India needs to reset ties with friends and neighbours to counter China’s influence

| Updated on August 25, 2020 Published on August 25, 2020

India is in a critical battle for power and influence in its neighbourhood with an extremely powerful rival and can’t afford a single misstep

Indian diplomacy needs a global reset. For decades, our diplomacy has been focussed on Pakistan. But since June, when China grabbed parcels of Ladakh territory we consider ours, we’ve had to turn our attention to the more powerful country we share borders with and which now considers itself a global superpower, second only to the US. It’s now clear that the Chinese aren’t planning to budge and both armies will have to dig in for the long-haul, eye-balling each other through the freezing Ladakh winter. Simultaneously, it’s become obvious India isn’t able to hurt China in any meaningful economic way with sanctions like banning apps. Indeed, the Chinese are so deeply entrenched in our economy that it is virtually impossible to remove them root and branch. Now, Indian policymakers are veering round to the view the only way to strike at China is via the sea route and that’s why they’re looking at building up bases in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, close to the Malacca Straits through which most Chinese oil passes. The Chinese have already built a string of bases in the Indian Ocean in places like Djibouti and Gwadar, Pakistan, but our trump card is our Malacca Straits proximity.

Keeping the Chinese in mind on the diplomatic front, we need to make other further calculated moves, both with our neighbours and with global powers. Of late, the Modi administration has visibly tilted towards the US and is invested heavily in Donald Trump. That investment could go up in smoke if, as polls suggest, he loses in November. What’s more, many pro-Hindutva websites are now attacking Kamala Harris, especially over her Kashmir comments. There are countless foreign policy examples to show putting all your money on one horse can land you with a big hole in your diplomatic pocket.

In the middle distance and in our own neighbourhood, transformational changes are happening, requiring nimble action. The Saudis and the UAE are keen to build ties with India, one of the world’s largest oil buyers in a Covid-hit market. Perhaps this is why Saudi ties with Pakistan have frayed. As a result, Pakistan’s leaning even more heavily on China whose president, Xi Jinping, visits Islamabad next month. China’s also moving closer to Iran, a country with which we’ve historically enjoyed warm ties. Even closer home, we’re keen to rebuild relations with Bangladesh undermined by anti-Muslim BJP utterances. Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla was in Dhaka recently and in July, the first transhipment of goods destined for India’s north-east from Haldia to Chittagong took place. India’s also strengthened inland waterways agreements with Bangladesh, gifted some locomotives and is building a power plant there. India needs to mend ties as well with Nepal which has come under strong Chinese influence. But that’s a lesser priority for now. What’s clear is India is in a critical battle for power and influence in its neighbourhood with an extremely powerful rival and can’t afford a single misstep.

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Published on August 25, 2020
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