India’s Strategic Imperatives Amidst Regional Shifts and Emerging Challenges

India's neighbourhood is experiencing heightened tensions. The Maldives is undergoing a political transition that doesn't align entirely with India's preferences.

India’s neighbourhood is experiencing heightened tensions. The Maldives is undergoing a political transition that doesn’t align entirely with India’s preferences, given its apparent inclination towards China. Nepal recently signed numerous agreements with China, showcasing a deepening relationship, and Sri Lanka is recovering from a significant economic and political crisis. However, internal political disputes in West Bengal between the Trinamool Congress and the BJP have complicated ties with Colombo. Additionally, India and Myanmar are at odds due to allegations of an influx of immigrants into Manipur.

Since 2018, China has invested over US$150 billion in the economies of Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan. China has become the largest overseas investor in Maldives, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, raising concerns in India about the potential impact on its sphere of influence. There’s apprehension that China might encircle India with a ‘String of Pearls,’ akin to Beijing’s concerns about the ‘Malacca Dilemma.’

In this complex regional scenario, the Sheikh Hasina government remains India’s closest and most reliable partner, particularly in the face of shifting loyalties and anti-Indian sentiments in neighbouring countries. India, traditionally the acknowledged big power in South Asia, is grappling with the growing influence of China in the region.

Simultaneously, the Biden administration has taken punitive measures against Bangladesh, expressing concerns about “democratic backsliding.” The US has imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), accusing it of helping Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League win past elections. The pressure from the US and European nations for fair elections in Bangladesh has strained diplomatic relations. Furthermore, there is a worry in Dhaka and New Delhi about the potential rise of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat-e-Islami coalition, which could pose a threat to stability. The history of regimes in Bangladesh supporting anti-India forces has been replaced by Sheikh Hasina’s efforts to stabilize relations. However, recent moves by the Biden administration have raised fears of jeopardizing this relationship.

For India, ensuring Hasina’s re-election is imperative for internal security and the stability of its volatile northeast. Despite the challenges, India is actively engaging with Bangladesh, as seen in the G20 Summit invitation, aiming to prevent any deterioration in relations. In contrast, China, while a significant player in the region, is not perceived as an immediate threat compared to the potential risks associated with a different political landscape in Dhaka. A recent delegation from Bangladesh reassured Indian leaders of their commitment, designating China as a “development partner” and India as a longstanding and committed “strategic-cum-development partner.”

Bhutan and Bangladesh have historically maintained cordial relations driven by shared national interests and trade connections. Thimphu sees this partnership as strategically crucial for its access to the sea, while Dhaka values Bhutan as a significant trade ally. To bolster their economic ties, the two nations recently inked an “Agreement on movement of traffic-in-transit and protocol,” permitting Bhutan to utilize Mongla, Payra, and Chittagong ports for international trade, thereby reducing its reliance on India, particularly in light of challenges faced in boulder exports to Bangladesh via West Bengal.

Amid China’s growing influence, Bangladesh is actively seeking its own identity in the region through economic growth. Dhaka has engaged with Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan to forge trade agreements and secure markets and resources. While India has expressed concerns about Bangladesh’s increasing ties with China, it is also involving other countries, such as Japan, to boost investments in the Bay of Bengal.

China’s presence in Bangladesh has strengthened, with significant aid packages since 2020, supporting key infrastructure projects and the establishment of a Special Economic Zone for Chinese investors in Anwara Upazila. Despite initial opposition to Bangladesh’s United Nations membership, China’s recent statements about protecting Bangladesh align with its Belt and Road Initiative motives.

In a separate development, India extended anti-dumping duties on certain jute products from Nepal and Bangladesh, prompting concerns from Nepal’s Prime Minister Prachanda. This move underscores the need for India to address ongoing issues with Nepal and enhance bilateral economic cooperation amidst Nepal’s increasing engagements with China. India’s anti-dumping duties on jute products from Nepal and Bangladesh could exacerbate existing tensions, while China’s presence in Bangladesh could lead to a proxy rivalry between the two countries.

China’s interests in Nepal focus on securing support for the “One China” policy and preventing anti-China activities by Tibetan refugees in Kathmandu. While recent agreements between China and Nepal may not immediately threaten Indian interests, New Delhi needs to remain vigilant as China may seek to alter the current reality of Nepal being within India’s sphere of influence. It could make it more difficult for India to maintain its sphere of influence in the region. China’s growing ties with Nepal and Bhutan could undermine India’s traditional dominance in South Asia.

In a less diplomatic incident, Suvendu Adhikari of the BJP mocked Sri Lanka’s recovering economy, drawing criticism for insensitivity in a bid to mock the informal meeting of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee with the Sri Lankan President in Spain where the former was present for a business summit. This incident has caught the attention of the state government, which plans to discuss it with the external affairs minister.

The crisis in Myanmar unfolds against the backdrop of intensified competition between China and India for geopolitical influence in South and Southeast Asia. China’s historical support for Myanmar’s junta, along with concerns about its military activities near India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, raises strategic challenges for India. Addressing human trafficking challenges also presents a complex scenario for India, particularly in Myanmar’s Myawaddy region. The ongoing political crisis hampers cooperation from Myanmar authorities, and the challenging terrain along the border complicates effective patrolling. Despite these challenges, Indian authorities and missions have been actively working to rescue and repatriate victims. The porous border shared by Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh with Myanmar poses additional challenges due to ethnic and familial ties, creating opportunities for illegal transactions.

With Muizzu in power in Maldives, India’s influence in the island country will not be the same as it was during Solih’s term. Even in his election campaign, Muizzu was critical of the relations between the two countries with “India Out” slogans.

With India recently hoisting the G20 summit and claiming international dominance, this is indeed not a good sign. India wants the support of its neighbours to secure a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, which China is not much in favour of owing to their loyalty towards Pakistan, India’s most sworn enemy since independence. Hostile neighbours might harm India’s prospects and can challenge the “Look East” approach of New Delhi. The growing influence of China and shifting loyalties could lead to increased competition and rivalry between India and its neighbours. This could lead to tensions and even conflict. There already exists land disputes with Nepal and Pakistan. With the 2024 elections approaching, the National Register for Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 might take centre stage again and further cause damage to Bangladesh-India ties, causing communal strife.

If China continues to expand its influence in India’s neighbourhood, India could see its sphere of influence weaken. This could have implications for India’s security and regional interests. The growing influence of China and other countries in the region could lead to a more multipolar regional order.

It is important to note that the region is not monolithic. There is a great deal of variation in the political, economic, and social conditions of India’s neighbours. This means that India will need to tailor its approach to each country individually. It is also important to consider the role of the United States in the region. The US has a long history of involvement in the South Asia region, and it remains a major player. The US’s relationship with India is particularly important, and the US is likely to continue to support India in its efforts to counter China’s influence in the region. Here, India will also be in a state of confusion since the US and Russia are traditional rivals. Since the Russia-Ukraine war, the closeness between New Delhi and Moscow has increased manifold. But China’s traditional ally Russia will never help India to exert dominance in South Asia at the cost of China, making India come to a sticky wicket where New Delhi may have to choose sides, shifting from its traditional approach of non-alignment. Investing in regional connectivity initiatives, such as the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement, could foster economic integration and strengthen diplomatic ties. This might help counterbalance the influence of external actors in the region. To address internal security challenges, India may collaborate closely with regional partners to counter the influence of fundamentalist forces. This could involve intelligence-sharing, joint counter-terrorism efforts, and diplomatic initiatives to promote stability.

Non-state actors, such as terrorist groups and insurgent movements, also play a role in the security of India’s neighbourhood. These groups can exploit political instability and economic hardship to gain support and carry out attacks. India will need to work with its neighbours to address the threat posed by non-state actors. Climate change is another major challenge facing India’s neighbourhood. The region is vulnerable to natural disasters such as floods, droughts, and cyclones. Climate change is also exacerbating existing problems such as poverty and food insecurity. India will need to work with its neighbours to adapt to the impacts of climate change and build resilience. New technologies, such as artificial intelligence and 5G, are also transforming the region. These technologies have the potential to boost economic growth and improve lives. However, they can also be used for malicious purposes, such as cyberwarfare and surveillance. India will need to work with its neighbours to ensure that new technologies are used for good and not for harm.

Domestic politics in India and its neighbours will also play a role in shaping the future of the region. The rise of populism and nationalism in some countries could lead to more isolationist and protectionist policies. This could make it more difficult for countries in the region to cooperate and address common challenges. Emerging powers such as Japan, Australia, and South Korea are also playing an increasing role in the South Asia region. These countries are looking to expand their economic and strategic interests in the region. The role of emerging powers could help to balance China’s influence in the region and create new opportunities for cooperation. On the sidelines of the QUAD military alliance, India might form an economic alliance on similar lines with Japan, Australia, South Korea and America to form an economic shield as a counter to the competitive Chinese economic goals. The population of this new alliance might give a dividend for a bigger market and also diminish economic woes due to COVID-19 by the policy of mutual coordination.

Social media is playing an increasingly important role in the South Asia region. It is being used by governments, political parties, and non-state actors to spread information, influence public opinion, and mobilize support. Social media can also be used to spread misinformation and disinformation. This is a challenge for all countries in the region, as it can make it more difficult to maintain social cohesion and stability. Also, with growing trends during the World Cup, with Pakistani players being booed away with the “Jai Shree Ram” slogan and Indian fans tearing apart Bangladeshi Cricketer Shoaib Ali’s (known as Tiger) beloved stuffed tiger toy after India’s victory over Bangladesh, will definitely come as a psychological blockade in diplomatic relations. 

If India, China, and other countries in the region are able to manage their competition peacefully and cooperate on issues of mutual interest, the region could become more cooperative and integrated. This could lead to increased economic development and prosperity for all countries in the region.

The evolving situation in India’s neighbourhood is complex and uncertain. There are a number of possible outcomes, depending on the actions of India, China, and other countries in the region, as well as the role of non-state actors, climate change, new technologies, social media, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

India will need to carefully navigate the complex geopolitical landscape in order to maintain its security and regional interests. India will need to invest in its own development, strengthen its ties with its neighbours, and work with other countries to counter China’s growing influence.

Rohi Ray
Rohi Ray
Rohi Ray is a Third Year Law student at Symbiosis Law School, Pune, pursuing BALLB(Hons).