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The Great Game Folio: A Modi Twist

A fortnightly column on the high politics of the Af-Pak region, the fulcrum of global power play in India’s neighbourhood.

If China is ready to help India reintegrate the subcontinent, why is India resorting to delaying tactics? (Source: Reuters) If China is ready to help India reintegrate the subcontinent, why is India resorting to delaying tactics? (Source: Reuters)

As the new government in New Delhi begins its engagement with China by receiving the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi must give a strategic twist to the Great Game tradition that animates India’s foreign policy. Under the Raj, the Great Game was about ensuring the geopolitical unity of the subcontinent and preventing other powers from meddling in the region’s internal affairs. The Partition, the Cold War and progressive economic isolation complicated Delhi’s efforts to sustain the Great Game legacy in the decades after Independence.

The steady expansion of the Indian economy and the slow accretion of military capabilities in recent years have improved Delhi’s ability to shape the subcontinent’s strategic environment. But there are new challenges too, and none more important than the rise of China. The scale of this challenge on India’s land frontiers to the north and the maritime frontier to the south is unlike anything modern India had to deal with in the past. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, threats from European powers like France, Russia and Germany dominated security planning under the Raj. After Independence, India bristled at Western involvement in India’s neighbourhood, for example, the US’s military cooperation with Pakistan.

Unlike Western powers, which are geographically distant and whose interest in the subcontinent is episodic, China is right next door and has long pushed for a greater role south of the Great Himalayas. It is also the world’s second-largest economy.

As the West weakens and withdraws from India’s neighborhood and China becomes the most important external power in the subcontinent, there is no way Modi can play the Great Game by the old rules. Instead, he must devise new ways of sustaining India’s natural primacy in the subcontinent. Central to Delhi’s new strategic imagination must be the transformation of India’s own relations with its neighbours. An India that can’t stop quarrelling its with smaller neighbours only paves the way for an ever-larger Chinese role in the subcontinent. Modi may have had a sense of this when he invited India’s South Asian neighbours to his swearing-in ceremony.

Art of Jujitsu

Equally important is India’s need to come to terms with the reality of Chinese economic power. Whether it likes it or not, India can’t really keep China out of the subcontinent. Instead of resisting China’s growing economic weight, Delhi must turn it to India’s advantage.

One way of doing so is to discard the current inhibitions about China’s investments and leverage Beijing’s economic power to accelerate India’s economic growth. For another, Delhi must stop whining about Beijing’s mega projects in India’s neighbourhood — from ports in Gwadar (Pakistan) and Hambantota (Sri Lanka) to oil and gas pipelines in Myanmar.

China’s capacity to develop infrastructure projects is extraordinary and there is little point in fretting about it. The most recent among Chinese projects in the region is the agreement to build the orange line of the Lahore metro. During her visit to China this week, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is seeking support for the building of a deep sea port at Sonadia island on Bangladesh’s southeastern coast. Hasina is sensitive to India’s concerns about letting China build this port, but is eager to get on with the $10 billion project that will transform the upper Bay of Bengal. She has proposed the creation of a consortium of companies from Bangladesh, China and India to develop the Sonadia port. Beijing has signalled its readiness to work with India on this project. It is time India backed the consortium approach to regional infrastructure development and worked with all external powers, including China.

Southern Silk Road

When he meets Modi next week, Foreign Minsiter Wang will certainly talk about the Chinese proposal to revive the Southern Silk Road that once connected the eastern subcontinent with southwestern China through Myanmar. As China sought support for developing the BCIM corridor (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanamar), the UPA government ducked the proposal by suggesting a joint four-nation study of the project.

If China is ready to help India reintegrate the subcontinent, why is India resorting to delaying tactics? The answer is simple: because Delhi has been afraid of amending the rules of the Great Game. Modi can change that by offering full-fledged support for the development of the BCIM corridor.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express

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