India, a handicapped giant

Faced with China’s emerging hegemony in Asia, India is defending its power status. New Delhi’s strategy is to invest in defense, align its policies with the United States and expand its regional alliances. However, India is increasingly concerned about containment by China.

A map explaining why India is wary of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its mari-time component
China’s economic influence on Pakistan is significant. It also has been growing in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The previous government of the tiny islands was pro-China, the newly elected one is close to India. © macpixxel for GIS

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper visited Delhi at the end of October. Washington and New Delhi are in the process of aligning their trade and geostrategic policies. This year, the U.S. has become India’s largest trading partner.

As the world’s largest democracy and the second-most populated country, India plays a substantial role in Asia.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Indian subcontinent was gradually swallowed  by the British Empire, which comprised today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. The patchwork of territories was ruled either directly by Britain or by traditional monarchs. However, the “dependent territories” had only limited sovereignty and rulers reported to the British viceroy in New Delhi.

Difficult legacy

India became an independent state in 1948. Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka each gained independence separately. The British, together with the Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru (prime minister in 1947-1964), arranged for the cancellation of the traditional monarchies and resettled millions of Muslims and Hindus into Pakistan (including modern-day Bangladesh) and India. The aim was to concentrate Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan. Kashmir, despite its Muslim majority, remained part of India, even though Pakistan occupied its western part. The resettlement, a massive social engineering program, was widely resented and gave rise to countless conflicts and wars that have marred the two countries’ relations.

Today, India has a population of about 1.35 billion people. Some 80 percent of it is Hindu, but Muslims still account for around 15 percent of the total. India is therefore the third-largest Muslim country in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan. Since China’s population is declining, India is poised to become the most populous country on earth before long. 

Internally, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (in office since 2014) has been firmly conducting a Hindu nationalist policy, which is very preoccupying for the 180 million Muslims in the country. When he was the governor of Gujarat (an Indian state bordering the Arab Sea and Pakistan, with about 60 million inhabitants, of whom every tenth is a Muslim), Mr. Modi tolerated an anti-Muslim pogrom.

Over the last 20 years, the Beijing-Islamabad relationship has improved.

Prime Minister Modi’s relentless economic reforms did little to alleviate the burden of bureaucracy on India’s economy and business. His attempt to enforce more transparency on transactions by restricting cash in circulation created a calamitous liquidity squeeze for the poor, small business owners and farmers, with negative consequences for the entire economy.

New Delhi also has a frozen conflict with Pakistan –  a nuclear power like India and China. Tensions lead to regular skirmishes along the two countries’ borders. As discrimination of Islam in India is on the rise, local clashes with the Pakistani forces may become more frequent. 

Over the last 20 years, the Beijing-Islamabad relationship has improved. Meanwhile, India is clashing with China on the disputed Himalayan border and has reasons to worry about the increased Chinese  presence on the Tibetan plateau. Western China can now access the Indian Ocean across Pakistan through railways and a trans-Himalayan highway. 

India is also highly concerned about Beijing’s overland and maritime Belt and Road transport infrastructure. China’s  economic influence on Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the tiny Maldives is growing. So is its naval presence in the Indian Ocean and near East Africa’s shores. India fears its role in Asia is contained, even though New Delhi does not express this publicly. The so-called Quad, a naval alliance between Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India, is gaining in importance.

Throughout 2020, several incidents between the Indian and Chinese troops unfolded in the Ladakh highlands of the Himalayas. There were casualties on both sides.

Washington shares India’s concerns over China. On his October trip, Secretary Pompeo visited a number of current and potential allies in the region, apparently in preparation for worsening tension with the Middle Kingdom. The secretary of state even made a stop in the tiny Maldives.

Taiwan is another hotspot in Asia. There are justified concerns that China might try to take over the small Taiwanese island of Kinmen, just a few kilometers off mainland China’s coast, as the first step in an assault on Taiwan’s independence. 

All these complications and threats notwithstanding, the Modi government is ambitious. It wants to establish India as a dominant regional power and is making considerable investments in defense. Enlarging the domestic defense industry is a priority. Also, Mr. Modi envisions India as a Hindu nation. This policy results in heightened tensions with Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as with India’s own Muslim minority. 

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