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The Delhi-Beijing battle in South Asia – analysis

There can be no doubt about China’s growing clout in South Asia. When governments are being made and unmade by a not-so-invisible hand in Beijing, it should be clear that China’s footprint is at an all-time high. It has been evident for some time now that states in South Asia and the wider Indian Ocean region cannot remain immune from the lure of Chinese political and economic muscle, much like the rest of the world. If, despite bilateral challenges, India can try to get the best bargain out of China by engaging in trade and other sorts of cooperation, so can its neighbours. It’s infantile to cry hoarse about smaller states trying to make the best of their regional environment.

Yet, strategic evolution is a constant and as 2020 came to end, China seemed to be facing an interesting scrutiny about its role in South Asia from various quarters. In an embarrassing expose last month, the National Directorate of Security of Afghanistan arrested Chinese intelligence agents engaged with Pakistani agents and members of the Taliban as well as the Haqqani network in order to promote “Beijing’s geopolitical influence in the region”. They were later allowed to leave Kabul but only after China was reportedly asked to apologise for sending in these agents.

That China and Pakistan would collude in Afghanistan is not news, but what is important is the new reality confronting China today that as it becomes more proactive in shaping its regional environment, the façade of promoting peace and prosperity will quickly wear off.

And then there is Nepal where after Prime Minister KP Oli dissolved Parliament and called for fresh elections, China was caught by surprise. It was at Beijing’s behest that the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) was formed in 2018 with the merger of Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist) and Prachanda’s Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre. China’s footprint in Nepal has been growing in recent years with billions of dollars of investments under its multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including the Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network.

China’s meddling became so intrusive that even Oli is reported to have told the Chinese ambassador Hou Yanqi that he was capable of handling challenges within his party without any assistance from other countries. And last week’s high-profile visit by Guo Yezhou, vice-minister of the international department of the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee, also failed in its attempts at bringing together the two rival factions of the NCP led by Oli and former prime ministers Prachanda and Madhav Nepal.

China will, of course, continue to work behind the scenes to preserve its equities in Nepal. But in a nation where citizens are highly sensitive about perceived political interference, the blowback from this high voltage diplomacy aimed at shaping domestic politics is likely to be rather strong.

Given China’s widening interests across South Asia, it was inevitable that it would like to be more involved in shaping the domestic politics and preferences of the regional states. And as China has become more involved in the domestic politics of its neighbours, it is finding out that it is easy to preach to other nations from the sidelines and rather difficult to practise what you preach when you are the focal point of attention.

China’s political, economic and military engagement in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region will continue to grow as regional states will want to leverage Beijing’s growing heft to their advantage. But the constant lament in New Delhi that “China is winning in South Asia” neither does justice to India’s own regional profile nor does it give its due to the agency of smaller states in the region to pursue their vital national interests in a pragmatic manner.

It is easy to forget that even till the first decade of this century, the main narrative about South Asia was one of India-Pakistan dyad. New Delhi’s growing capabilities and an aspirational foreign policy outlook has ensured that as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, South Asia is being today seen as the pivotal theatre of the wider Indo-Pacific where the key faultlines of this phase of global politics will be played out.

The central story of our times is an ever more dynamic interaction between the two major powers of the Indo-Pacific: India and China. Despite being the weaker of the two players, it is India that is not only challenging China when it comes to the major ideas of our times, but is also standing up and confronting China to preserve its vital interests. Whether it is the narrative surrounding Xi Jinping’s vanity project, BRI, or the discourse on the Indo-Pacific, which China tried its best to discredit, it is India’s leadership that was key to making them possible. By standing up militarily to China on the Himalayan borders, India also made it possible for smaller nations at the receiving end of Chinese aggression to envision the possibility that subservience to China is not the only option.

And as the competition for influence intensifies in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, New Delhi is making it clear that not only will it fight hard to push against the Chinese Communist Party’s malevolent agenda in its neighbourhood but will also ensure that its preferred model of working in partnership with its neighbours to develop a sustainable political and economic agenda continues to retain its centrality.

The constant lament in India about China’s rising profile in its vicinity should give place to a new awareness that this is just a beginning of a long-drawn-out struggle between two regional players which is yet to acquire its full potency. And New Delhi should be fully prepared for it.

Harsh V Pant is professor, King’s College London, and director of studies, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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