External Affairs

It’s Time India Stopped Punching at Shadows

Many in India are under the illusion that we are in some kind of a geopolitical competition with China. The reality is that we are already hard put to keep China out of our own backyard, let alone compete with Beijing elsewhere

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Fiji in 2014

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Fiji in 2014

Speaking in Mumbai on August 3, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval observed that India “should not punch below our weight or over our weight. We must punch proportionately.” Taken in conjunction with his remarks elsewhere, it is well known that Doval believes that India is punching below its weight. While that belief is debatable, the bigger worry raised by Modi’s frenetic foreign policy initiatives is that India might just be punching at shadows.

On August 21, New Delhi will host a meeting of the 14 island nations of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC). According to a news report, the purpose of the exercise is to keep pace with China’s growing footprint in the region. But just what geopolitical or economic interests are served by expanding India’s influence in that region is a mystery.

The South Pacific region  flanks Australia and the Pacific Ocean. Its primary importance lies in the geopolitical contest between the United States and China, as the former seeks to contain the latter within the East Asian island chains. On the other hand, the region contains important military sea lanes linking the US and its Asia-Pacific military allies, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the Philippines.

The economies of the island nations are small and their potential, too, is not particularly significant. Even so, some 3000 Chinese companies already operate in the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) countries, ranging from small family businesses, to state-owned enterprises involved in fisheries, tourism, seabed mining and timber.

Another factor propelling China is the fact that six of the 14 Pacific Island Forum states continue to recognise Taiwan as the legitimate government of China. Anyone who knows how neuralgic Beijing is about Taiwan’s status will know how much this affects its perspective towards the PIF.

Over the years, China has been putting increasing amounts of  money to promote its presence in the PIF states. In the last decade, it has given nearly $2 billion in aid, focusing on Fiji, the Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea and Tonga. Reflecting the geopolitical sweepstakes, the Aussies are the largest aid donors, followed by the US and Japan, but China is catching up. Already, the Chinese presence, which is famously unconcerned about issues like democracy and human rights, has been used by PIF politicians to cock a snook at their erstwhile Australian and American overlords.

Many in India are under the illusion that we are in some kind of a geopolitical competition with China. The reality is that we are already hard put to keep China out of our own backyard, let alone compete with Beijing elsewhere. Simply put, we lack the kind of resources and geopolitical heft that China has.

No matching China

China’s GDP is $9 trillion , compared to India’s $2 trillion According to a RAND report, China offers aid to more than 90 countries around the world. According to the report, China has already pledged some $750 billion in foreign aid and government-supported investment, with annual commitments now of the order of $200 billion.

There is no way in which India can match even a fraction of that sum. Our annual aid commitments are of the order of some $1-1.5 billion.  Given the enormous needs for infrastructure, education and public health facilities within the country, it would be unconscionable for India to pledge large sums abroad,  regardless of any geopolitical considerations.

China has yet another instrumentality which India cannot match – a flourishing arms industry. We are seeing the consequences of this across our own region as countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and, of course, Pakistan equip themselves with Chinese made weapons, provided for through “friendship” prices. India’s lamentable arms industry makes this a no-contest.

Central Asian overreach

The South Pacific is not the only questionable destination of Indian activity, an area closer home is Central Asia. Why is India – whose annual trade with the region is $1 billion, and which has no geographical linkage with the region – seeking to compete with China, whose trade exceeds $50 billion, which neighbours the region, and which has constructed vital economic linkages with it through an east-west railroad, highway and piplelines? Chinese investments in the region have already exceeded $60 billion and are set to grow with Beijing’s ambitious New Silk Route outreach to Europe via Central Asia.

It is not that India should not be in the South Pacific, Central Asia or elsewhere, but that New Delhi needs to prioritise its policies, or to put it another way, cut our coat according to the cloth we have. Central Asia is important to India from the geopolitical point of view, but we have one important disadvantage – we have no direct connection with the region. The only way out is to help create the North-South corridor through Iran, but that would  require investments of $8 billion and 10 years of effort to complete the multi-modal system which can move cargo from western Indian ports to Bandar Abbas or Chahbahar and thence over rail, road and maritime routes to Central Asia, Russia and Europe.

Meanwhile we need to ask ourselves hard questions – what exactly will be the goods that will flow from India to Europe or Central Asia, and what will come back? Would their value justify the investment and effort?

This country’s primary goal cannot but be the elimination of poverty and the creation of a flourishing economy upon which a more expansive foreign policy can develop. Talking up India’s capabilities and capacity is, in itself, not a bad thing when it helps to boost national morale. But it is irresponsible for officials who know the realities to be taken in by their own rhetoric. India is in no position to challenge China either in terms of military power, financial resources, or diplomatic reach and there is no use pretending we can.

Retrench and consolidate

There is need for us to work on asymmetrical strategies that calibrate our foreign policy with our actual, not talked-up  interests. Actually, what New Delhi needs to do is to retrench and consolidate its position around common sense goals such as establishing our primacy in  our neighbourhood – Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, the Maldives and Sri Lanka –  where China is making significant inroads. The second area of focus should be the Indian Ocean Region, which is important for our security, our economic growth, and where geography has placed us in a fortunate position.

Third should be ties with global players like the US, the European Union, Japan, China and Russia. All of them are major trading partners and sources of technology, investment and markets for Indian goods. New Delhi’s policies with all of them are evenly balanced and productive.

There is, of course, the matter of China, whose rise India does not find entirely comfortable because of our long-standing border dispute, and because of Beijing’s ties with our bugbear, Pakistan. India has sought to maintain an even keel on its China policy by participating in the Beijing-sponsored Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and the China-dominated New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. For the moment, however, it remains wary of the Belt Road Initiative.

Developing closer political ties with countries like the US and Japan mitigates some of our risk with regard to China.  But neither Washington nor Tokyo can compensate for India’s inherent weaknesses. Strengthening the Asian balance of power and mitigating risks from the rise of China is good strategy, provided we have a cold-eyed understanding of where we stand today, and the many more steps we need to reach our intended destination.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

  • shashank

    What is your point ? It is not as if they have pledged billions of dollars in central asia , all that happened was a trip with some talk of cultural exchanges etc. Also you failed to mention the large number of indian origin people in Fiji , which should make it a region of some interest. And for a supposed expert you seem to have no foresight, you are thinking as a 2tn dollar economy when you should think about the opportunity cost of steps not taken now for a 5tn dollar economy in a decade.

    • Ghulam Lone

      I think you know as well as I that Modi’s trips to any country are always projected as ground breaking, and evidence that India is flexing its diplomatic muscle. Who ever states that the Indian PM visited a country for cultural exchanges? No one in India, thats for certain.

      Regarding Central Asia – it offers nothing of value to India other than gas, which needs only a pipeline. The large scale investments in Chah Bahar connection to Central Asia might not be worth the huge investment, regardless of how big India’s economy is. Indian construction of Chah Bahar isn’t even a guarantee of success, because those regions are so closely and thoroughly tied to China and Russia already. India is the new played, and not having direct overland access really limits India’s hand in the region. So why waste $8 billion to invest in a country which is able to pay for these projects far more easily anyway?

      • shashank

        Firstly, i don’t know any sensible person who thinks Modi’s trips are ‘ground breaking’ , not every trip is Nixon goes to china moment. Most people in india actually don’t even pay any attention to foreign trips, just compare the news channel ratings with the tv serial or cricket match ratings for the time Modi’s speeches are telecast.

        Secondly, the Chahbahar port can open up a possible route to central asia but besides that we also do trade with iran and presumably in future expect that to only increase with the sanctions lifted. Especially the possibility of importing fertilizer directly instead of oil. So i don’t think that $8 billion is wasted by any means, also i think the figure you have quoted {$8 billion} is a bit over the top and not all the investment is made at one go in any case, every investor evaluates the investment at different stages. Consider the counter factual, we pull out of the Chahbahar port but it is not as if the project will be abandoned , all that will happen is someone else will come in and we will loose whatever little leverage or coordination that is possible with iran in that region. This is the kind of opportunity cost i was talking about.

  • sushant sikka

    Of course India at present is lagging behind China in military, economy and diplomacy but it certainly cant be brutally written off as is done in this article. India is currently the fastest growing economies and we provide liberties to citizens that China does not. India is a key player in Asian politics. It will take time for India to reach where we wish to see it and its good being optimistic.

    • Ghulam Lone

      Most Indians are not so open to the idea of candidly admitting Chinese superiority. The majority of Indians underestimate China and exaggerate Indian strength. It is undeniable that Indians think they are rivals to China, when China makes India look like a dwarf.

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