India Jostles for Regional Primacy

As the new administration in Washington DC accelerates the country’s loss of influence across Asia, India is raising its game in a contest with China for economic and political primacy in the region.

That has been manifested by a flurry of visits from neighboring heads of state to New Delhi from Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Indonesia as well as the Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, the chairwoman of the Vietnam National Assembly and the country’s defense minister, Ngo Xuan Lich in quick succession.

Also scheduled to arrive are Vietnam's foreign minister and vice president, the premiers of Malaysia, Australia and Bangladesh. India's foreign secretary S Jaishankar too has been busy touring Sri Lanka, China and Bangladesh.

Driving this new-found rigor in New Delhi's foreign policy is its desire to forge closer relations with the neighborhood as a priority under the government's “Look East Policy.” India's nationalist Premier Narendra Modi has upgraded the policy to a more proactive “Act East Policy” which involves forging alliances and bilateral synergies with the neighbors on defense, trade and other matters of national importance.

"It is vital for a country like India with great power aspirations to forge connections in the West, but also closer to home — particularly when it hosts two-thirds of the world’s population and is one of the fastest growing economies," said Professor of History Juhi Juneja of Jamia Milia Islamia University, New Delhi. "Realizing Asia’s strategic significance, Modi too has been extensively touring South, Southeast, and East Asia."

The Asian theater – which stretches from Central Asia to Southeast Asia – is seeing growing assertion of power by both India and China triggering intense rivalry in the region. Both nations are trying to consolidate their regional position by investing in regional friendships as well as infrastructure projects to strengthen their continental reach.

India, for instance, is reviving the “Connect Central Asia” policy, seen by many as a retort to China’s New Silk Road and One Belt One Road initiatives. Energy-rich Central Asia, with which India shares historical linkages, holds great strategic appeal for Delhi. This is driving its attempts to build closer political, security, economic and cultural relations in the region.

India is also working on Chabahar port in Iran as the linchpin for its trade to and from Central Asia via Afghanistan. The port project is regarded as India's tactical answer to the Gwadar port in Pakistan being built by China as an integral feature of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor under the One Belt One Road scheme. New Delhi regards the Gwadar project as a direct threat to its security as well as an attempt by China to acquire a sweeping stronghold over transcontinental roads, ports, railways, pipelines and bridges.

The International North South Transport Corridor, which is designed to connect India with Central Asia, has the Modi government excited as well. The multi-modal transport agreement, known as Ashgabat Agreement, will facilitate the transport of goods between Central Asia and the Persian Gulf.

In Southeast Asia India has been trying to counter China’s vast sphere of influence by bolstering its presence and strategic interests through connectivity. Modi has proposed the India-Myanmar-Thailand Highway to be extended to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Increasingly, India has sought to build coalitions in Southeast Asia and has taken a strong stand on the South China Sea dispute. Vietnam, to which Modi extended a US$500-million line of credit last year on his trip to the country, is seen by many as India’s trump card against the China-Pakistan axis.

"The geopolitical jostling for power between India and China has intensified all the more with the US slowly losing grip on its crown as an arbiter in the region due to Trump's antagonistic policies," said a Ministry of External Affairs official. The diplomat added that the geopolitical landscape in Asia is changing rapidly with China-US ties becoming more fraught since Trump came to power. Given recent events, the US-China relationship will likely be frosty and the impact would be felt in every regional capital. With Asia getting mixed signals from the US, the region is looking for a countervailing force to hedge against both an aggressive China and an ambiguous America.

India’s eastern pivot also aligns with US interests in the region. India's raised profile can boost US-India cooperation, given Washington’s longstanding desire for New Delhi to play a more robust role in Asia. However, experts strike a note of caution. They say that while enhancing its regional profile, Delhi may still not want to provoke China. Despite bilateral tensions, and a protracted border dispute, the two still en joy a trade relationship valued at close to US$100 billion. This is a figure not worth any risk-taking.

Be that as it may, India is still leveraging the regional animus against China due to its aggressive expansion policies. What works to Delhi's advantage is that Chinese premier Xi Jinping's so-called talk of globalization, mobilization of Asian nations and bonhomie ring hollow against the backdrop of his dogged pursuit of self-interest across the globe.

As part of the process of making India into a leading power, Modi has also personally pushed for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group despite known Chinese opposition.

"Driving this idea was pure optics," said Chandresh Bahadur, a defense analyst. "Delhi feels that in the power game currently unfolding in Asia, India's prestige will go up a few notches if it is seen as getting into diplomatic tussles with China on important issues even while engaging China positively on other fronts."

India as of today enjoys a fair amount of goodwill across the region. However, China’s expanding footprint, generous economic support to smaller nations to earn their friendship, growing bonhomie with India’s strategic partner Russia, and empathy towards India’s arch-enemy Pakistan, are worrying for Delhi. It needs to leverage all its regional goodwill to keep China in check and provide regional stability.