Across South Asia, U.S. and India Push Back Against China

Beijing’s strategic initiatives on the subcontinent are sputtering.

Mohan-C-Raja-foreign-policy-columnist
Mohan-C-Raja-foreign-policy-columnist
C. Raja Mohan
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
A Chinese soldier stands with Sri Lankan military personnel during a training exercise in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, on Sept. 23, 2019.
A Chinese soldier stands with Sri Lankan military personnel during a training exercise in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, on Sept. 23, 2019.
A Chinese soldier stands with Sri Lankan military personnel during a training exercise in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, on Sept. 23, 2019. LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP via Getty Images

When Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh hold a so-called two-plus-two dialogue with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Washington on Monday, managing the discord between their countries over Russia’s war in Ukraine will be a priority. India, a major customer of Russian weapons, has so far refused to condemn the brutal invasion at the United Nations or join the West in sanctioning Russia. The Biden administration and the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, are determined not to let their differences over Russia come in the way of strengthening the Indian-U.S. partnership in the Indo-Pacific.

In the next few days, India and the United States are likely to announce a number of new initiatives, including on defense cooperation, outer space, and maritime intelligence sharing. The four officials can also pat themselves on the back for the little-noticed but growing strategic coordination to limit Chinese advances in South Asia.

Just a couple of years ago, it looked like China was an irresistible force in the subcontinent. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative—which has sent a flood of Chinese cash to countries in the region—was widely hailed as a game-changer. But the United States and India are now pushing back. Although Beijing will remain a powerful actor in the subcontinent, New Delhi and Washington have been regaining ground.

When Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh hold a so-called two-plus-two dialogue with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Washington on Monday, managing the discord between their countries over Russia’s war in Ukraine will be a priority. India, a major customer of Russian weapons, has so far refused to condemn the brutal invasion at the United Nations or join the West in sanctioning Russia. The Biden administration and the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, are determined not to let their differences over Russia come in the way of strengthening the Indian-U.S. partnership in the Indo-Pacific.

In the next few days, India and the United States are likely to announce a number of new initiatives, including on defense cooperation, outer space, and maritime intelligence sharing. The four officials can also pat themselves on the back for the little-noticed but growing strategic coordination to limit Chinese advances in South Asia.

Just a couple of years ago, it looked like China was an irresistible force in the subcontinent. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative—which has sent a flood of Chinese cash to countries in the region—was widely hailed as a game-changer. But the United States and India are now pushing back. Although Beijing will remain a powerful actor in the subcontinent, New Delhi and Washington have been regaining ground.

Exhibit A is Sri Lanka, which has been a particular focus of Chinese political attention and infrastructure investments as Beijing seeks to gain a foothold in the Indian Ocean. But with Sri Lanka in the grips of an intensifying economic and balance-of-payments crisis—accompanied by mass protests and the collapse of the governing parliamentary coalition this week—Colombo will be struggling to stitch back a functioning government and stabilize its economy. Sri Lanka must turn to the international community and multilateral economic institutions. Until recently, the nationalist government of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was reluctant to engage with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and sought homegrown solutions coupled with support from India and China.

Over the last few months, Sri Lanka has cleared many long-pending Indian projects. India’s Adani Group has won the contract for the Colombo West Container Terminal and other infrastructure projects. Sri Lanka also renewed a contract with the Indian Oil Corporation to build a strategic oil storage depot in Trincomalee on Sri Lanka’s east coast and approved a variety of other projects. Colombo also responded to New Delhi’s objections by terminating a contract with a Chinese company to build wind farms in the narrow Palk Strait that separates Sri Lanka from southern India and by offering the contract to an Indian rival instead.

The United States is now paying serious attention to the subcontinent’s smaller countries as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy.

As India stepped up financial and economic assistance to crisis-stricken Sri Lanka, New Delhi also encouraged Colombo to turn to the IMF and other sources of international support. This message was reinforced late last month during Jaishankar’s visit to Colombo. Senior U.S. officials have also joined in, promising support for Colombo’s efforts to diversify its sources of credit and investment to salvage its economy. In other words: rely less on China.

The strategy to leverage Sri Lanka’s crisis to pull it away from China is bearing fruit. Last week, Rohan Gunaratna, director-general of the Sri Lankan Institute of National Security Studies—a government-aligned think tank—said Colombo is now in the middle of a major course correction after moving far too close to China. “Sri Lanka’s strategic pendulum is shifting away from China towards India and the United States,” he said at a symposium in Colombo.

Diplomatic sources in Colombo say Beijing is advising Sri Lanka against turning to the IMF and offering bilateral financial support of its own. China’s penetration of the Sri Lankan elite has been deep, and Beijing’s influence on the Rajapaksa government persists. But as the economic crisis deepens and political shifts continue in Sri Lanka, New Delhi and Washington will hope Colombo’s shift away from Beijing will accelerate.

The pendulum swing is not limited to Colombo but is a broad trend across the region. Take Pakistan, where Indian and U.S. interests have diverged sharply in the past. New Delhi long resented Washington’s past alliance with the former’s traditional rival. But today, both the United States and India share a common worry about Pakistan’s drift toward violent religious extremism, growing reliance on Chinese support, and strategic turn to Russia under Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

With Pakistan facing a constitutional crisis over a scuttled no-confidence vote against the embattled Khan, Islamabad may be rethinking its course. As Khan raised the level of rhetoric about an alleged U.S. conspiracy to oust him, there was quick empathy for him in Russia and China. But powerful Pakistani voices have called on their country to change course. Last week, Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa’s publicly intervened to counter Khan’s anti-U.S. conspiracy theories and called once again for improving relations with India. Washington and New Delhi will be watching how the political crisis in Pakistan plays out and whether moderates opposing Khan come out on top.

In the Maldives, the strategic archipelago where Beijing has been working to get a foothold, the battle to push back against China has already been won. Since his election in 2018, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, president of the Maldives, has reversed the policies of his predecessor, Abdulla Yameen, who moved the Maldives decisively toward China by allowing Chinese warships to dock, blocking Indian projects, and rushing a bilateral free trade agreement through parliament.

In 2020, the Maldives signed a framework defense cooperation agreement with the United States, apparently in full consultation with India. Although New Delhi opposed security collaboration between its smaller neighbors and Washington in the past, India now sees such cooperation as a valuable tool in countering China’s strategic advances into the subcontinent. This week, Mariya Ahmed Didi, defense minister of the Maldives, publicly lauded the steady expansion of defense ties with the United States during the last three years. And last weekend, Jaishankar was in the Maldives for the inauguration of a coastal radar system built by India in the island republic. The time when Beijing looked at a map of the Indian Ocean and saw the Maldives as part of a string of pearls connecting China to Africa seem gone for good.

The pendulum swing to India and the United States is also visible in Nepal, whose prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, just concluded a visit to India. Opposition to India and the United States has been an enduring ideological principle for the various communist parties that have dominated Nepal’s political landscape in the last decade. Deuba’s party, the centrist Nepali Congress, has tended to be in favor of stronger ties with India. He may not be able to reverse many of the domestic legacies of communist rule, but he is certainly reorienting Nepal’s international relations.

Washington’s interest in these countries converges with New Delhi’s eagerness to prevent the region from slipping into China’s orbit.

Besides warmer relations with India, Nepal is also engaging with the United States. In February, the Nepalese Federal Parliament approved the long-pending and controversial $500 million development grant from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation. The package helps modernize Nepal’s electricity transmission and road infrastructure as well as promote its economic integration with India. The communists, who have embraced China’s Belt and Road Initiative, denounced the U.S. grant as undermining Nepalese sovereignty and a ruse to draw Kathmandu into Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Unlike India, Nepal also voted in favor of the Western resolution at the United Nations General Assembly condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine in early March. Bhutan, which normally tacks to the Indian position on multilateral issues, also voted with the West. So did the Maldives. Bangladesh, which had abstained on the first Ukraine resolution in the U.N. General Assembly, switched its vote to support the second resolution on humanitarian issues in late March.

In between the two votes, U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland was in Bangladesh, trying to reboot frayed relations. The Biden administration imposed sanctions on Bangladesh for human rights violations last year but now appears to be taking a broader strategic view of the relationship as Bangladesh emerges as a potential partner for the United States and India in the Indo-Pacific. Dhaka is also actively considering signing the so-called foundational agreements that are preconditions for defense cooperation with Washington.

The United States—whose focus in South Asia has been restricted to Afghanistan and Pakistan for nearly four decades and only recently expanded to the transformation of ties with India—is now paying serious attention to the subcontinent’s smaller countries as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy. Made possible by the Biden administration’s retreat from Afghanistan last year, the shift also reflects a new seriousness about addressing strategic competition with China. Happily, Washington’s interest in these countries converges with New Delhi’s eagerness to prevent the region from slipping into China’s orbit. This has created unprecedented opportunities for India-U.S. strategic collaboration, which is now a defining feature of South Asian geopolitics.

C. Raja Mohan is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Twitter: @MohanCRaja

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