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India’s newfound assertiveness is a feature of the great game in South Asia

Strategic competition is drawing out new challenges, with US-China competition at the centre.

Competition against the currents (Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Competition against the currents (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Taiwan’s election this month, which saw victory for Lai Ching-te, a figure known for his scepticism towards China and support for independence, has been the focus for recent commentary about great-power relations between China and the United States. Yet beyond the headlines of today, South Asia remains another potential flashpoint that should not be overlooked in this strategic competition.

India’s burgeoning partnership with the United States, aimed at counterbalancing China’s ascent, stands in contrast with Beijing’s strengthening ties with other South Asian states to offset New Delhi – all of which underscores that the region will likely remain a focal point in the global geopolitical landscape.

India has traditionally staunchly adhered to the principle of strategic autonomy. However, there appears to be a noticeable shift towards a more nationalistic and assertive foreign policy stance. At the start of this year, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar published a book Why Bharat Matters in which he justified India’s assertive role in global politics through the lens of Hindu ideological perspectives. The adoption of “Bharat”, the Hindi language name for India, is itself controversial in some quarters.

Jaishankar drew a comparison between the Quad members (the United States, Japan, India, and Australia) and the four sons of King Dashrath, a revered figure in Hindu mythology. He posited that, much like these mythical siblings (Ram, Bharat, Lakshman, and Shatrughan), the Quad members share vital interests that unite them. According to his analogy, when these members come together, there is a synergy where “suddenly everything starts to work”, underscoring the effectiveness and cohesion within the grouping.

Beijing views active American engagement in the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy of encirclement, with India serving as a linchpin. 

It is anticipated that India will assume a broader role in the strategic dynamics of the Quad, a stance that New Delhi initially hesitated to endorse. Following border skirmishes with China in 2020, India became convinced that it required more robust defences and partnerships to stand against Chinese coercion. Jaishankar has stated that improvements in relations with China hinge on the resolution of boundary disputes and the de-escalation of forces stationed face-to-face along the border.

In November 2023, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh held discussions with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin in New Delhi. A comment from the minister’s prepared public remarks stood out: “We increasingly find ourselves in agreement on strategic issues, including countering China’s aggression.” It had been uncommon for India to explicitly mention China in a US-India bilateral setting. This marks a departure from its diplomatic posture in the past and signals a more self-assured approach to India’s engagement in the international arena, especially in the context of China’s actions.

The escalating great-power competition has bolstered India’s capacity to shape, foster, and potentially reshape US interests and policies to align more closely with New Delhi’s aspirations and expectations in the region. Recognising the strategic imperative of countering China’s ascent, it is in Washington’s interest to elevate India’s status.

Given the strategic significance of India, Washington seems to be overlooking or at least underplaying examples in India of democratic backsliding and human rights violations. This includes allegations of involvement in the killing of a pro-Khalistan leader in Canada and a foiled plot to assassinate another leader in the United States. Despite concerns over these incidents, the geopolitical importance of India appears to be influencing Washington’s approach, leading to a tempered response to such controversial events.

From China’s perspective, India is not currently perceived as an immediate threat, largely due to a substantial power disparity favouring Beijing. Nevertheless, the escalating US-India strategic partnership, aimed at preserving a balance of power in Asia, is becoming a growing source of concern. Beijing views active American engagement in the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy of encirclement, with India serving as a linchpin in the network of partnerships crafted by the United States to counteract the ascent of China.

For India, the expanding Chinese presence in South Asia is viewed as an encroachment into its traditional sphere of influence. By way of example, the newly elected “pro-China” government in Maldives has generated concern in India due to its proximity to India, barely 70 nautical miles from the island of Minicoy in Lakshadweep, and its location at the hub of commercial sea lanes running through the Indian Ocean.

China’s significant infrastructure investments under the Belt and Road Initiative, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, development in Nepal and Maldives, and the construction of ports in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, are also considered as potential strategic encirclement of India if China were to establish military bases at these ports.

Such views continue to shape the contesting relationships in South Asia, and means the region will persist as a pivotal venue of great-power competition between the United States and China.

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