India shares deep socio-cultural ties with its immediate neighbors Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. In the past few years, there has been a palpable shift in diplomatic and economic alliance between these countries. Historically, India has been the leading power in South-East Asia, being also the leader amongst the non-aligned states with great affinity with the three countries. But recently, there have been various pointers that suggest these countries have been leaning more towards China and that this has put the kibosh on India’s influence in South Asia. There have been conspicuous and strategic shifts that have put the northern giant in a position that India was once in. With there being conflicts between India and China in forms of tensions at the border and India banning the Chinese app TikTok, it is important to look at whose influence is growing in the region as this implicates several political decisions in other states.
An adage by Nepal’s first king Prithvi Narayan Shah goes as follows: “Nepal is a yam between two rocks”. The rocks here refer to India and China. The trajectory of the relationship between these countries in recent years can be likened to a tug of war with the two powers vying for greater influence on the Himalayan nation in between.
India and Nepal share a porous border. Between these two countries, there are also deep intersections in terms of ethnic identities, culture, political history, trade and diplomacy. Since Nepal is a landlocked country with high mountains and rocky terrains bordering China, most of its imports come from the southern plains and more than 60% of those come from India. Yet, when the country was just recovering from the disastrous 2015 earthquake, India imposed an economic blockade on Nepal, restricting import of goods.
The Indian government refuted allegations of betrayal in the face of tragedy, holding that the Madhesi conflict in southern Nepal was the actual reason for its decision. The decision nonetheless angered many politicians and citizens in Nepal, harboring anti-Indian sentiments because of how difficult life became due to the scarcity of daily goods in Nepal.
With Nepal’s economy plummeting, there were reports that the Indian Oil Corporation declined sending adequate oil to Nepal after receiving orders to restrict supply from New Delhi. The Nepali populace agitated over their dependency on India for oil. However, this was not the only reason that they were furious. At the time, India conveyed to the Nepali government to make several amendments to the new Nepali constitution promulgated that year. This caused many stakeholders in Nepal to be further inflamed at how India played the role of a big brother to Nepal, interfering in Nepal’s internal politics.
In what was viewed as a keystone to bolstering Nepal-China relationship Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli made an agreement with the Chinese government to buy one third of its required oil from China. China also pledged to donate 1.3 million litres of oil to Nepal. After this, many projects in Nepal were initiated by China under the Belt and Road Initiative, including aid in reconstruction after the earthquake. China’s assistance was key to developing various highways and roads, with more projects including the Kathmandu-Kerung railway in the pipeline.
In late 2019, India inaugurated plans for a railway near Limpiyadhura region, which Nepal claimed to be its own. The Nepali parliament issued an updated map that includes this region as its own. Many Nepalis supported this move. While both the countries have claimed this territory, the ‘cartographic war’ still ensues as little development has been made through diplomatic negotiation as it was proclaimed before.
These factors put a severe strain on India-Nepal relationship. With China aiding several projects and a communist government taking hold in Nepal, allegiance between Nepali politicians and their Chinese counterparts has been observed with greater rapport in contrast to a much less cordial relationship with India.
Since Partition, India and Pakistan have had a relationship that has been rife with several tensions. The two countries have fought four wars and observed several armed conflicts and stand-offs over the years. The fact that several attempts have been made by both countries (Agra summit, Lahore summit, Shimla summit, state visits, talks through diplomatic channels) to improve their bilateral relations shows that they view each other as important neighbors. These efforts have been impeded by the wars, border skirmishes and cross-border terrorism.
Following the 2016 Pathankot attack and 2019 Pulwama attack, the renewed bilateral relation under new governments in both the states has deteriorated. While India has alleged that the attacks were orchestrated by the Pakistani government, the latter refuted it and claimed that the attacks were local retaliation to increased Indian army presence in the region. This also stoked nationlist sentiments amongst citizens in both countries. After the 2019 attack, India revoked Pakistan’s Most Favored Nation trade status, which implied the subjection of Pakistan goods to higher tariffs and restrictions.
While Pakistan’s relations with India declined, it developed a close relationship with China. Pakistan’s nuclear warfare development program has highly benefited from China’s support. Its nuclear arsenal consists of weapons that operate in air, water and on land. In May 2020, a ship from Hong Kong headed to Karachi was detained by the Department of Revenue Intelligence and Kandla Customs for mislabeling an autoclave, a device used to manufacture long range missiles, as an industrial dryer. Clearly, China’s and Pakistan’s strategic relationship has been of great concern for the Indian national security.
In addition to assistance in nuclear weapon development, China has also aided Pakistan’s economic growth with its incorporation into the Belt and Road Initiative through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China will also assist in building railways and highways through Pakistan to the port of Gwadar. This will increase not only trade but also Pakistan’s political and economic dependency towards China, which might pose hindrances to India-Pakistan relationship and also be challenging to India’s own security in the region.
Like with Nepal and Pakistan, India shares rich socio-cultural and historical ties with Bangladesh as well. While India was a strong ally in the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, a few years later, Bangladesh’s new ties to Islamic nations and an emphasis on its own Islamic identity deteriorated relations with India. Furthermore, the two countrieswere part of opposing alliances during the Cold War, which also put more strain on their friendship.
While their ties have seen some improvement with India and Bangladesh making major agreements with regards to land and water disputes such as the Teen Bigha Corridor and co-operation against terrorism, there have also been tensions regarding killings at the border and migration.
Bangladesh has enjoyed a prosperous commercial relationship with China. Since 2006, China has been Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner. In addition to trade, China also pledged to support Bangladesh with a staggering offer of $24 million in loans after Xi Jinping’s visit in 2016. While this has improved Bangladesh-China relations, this improvement seems to have come at the cost of India’s relationship with Bangladesh. In 2018, China exported $17.8 billion to Bangladesh while India exported $7.5 billion. On the other hand Bangladesh exports amounted to less than $1 billion to China and about $1.2 billion to India.
It is evident that the rise of China’s influence is eclipsing that of India in these three countries. This foreshadows the growth of China as a regional hegemon in South Asia through several political and economic measures. With India also competing to gain the same vantage point, it has landed itself in a race to ensure efficient diplomatic dialogue, while refraining from interference in its neighbors’ sovereignty and inhibiting their prosperity. As for China’s surging economic influence, it is not something that has gone unnoticed. Experts are aware of the implication of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and what the spillover effects of economic dependence can be. Having said this, India’s relationship with its neighbors is still pivotal on accounts of trade and close socio-cultural ties. For social cohesion amongst states in South Asia, neutrality will be key to ensuring that there are no tensions. At the end of the day though, its neighbours cannot ignore India even if they are under the influence of China.
(Featured image from pxfuel.com)
Nirvik Thapa is a student of Sociology/Anthropology, Media Studies and International Relations at Ashoka University. Some of his other interests include music, pop culture and urbanism.
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