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India remains a strategic bulwark in checking China’s rising power

Both Sri Lanka and Bangladesh remain crucial in the eyes of New Delhi and Washington in denying further incursions by Beijing, underscored by the scramble for reassertion of American influence and ties with both nations

Collins Chong Yew Keat Aug 18, 2022
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Indo Pacific

India’s 75th independence anniversary gives new clout to its claim on regional and global leadership. India’s rise, unlike China, has been predominantly welcomed by both the West and the East, with prevailing support for it becoming the capable power in checking Beijing’s growing intention. For China, it faced the dilemma of dealing with its unpredictable neighbour, given its importance to Beijing’s expansionary strategy and in dealing with the strategic threat posed by New Delhi.

For some nationalists in Beijing, India is seen as untrustworthy, too close to the West, and posing a direct challenge to China’s regional hegemonic intention. The strings of pearls strategy of encircling and entrapping India with strategic economic and military installations and enhancing ties with regional players has been one of the many options capitalized by Beijing in keeping New Delhi in check. The Indian Ocean, together with the Nicobar island chain, remain the next frontier of geostrategic importance to both Beijing and obviously Delhi, primed to maintain its regional leadership and keen to thwart China’s attempt to alter the regional maritime and security order.

In ensuring the success of China’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), strategic ports and bases are acquired with its vast amount of capital and influence, and in some cases, through coercive presses and economic cards. The counter-strategy in facing Beijing’s 'string of pearls' containment espoused by Delhi, the 'necklace of diamonds' strategy, has seen wise and tactical counteractions by India in ensuring its key holds in the crucial chokeholds. 

Indian moves

It remains wise for India to build greater influence on traditional regional players, both militarily and economically, in denying Beijing’s advantage. This includes India’s Act East Policy,  launched as an effort to integrate India’s economy with South-East Asian nations and to ramp up military ties in countering China. Key ports and routes are reinforced, heightening relations with key regional players and offering viable alternatives while cementing strategic ties.

Military and strategic agreements with Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and others are banked upon in ensuring India remains in the game, including a deep-water port in Myanmar and further supporting Bangladesh especially in modernizing its seaport in Mongla and developing its radar systems. Similar radar development projects are developed in the Maldives and Sri Lanka to strengthen defense ties and to deter further Chinese inroad. 

Both Sri Lanka and Bangladesh remain crucial in the eyes of New Delhi and Washington in denying further incursions by Beijing, underscored by the scramble for reassertion of American influence and ties with both nations. Pakistan remains a strategic dilemma for both India and China, with Beijing keen to use it as a useful strategic card against New Delhi.

The Himalayan border conflict will conversely be seized upon by New Delhi as a critical second front and a potential Achilles' heel for Beijing in creating a potential two-front conflict should regional tensions in East Asia flare up, thus giving the containment team greater openings and options in squeezing Beijing.

Wooing India

India is also courted by Beijing, realizing that for BRI to succeed and for its regional security assurances to be met, India’s role is indispensable. Its influence and grip on regional players, while not as extensive as Beijing enjoys in its own periphery, will be needed to ensure China’s regional and global interests. Some project India to remain a potential advantage for China’s long-term projections, with India’s complex maneuvering for its best path forward remaining ripe for exploitation.

New Delhi is seen by some in Beijing as the weakest link in the Quad, and with complex historical ties with Washington and Moscow, it remains advantageous for India to be courted with different variables. With India’s ‘great power complex’ and the unpredictable future orientation, Beijing realizes that the possibilities remain open and is meticulous not to draw too forceful a posture, lest inviting greater costs and backfiring. 

Beijing needs Delhi in achieving the full spectrum of its Indo-Pacific ambition, but knowing the costs of both underestimation and overly reactionary actions to Delhi’s true policy goals. Beijing is hopeful that Delhi can be wisely molded by providing the needed economic covers and lowering the nationalistic triggers and conflict tendencies, especially on border disputes.

Strategic moves

Openings for quid pro quo and mutually beneficial arrangements, including support for India’s goals in exchange for reciprocal support are seen as a part of a new strategy in enticing India, while ensuring the threat level remains manageable should ties deteriorate. India’s aspirations in joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group, for instance, may be supported by Beijing in exchange for India's support to the BRI.

If the intentions to get India into the larger frame of Beijing’s Indo-Pacific ambitions fail, Beijing will then be compelled to ensure that New Delhi is unable to form a credible and sustained threat to its goals through a multi-pronged approach. This might include continuing to drive a wedge between India and its key allies including the Quad, and capitalize on existing systemic threats to India. Beijing will ensure that Delhi remains on the sidelines of regional primacy, further using the upper hand Beijing enjoys in pressuring players in the region to accommodate its needs and squeezing India through a combination of economic and non-military tools.

Other options will include shaping new narratives that will push New Delhi to maintain its historical uniqueness in foreign policy independence and strategic autonomy. Through this Beijing hopes that the containment team will be further weakened, and that a direct challenge to its primacy in the region either by India per se or the larger Western containment will be further fragmented.

From predominant indicators, India is poised to be a future superpower, providing a different alternative and growth model to China. From future labour force advantage to potential dominance in high-tech sectors, New Delhi provides both knowledge creation capacity and resilient staying power. It also continues to play an integral role, now and in the future, in checking assertive forces and providing stability in the regional and international order.

(The author is a Kuala Lumpur-based strategic and security analyst. Views are personal. He can be contacted at collins@um.edu.my)

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