As China expands, India contracts | ORF

China is expanding its sphere of influence, but India has always had a pacifist and non-confrontational approach.

Source: China Photos/Getty

A leading British diplomat to India once narrated an interesting anecdote to me. His story began with his visit to Phuntsoling in southern Bhutan.

Bhutan is a peaceful and peculiar Himalayan nation, rated as the world’s happiest country, it is also one that has escaped the fractious geopolitics of South Asia. It didn’t quite get swallowed up like the way Sikkim did into the Republic of India and neither did it experience Tibet being annexed into the Chinese Mainland. In some ways, it is similar to how Thailand escaped being colonised when all its neighbours in Southeast Asia fell prey.

Towards the end of the 20thcentury, Bhutan looked like a country that represented a 21stcentury that is beyond the geopolitics. It had more forests than pollution levels and managed to democratise easily. It was ensconced from the rising geopolitics and military bellicosity that India experienced on its borders with China and Pakistan.

The diplomat acquaintance of mine suddenly found himself at a crocodile and alligator sanctuary in Phuntsoling. He noticed that the fish were kept in various different ponds. These fish were fed in order to be fattened and later fed to the crocodiles and alligators, once they were deemed large enough.

My diplomat friend found himself in conversation with his host, a member from the Bhutanese government. The host said that “we (Bhutan) are just like these fish. We want to grow, but not too large for when we are large enough, we could be swallowed up.”

My sagacious diplomat friend was quick to catch the analogy, and asked if he was alluding to the fact that the predator was either India or China? The Bhutanese host retorted with a smile by saying, “I am just talking about fish.”

Bhutan is a good place to understand the recent geopolitical standoff between China and India — and trijunction of Doklam where two of the largest militaries had a standoff. Many would see this as part of China expanding its geopolitical sphere of influence.

Bhutan is a good place to understand the recent geopolitical standoff between China and India — and trijunction of Doklam where two of the largest militaries had a standoff.

There is Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Maldives, Pakistan, the Belt and Road initiative across Eurasia and then China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti makes it a blue water naval power.

My diplomat commentator noted that “Djibouti changes everything.” It has Indian defence commentators worried about China’s expanding spheres of influence in the Indian Ocean.

Coming to India, many foreign policy watchers and historians state that the priority for India back during the country’s Independence in 1947 was strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the British. During 1947, Prime Minister Nehru was very clear on being ‘Non Aligned’ and not siding with any of the two major power blocs. This was to protect various former colonies from falling into a colonisation 2.0. That is the regressions they would face, if they were to side with either of the blocs. According to close confidantes of Mr. Nehru back then, he didn’t want to trade one set of western faces (British colonialists) for another set of western faces (the Americans or the Soviets). Hence the gravity towards a central Non-Aligned status.

China from an early stage started to expand its diplomatic reach by opening a series of embassies in Africa, India however wasn’t as quick to join in. The Ministry of External Affairs in India till today has just has one desk overlooking thirty countries in West Africa. It is considered too Francophone and not within the republic’s main interest.

One distinct commentator quickly noted the difference between China and India with regard to its geopolitical clout. He says “India, unlike its northern neighbour is not hunting for status. India is the wooed and not the wooer in geopolitics.”

India’s geopolitical clout has however significantly expanded in the United States since the 1990s. United States continues to see India as a key partner in South Asia and within the wider framework of the Indo-Pacific. In the last two decades there has been an overarching consensus in DC to view India as a democratic counterpart to China.

During 1947, Prime Minister Nehru was very clear on being ‘Non Aligned’ and not siding with any of the two major power blocs. This was to protect various former colonies from falling into a colonisation 2.0.

As a result of the strong Indian diaspora in the US, the Indian-American lobby is the second most powerful in the corridors of Washington DC after the Israeli lobby. India is vehement on its course of strategic autonomy, that to the extent that Evans stated that the philosophy is to keep everyone out.

However, the commentator adds that is changing from strategic autonomy to strategic autonomy with operability. India recognises the vast power disparity with China and in order to have a stabilising framework in the neighbourhood, it has formed robust military alliances with the US and the UK.

India is no longer averse to joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean, think namely the Quad. However, despite its proximity to the US, India is not keen on having the United States in Diego Garcia, right at the Indian Ocean.

A senior diplomat and a former US ambassador to India once regarded India on the lower end of the totem pole in terms of the State Department’s priority list. However, as India opened up its economy in the 1990s, India opened its strategic culture as well.

Despite its proximity to the US, India is not keen on having the United States in Diego Garcia, right at the Indian Ocean.

In fact, some leading strategic thinkers at the RAND corporation once said that “India has no strategic culture and India doesn’t think about what it wants in the world.”

“India is a bit like Britain, a very closed system,” says the British diplomat who now finds a very distinct strategic foundation growing in New Delhi with its range of thinkers.

“The Chinese hegemony is clearly not acceptable to the world and to India, but India is less clear about it wants than what it doesn’t want,” therein lies the problem echoes another diplomat. However, the core tenets of India’s foreign policy will always be consensus on non-intervention and sovereign equality of nationhood.

“India needs to ask itself as what you do want as a country” reiterates my diplomat friend as India is increasingly worried about the String of Pearls in the Indian Ocean.

The real question for India is with its non-confrontational and pacifist approach is will it be a great power or just a great presence?

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

Originally published at www.orfonline.org.

A journalist by profession. He writes about business & finance, geopolitics, sports & tech news. He is a TEDx & Toastmasters speaker. Follow him @Akshobh