Grand Strategy: Time to reset the rules of the game in South Asia - Hindustan Times
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Grand Strategy: Time to reset the rules of the game in South Asia

Jun 16, 2024 08:14 PM IST

China’s approach has changed from co-existence with India to containment in the neighbourhood. New Delhi needs to shift the goalposts

By inviting the leaders of key neighbouring countries to the swearing-in ceremony of the new council of ministers, New Delhi has made its intentions clear: It plans to double down on efforts to engage the neighbourhood and regain its influence. The neighbourhood is India’s most important strategic theatre. But it’s not certain whether proactive outreach alone will help New Delhi regain its influence, let alone primacy, in the region.

South Asian government leaders at PM Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in Delhi (PTI Photo)(PTI06_10_2024_000011B) (PTI)
South Asian government leaders at PM Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in Delhi (PTI Photo)(PTI06_10_2024_000011B) (PTI)

The fact is that China has changed the rules of the game in South Asia. A historically non-South Asian country, China was traditionally focused on consolidating its sphere of influence in Southeast Asia, rather than in South Asia. By doing so, Beijing implicitly accepted India’s primacy in South Asia. That is no longer the case.

By proactively engaging South Asian countries in all aspects, ranging from defence deals to developmental assistance, sprinkled with occasional domestic political interference, Beijing has effectively altered the diplomatic landscape. Furthermore, by challenging India’s primacy in the region and trying to make it a Chinese sphere of influence, Beijing has undermined the traditional geopolitical order in South Asia. Put differently, China is no longer playing by the traditional rules of the geopolitical game in South Asia. We can sugar coat this reality by convincing ourselves that China is only seeking to co-exist with India in the region. In reality, however, China is seeking dominance.

In the face of this new reality, India’s strategic response has been to course-correct its South Asia policy (translated as “be nice to your neighbours”), and play catch-up with China.

So, what does this strategy of catching up involve? On the ground, it translates into spending more money in South Asian countries, fast-tracking and bringing about more effectiveness into project delivery, trying to outbid and outdo China in sensitive regional projects, and expressing unhappiness when China is handed strategically important projects in the region, among others. A second part of this strategy is public diplomacy – the use of soft power to win the region back, or in other words, wooing, appeasing and indulging the States in the region.

But India’s catch-up game in South Asia is too late, too little, and has its limitations. We may need to think differently.

The reason why the current strategy to win back the region by playing catch-up to China is unlikely to work is because those strategies amount to playing by the old rules. The rules that once worked for India won’t work for any longer; instead, they benefit China now. Old rules — give more, spend more, and outbid China — will ultimately only help China because, let’s not forget, China can outspend India in the region.

Moreover, the old rules incentivise South Asian States to use China to balance India and bargain for more — as States caught between two powers often do.

So if the old rules don’t work for India, what should it do? India should change the rules of the game in South Asia. Given that China has broadened the balance of power in South Asia to its advantage, India should broaden it even further to its advantage — by projecting South Asia as a subset of Southern Asian balance of power within a multipolar Asia.

But how? It can do so by getting its global and regional partners to check China’s growing influence in the region. For that, India will need to abandon its Cold War strategy of keeping all external powers, friend or foe, away from its sphere of influence — since China has already crossed that red line, it’s time for India to cross China’s red line.

To pose that somewhat differently: What do you do when your adversary challenges you in your region? You pull out the oldest trick in statecraft — get the adversary’s adversary (the United States and its allies, in this case) to restore the lost balance of power. The structure of the balance of power in South Asia today is shaped by India, China and the other South Asian States; and all things considered, it is disadvantageous to India. To correct that flawed balance of power, India must bring in others who can work with India on domains such as security, development, economy and defence. Even as, at the same time, the neighbourhood-first push goes on.

Happymon Jacob teaches India’s foreign policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and is the founder of the Council for Strategic and Defence Research, a New Delhi-based think tank. The views expressed are personal

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