Nations have the option to chose their friends but not the neighbors. In an existential sense the geography is destiny and as per Kautilya, your neighbors may not always be friendly with you. Apropos, within Indian subcontinent, India is perceived as a big brother with domineering attitude overshadowing the politico-economic growth of her smaller neighbors, notwithstanding their own structural fault lines. The notion of the equal status syndrome and concomitant national ego often plays up prominently in their political conduct.
Whereas, all these small countries are actually sub-nationalities of ancient politico-economic Indian entity with the common history, geography, and cultural milieu. The roots of occasional hiccups in their political stability and economic sustainability lie in their unnatural creation due to manipulative and insensitive British policies of divide and rule. Therefore, the inherent politico-economic inadequacies prompt them to seek alternate sources of political strength so as sustain their nationhood through exercising political flexibility beyond Indian influence.
On another hand, India has proven to be a dependable regional anchor with her resources and capabilities of all hues to bail out these nations in the time of crisis situations. Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal, Bangla Desh, Bhutan, and Myanmar have all been the beneficiaries of Indian patronage in their time of crisis. India is and will continue to be the center of gravity of all regional synergies encapsulating land mass of the Indian subcontinent and the IOR. They all do understand this factual position but seem to be showing visible opportunist strains under influence of inducements by the external forces, especially China with her deep pockets.
It is the military geography of these nations which has brought them into the focus of bigger geopolitical grand games being played in the Indo-Pacific region as on date. The strategic interests of the US and China in the Indian Ocean region has changed the political complexion of the traditionally Indian area of influence for centuries. The US has transcontinental influence as the sole superpower and Indo-Pacific happens to be one of their theatre of interests. Whereas, this region is the lifeline of China as 90% of their trade and 70% of energy flows through the Indian Ocean.
Accordingly, China suffers from an acute insecurity and a cultural hubris syndrome which has shaped their political conduct wherein use of military force is an inclusive mechanism to achieve their national interests. Their stance in South China sea when hyphenated with other aggressive military overtures elsewhere points towards their desperation to shake off her landlocked mental syndrome. China also seems to be in a hurry to attain her national ambitions to graduate to a statue of a world power, hence her overbearing demonstrative political conduct.
China, as part of her ‘’string of pearls in the Indian Ocean’’ scheme, has embarked upon securing their sea lanes by establishing military outposts in the Indian Ocean in littoral countries alongside politico – military encirclement of India perceived to be a rival and a potential troublemaker in their designs. The Chinese mechanism to charm these impoverished small countries is through irresistible financial and development packages, alongside military benefits. The Indian neighbors on her periphery seem to be shifting into Chinese folds not realizing the negatives of Chinese strategic game plan.
Besides above, the BRI concept to link their perspective markets, develop industrial and power corridors are all part of the Chinese grand game for their global politico-economic expansion. The CPEC is one such project through Pakistan which is central to the Chinese scheme to bypass the insecure Indian Ocean. They have the similar design for Nepal, Bhutan, Bangla Desh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives and other countries of interests in Eurasia and Africa.
Having realized their new-found strategic value, all Indian neighbors seem to be playing China card to enhance their political leverages, thereby indulging in visible politico- economic opportunism in their conduct. Their dilemma is that they cannot do without India as their sole stabilizing factor and at the same time they cannot ignore China an emerging world power with the basket of goodies for them. Such a situation is here to stay, albeit it is China which has higher compulsions to appease these countries since they have chosen the path of self-seeking exclusivity as against cooperative policies in their economic pursuits.
Pakistan, in particular, is the most vocal proponent of the Chinese camp to the extent that she has permitted China to step into their politico-economic space with an eye to enhance their military deterrence against arch-rival India. There seems to be a deliberate scheme to include Other Indian neighbors in the Chinese bandwagon by showcasing the Sino-Pak model of economic and military cooperation a way forward to attain higher political buoyancy. All our neighbors appear to have fallen for the Chinese beit and in turn, facilitating Chinese designs. In that, the Doklam standoff in Aug 2017 and recent transformational political activities in the Maldives have distinct footprints of Chinese involvement with far-reaching strategic imperatives.
The Maldives, an island nation has been a beneficiary of Indian patronage all along including launching a military operation to save guard their sovereignty. However, the bilateral ties with India have nosedived after India criticized the current Abdulla Yameen government for imposing emergency in the island country. Their refusal to participate in Indian exercise MILAN and defense expo alongside withdrawal of Dhruv ALH are signs of change in Maldivian political outlook towards India. The recent visit by Pakistani Army chief during the ongoing political crisis is indicative of military diplomacy with inimical designs by China Pakistan combine.
It is apparent that the Maldives is showing signs of defiance with obvious prompting by China who has invested heavily in the Maldives with an aim to establish a military base and replacing India as their anchor. The Maldives, very cleverly, seem to be leveraging this new found strategic equation to extract higher political mileage both from China as well as India. The extra-regional forces lead by the US are also feeling the heat of Chinese influence into Maldivian political space. It is another opportunity for the Maldives to exploit in times to come.
What emerges from ongoing political maneuvering is the establishment of China as a stakeholder in the Maldives which was not the case earlier. Moreover, Pakistan with her Islamic appeal is being propped up by China as a co security provider to the island nation. Therefore, there is a reckonable strategic shift in favor of China and Pakistan combine, a new strategic friction for India in the central Indian Ocean. India seems to be clear on the back foot for not wresting the political initiative in the initial stages of the crisis in the island nation in her backyard.
The attempted Doklam ingress when hyphenated with military geography would suggest a sinister grand game to cut off entire North Eastern India from the Indian mainland. In that, narrow Siliguri corridor happens to be located at the tri-junction of Nepal, Bangla Desh, and Bhutan which can be easily accessed through approaches from any of these countries. Besides this China has the shortest overland route( 600 plus miles) to India along second world war fame Ledo/ Stillwell road which connects Yunan province of China to Arunachal Pradesh and then on to Assam.
It has potential to turn the flank of Indian military deployment in the state of Arunachal Pradesh which is claimed by China as their territory. Though such an outreach seems impractical, there is a threat in being under certain circumstances. One should not forget that China has a substantial economic presence in Myanmar plus they are involved in the construction of a port at Kyauk Pyu on western coast to link mainland China with the Bay of Bengal. China has been insisting on up to 85% of ownership stake in the $ 7.3 billion deep sea port which provides strategic advantages of not to cross-strait of Malacca for transshipment of her energy supplies.
Nepal shares a border of over 1850 km in the east, south, and west with five Indian States – Sikkim, West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. The India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950 forms the bedrock of the special relations that exist between India and Nepal. Under the provisions of this Treaty, the Nepali citizens have enjoyed certain advantages in India, availing facilities and opportunities at par with Indian citizens. Nearly 6 million Nepali citizens live and work in India. whereas, there are signs of political discomfort with India amongst some of the Nepalese polity under influence of China.
China as on date has a well established political constituency in Nepal due to the presence of communist party in their ruling dispensation. Nepal is already connected with the Chinese road network in Tibet and there are plans to connect Kathmandu with a railway line also in near future. It would facilitate Chinese access to Indian Northern and Eastern Indian heartland of UP, HP, Bihar and West Bengal.
Nepal seems to have fallen into Chinese game plan head-on as evident from their non-participation in the joint military exercise as part of the BIMSTEC. Whereas, they would be participating in a Sino-Nepalese military exercise scheduled in near future in China. There are telltale signs of enhanced Chinese presence in the Nepalese economic space wherein they have agreed to provide port facilities on Chinese Eastern coast. Nepal seems to keep this as an option to reduce her dependence on Indian ports, thereby creating political leverages to draw more concessions from India. There appears to be a perceptible change in the Nepalese outlook towards India which is a matter of concern as it has political implications besides national security paradigms.
Similarly, Bangladesh is located adjacent to North Eastern flanks with its apex at Siliguri. Pakistan already has substantial complicity in infusing radical Islamic elements in Bangladesh which have afflicted the Muslim population in adjoining Indian states of West Bengal and Assam. China also has an access to this narrow corridor from Doklam through Paro valley of Bhutan which can be easily connected with road network within Tibet. China has a substantial politico-economic presence in Bangladesh, besides Islamic afflictions from Pakistan which has an inimical dimension. Bangladesh fits into Chinese scheme in destabilizing India due to her military geography both over land borders in the North as well as her dominating location in the Bay of Bengal. China has been working on exploiting Bangladesh for her political purposes
The feasibility of X Chinese threats through Nepal and Bhutan would require violation of their neutrality which is unlikely to happen except in extreme desperate politico- military contingencies. Whereas, Bangladesh with Islamic radical elements may be exploited by China-Pakistan combine to suit their designs to destabilize Indian North Eastern sector even without crossing the border. Hence, these factors deserve to be taken into account in Indian security matrix, as Doklam episode has amply exposed Chinese intentions to create a ‘’threat in being’’, thereby increase the ante.
The China and Pakistan connection requires no elaboration in this narrative. The Pakistan army in their anti-Indian obsession has permitted China to enter in their geographical space even at the cost of its impact on their sovereignty. The CPEC alignment all along the western periphery of India has well-known military connotation. As a result, the military deterrence of Pakistan has gone up and they continue to indulge in anti-Indian activities despite their poor state of economics and higher Indian combat superiority.
China openly supports Pakistan in their complicity of terrorist strains both in Afghanistan as well as the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. There is a congruence of their national interests to indulge in activities to destabilize India and keep her on the back foot. What concerns most with the Chinese presence in Pakistani geographical space and its logistics linkages is the feasibility of collusive military threat on two fronts simultaneously which has strategically inimical dimensions.
It, surely, is a grave situation from Indian national security perspective. However, India is not a pushover given her strategic stature, economic buoyancy, and proven military strength, besides reasonable counter veiling political support of comity of global heavyweights. The Indian military leverages in the Indian Ocean due to her dominating geographical location would always outweigh Chinese presence as their main land is more than 4000 nautical miles from the heart of the Indian Ocean. Moreover, they have to reach the Indian Ocean through the number of bottlenecks dominated by countries with whom they do not have the best of relations. Indian air and land forces alongside her nuclear calculus have credible deterrence to take care of Chinese threats at the time of reckoning.
Therefore, China with her more than 90% of trade flowing through Indian periphery cannot afford to mess up with India beyond a point. Hence, her designs of establishing military bases are reflective of their defensive mindset to take care of her insecurities, albeit with ingredients of offensive defense doctrine at best. Therefore, an all-out military conflict seems to be unlikely as China also needs to survive in larger global politico-economic network wherein India is a major participant.
China cannot afford to lose out on $ 12 billion worth of trade with one of the largest markets of the world as it would impact on her economy. Moreover, with an ongoing trade war with the US, it is in the Chinese interests not to raise the ante against India in the emerging politico-economic scenario. However, military induced Chinese psychological warfare is likely to continue on the sidelines simply to nudge India to be more malleable to Chinese interests.
The recent two plus two dialogue between US and India is all about the strategic alliance to check the politico-economic expansion of China. It has the overt military dimension of communication compatibility and logistics support to each other, besides modernization and empowering of the Indian armed forces through cutting-edge technologies. The biggest import of emerging Indo-US equation is likely expansion of Indian influence from IOR to Indo- Pacific having greater outreach in times to come. India seems to have acted in the best of her national interests to take the Indo-US relationship to next level in the face of Chinese coercive ways and their attempts to create cognitive political dissent in the region inimical to Indian interests.
India needs to operate from the position of strength and capacity to take care of inimical forces in all their dimensions on its own in a decisive manner. To do that, the Indian Armed Forces, in particular, need to be reoriented and synergized to operate beyond defensive doctrine with optimal offensive content for power projection as the threat happens to be emanating from standoff distances over land, air, sea, and cyberspace. It is time to change the strategic priorities and its pace to expose the Chinese bluff.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CENJOWS.