India losing its friendly neighbourhood

Harsha Kakar
Indo-China tensions in Ladakh continue. Talks to resolve the crisis are ongoing at different levels, simultaneously India is enhancing force levels to counter any Chinese aggression or further misadventure. India is the nation under global scanner as it would stop Chinese salami slicing in its tracks. If it does, it would enhance confidence of others, presently facing similar threats from China, mainly in the South and East China seas. Chinese attempts at achieving surprise in Ladakh suffered a blow when Indian forces deployed rapidly to stem their advance, leading to a stalemate which continues.
In South Asia, in addition to India, China claims tracts of Bhutanese territory. Doklam was a Chinese attempt at grabbing their land, which India stalled. In addition to its earlier claims, China recently laid claim to Bhutan’s Sakteng sanctuary. Border resolution talks have continued with no end in sight.
Nepal states there are currently no border disputes with China, though China has occupied tracts of their territory. With the Oli government leaning towards China, border issues have been placed on the backburner. Officially, Nepal claims Lipulekh, which is the border trade point between India and China. When India and China signed the trade agreement, Nepal objected. Pakistan has already handed over the Shaksam Valley to China.
Galwan was a turning point in the current Indo-China standoff. India suffered twenty casualties, which it declared and honoured. China hid its losses, aware they were much higher and releasing details, would, apart from impacting its troops morale, also break the myth of the invincibility of the PLA. Further, it would lower the standing of China in South Asian eyes. It has repeatedly been giving excuses for not sharing inputs.
Globally, India is the nation being supported as it is the victim of Chinese aggression. India’s allies and friends offered condolences for the of lives at Galwan. Those who sympathised with India were US, France, Australia, Japan, amongst others. ASEAN nations remained silent. Within vicinity, the only nation which offered condolences was Maldives.
countries are trapped between the devil and the deep sea. Most have close ties with India but dependent on trade with China as also in dispute with it over the nine-dash line. Hence, would prefer neutrality.
Nations in India’s neighbourhood also remained silent, including those with whom India has close ties. This was possibly because of multiple factors. South Asian countries are equally torn between the two giants. Both provide developmental support, the difference being in figures and nature of support. India provides it as soft loan, project specific, implementation being the responsibility of the state. However, time taken to process loans are extended and adds to doubts on Indian intentions. Further, India as a big brother is always looked upon with suspicion.
On the contrary, China grants easy loans, without much inquiry, however interest rates are higher, and implementation is by Chinese companies. For governments in power, easy loans imply quick projection of development and if accompanied by bribes are more acceptable, hence attractive. High rates of interest and loans granted for unsustainable projects lead to nations landing up in debt traps. Currently, most nations whose repayments are due are seeking delays due to the pandemic.
Last month, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, chaired a meeting of three nations, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The meeting discussed COVID 19, economic recovery due to the pandemic and regional connectivity projects. He proposed extending the CPEC into Afghanistan and an economic corridor plan with Nepal, termed Trans-Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity Network. Wang called on Nepal and Afghanistan to follow the example of Sino-Pak cooperation to fight the pandemic, implying that if Afghanistan enhances cooperation with China, while ignoring India, it will benefit from Chinese assistance. Nepal, under Oli, is already in the Chinese camp.
China recently offered duty free access to Bangladesh. This announcement is solely for media consumption as Beijing has stringent Rules of Origin criteria. It could push Bangladesh into a ‘dual-deficit and debt trap’ compelling Dhaka to accept terms and conditions fixed by Beijing.
India had offered duty free access to several Bangladeshi products over a decade ago. It helped reduce trade deficit with Delhi. India’s terms and conditions from trade concessions to loans are more favourable. Though Bangladesh remains close to India, there have been recent stumbling blocks with the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act and proposed National Register for Citizens. However, Chinese investments in Bangladesh have increased in recent times and loans from China are due for repayment. Bangladesh has recently requested deferring repayment from China. Hence, would not seek to anger China by backing India.
Sri Lanka is already in a debt trap. It is also seeking renegotiation of loans. India was not an election plank in Sri Lanka this year, having been replaced by China. With repayment issues, Sri Lanka is in a similar state as Bangladesh.
Maldives, while renegotiating its loans with China still backed India and offered condolences. Afghanistan, whom India has supported at every stage maintained a studied silence and sought to be neutral. So did Bhutan. Iran, which seeks to balance relations, as both are investing in the country has sought to also maintain neutrality.
No nation in the world, including from South Asia offered condolences to China as it has failed to announce its casualty figures.
South Asian Nations would prefer observing how India handles China. If India can stonewall Chinese salami slicing, then their attitude towards India would change. On the contrary, if India is compelled to concede to Chinese demands, the scenario may reverse.
India’s position in the region, viz-a-viz China would be dependent on its handling of the current crisis. A stalemate or blocking Chinese advance would display Indian capability to stand alongside its neighbours. A retreat or acceptance of Chinese demands on realigning the LAC would make India lose ground. This limits India’s options. It must firmly maintain its stance, time being inconsequential. It can never accede to Chinese demands if it desires to maintain its pre-eminent position in the region.
The author is Major General (Retd)