Nepal has already voted in K.P. Sharma Oli’s “Left alliance” and the traditionally pro-India Nepal Congress sits on the Opposition benches.
Beyond the enduring and growing “all-weather” friendship of Pakistan and China, India’s neighbourhood is witnessing a growing resurgence of pro-China politics and dispensations. Armed with a non-judgmental approach, the durable Chinese largesse and its ostensible benignity is a great succour to many desperate regimes whose domestic track records on democracy, human rights and religious tolerance are questionable —such as Pakistan, the Maldives, North Korea. A win-win situation emerges for both China and the allying country, where strongmen (or strongwomen) seek an alternative to the moral necessities of pro-West or even pro-India requirements, as that comes with multiple strings attached — while Beijing is happy to oblige, as it fulfils its hegemonic and expansionist instincts without having to resort to non-peaceful means.
One geopolitical spoilsport and the potential rival in Beijing’s calculus of realising the neologism of the “Chinese Century” is the parallel emergence of India, replete with economic, military and diplomatic power, fortified with the invaluable “demographic dividend” (by 2020, the median Indian age is expected to be 28, against 42 years for China) within the base of 1.3 billion Indians. For the Chinese, India needs to be “checkmated” and the bloody history of the 1962 India-China war, and the reciprocal payback by the Indian defence forces in 1967 at Nathu La and Cho La, are part of an ongoing saga of unsettled borders, covert countermoves and unashamed realpolitik. From trying to strangulate and encircle India with infrastructural sweeps like the “String of Pearls” and “One-Belt-One-Road”, or recklessly vetoing India’s case at the UN General Assembly against terrorists like Maulana Masood Azhar, or even testing the reactive impulses at locations like Doklam — the Chinese are relentlessly trying to trip the Indian march.
The recent Maldivian drift from its traditional “India-first” approach towards the Dragon’s embrace has been a calculated work-in-progress that has seen an increasing tilt towards the Chinese, at the cost of Indian interests. The rushed late-night signing of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China by the Maldivian Majlis (Parliament) was indicative of Chinese power in Male. Similarly, the recent “go-slow” on the pending Indian project of installing the radar facilities along with the frustrating optics of Chinese warships and submarines in Maldivian waters have been troubling Indian mandarins, who are increasingly alluding to the Chinese “land grabbing” and a possible “Pearl Port” in Maldivian waters.
In neighbouring Sri Lanka, the decidedly pro-China regime of previous President Mahinda Rajapaksa is witnessing the green shoots of revival, as Mr Rajapaksa has made a stunning political statement with his electoral showing in the recent polls. Mr Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has won a landslide 239 out of 340 seats, whereas the pro-India sitting President Maithripala Srisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has just won 10 seats! While the Sri Lankan coalition government of Mr Srisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has a mandate till 2020, the sudden revival of
Mr Rajapaksa’s party that had earlier given away the “Pearl Port” of Hambantota to China and signed infrastructural projects and investments worth over $2 billion to make China the top investors in the country, is a matter of disquiet and concern in New Delhi.
Nepal has already voted in K.P. Sharma Oli’s “Left alliance” and the traditionally pro-India Nepal Congress sits on the Opposition benches. The fear of a nationalistic Nepalese dispensation that is beholden to, enamoured of and increasingly “counter-balancing” the Chinese interests vis-à-vis India, looms large for New Delhi. Wounded by the popular perceptions of the “big brother” attitude by India during the Madhesi unrest, the mood in Kathmandu to “get even” by cozying up to the Chinese is irresistible. Like in the Maldives, the Chinese will make “counter-economic-offers” to the new Nepalese government. The PM, Mr Oli, in his earlier stint had signed the Trade and Transit Agreement with China to reduce dependence on India.
Bangladesh is an embattled democracy and for now the Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina is on top, with the conviction of the Opposition leader, Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s Begum Khaleda Zia. While in very simple terms, Sheikh Hasina is pro-India, this has not stopped her from getting lured by a $24 billion credit line from China (India offered $2 billion). More worryingly for India, the Chinese have strengthened their military equations with Bangladeshi forces by holding joint exercises and Dhaka has got two submarines from China. In the real world, the efficacy of the Chinese “chequebook” diplomacy can buy out any rival, historical or emotional considerations. The Chinese have also wedged themselves into the possible peace talks in Afghanistan, besides dangling the economic carrots to the beleaguered and depleted Afghan regime. However, Beijing’s known proximity to Islamabad could militate against Afghan sensibilities. Similarly, the pro-China Myanmarese junta is down but not completely out in domestic affairs, as the timely loosening of purse strings by Beijing towards the “hybrid” NLD government could ensure the invaluable relevance of China in Myanmar as well. Finally, within its own immediate geographic reach like the South China Sea, the Chinese simply do not shy away from bullying, unnerving and intimidating neighbours — a lesson that Bhutan learnt in the recent Doklam crisis.
India’s foreign policy and diplomacy vis-à-vis China will be severely tested beyond the obvious “flashpoints” like Doklam or Male. The emerging bipolarity of the global order into a “West democratic bloc” versus “Sinosphere” is affording strong pro-China preferences in the domestic politics of India’s neighbours — this coupled with the aggressive bankrolling and the lure of China’s economic juggernaut is leading to competitive tension towards pro-China or pro-India sentiments in the neighbourhood.