The rising Chinese assertiveness is altering the geopolitics and regional security architecture of Southeast and East Asia. The ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) intended to link major sea lanes with roadways spread across the Eurasian landmass is taking its toll on the multi-polar regional equation in Asia. With Chinese presence now in the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf as well as the Arabian Sea, the balance is shifting in favour of the Asian giant.
China is rapidly closing the gap in economic terms with its GDP inching closer to the aggregate GDP of the US. It has already dethroned Japan as the largest economy in Asia, and has increased its defence spending (213 billion USD), which is now more than twice the combined defence expenditure of India (41 billion USD) and Japan (55 billion USD), the other two economic and military powers of the region. China has invested in ASEAN countries in areas of strategic importance such as port development, communication and connectivity. The timely completion of projects is undoubtedly a key to its growing influence in the region. As such, China has positioned itself most advantageously in the region, as far as economic engagement is concerned. It has become the most important trading partner for more than 90 odd countries. Moreover, the fact that China has started the development of a naval base on the east coast of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, demonstrates its global power aspirations.
Uncertainty over the role of the US as the only security provider that can act as a capable balancer has exacerbated insecurities and challenges in the region. On the one hand, China has become more assertive in staking claim over islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea, leading to limited skirmishes in the region repeatedly. On the other hand, the security crisis in the Korean Peninsula has heightened, to say the least, following recent nuclear and missile tests by North Korea and the verbal rapid fire across the Pacific. This has led old Asian powers like Japan to look for allies beyond the US to balance the changing regional security architecture.
For India, the time is ripe to take advantage of this dynamic environment and pursue its ambitions in the region all guns blazing. India’s annual naval exercises, for starters, with the US, Japan, Australia and Singapore can help in countering threats to maritime peace and security in the Indo-Pacific.
As an aspiring superpower, India needs to build upon its relations with its immediate neighbours and alliances with regional powers. In this context, the Indo–Japan association is strategically significant. India’s joint venture with Japan, the Asia–Africa Growth Corridor, if completed within the proposed period, should become an alternative to BRI. Of course, India has to engage effectively with countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bhutan to counter Chinese influence in its neighbourhood. To this end, India has pledged billions in line of credit to develop infrastructure, communication links and projects like upgrading ports in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Maldives to match Chinese investments.
The major projects undertaken by India under its Act East Policy to engage in the region are Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport, India–Myanmar–Thailand (IMT) Trilateral Highway, Mekong–Ganga Cooperation (MGC), Rhi-Tiddim Road and Border Haats. The Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project aims to connect Kolkata port to Sittwe port in Myanmar, which will go further to Lashio River and Mizoram in India’s Northeast by road. This transport link provides India an alternate access to the Northeast. Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and India are part of the MGC project, which aims to help the member countries to freely navigate in one another’s waters in the Indian Ocean, thereby increasing India’s influence in the region.
However, relations with countries in the East and Southeast have to become multifaceted, all-encompassing strategic, political, cultural, defence and security ties. India’s reliance on Soft Power can come in handy while dealing with the nations of Southeast Asia and countries in its neighbourhood. Tourism, Buddhism, people-to-people contact and shared historical and cultural heritage can help in strengthening these relationships. University exchange programmes and collaboration of think tanks coupled with Track II diplomacy can make engagements more frequent.
India must strengthen its association with Southeast Asia by engaging through ASEAN, ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) and other multilateral fora. India should also encourage the establishment of free trade zones in the region and cooperative mechanisms on economic, cultural, security and military exchanges.
The representatives from four maritime powers, India, Australia, Japan and the US (the Quadrilateral or Quad), recently met ahead of the East Asia Summit in Manila for addressing common issues arising in the Indo–Pacific. Though perceived by many as anti-China coalition, the Quad portrays itself as a union for preserving peace and order in the Indo–Pacific in the interest of all the nations. The Quad is conceived to ensure the safety of international shipping lines from piracy, maritime outlawing, cooperation during natural calamities, and search and rescue operations, as no single nation can provide all the expertise at a critical time. Hence, the formation of the Quad is probably the need of the hour. China, on the contrary, is suspicious of the formation and perceives it as its containment in the region. The feasibility of India joining the Quad and antagonising China is a matter that needs to be calibrated carefully.
India must pursue the proposed infrastructural projects vigorously in the Indo–Pacific region by utilising its own resources. The relations with the countries in the region should be strengthened on a non-profit basis. India has to coordinate with developed countries like the US, Japan and Australia to take up joint projects in the region. Finally, it should find ways to overcome bureaucratic and institutional limitations for implementing, completing and delivering projects in a time-bound manner.
Also published on Medium.