India has always felt that it has a right and a duty to protect and support its South Asian brethren. In the 20th century, this sustained belief was known as the “Indira Doctrine,” and it justified Indira Gandhi’s decision to support East Pakistan militarily in 1971, to help it secure independence and become Bangladesh. The Indira Doctrine was essentially India’s Monroe Doctrine; it declared India’s intent to keep foreign powers away from its immediate sphere of influence.
However, globalization has taken a hold of South Asia in the decades since Indira’s reign. Chinese investment has flooded into the region for the past decade, and India can’t do much to stop it. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is characterized by the seemingly benign promise of capital, not conflict, and offers the small economies of South Asia an unprecedented amount of investment. For the first time, countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives find themselves with multiple suitors competing for their affections.
They also now have an out, a place to turn, if relations with India sour.
When Madhesi protesters within Nepal, who have many ethnic ties to India, blocked trade between India and Nepal in 2015, China swooped in as an alternate source of goods and funds. Nepal’s Prime Minister, K.P. Sharma Oli, signed a Transit and Transport Agreement with China, effectively ending India’s monopoly over the Nepali supply system. Since then, China has pledged billions of dollars to build a railway between Tibet and Kathmandu, and has proposed an integrated “cross-Himalayan connectivity network.” In January 2018, Chinese companies provided Nepal a new avenue for accessing the internet, which had previously been offered only through Indian companies. Oli has made his intentions to continue trading with China clear, and has reminded his country that “We cannot forget that we have two neighbors. We don’t want to depend on one country or have one option.”
However, China’s ambitions extend far past the 30 million citizens of Nepal. China has been an “all-weather friend” of Pakistan for decades, but recently placed a record-high valuation on that friendship, to the tune of $62 billion if we’re going by the price tag on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. To Bangladesh, on the Eastern side of India, China has invested about $31 billion to help build power plants, sea ports, and railways. This makes Bangladesh the second biggest recipient of Chinese funding in South Asia, and means China has surpassed India as Bangladesh’s number one investor.
Sri Lanka and the Maldives have also been major targets of Chinese investment. Sri Lanka recently had to give China a port to make up for its billion-dollar debt, and the Maldives’ debt to China is almost as large as their total annual GDP. And remember, Sri Lanka and India have been adversaries in the past – Lankans are certainly happy to be offered an alternative to India for their economic development.
Draw lines connecting those five countries, and you will have sketched a full circle (well, pentagon) with India resting right in the middle.
Those who fully believe in the liberal ideal of maximizing absolute gains for all nations will see Chinese investment as a boon to the region. But realists within India would be hard-pressed to see it that way.
It is possible that Indian business will benefit from the massive infrastructure improvements that China has graciously undertaken. Infrastructure cuts transportation costs and promotes efficiency, which is especially important in a developing region like South Asia. The geopolitical consequences, however, are worrisome. Not only has the Indira doctrine come and gone, but India may soon find itself holding less influence on its own home turf than China.
Despite its rapid rate of growth and growing international relevance, India will not be able to offer its neighbors the amount of investment that China is offering. As long as India and China remain peaceful, this isn’t necessarily a problem. Yet should that change, the countries of South Asia may no longer be unequivocal supporters of India. They may take a page out of the Indian playbook, and opt for nonalignment. Or worse, they may prioritize their economic interests and take the side of the authoritarian, communist power over the free, democratic one.