India’s diplomacy fails to reduce Chinese influence in our neighborhood

Aspirations to achieve Akhand Bharath may be a long-term objective for the right-wing political establishment in India. However, India’s immediate and most important priority should be to reduce China’s influence in our neighborhood. This will best serve the national interest. For the last seven years or so, China has been strengthening her influence in our neighborhood to the alarm of all. However, India’s ruling elites continue to focus on stage-management, convincing the people that ‘everything’ is alright in the neighborhood. The prevailing truth, however, hurts the real patriots of this great nation.

One of the senior leaders of the BJP, MP and Dr. Subraminian Swamy, says that this government does not have the courage to respond to the challenges of China, even those direct challenges upon our border and within our neighborhood. It is a shame that none of the spokespersons for the BJP or the Government have thus far possessed the ability to respond to Dr. Swamy’s comments. India’s failure in responding to China’s increasing influence has led to our immediate neighbors leaning more on Beijing than New Delhi.  These small countries know the benefits of being with India in the long run. Nonetheless, some of the foolish policies pursued by the present government have worsened the situation in our neighborhood. Now, India’s neighborhood policy is no longer bilateral but trilateral. When India initiates any bilateral talks with her neighbors, the Chinese will automatically be included. Thus, considerable Chinese influence runs deep today in our neighborhood. It extends to Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and even to Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

However, when we miserably fail to utilize our strengths and preserve strong relationships with our neighbors, serious questions must be asked about our capacity to deal with China. At the same time, India’s bilateral trade with China reached the value of $100 billion, despite the shadow of dispute over the border of the two countries. It shows that the present government has not learnt any lesson from China’s assertive behavior since 2014.

What did the BJP promise in the 2014 and 2019 election campaigns and what have they delivered so far in reducing China’s influence in our neighborhood? The BJP talked loudly during election campaigns about their foreign policy priorities and strategies. Yet, they kept quiet afterwards. In the past two parliamentary elections Pakistan and China were well described as our enemies and as threats to our national security. Aakar Patel says in his book, “India has no real Pakistan strategy, if, by strategy, we mean a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term aim.” China’s behaviour indicates that it has a clear policy for India. However, India’s response to China does not demonstrate the same. In consequence, our neighbors understand that India is a reluctant power under the leadership of the current Prime Minister. China’s influence over our neighbors, too, is unchecked. Let us examine in this article how the present government has failed to thwart China’s influence with our neighbors since 2014.   

At present Sri Lanka is in the midst of a debt crisis. India’s policy should be to use the crisis as an opportunity to influence Sri Lanka against China. Does India have any policy alternative to offer that could rescue Sri Lanka? Many projects in Sri Lanka are reluctantly given to Chinese based companies because of our lack of policy towards Colombo. Sri Lanka has now started to travel on two tracks – that is on India and China. Today, the Chinese influence is well developed in Sri Lanka with the support of the Rajapaksa brothers. India’s recent approach in extending $500-mn credit to support Sri Lanka’s urgent need for fuel importation, gives hope that China will not be allowed to swallow Colombo. The point is that the more we allow Sri Lanka to rely on China’s aid, the closer the Chinese threat becomes.

Since the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan, the whole world has plunged into expectation about what shall happen next to Afghanistan. As the Taliban forces drew near to the capital city Kabul, India commented that, “We are monitoring the situation with concern”. However, China quickly perceived that the fall of Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban did not only threaten the security of Central/South Asia, but that it also concerned Beijing. The Taliban could support militants in the Xinjiang province. Hence, China produced a statement announcing their willingness to work with the new government led by the Taliban. In response, the Taliban says, “China is our friend”. Now, does this not indicate that India is not their friend? Although India has invested a huge amount of funds for the development of Afghanistan’s society, in the building of dams to schools, it is now struggling to work with the new government in Kabul. India’s failure to act wisely opened the door to China.   

India and Pakistan have been in conflict with each other since their independence. However, Pakistan and China typically say that they are ‘all-weather friends’. Today Pakistan is India’s permanent adversary. The Indian establishment uses this environment to its electoral advantage. Even more than India, the Pakistani military also has to take responsibility for this situation. I am not at all in a position to say that India has to find a channel to talk with Pakistan on the shadow of terror. Nonetheless, the present government in India should understand that Pakistan itself has internal bleeding because of terror. It is a failed state according to the Foreign Policy Magazine. At the same time, the mission for India’s foreign policy department is to form friendships with like-minded groups inside Pakistan, to improve confidence building measures and facilitate future talks. This helps to identify the available options before us and to find opportunities to reduce China’s influence in Pakistan. This is imperative even though we don’t talk with Pakistan. During his famous bus journey to Pakistan our former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said, “Friends can be changed but not neighbors”. It is true that India has lots of challenges in handling Pakistan when compared to China’s relations with Pakistan. However, abandoning Pakistan will completely allow China to dictate Pakistan’s policy towards India.

Once, Nepalwas governed by India’s interest. Even today, the people of Nepal can be seen all over India in employment and enjoying their life. The disagreements between India and Nepal over their new constitution could have been sorted out amicably. India’s national security advisor Ajit Doval’s strategy for Nepal, that it should block essential goods like petroleum as a retaliation measure, created anti-Indian feeling in Nepal which now runs very deep. It is unsurprising, therefore, that India’s imprudent strategy has considerably pushed Katmandu towards Beijing. India should not have done this to an unequal county like Nepal. At present, Nepal is now not only more dependent upon China, but it is also following the strategy of China in handling the India-Nepal border dispute. Further, it also published unilaterally the map containing disputed territories claimed by India. This indicates that India is losing even a tiny country to the geostrategic balance of power with China.    

India and Bhutan have enjoyed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation since 1949. Before 2013 Bhutan’s foreign policy was India’s foreign policy. This meant that India’s foreign policy considered Bhutan’s interests. It is well known that Bhutan has a border dispute with China and that the negotiations to settle the border issue have been running for the past four decades. For the last five years, India and Bhutan have continued to be on the same page. However, India’s unworthy efforts in handling the Doklam crisis caused Bhutan to reconsider their position against China in settling the border disputes. As India’s diplomatic responses to China decline, it is entirely sensible for the tiny states to begin working more with China. The recent memorandum of understanding between Bhutan and China demonstrates this emerging pattern. The Indian government has become increasingly distressed that Bhutan is beginning (for the first time) to conduct its external affairs with China without consulting India. Moreover, the fact that the details of the memorandum of understanding have not been shared with India reveals that Indian policy makers under the BJP leadership are completely blind to China’s influence in India’s neighborhood. 

China’s special focus and investment in Bangladesh in recent times is also a concern to India. However, for now, India can still retain comfort in holding its position as the largest trading partner of Bangladesh. New Delhi and Dhaka have a clear understanding and also have mutual concerns about the attempts of China towards fulfilling and satisfying Dhaka’s demands. At this stage, China always says that their relationship with Bangladesh is an opportunity for India. However, India has been silent amidst China’s warning to Bangladesh. Beijing has warned Dhaka against participating in the Quad dialogue group, of which New Delhi is a member. This warning concerns our neighbor Bangladesh. These small things gradually increase the doubts of our neighbors about our ability to handle China and safeguard their interests.

India and Myanmar have shared connections for many centuries. Myanmar was one of the provinces of British India. At present India is sharing a 1600km long border with Myanmar. India considers the South East Asian nation to be a gateway towards implementing its Act-East Policy. Military rule, civil war and human rights issues have tarnished the image of Myanmar and isolated it from the international community. India has a number of developmental projects with Myanmar. Nevertheless, this cannot be compared to China’s $21 billion FDI investment in Myanmar in 2020 and its contribution of 80% of Myanmar’s military equipment. However, India’s defense and security cooperation with Myanmar has been increasing. Whilst bilateral relations between China and Myanmar are sailing well, Myanmar has accused China of supplying military equipment to the rebel group near the Myanmar-China border. This pushed Myanmar’s military rulers towards India in 2011, thereby reducing its dependence on China. That is the reason why the Indian government did not talk much about the February 2021 coup in Myanmar against the democratically elected government, except in registering her general concern. The general view is – New Delhi is dancing without long term vision but only striving for short-term goal to fulfil her energy demand for her North Eastern State. Hence, the reality is – in the last eight years or so, India’s present strategy towards further reducing China’s influence in Myanmar has provided no robust results.

To summarize, instead of formulating policies to curb China’s influence in our neighborhood, the Indian government has instead showed cowardice to the weak section of Indian society like internal migrants, children, women, dalits, and minorities. The Covid-19 pandemic provided a splendid opportunity for India to protect our neighborhood against China’s assertiveness. Yet, the Prime Minister’s policies have failed and India is now being forced to face a declining fate. Neither India nor our neighbors have benefited from the Covid-19 opportunities.

Every Indian is asking the Prime Minister – why is he silent in the face of the Chinese threat? In truth, he is afraid of provoking China by strong action. Look at the leadership of Russia. They openly speak against the West and EU as their adversary. Why can the Indian Prime Minister not do likewise? How long will his silence continue?

Once, Sri Lanka’s focus on China was our main concern. Now, others are following suit, such as Nepal, Bhutan and even Maldives in the Indian Ocean. No concrete steps have been taken to deal with China’s influence in our neighborhood. India is facing shame after shame because of the Chinese approach towards our neighbors. One after another, our neighbors are falling into the trap of China. It is a matter of grave concern that the office of India’s Prime Minister’s remains undisturbed.  

Antony Vigilious Clement
Antony Vigilious Clement
Antony Clement is a Senior Editor (Indo-Pacific), Modern Diplomacy, an online journal. He is a researcher in Indian Foreign Policy. He is currently working on two books - “The Best Teacher” and “Diplomacy in Tough Times”. His research centres on India’s diplomacy & foreign policy and extends to domestic politics, economic policy, security issues, and international security matters, including India’s relations with the US, the BRICS nations, the EU and Australia. His recent book is “Discover your talents.”