India’s recent standoff with an aggressive China in the Galwan Valley and the subsequent banning of 59 Chinese apps, and provocations from Pakistan and Nepal indicate a changing regional political system. China has been able to shift its focus towards establishing regional cooperation and it is doing this while trying to keep India isolated. This article throws light on the changing geopolitics in India’s neighbourhood.

Jessica Pruthi

Amidst the global instability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, India is facing a dual challenge of containing the outbreak and maintaining cordial relations with its neighbours. While handling of the pandemic has definitely shown good progress, the question arises about India’s relationship with its neighbours, which is showing rather a grim picture.

India’s recent standoff with an aggressive China in the Galwan Valley and the subsequent banning of 59 Chinese apps, and provocations from Pakistan and Nepal indicate a changing regional political system. In the backdrop of these developments, it is important to look at how engagements amongst India’s neighbours are panning out.

China is one of the first countries to relatively recover from the virus, thus helping it to restart its economy after a brief period of complete lockdown. As a result, China has been able to shift its focus towards establishing regional cooperation and quite unsurprisingly, it is doing this while trying to keep India isolated.

In the last week of July, China held a joint video conference with three of India’s immediate neighbours—Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan—in order to formulate a four-point plan to deal with the pandemic. In addition to encouraging the three countries to effectively contain the virus spread, China ensured the countries of priority-based accessibility of Chinese vaccine whenever it is developed. What comes across from this joint conference is a conscious Chinese effort of pushing its dominant regional narrative by virtue of providing economic assistance, and in the process, strengthening its own position in the region. When looked at from the context of the recent India-China standoff, this joint conference is also being viewed as a deliberate China-led isolation of India in its own neighbourhood.

In another major regional development, the longtime antagonists Pakistan and Bangladesh seemed to have opened a channel of communication after a reconciliation effort by Pakistan. A report from a Pakistani newspaper claims a shift of Bangladesh towards China and Pakistan, after Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina had a telephonic conversation during which Khan has been known to bring up the Kashmir issue. This phone call may stir discontent in New Delhi which considers Bangladesh a close ally of India. However, to Pakistan’s dismay, Bangladesh proved its Indian allegiance by calling the Kashmir situation ‘India’s internal issue.’

Off late, China has indicated a strong interest in Bangladesh’s Payra sea port where it seeks to develop widespread infrastructure. This effort can be viewed through a lens of doubt as China has an ulterior motive behind its interest in Bangladesh’s strategic spot. This will create security implications for India and warming up of relations can complicate India’s relation with Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, there has been an outreach from Pakistan to Nepal too, in what looks like an opportunistic move during a time when Nepal and India are in the middle of grave diplomatic tensions. The Nepali cabinet passed a new map of the country in May 2020, including parts of Indian territory in the revised version, a move that received outright protests from New Delhi. Pakistan’s outreach and Nepal’s revival of a territorial dispute are two events that are nothing but strategic, and also posit the possibility of a closely aligned plan in coordination with Xi Jinping’s administration, in order to destabilise and engage India from all three sides—China, Pakistan and Nepal.

Adding to India’s woes is the China-Iran deal which further strengthens China’s hold in the region and also extends it to the Middle-East. The deal seeks to develop an economic partnership between the two countries over the course of 25 years. This deal also poses a challenge for India’s strategic involvement in the Chabahar Port of Iran, a lease for which was signed back in 2018. The Chabahar Port agreement between Iran and India was primarily undertaken by India to counter China’s takeover of Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, just 72 kms from Chabahar. However, with Iran’s China deal, the future of the Chabahar Project is becoming increasingly uncertain. Therefore, only time can tell how India’s role in the region will span out.

Coming to India and Bangladesh, both have had solid relations for a long time, apart from witnessing some hiccups around India’s controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). The Act concerns Dhaka because once it is implemented, a large number of undocumented immigrants will have to reverse migrate to Bangladesh. Dhaka’s CAA discontent, however, seems to have left India-Bangladesh ties unaffected as evident from Dhaka’s stance on the Kashmir issue, and Indian Railways’ recent provision of 10 locomotives to its neighbour as a gesture of India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy.

Sri Lanka on the other hand has been known to lean towards China than India. In the recent past, China has been actively involved in various infrastructural projects, port development and many other projects in Sri Lanka. In fact, Hambantota Port developed with Chinese assistance in Sri Lanka has been given for 99 years of lease to China. Chinese presence in the region so close to India is surely a security threat. However, things might change as the new leadership in Sri Lanka led by Rajapaksa brothers has shown positive signs for engaging and developing effective relations with India.

Therefore, as of now, the Indian government’s priority must be to successfully contain the coronavirus pandemic because everything else depends on that. The Indian economy has been projected to contract by 5 to 10 per cent, as a result of the lockdown, a figure as low as this not witnessed in the last 4 decades. It is highly likely that this situation will get reversed as soon as India’s coronavirus situation placates. As currently being postulated, a shift in the global manufacturing sector from China to India also has the potential of bringing back international support in favour of India. India is constantly modernising its technology, infrastructure and military, with having recently acquired a fleet of the mighty Rafael Jets from France. An effectively drafted and implemented multilateral foreign policy along with a strong functioning economy can majorly turn things in India’s favour, but for now, only time can tell how the after effects of the coronavirus pandemic will pan out India’s relationship with its neighbours and beyond.  

Jessica Pruthi Research Intern at CPPR. Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

Featured image source: NewsX

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