Tibet. Kathmandu also had to clearly commit to participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As of 2019, Nepal concluded a Protocol with China, providing the landlocked nation access to four sea ports and three land ports for third-country trade.
However, Oli’s government fell and China’s interference to get Nepal to stall a grant package worth $500 million from the US put the dragon in bad light. There have also been alleged border violations from the Chinese side.
With Nepal, India is dealing with a tricky situation. Nepal seems to be using China’s size to balance out the Indian influence (and vice-versa). While it is careful of Beijing’s activities within the country, Kathmandu is also wary of New Delhi’s dominance. There is a substantial amount of rhetoric on territorial nationalism at play, too. The Nepali communists’ internal friction is also a prominent dynamic with Oli bending towards China and former prime minister Puspa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” attempting to solidify relations with India’s ruling party. Where relations go will depend on how well New Delhi can capitalise on the historical and cultural similarities we share with Nepal.
Unlikely To Win Over Pakistan
India’s troubled relationship with Pakistan is well-known. Following multiple wars, there has undoubtedly come a sense of security threat and consequent arms race/military competition. Territory and terrorism have been other bones of contention. While there were various initiatives and talks to create friendly relations between the two countries, a sense of antagonism remains. The neighbours have also been duking it out regularly on various issues at international forums such as the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), International Court of Justice (ICJ) etc. Everything from sports to movies has become politicised in some sense.
On the other hand, China has been successful in building good relations with Pakistan. The trade between both nations has become quite robust due to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Both are also involved in military cooperation that spans from a thriving arms trade to coordinating defence exercises and anti-terrorism initiatives. It is no secret that China is equipping Pakistan to be able to deal with India in case a conflict should arise. Islamabad also completely endorses Beijing’s position on key territorial issues such as Taiwan, South China Sea claims, Tibet etc. The two have implicitly and explicitly supported each other on international platforms, too. China’s interest in Pakistan is also due to its ambitions for Afghanistan- the gateway to Central Asia- where the US has now left a vacuum too big to be filled by the Taliban.
China is a big player in Pakistan’s finances as well. As of last month, Pakistan had an outstanding debt of $14.5 billion that it needs to pay to China. Less than a month ago, Pakistan’s finance minister confirmed that the country had signed a $4.3 billion loan facility agreement to aid its economy.
Meanwhile, New Delhi has not even had a formal dialogue with Islamabad in the past seven years. Following the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, high commissioners were withdrawn, and relations became even more tense. Backchannel communication is still active, though. It proves that India and Pakistan will have to continue making efforts to communicate- if not formally, then informally- because at the end of the day, both are nations that share boundaries, rivers, a fear of the other’s nuclear prowess, and a desire to not go to war in already troubled economic times.
It is evident that China has managed to achieve a stronghold in India’s neighbourhood despite highs and lows. New Delhi now has to work on tipping the balance back in its favour through diplomacy and trade. The fact that India is a large country sharing thousands of kilometres of border areas with other South Asian countries ensures that it cannot be left out of any geopolitical equation in the region. Leveraging that to its advantage will benefit India in the near future. While Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan will have to be the top priority, it will also be wise to stay on the lookout for Chinese influence over Bangladesh and Myanmar.
[The author is a Aerospace & Defence Analyst and Director, ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd (An Indo-German Company), Bangalore]