While many foreign-policy discussions center on the growing strategic conflict between the United States and China, another significant rivalry is taking place in the background. Washington’s plan to maintain the area “free and open” from Chinese pressure is likely to depend on how India and China compete for influence in South Asia, from the Himalayas to the islands off the subcontinent in the Indian Ocean. The good news is that Beijing’s growing influence across the region has generally been resisted by New Delhi, an increasingly close ally of the United States. At least for the time being.
India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Sri Lanka comprise South Asia, which has long been a center of Sino-Indian strategic rivalry. Fearing that Beijing, with whom it has often battled along their disputed land boundary in the Himalayas, is assembling an alliance network to surround India both on land and at sea, and eventually to usurp it as the leading force in South Asia, is New Delhi’s fear. Notably, every nation in the area is a member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive economic strategy for infrastructure development and investment, with the exception of Bhutan. Beijing has also gained access to important ports around the Indian Ocean, such as Bangladesh’s Chittagong, Sri Lanka’s Hambantota, and Pakistan’s Gwadar. This has given New Delhi concern that Beijing is attempting to encircle India with a “string of pearls” approach.
Just four years ago, when China-friendly administrations took office in the Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and, of course, Pakistan, India discovered that its neighbors were very concerning. India’s long-standing Neighborhood First strategy was undermined by a slew of strategic errors it made in its dealings with several of its neighbors. However, times have evolved. India has strengthened its connections with Bangladesh and now maintains close relationships with the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Beijing’s influence on the Taliban in Afghanistan has been equaled, if not exceeded, by New Delhi. Indeed, long-standing territorial and sovereignty conflicts over the Kashmir area, together with Islamabad’s “all-weather partnership” with Beijing, make Pakistan an unsolvable dilemma. However, there hasn’t been a noticeable decline in the bilateral ties between India and Pakistan either. India is concerned that Bhutan has excluded it from border talks with China, but New Delhi has a long-standing connection with the Himalayan nation, which enables it to monitor developments closely in order to protect its interests. All of this points to a critical turning moment in South Asian history. India and China are engaged in a strategic struggle in the area that India may even be winning.