As the US and India are forging closer defence ties under the Trump-era Indo-Pacific Strategy, which seeks to counter China by maintaining Washington’s “strategic primacy” in the Asia-Pacific, New Delhi’s immediate neighbourhood has witnessed several developments reflecting hostile attitudes towards Washington’s stated goal
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has consistently maintained that strengthening ties with the country’s South Asian neighbours lies at the heart of his government’s foreign policy.
However, for India, its emerging defence and strategic partnership with India also poses a balancing challenge for its ties with its smaller neighbouring nations — Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Pakistan.
The debate over the US role in the region has occupied the centre stage in the politics of Bangladesh and Nepal.
In Bangladesh’s case, US sanctions on top police officials over alleged human rights violations have drawn a sharp reaction from Dhaka, which has even summoned the US ambassador to protest the development.
As for Nepal, it has been facing a heated public and political debate over accepting a $500 million US grant package, amid fears that it could compromise the nation’s sovereignty.
Sri Lanka is also facing significant pressure from the United States to fix accountability for the alleged war crimes committed during the final stages of its civil war in the last decade.
In Pakistan, the Imran Khan government has grown increasingly critical of the US “War on Terror” and refused to take sides in the ongoing global rivalry between Beijing and Washington.
At the same time, Islamabad has also doubled down on its security and economic ties with Beijing.
As for Myanmar, the US has imposed sanctions on Myint Swe, the acting president of the military-led government that came to power in the wake of the February coup
“All these developments do create a degree of suspicion in some of our neighbouring countries over the US’ goals and the India-US partnership”, reckons veteran Air Marshal Muthumanikam Matheswaran, a former fighter pilot of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and previously the deputy chief at the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS). Matheswaran was also one of the founders of India’s Nuclear Command.
He is currently the president of the Peninsula Foundation, an Indian think tank focused on foreign affairs and security matters.
The veteran defence expert spoke on how he perceives the US-China geopolitical rivalry in South Asia as well as the broader Asia-Pacific region. He also shares his thoughts on how India should navigate the ongoing geopolitical power tussle.
How do you view the ongoing geopolitical rivalry between China and the US in the Asia-Pacific region?
Air Marshal Matheswaran: We have entered a very important phase in global history. While the US has remained the world’s preeminent power for some time now and will continue to remain so for quite some time, there is no ambiguity about the fact that it is being challenged by the rise of China. The US also views the Russia-China partnership as a challenge to its interests.
The US recognises that China is rising economically, militarily, and technologically. It is predicted that China will outstrip the US as the world’s biggest economy by 2028. These developments are ringing alarm bells for the US.
I would also like to add that the rise of China is important. The rise of China implies the rise of Asia, including the rise of India. So, in a way, the rise of Asia is also challenging the hegemony enjoyed by the Western bloc, which includes Western Europe and the US, for more than three centuries, right from the beginning of colonialism through to the world wars, Cold War, and the post-Cold War period.
China is not going to play the game that the Euro-centric and Western powers have been playing for 400 years or so.
It has played by the West-centric global rules to grow itself economically, technologically, and now militarily. It is now at a stage where it wants to rewrite or change some of the rules of the International Order. That is the fundamental geopolitical challenge of our times.
How should India react to the US-China rivalry, more so when it comes to securing its own interests in the neighbourhood?
Matheswaran: The broader geopolitical trends are bound to certainly impact South Asia and India.
Beijing looks at India as a country which could limit its expanding power and prevent it from becoming a preeminent power in the eastern hemisphere. India has the human resources and the economic and technology base to challenge China in the long run.
While India’s growth has been slow in recent years, it could benefit if it joins hands with the US. That could really upset the Chinese apple cart. India will want to limit the Chinese influence as it is posing a direct threat to India at the borders.
China has centred its strategy on economic partnerships and establishing its influence in the countries of Eurasia and Africa. The success of the Belt and Road initiative strategy is critical for China, more so for developing countries. This is in contrast to the Western perception of China as an economic predator.
For India it is a complex situation. In India’s view, China’s rise is no longer benign and it can’t come at the cost of national interests of India or any other country. At the same time, India is not going to enter into a formal alliance with the US or any other country, which is mainly due to our civilizational construct and the way our foreign policy has been built over the years.
Do you believe that India has lost ground to China in South Asia, traditionally considered as New Delhi’s own “backyard”?
Matheswaran: Let’s be clear about one thing.
The notion that China’s growth is a threat to the rest of the world is a Western construct. However, at the same, China is posing a security threat to India in the Himalayas (Ladakh border dispute), which is a reality.
That India plays an influential role in the northern Indian Ocean and the South Asian region is a globally acknowledged fact. China probably knows that better than other countries.
However, China’s strategy is global rather than centred on challenging just India in the region. China’s ultimate goal is to limit the Eurocentric and US-led influence in the world.
China’s approach to other countries has largely been a consequence of its economic strategy. Under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing is gaining in strategic terms by pumping investments into other countries, including in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Smaller countries will always seek to leverage larger nations if they see any sort of opportunity.
In the case of Pakistan, its close partnership with China has largely been on account of its hostile relations with India, which I believe even Beijing understands well and it suits its grand strategy of bottling India within South Asia. It is of course a limitation of India’s foreign policy, driven by its economic strength in comparison to China, that it is unable to compete aggressively to restrain China’s influence in these countries.
To put it more bluntly, India currently doesn’t have the wherewithal to measure up to China’s economic potential, or the scale of its foreign investments. This is also a reflection of India’s democracy that makes decision-making a complex affair and bureaucratic lethargy as compared to China’s rapid decision-making and its focused national strategy.
The defence ties between China and India’s neighbouring countries have also been picking up over the last five to 10 years. Reportedly, three of India’s neighbours — Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Myanmar — are operating Chinese submarines. Does the trend pose a security threat to India?
Matheswaran: Well, Pakistan is a different case from the others due to its longstanding rivalry with India. China is already the biggest arms and weapons supplier of Pakistan. China-Pakistan strategic congruence is and continues to be a longstanding threat for India.
In Sri Lanka’s case, China is mainly interested in expanding its economic footprint in the nation as part of its broader geopolitical goal. However, there has been a history of defence cooperation as well. Beijing did supply Sri Lanka with military equipment during the LTTE War. So, the defence element has already been there. But it could pose a serious challenge to India’s interests if Sri Lanka-China defence cooperation continues to grow.
Actually, it is already a cause of concern. Much of this growing defence cooperation has got to do with the BRI, which aims to create a Sinocentric economic system.
In Bangladesh’s case, India hasn’t been a major arms supplier to Bangladesh despite the close cultural and economic ties between both the countries.
China, on the other hand, has been supplying defence equipment to Bangladesh. Over the last two years, Beijing has made available some of its defence exports to Bangladesh at concessionary terms.
In Myanmar, I believe that it is a paradox that its army has decided to go for a Chinese submarine after New Delhi helped it acquire its first one.
China will try hard to discourage military cooperation between India and Myanmar, but I believe that it will find it hard to do so because of strong existing ties between New Delhi and the Tatmadaw.
The current Chinese push in Myanmar is the outcome of recent political developments due to the military coup. The military regime in Myanmar is clearly looking for China’s support in an environment of international isolation, and China will exploit it.
I believe that China’s defence cooperation with these countries and its activities in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal region will only increase in the coming years, largely due to greater economic cooperation (under the BRI) with India’s neighbours.
This trend is definitely a cause of concern for India.
Will closer ties with the US help India in reinforcing or reclaiming its position as a leading power in the region, or does it serve Washington’s own interests more?
Matheswaran: For America, only its own defined national interests are supreme. So, it will use India to further its own interests, be it in the neighbourhood or in the broader Indo-Pacific region. India also gains in certain aspects by forging closer ties with the US.
India is an important partner in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy in the Indian Ocean region. But India’s own policy doesn’t and won’t allow it to enter into an alliance with the US or any other country, in spite of what Washington wants of New Delhi. And that’s where the four-nation Quad grouping comes in. It helps create a sort of military and civil grouping to deal with rising Chinese influence.
For a more explicit defence alliance-like partnership, the US has created the tri-nation AUKUS (Australia, the UK, and the US) pact, which is clearly an explicit military alliance against China.