Marcus is a final year International Relations student and the former East Asia Regional Editor for KCL International Relations Today. He previously served as the President & Senior Editor at King’s College London Geopolitical Risk Society. His research interests include historical and modern-day imperialism, British imperial policy and decolonisation movements in the postwar period. Read more of his work here.
SIX PART SERIES: THE ‘UNSTRINGING’ OF A ‘STRING OF PEARLS’
A six-part sequel on China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI) which aims to highlight various forms of challenges to China’s seemingly unopposed strategy of ‘stringing ‘pearls’. This series looks into Chinese motivations in rejuvenating its historical Silk Road prowess and explores how other powerhouses have attempted to oppose such a projection of economic imperialism. In particular, this series will engage with the strategies of India under the Modi administration, ASEAN, European Union and the United States.
Read the first installation here: PART ONE: STRING OF PEARLS
PART TWO: THE DRAGON AT THE ELEPHANT’S DOORSTEP – A TALE OF TWO GIANTS
Long viewed itself as South Asia’s regional hegemon, Beijing’s recent manoeuvres in upsetting the established equilibrium particularly, the Sino-Pakistan nexus and naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean trigger India’s redlines. India’s opposition towards the BRI stems from maritime anxieties over China’s String of Pearls as well as its strategic culture which perceives Chinese investments as a threat to Indian interests. Nonetheless, India’s attempts at counterweighting Chinese influence have largely been underway, relying on engineering multilateral cooperation with new and old allies to counter China’s rise.
While cautious of not ruffling the feathers of her neighbouring giant, India finds herself in a precarious position as a result of little US support to fall back on. As such, India gradually finds itself in the position of an elephant in an antique shop: constantly juggling between pushing the envelope but not antagonising relations. Sino-Indian relations have fluctuated over the past decade: reaching a low point at the Doklam Plateau standoff in 2017. Nonetheless, it is clear that India seeks peaceful and cooperative relations with its neighbour which is evident in its support towards BRICS as well as engaging in maritime security dialogues with China to mitigate conflicts. Generally, there is a lack of evidence to pinpoint the successes of India’s deterrence of the BRI. ASEAN states, although welcoming India’s investment still do not regard it on par with Chinese competition. Nonetheless, enthusiasm shown by multilateral cooperation has suggested India’s determination in limiting the BRI’s strategic influence and leverage.
Indian geopolitics and strategic culture
Delhi’s perception of China as a threat emanated from its view of the Indian subcontinent and its peripheries (Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Maldives) as one strategic entity that equates state stability and security inseparable from the cohesion of the subcontinent’s integrity. (Pavri, 2012) Hence, China’s encroachment upon Indian fringes through the expansion of influence and ownership of infrastructure and strategic projects in India’s ‘domain’ raises alarm bells especially after witnessing Sri Lanka’s lease of a port that threatens Indian maritime security. Beijing’s growing collaboration with India’s neighbours have raised suspicions and unease especially with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which is seen to be an attempt to encircle India, threaten its power projection, trade and territorial integrity.
Another huge factor is the importance of the Indian Ocean: home to major sea lines of communication which connects the Middle East, Africa and East Asia with Europe and the Americas, these vital sea routes facilitate crucial maritime trade (carrying more than half of the world’s seaborne oil). As such, due to the absence in a regional maritime security architecture, freedom of navigation is vital for the smooth flow of trade especially when the openness of sea routes is being competed by major powers. South Asia, being one of the “fastest growing regions in Asia, is also vital to China’s goal of building a String of Pearls” (Kamdar, 2019) while observers had challenged the notion of Chinese maritime militancy to be fanciful, Chinese projection of naval forays have been increasing in frequency and intensity i.e., Chinese submarines docked in Sri Lankan and Pakistani ports.
The Elephant’s Gamble
Recognising its inherent weaknesses of material strengths in comparison to China, India’s approach towards countering BRI have largely focused upon collaboration with like-minded countries to undertake ventures of developing key infrastructure in the region (Blah, 2018, 322) which sometimes ‘spill over’ to non-traditional domains i.e., Southeast Asia and MENA. For example, India has proposed the construction of the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor with Japan to connect Africa with India, Southeast Asia and Oceania. While this may be an action undertaken to vamp up India’s soft power or providing an economic incentive, India has formed alternative infrastructure corridors to the BRI. Thus, by de-monopolising China’s ‘gate-keeper’ status of the Ancient Silk Roads, India sends a clear message to the world that the Silk Road remains an open pathway, not a Chinese one – and by extension, the ‘openness’ of sea routes in the Indian Ocean. This is reinforced by the launching of Project Mausam, a cultural initiative to develop a narrative about India’ historical links with the Indian Ocean. (Baruah, 2018) As such, India’s de-monopolisation of China’s dominance over trade routes both physically and culturally had ‘restored’ its status as a formidable regional actor.
In addition, India’s reorientation of foreign policy is another key indicator of the BRI’s impact on the Modi administration, India is rekindling old friendships through the Link West Policy to strengthen security ties with its Indian Ocean neighbours. By taking the lead in stepping up naval engagements with the littoral states in the Bay of Bengal, India has attempted to revitalise a sense of Indian Ocean regionalism that is insusceptible to Chinese penetration. What’s astonishing about the BRI’s impact is the transformation of the Look East Policy (LEP) under previous successive governments to the Act East Policy (AEP) under Modi. Aimed at enhancing connectivity with ASEAN states, the pivot to Asia is an effort to “cultivate extensive economic and strategic relations with Southeast Asia to bolster its standing as a regional power and to counterweight the strategic influence of China”. (Sharma and Rajesh, 2017) As part of the AEP strategy, India has begun integrating closely with regional networks and supply chains in Asia including deepening strategic partnerships with ASEAN nations and funnelling private investments into building manufacturing hubs – effectively counterbalancing China with similar means.
India has also taken more proactive steps in protecting its vital interests namely, modernising and expanding its own maritime infrastructures and creating institutional capabilities to undertake infrastructure projects in the Indian Ocean and beyond for example, establishing an Indo-Pacific division in India’s Ministry of External Affairs to dedicate India’ determinism in the region. Affairs. Modi’s government had intensified efforts to develop the port of Chabahar in Iran, widely seen to counter China’s presence in Gwadar.
The Elephant’s Obstacle
As aforementioned, India lacks the material strength as well as internal support to counter China: as suggested by Macaes (2019): “opposing the BRI is an expensive project even if it makes sense as a long term strategy”. Despite being aware of the threats the BRI would bring to Indian economy i.e., constraining Indian market demands and cross-border value chains, Delhi’s elite remain optimistic in viewing the BRI as an opportunity rather than a threat.
For many commentators in Asia, the BRI is seen to be an opportunity for China to entrench its naval presence in the Indian Ocean at the expense of displacing India’s profile. India has therefore, the natural desire to prevent the unopposed juggernaut that has already incorporated fast-growing neighbours into a China-led economic network to taunt Indian hegemony in its own domain. Ambitious assertions and policies under Modi may look as if it desires to actively challenge China, but it serves mainly as a counterreaction to China’s intrusion into its sphere. India does not seek to displace China, but it will not tolerate China’s attempt to encircle it through a string of pearls. Aware of its inherent limitations, India’s tailored approach based on multilateral cooperation as means of countering the BRI is executed in a skilful manner that dodges the target for being accused of seeding Chinese antagonism.
Pavri, T. in Beasley et. al, (2012) Foreign Policy in Comparative Perspective: Domestic and International Influences on State Behaviour, 2nd edition, Washington
Sharma and Rajesh (2017) Geopolitics, Security and Bilateral Relations: Perspectives from India and South Korea.
Montgomery Blah (2018) China’s Belt and Road Initiative and India’s Concerns, Strategic Analysis, 42:4, 313-332, DOI: 10.1080/09700161.2018.1482631