Adapting to changing times

A South Asia in splendid isolation and an India with the economic and institutional capacities could produce an order for the entire region.

The recent SAARC summit was a subtle but clear jolt that India has its work cut out in South Asia. If there ever was a gulf between India’s regional self-image and capacity, between aspiration and actual power, it is now. China’s rise is testing India’s regional role. Pretending that India can catch up quickly or embellish its regional position via rhetoric would be self-deception.

The dragon is already in the house, and, Delhi is playing catch up. China’s internal re-orientation towards what Xi Jinping calls “big country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” and expanding China’s political and economic influence is impacting its entire periphery. There is nothing unusual about China’s new discourse and behaviour.

All great powers define their interests beyond their frontiers and seek to shape their primary region and perhaps even beyond. South Asia, being a direct neighbour of China’s, is naturally poised to feel the impact of these changes.

The Indian dilemma is to frame the policy challenge sensibly. Since the Modi government is clearly playing catch up, it is easy to get trapped in a defensive narrative that does little to alter ground realities. The instinctive tendency in Indian think tanks is to engage in military-centric conversations dealing with traditional or cross-border threats. But, this is not the primary trend in South Asia.

Aside from Pakistan’s identity-driven conflict with India that has fuelled a destructive proxy war over decades, the rest of the region is relatively normal. No other South Asian state defines its identity or foreign policy goals to spurn India. The regional trend can be more accurately characterised as a quest for regime stability, enhanced development, and, more foreign policy autonomy and options. China fulfills many of these needs because of its proximity, domestic capacity, and now more active neighbourhood diplomacy.

It is not axiomatic that this process is undermining South Asian stability or producing anti-India orientations in South Asia. What is occurring is India’s neighbours have two bigger powers vying for their attention and these smaller states have learnt the art of successfully extracting developmental and security benefits from this game. Can India conceptualise and pursue a role where it isn’t necessarily locked in a zero-sum game of influence with China, a game that is ironically becoming positive-sum for other South Asian states?

Geographically, India holds a commanding position in the subcontinent, and, to confront traditional threats, India is still geopolitically dominant and will remain so. But beyond that, India’s geographic centrality has proven to be inadequate to maintain its position as a regional player.

India, however, has enough economic resources, if mobilised prudently, to play its part in South Asia. India can no longer hold a veto on whether its neighbours pursue multivector foreign policies. But India can and must hold a veto on keeping its neighbours in a non-aligned status. India can also shape the types of partnerships that outside powers pursue with its neighbours.

For example, China’s interests in South Asia are not always directed at India. Nepal is important because of its potential to become a base to destabilise Tibet. Sri Lanka and Maldives are becoming useful as part of China’s maritime strategy to secure its sea lines of communications (SLOCs), and, to access transit points along these trade routes to West Asia and Africa. Unless India’s neighbours go along, China cannot be excluded from pursuing its interests in this region.

What India should be doing is finding ways to accommodate some Chinese interests and simultaneously drawing red lines, which become costly for China and India’s neighbours to cross. One such red line would obviously be a Chinese military base in South Asia.
Strategic and realistic approach

This is, arguably, a more strategic and realistic approach to modulating China’s South Asia policy than expending resources without a clear sense of what India seeks for itself and from its neighbours. To influence the trajectory of the region, India needs a regional policy. First, India should re-define its role away from defending a narrow notion of state and territorial security towards a wider conception of regional welfare. Second, India should diffuse norms for the region that emerge from a thoughtful conception of Indian and South Asian interests.

For example, India has direct interests in both the makeup of subcontinental regimes, and, how these regimes behave internally and externally.

Third, recognise that different regional orders are intersecting geopolitically and geoeconomically. India needs cooperation and interdependence with other regions to transform itself and South Asia. The idea of “open regionalism” fits in with India’s own discourse of connecting to multiple economic centres. Rather than be a “frog in the well” and engage in a schizophrenic discourse around China’s rise, realism demands accepting a prolonged period of interdependence with East Asia and West Asia for South Asia’s domestic transformation.

This, of course, implies an inherent tension with the more traditional conception of a region as a privileged sphere managed by a single regional power. China’s own rise exemplifies this contradiction where interdependence and the impulse for a larger say on regional geopolitics in East Asia is often in tension. India too will perhaps confront a similar dialectic as its relative power increases in the coming decades.

In an ideal world, a South Asia in splendid isolation and an India with the economic and institutional capacities could produce an order for the entire region. But India’s internal pre-occupations, a lop-sided growth model with a weak state, and, China’s rise has exposed the idea of South Asia as an exclusive sphere of influence.

If Indian policymakers do not adapt to changing conditions, India is in danger of losing control over the regional narrative and indeed over the direction of change in the subcontinent.
(The writer is a research scholar at King’s College, London)


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