India losing control over its sphere of influence in South Asia

The Narendra Modi government appears helpless at the slipping away of a close neighbour, Sri Lanka, from India’s grasp into China’s lap. The pressure on India from Beijing is all round.

S Jaishankar
Jaishankar said far from mitigating already existing differences, the incidents of 2020 have actually put the relationship under "exceptional stress".

The coming to power of the Rajapaksa brothers in Sri Lanka in November 2019 was viewed with trepidation in New Delhi for their pro-China reputation. Over a year later, the fears seem to be coming true with at least two significant Rajapaksa government decisions that go against India and favour China.

The latest is the awarding of a hybrid renewable energy project off Jaffna in three islands to the north of the country that brings China a smelling distance away from Tamil Nadu coast, a mere 50 km away.

News of the project comes close on the heels of the Rajapaksa government cancelling a joint contract to India and Japan for developing the East Container Terminal (ECT), which is part of the Colombo port.

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For India, it is a reconfirmation that Sri Lanka is out of its orbit. China has managed to consolidate its already dominant position in that country, which could have long-term strategic implications for India.

When Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president, he visited New Delhi and made all the right-sounding statements in favour of relations between the two countries. But, soon after, his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed the office of prime minister and between the two India finds itself out of favour.

The BJP government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, appears helpless at the slipping away of a close neighbour from India’s grasp into China’s lap. The pressure on India from Beijing is all round. To the north of the country, China has been actively challenging India on the border to the east in Arunachal Pradesh and the west in Ladakh.

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Since last May, China has moved its troops south towards India and has reportedly occupied land that was earlier patrolled by Indian soldiers. Beijing has used the excuse of a no-man’s land between the two countries. India, waking up a trifle late to China’s incursions, managed to keep China off the southern side of the Pangong Tso lake but was unable to hold on to the north of the lake which was part of its patrolling area. The Modi government’s official response has been confounding too.

Soon after the Galwan valley clash in June last year with China that resulted in the death of 20 Indian troops, Modi in his reaction at an all-party meet said neither had any outsider entered Indian territory in Ladakh nor had any Indian post been captured by foreign forces. The resulting outrage forced the Indian government to backtrack and Modi subsequently made some statements to retrieve the situation. He has, however, until now never named China for its transgressions on the border.

Earlier this week, India’s former Army chief and Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Gen V K Singh in a statement that contradicted the official Indian position said, “None of you come to know how many times we have transgressed as per our perception. Chinese media does not cover it. Let me assure you, if China has transgressed 10 times, we must have done it at least 50 times.”

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Clearly a self-goal, China has seized the opportunity saying that Singh has only confirmed its position on the border issue.

The foreign policy fires meanwhile are all round. With Nepal in the midst of a proxy battle between India and China, and Bangladesh doing a balancing act between the two countries, New Delhi’s foreign policy manoeuvres seem questionable and bereft of any inspired moves to get back the initiative.

Amidst this, the replacement of Donald Trump by Joe Biden as United States president is another development with implications for India. Though Trump did take a couple of decisions that went against India on the trade front and on the issue of immigration, on foreign policy the Trump administration was unabashedly articulate in backing New Delhi in its tussle with China.

But Biden, a more seasoned politician with decades of experience in foreign policy, is not expected to give India a carte blanche on issues that New Delhi considers its internal matter such as Kashmir and the farmers’ protest.

Already, a powerful India caucus in the US Congress close to the Biden administration has advised India to maintain the norms of democracy and allow farmers to protest peacefully while asking the government to restore Internet connectivity. For the Modi government sensitive to comments from foreign powers about what it terms India’s internal issues, the US Congress group’s statement is something it can ill-afford to ignore given its dependence on Washington.

What is visibly missing is a robust Indian counter to the foreign policy mishaps in its neighbourhood. There has been some action. India’s bureaucrat turned foreign minister S Jaishankar has travelled to Sri Lanka, Nepal and has been involved in talks with China. But, there is as yet no positive sign for India. The minister, on the contrary, was quoted by the media as saying that 2020 was a year of “exceptional stress” for India in its ties with China.

If at all there was some positive news for India’s foreign policy establishment, it was the split in the ruling Communist dispensation in Nepal. Though a pyrrhic victory, it goes some way in retrieving the pro-China tilt that Nepal had acquired. The split put paid to Beijing’s hopes of retaining total control over the Nepali government.

The only neighbour that appears to have had a comparatively non-controversial relationship with India is Bangladesh but it hides the fact that Dhaka’s biggest trading partner is China. India lost its pre-eminent position in Bangladesh to China five years ago. Bangladesh too, however had its share of complaint against India over the citizenship amendment act that has sought to exclude Muslims from its ambit of special privilege.

That does not leave the Modi government much to preen on the foreign policy front. Rather, the BJP and the mandarins in South Block find themselves in an unenviable position of having to preside over India’s loss of control in its traditional sphere of influence in South Asia.


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