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India and China slugging it out in South Asia

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Earlier this month India decided to send five planes and two ships carrying water and machinery parts to Maldives after drinking water was cut off to more than 100,000 residents in the nation’s capital of Male due to a fire in the city’s only water sewage treatment plant.

The Indian Navy’s patrol vessel INS Sukanya carried 35 tons of fresh water and two reverse osmosis plants onboard, which can produce 20 tons of fresh water per day to meet the water crisis in Maldives.

India’s large fleet tanker delivered about 900 tons of fresh water to the Maldivian capital, while two C-17 planes of the Indian Air Force also delivered another 90 tons of potable water.

Maldives, located southwest of India in the Indian Ocean, depends entirely on treated seawater. The low-lying island nation has no natural water source, so it asked for help from various countries including India, China and the United States. Just a day later, China pointedly sent a military vessel carrying 960 ton of fresh water to the Maldives to help with that fresh-water crisis. Beijing has also donated $500,000 to Male for the repairs of the country’s damaged sole desalination plant.

This water diplomacy underlines the power struggle between China and India, which is rapidly shaping the South Asian strategic landscape.

Last month the summit meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Nepal was also marked by this Sino-Indian contest. India had to work hard to block China’s entry into the grouping.

For a long time, the dominant narrative of SAARC has been how India-Pakistan rivalry has hampered its evolution into anything of significance. That is now rapidly losing its salience with China’s growing dominance of the South Asian landscape.

China entered SAARC as an observer in 2005, supported by most member states. India could do little about it and so acquiesced. Now, much to India’s consternation, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal are supporting China’s full membership in SAARC.

China’s rising profile in South Asia is no news. What is astonishing is the diminishing role of India and the rapidity with which New Delhi is ceding strategic space to Beijing in on the subcontinent.

Even as China is becoming the largest trade partner of most states in South Asia, including India, New Delhi is busy repeating the old mantra of South Asia being India’s exclusive sphere of influence. Of course, no one even takes note of it anymore.

Pakistan’s “all-weather” friendship with China is well-known, but the reach of China in other South Asian states has been extraordinary.

Bangladesh and Sri Lanka view India as more interested in creating barriers against their exports than in spurring regional economic integration. India’s protectionist tendencies have allowed China to don the mantle of regional economic leader.

Instead of India emerging as a facilitator of socio-economic development in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, it is China’s developmental assistance that’s having a larger impact.

China’s strategy toward South Asia is premised on encircling India and confining her within the geographical coordinates of the region. This strategy of using proxies started off with Pakistan and has gradually evolved to include other states in the region, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

China is entering markets in South Asia more aggressively through both trade and investment, improving its trade and investment linkages with South Asian states through treaties and bilateral cooperation.

Following this up with construction of a ring of road and port connections in India’s neighborhood and deepening military engagements with states on India’s periphery, China has firmly entrenched itself in India’s backyard.

This quiet assertion of China has allowed various smaller countries of South Asia to play China off against India. Most states in the region now use the China card to balance against the pre-dominance of India.

Forced to exist between their two giant neighbors, the smaller states in South Asia have responded with a careful balancing act.

India’s structural dominance in South Asia makes it a natural target of resentment among its smaller neighbors. And yet there is no hope of fostering regional economic cooperation in the absence of Indian leadership. India’s failure to counter China’s rise in South Asia has made it even more unlikely that such cooperation will evolve productively.

As the two regional giants compete with each other in the near future, they will be more focused on their relative gains vis-a-vis each other than on the absolute gains that regional cooperation could bestow on South Asia.

Regional economic integration has faltered in South Asia.

The formation of SAARC in 1985 marked a watershed event in the regional dynamics of the South Asian subcontinent. This historic step reflected the first institutionalized effort to forge multilateral cooperation among the countries of the region.

Covering over 1.5 billion people across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives and Afghanistan, SAARC is one of the largest regional organizations in the world. But its achievements so far have been so minimal that even the constituent states have become lackadaisical in their attitudes toward it.

Intra-regional trade in South Asia remains far below potential despite the member states signing the South Asian Free Trade Agreement that came into force in 2006.

India could have succeeded in stopping the Chinese juggernaut in South Asia by suggesting that all observer states to SAARC, including China, support common development projects in the region before becoming dialogue partners. Yet this is a pyrrhic victory, if at all. The outcome of the Kathmandu summit of SAARC was as disappointing as that of its predecessors.

Of the three connectivity agreements on road, rail and energy pushed by New Delhi, only the one on energy could be signed. Though the target date for the formation of a regional economic community was set in the next 15 years, it remains far from clear how that will be achieved in light of the present stasis in the organization.

Meanwhile, China has reached out to South Asian states in a major way by promising $30 billion investment in infrastructure development and 10,000 scholarships for South Asian students. Many South Asian states have already decided to be part of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt or Maritime Silk Road initiatives. Most, including India, have joined China’s Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank.

The Modi government has made South Asia a priority in its foreign policy. It remains to be seen if Modi can “reinvigorate” and “revitalize” SAARC in the coming years as he suggested at the Kathmandu summit — by encouraging neighbors to join India’s growth story.

India’s attempts to keep China out of the subcontinent have clearly not worked, and despite Modi’s lofty ideas, it’s going to be a long road ahead for India in South Asia.

Harsh V. Pant teaches in the Defense Studies Department at King’s College London.

  • dgupta

    If India isn’t qualified as a leader, give other small countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal a chance please. Without India, everyone in South Asia looks happier.

    • Zafar

      India is not holding anyone, just go on join china.. you are open do that ..
      Besides you can sign Port for Chinese military which you have already done in Pakistan and SLankans… lets see how far these friendship go and the country gets bankrupt

    • Dipak Bose

      If India imposes passport and visas for the Nepalese, ask all Nepalese to leave India and prohibit the Nepalese to come to India to work, what is going to happen to Nepal.?

  • Rohan R

    In pure economical terms if China helps all of India’s neighbors it is good for India. South Asia as a whole should develop and in the long run it will turn out to be a good thing for India. India should focus on development and keep doing good things to maintain positive relations with the small neighbors.

  • wisdomcracker

    Ya right… Chinese assistance come without strings… keep deluding yourselves.

    • Jon

      Chinese assistance comes with strings…that is not a delusion. Except with one difference, it imposes less strings than most other countries.

  • Navtej Singh

    Excellent observations of South Asia. Indian leaders are busy in playing the divisive politics with its own people how they can compete with the outside world? The 68 years of track record shows bias against the states or people on the basis of region or religion. Now the politicians are creating such a euphoria of India being SUPER POWER soon will lead the vast majority in further complacency. THOSE WHO FIGHT WITH IT’S OWN PEOPLE LIKE ENEMIES CAN NEVER BE REGIONAL OR WORLD LEADERS.

  • Zafar

    The writer fails to mention what happens to so called “All weather friends” of China… just not pakistan alone, NKorea, Lybia, Zimbabwe…. these are all examples of Failed state… and now China is arming these rogue countries with nuclear arsenal and knowhow openly violating NPT whose herself is signatory.
    Also china is signatory of not to take arms in Space, but it violated that too..
    What we see here is not countries are lining up to join china for some advantage but to disadvantage if China is known to repeat her history… so just be careful

  • Despair

    Countries which see everything fine with China first should see its behavior with neighbors and then compare with India’s. Any one want join or take help from china India can not debar they are free to decide at will. By the way why Mynmar is no longer happy with China’s investment ????

  • Dipak Bose

    Although the author is Indian, but it seems that he has no knowledge of history.
    Pakistan, Bangladesh, Maldives are Muslim countries and they will be against India because of their religion, no matter India will do. India has created Bangladesh and Maldives and did everything possible for them but the people are staunch anti-Indian because of their religion.
    Sri Lanka was made anti-Indian by the British in the past by encouraging Ceylonese versus Tamil tribal war. Sri Lankans are also staunch anti-Indian. That leaves only Bhutan, who is tied to India, otherwise China will occupy it, as China occupied Tibet.

    Thus SAARC is not needed. It is a waste of time and money for India to have drink and dinners with the enemies like the Muslims and Sri Lankans. SAARC should be abolished.

    Before China USA had poured money on Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, but that has not improved the situation in those countries. Let China waste its money on these worthless countries. It is better for India to forget about these enemy countries and build up naval bases in Vietnam to combat China.

    • iat7b

      All these slanders coming from a country where 70% of people still defecate in public and gang rape is favorite recreational activity! I’ll take your rant as a badge of honor.

      • Dipak Bose

        Where do the Pakistanis and Chinese defecate? In the deserts? Or on the Yangsi river?

      • Dipak Bose

        go and eat some cockroach

      • iat7b

        Yeah right. Very matured response. Instead of spreading anti-Muslim bile and posturing with jingoism, try engaging with constructive dialogue. Try to win with logic and fact. Not hate and name calling.