South Asia Brief
News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia, a region home to one-fourth of the world’s population. Delivered Wednesday.

China Has Become India’s Greatest Threat

A new poll reveals shifting perspectives as Beijing challenges New Delhi on several fronts.

Michael Kugelman
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief and the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.
New Indian Armed Forces recruits undergo weapons training in Secunderabad, India, on Jan. 10.
New Indian Armed Forces recruits undergo weapons training in Secunderabad, India, on Jan. 10.
New Indian Armed Forces recruits undergo weapons training in Secunderabad, India, on Jan. 10. NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: A new poll shows that Indians largely see China as the country’s greatest military threat, Pakistani opposition figure Imran Khan’s party dissolves two provincial parliaments in a push for early national elections, and a top U.S. official visits Bangladesh.

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India Sees China as Greatest Threat

China’s rise in recent years has provoked a change in India’s strategic threat calculations—a shift now reflected in public sentiment. This week, a Morning Consult poll revealed that Indians see China as India’s “greatest military threat.” Forty-three percent of respondents named China, while only 13 percent cited Pakistan, India’s long-standing rival. Strikingly, 22 percent of respondents said the United States was India’s greatest threat.

The survey, based on interviews with 1,000 Indian adults last October, reflects a shift in Indian perspectives—including among Indian officials—on the country’s long-term strategic challenges. Since its independence, India has fought three full-scale conflicts and one limited war with Pakistan, and bilateral relations remain tense. But growing threats from China, coupled with recent Indian foreign-policy moves, show that New Delhi’s focus has shifted toward Beijing.

The shift underscores the opportunities for India to deepen partnership with the United States and its Asian treaty allies, along with the balancing act that New Delhi must maintain with Moscow, which has drawn closer to Beijing amid the war in Ukraine.

India faces major threats from China on several fronts. It has struggled to deter Beijing on their shared border: Since a deadly 2020 clash in Ladakh, Chinese troops continue to make incursions into India, including one last month. Meanwhile, China is expanding its naval presence in the Indian Ocean. India also worries about Chinese surveillance. New Delhi has banned more than 300 Chinese mobile apps, citing security—the only major case of India scaling back commercial relations with China since the border clash.

New Delhi remains concerned by Islamabad’s legacy of sponsoring terrorists who attack India, including one incident in 2019 that killed 40 Indian troops and nearly started a conflict between the two countries. India also worries about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons policies, which include the production of tactical nuclear weapons and a refusal to embrace a no-first-use policy.

However, a changing landscape in Pakistan has shifted India’s threat calculations. International pressure has compelled Islamabad to crack down on anti-India terrorist networks in recent years. Meanwhile, Pakistani public messaging has grown more conciliatory toward India, with calls to push for better relations with India to strengthen Pakistani trade and connectivity. Last year, after an errant Indian missile landed in Pakistan, Islamabad’s response was relatively muted.

Just this week, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif called for conditional talks with India. This all suggests Pakistan wants to keep tensions low with India so it can focus on its own economic and security problems. Against this backdrop, frequent tough talk against Pakistan from India’s government looks more like an effort to exploit domestic public sentiment for political gain than an expression of serious concern about the Pakistani threat.

India likely agreed to a new border truce with Pakistan in 2021 to allow itself to focus on its China challenge. New Delhi’s foreign policy has turned on China in recent years. It has embraced the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and other efforts to counter China, such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. India is all-in on strengthening security relations with the three other Quad members: Australia, Japan, and the United States. This week, India and Japan launched their first-ever joint air fighter exercises.

India has also insisted on continuing to do business with longtime friend Russia; the Morning Consult survey finds that Indian public opinion toward Russia soured after the Ukraine invasion, but it picked up again soon thereafter. Moscow is close with Beijing, but it also provides New Delhi with military equipment, such as the S-400 missile defense system, which can strengthen its deterrence capacity.

Sharpening U.S.-China competition is a dominant storyline in global geopolitics. But New Delhi’s intensifying strategic tussle with Beijing is also taking center stage, and it is poised to shape the next century.

What We’re Following

Two provincial assemblies dissolved in Pakistan. In recent weeks, former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has pushed to dissolve the local assemblies in the two provinces controlled by his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He finally succeeded last weekend. Khan was ousted last April; he hopes the expense of holding separate provincial elections now will prompt the federal government to opt for early national polls, which currently must take place by Oct. 12.

This is a boost for Khan, who has suffered recent setbacks. His earlier tactics to pressure the government to agree to early elections failed, and the PTI finished in a disappointing third place in local elections in Karachi last weekend. Still, the move to dissolve the two assemblies is a gamble. Islamabad has every right to stay the course and hold national polls on schedule.

Furthermore, with the political environment so polarized, the government has little will to give in to Khan’s chief demand. And the government’s unpopularity means it’s in no hurry to put itself before the electorate before it’s required to.

Top U.S. South Asia official visits Bangladesh. At the end of 2021, the White House sanctioned a top Bangladesh security force, citing human rights violations. But the move hasn’t prevented the relationship between the two countries from moving forward. Last month, a senior U.S. official called Bangladesh a “truly important strategic partner”—words the United States more commonly uses to describe India.

Last weekend, Donald Lu, the deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, visited Dhaka. Lu has been involved in controversy in Pakistan, where Khan accused him—without evidence—of helping to orchestrate his ouster; and in Nepal, where he reportedly threatened to review U.S. relations with the country if it did not ratify a Millennium Challenge Corporation infrastructure package. But he offered effusive praise of Bangladesh during his trip and pledged future cooperation on several fronts.

U.S.-Bangladesh relations still face challenges, including Dhaka’s human rights record. As a nonaligned state, Bangladesh has concerns about getting embroiled in great-power competition. That Lu stopped in India en route likely didn’t sit well with Bangladesh, which doesn’t like to be put in a club with India.

Deadly plane crash in Nepal. Last Sunday, a Yeti Airlines flight crashed near Pokhara, Nepal’s second-most-populous city, killing all 72 people on board. Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the crash, which is the third-deadliest in Nepal’s history. Air safety has long been a major concern in the country. Just last May, 22 people died when a plane crashed into a mountain after taking off from Pokhara.

Experts cite several factors that elevate the risks of air travel in Nepal, from volatile weather and difficult topography to the poor upkeep of aging aircraft. Kathmandu has prioritized improving air safety, especially given that tourism is a key contributor to Nepal’s economy.

Under the Radar

India isn’t the only South Asian country with a long-standing border dispute with China. There are also contested areas along China’s nearly 300-mile border with Bhutan, which has no formal relations with Beijing. Last week brought some encouraging news as the two sides announced a “positive consensus” around the implementation of a 2021 roadmap intended to expedite border negotiations.

The details of the framework are not public, but a joint statement released after the latest round of talks last week noted that in a “frank, cordial and constructive atmosphere,” the two sides exchanged views on the roadmap. In a region rife with intractable border disputes, any progress is notable.

India, which borders both China and Bhutan, will certainly watch these developments carefully. In 2017, India had a long border standoff with China in Doklam, a region that Bhutan and India view as Bhutanese territory located in the so-called trijunction of the three countries.

FP’s Most Read This Week

Pentagon Balks at Sending Ukraine Long-Range Bombs by Jack Detsch

Decoupling Wastes U.S. Leverage on China by Paul Scharre

Former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow on the Moment He Realized Russia Would Launch a Full-Scale Invasion by Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer

Regional Voices

In the Hindu, diplomatic correspondent Suhasini Haidar laments the lack of a “whole of region” approach to tackling air pollution in South Asia. “That such a conversation does not exist or is even being contemplated is one more example of the rejection of the idea of South Asia that continues to bedevil a region refusing to see itself as one geographical unit,” she writes.

Kathmandu Times editorial critiques Nepal’s politics, describing the current situation as unstable: “Frequent government changes have multiple ramifications. It confuses and corrupts the bureaucracy,” it argues. “Lack of policy continuity deters donors and investors. … [T]he pursuit of power at all cost erodes the sanctity of the democratic process.”

Researcher Ahmed Jubayer details the impact of global shocks from Russia’s war in Ukraine on socioeconomic conditions in Bangladesh in the Dhaka Tribune. He estimates that global price increases could cause a “3.3% point increase in Bangladesh’s national poverty rate, equivalent to an additional five million people falling below the poverty line.”

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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