India's election discourse may be dominated by Pakistan, but China's assertiveness in South Asia is the key challenge

From the perspective of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this parliamentary election is all about securing India’s national security. The ruling party has left no stone unturned in ensuring that the electoral discourse during the campaign is completely dominated by Pakistan and terrorism, which are often used synonymously to strike an instant chord with the ordinary people.

This tactic may be extremely useful for electioneering, but the reality is no longer hidden from sensible observers of India’s foreign policy. The major challenge India faces and will continue to face in the foreseeable future comes from China’s growing assertiveness in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.

China’s avoidable competition with India for power and influence in South Asia and Indian Ocean has contributed to the two countries’ troubled perceptions of each other and accounts in part for the slowness of improvement in their bilateral relations. China’s growing interest in South Asian geography is largely the result of its perceived geostrategic vulnerability that its landlocked southern, western and northern fronts impose. Beijing’s connectivity projects are basically aimed at opening many shorter and safer routes into the Indian Ocean for securing its energy requirements. But this has far-reaching implications on Indian interests.

The period since 2014 is a clear witness to the fact that the Modi government is not oblivious to China’s rise, and has been trying to manage its ramifications with various strategic measures. However, any other prime minister would have done what Modi did during the last five years. The growing power differential between India and China would have forced any regime in New Delhi to reckon with the dire consequences of China’s rising challenge. The government which will be formed after the parliamentary elections will need to pay immediate attention to dealing with the Xi Jinping-led dispensation in Beijing.

 Indias election discourse may be dominated by Pakistan, but Chinas assertiveness in South Asia is the key challenge

Representational image. AFP

Notwithstanding the hype surrounding Modi’s electioneering, Pakistan is nothing but a strategic nuisance for India. The manner in which the senior functionaries of the Modi government have projected the designation of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist by the UN Security Council as a huge diplomatic win for India only underscores this fact. The dominant feeling among India’s academic and expert circles is that China’s acquiescence to the labelling of Azhar is only tactical; it is not a transformative shift in Beijing’s ties with Islamabad.

The China puzzle has constantly bothered the Modi government’s foreign policy makers. It must go to the credit of the Modi government that despite China’s bullying tactics, New Delhi firmly stood up to Beijing during the Doka La stand-off in 2017. India has continued to boycott Xi’s ambitious geopolitical project – the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – with firmness and deftness on grounds of national sovereignty even before the Western world began to realise its inherently destabilising potential and decided to join the chorus of criticism.

However, this did not prevent Modi in reaching out to Xi with the Wuhan summit in 2018. Even though India cannot claim to have received anything valuable from this summit, the Modi government has not discarded the ‘spirit of Wuhan’; there was no stringent rhetoric against the BRI this time compared to 2017. But there should be no doubt that despite the pretense of multilateralism, the BRI remains a unilateral initiative; as long as labour and materials continue to be imported from China, the BRI projects cannot boost local economies.

Modi has emphasised the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in India’s ‘Act East’ policy besides also underlining ASEAN’s centrality in India’s Indo-Pacific vision as articulated by him. However, China is not unaware of India’s outreach towards Southeast Asia, and is accordingly increasing its military and economic footprints to bring the ASEAN countries into line with Beijing’s policy.

Not only that, at the latest BRI summit in Beijing, the Chinese leadership has listed the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and the Nepal-China Trans-Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity Network besides the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as the focus areas of BRI. China’s increasing militarisation of Tibet has already impinged on Indian security, and now, China is planning to extend a railway line from Tibet to Kathmandu. New Delhi can ignore this threat at its own peril.

It is undeniable that the Modi government has discarded India’s traditional hesitation about cosying up to the West; in particular, Modi has invested a great deal in New Delhi’s growing bonhomie with Washington. Although Japan is America’s closest Asian ally, India-US bilateral relationship is fast becoming an important pillar of Washington’s regional security strategy, and the US now supports and encourages a bigger political and security role for India in the Indo-Pacific. The revival of the Quadrilateral involving India, the US, Japan and Australia after almost a decade is a reflection that keeping away from the Quad for fear of hurting Chinese sensitivities is no longer pragmatic.

There are strong reasons to believe that the goal of blocking and rolling back China’s economic and military influence is uppermost in the China policy of the Donald Trump administration. All other concerns seem subordinated to that goal. Under the Modi government, India has however not yet reached this stage. South Asia’s strategic environment has become so fluid that new Indian government will need to spend more time in strategising about China. There is a feeling that since 1998, when the Vajpayee government identified Chinese threat as the primary reason for nuclear explosions in Pokhran, India has been unsuccessful in effectively assessing and managing the challenge emanating from China. The new government can no longer afford to remain complacent about it.

India’s foreign policy has been quite energetic and dynamic during the last five years. It remains to be seen whether it will remain the same after the results of parliamentary elections are finally out. It must be mentioned that Chinese premier Li Keqiang was the first foreign leader to call up Modi in May 2014 after his outstanding electoral victory. He also sent China’s foreign minister Wang Yi next month to visit New Delhi to hold discussions with Sushma Swaraj and Modi.

But to China’s utter amazement, Modi chose Japan as his first bilateral visit outside South Asia in August 2014. Given the frigid nature of Beijing-Tokyo ties, this visit was a clear signal about the centrality of China in Modi’s foreign policy. In Japan, he had remarked: “The world is divided into camps. One camp believes in expansionist policies, while the other believes in development. We have to decide whether the world should get caught in the grip of expansionist policies, or whether we should lead it on the path of development and create opportunities that take it to greater heights.” There was no direct mention of China, but nobody missed it either.

It is too early to predict as to where would the next prime minister go and what would s/he utter in reference to China. But there is no doubt that the challenge from China can only be contained, rather than eliminated. Yet the ability to respond to it will eventually depend on whether the next government meets the challenge with a comprehensive and consistent strategy that grabs the bull by its horns.

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Updated Date: May 05, 2019 20:32:54 IST