China’s inroads into South Asia since the mid-2000s have eroded India’s traditional primacy in the region, from Afghanistan to Myanmar and also in the Indian Ocean. As Beijing deploys its formidable financial resources and develops its strategic clout across the subcontinent, New Delhi faces capacity challenges to stem Chinese offensive in its own strategic backyard.
Prime Minister Modi’s new ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, unveiled in 2014, has consequently focused on reaching out to other states to develop partnerships across the region. This balancing strategy marks a departure from India’s unsustainable efforts to insulate South Asia as its exclusive sphere of influence and deny space to any extra-regional actors.
Officially, these unprecedented outreach efforts are implicitly referred to as a partnership with “like-minded” countries. According to Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, in its quest for more “people-centric” connectivity projects and a “cooperative regional architecture,” India is “working closely with a number of other international players whose approach is similar.”
New South Asian partners
A range of examples speak volumes about this new strategy. With the US, India now conducts close consultations on smaller states such as Nepal, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka. In 2015, following Japan’s permanent inclusion into the Malabar naval exercises, Tokyo and New Delhi developed a joint “Vision 2025” plan promising to “seek synergy... by closely coordinating, bilaterally and with other partners, for better regional integration and improved connectivity,” especially in the Bay of Bengal region. The Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, announced in 2016, further highlights India’s willingness to work with Japan to develop alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In 2014, India and Russia signed an unprecedented agreement to cooperate on developing nuclear power in third countries, with a focus on Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Year 2015 saw the first Australia-India Maritime Exercise (AUSINDEX) off India’s Eastern coast. And with the UK, India signed a statement of intent on “partnership for cooperation in third countries” with a focus on development assistance in South Asia, and held its first formal dialogue on regional affairs in 2016.
With Brussels, Paris, and Berlin, New Delhi has engaged in dialogues about maritime security and the Indian Ocean region, and shared intelligence to bolster regional counter-terrorism efforts. Finally, contrasting with its past reluctance to involve multilateral organisations, India has enthusiastically endorsed the Asian Development Bank’s South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) operational programme for 2016-25, focused on improving connectivity between the subcontinent and Southeast Asia.
While many of these partnerships are still nascent, there are measures that will allow their expansion across three sequential levels. First, to increase mutual consultation, New Delhi and extra-regional powers must invest in creating institutional mechanisms dedicated to sharing assessments on South Asia.
Under existing consultations, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or broader Asian strategic issues frequently overshadow Nepal or Sri Lanka. This must give way to specific bilateral dialogues on three specific regional vectors: political and strategic issues, with a focus on China, counter-terrorism, and maritime security; economic issues, with a focus on connectivity, trade, and investment initiatives; and developmental issues, with a focus on aid projects and other economic assistance initiatives.
Second, to increase the prospects for coordination, India and partners can identify bilateral areas for policy coordination across South Asia, agreeing to a division of labour that maximises each side’s advantage. In Bangladesh, for example, India has focused on political and capacity-building objectives, while Japan is concentrating its financial might in infrastructure projects. Similarly, there are also indications that India and the US have successfully coordinated their political postures on the Maldives, with a “good cop, bad cop” dynamic leveraging “carrots and sticks” to shape Male’s behaviour.
At the third and highest level, in order to contain China and advance concrete cooperation across South Asia, India and its extra-regional partners should aspire to integrate efforts and implement joint projects. This will require expanding bilateral dialogues to include third countries, on the model of the India-US-Afghanistan trilateral. Such partnerships could focus on a variety of specific sectors to strengthen third countries in the region, including joint disbursement, implementation and monitoring of development assistance; establishment of dedicated funds to facilitate infrastructure development or acquisition of military equipment; capacity-building training for administrative and security personnel; democracy assistance to strengthen good governance and the rule of law; and joint military exercises, focusing on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.
While India and its extra-regional partners develop efforts to consult, coordinate, and cooperate across South Asia, they will also have to prepare for a variety of challenges. First, extra-regional partners will have to continue to recognise India’s predominant role in the region and defer to its security concerns, whether real or imagined.
For example, by allowing India to “take the lead” and consolidate its role as a “first responder” to regional crises in recent years (such as the Nepal earthquake), the US has earned much goodwill in New Delhi. Second, as the region’s small states play an increasingly sophisticated balancing game, seeking to play off India and its partners against China, closer consultation and coordination will be key.
Finally, when it comes to the normative dimension of democracy and human rights, New Delhi and its like-minded friends will also face occasional tensions given their different priorities. For India, the focus is naturally on the short-term, with economic and security interests incentivising the pragmatic engagement of any regime type in its neighbourhood. While the West’s liberal interventionist impulse has receded, the US and European partners will, however, continue to privilege a value-based and long-term approach that emphasises pressure on authoritarian regimes.
This last challenge is currently playing out in Myanmar, with clashing Indian and Western positions on the importance of the Rohingya refugee issue. As former Indian diplomat Shiv Shankar Menon presciently noted in the late 2000s, “the desire for sanctions” is always “directly proportional to the distance from Myanmar of the country demanding it.”
Under rising international pressure, Naypyidaw is tilting back to China for support, further complicating India’s connectivity plans across the Bay of Bengal. Similar balancing dynamics can be observed in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives, which further highlight how critical India’s global outreach efforts are to its quest to remain influential in its own region.