The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has been a recurrent hostage to downturns in India-Pakistan relations, which has often led New Delhi to turn to subregional initiatives, as has been witnessed by the current prime minister’s invitation to the member countries of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) to his swearing-in ceremony last year. BIMSTEC comprises five countries in South Asia – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka – and two in Southeast Asia, Myanmar and Thailand.

Going by the past records, India’s approach to subregional initiatives has been marred by a lack of leadership, resources and institutionalization. For instance, it took 17 years for BIMSTEC to establish a permanent secretariat in Dhaka, in 2014. Similarly, the Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM) remained a Track II initiative for India until 2013 despite the rhetoric as to the perceived importance of subregional groupings.

However, India is poised to focus more on subregional initiatives considering that the possibility of a resurrection of SAARC seems remote. New Delhi’s endeavor in this direction, nonetheless, has met a powerful tide from the reverse direction in the shape of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Growing interest by most of the South Asian countries in Beijing’s infrastructure development and connectivity plans was visible well before India focused on BIMSTEC. The absence of China from that regional initiative also led some experts to take pessimistic note of India’s success in leading such initiatives. For instance, former Indian foreign secretary Krishnan Srinivasan remarked that members of BIMSTEC not only represented uneven economies with differing interests, the absence of China – the biggest Asian economy – would slow down the initiative because of a lack of investments.

Historically, India’s preference for bilateral rather than multilateral engagements and attempts at designing a regional security architecture according to its own interests helped create a domineering “big brother” image in the neighborhood. Its unilateral gestures and concessions aimed at augmenting a positive image often and ironically strengthened the big-brother syndrome. In contrast, China as a relatively new player resourcefully and with greater resolve was poised to take quick strides in the South Asian region.

India’s refusal to get involved in the BRI has not persuaded its small neighbors to keep away from collaborating with China. It is evident that India’s rejection of the BRI on the grounds that it violates its sovereign territorial claims has only helped China entrench its influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region and tightened China-Pakistan bonding further, making the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) a key part of the BRI.

Underlining the significance of the BRI, Subramanian Swamy, a member of India’s Parliament, recently suggested that China needs to consider diverting its BRI via Kolkata or Mumbai ports instead of passing through disputed India-Pakistan border areas. Clearly, India and China pursue competitive regional strategies that seek to reduce the influence of each other.

Competitive regional strategies

It is pertinent to underline that China has shown willingness to get involved in the SAARC process since it became an observer state in 2007. India was able in 2015 to persuade other South Asian countries to place a five-year moratorium on discussions on the issue of China’s inclusion as a dialogue partner, let alone a full member. Logically, complementary regional strategies would have strengthened both countries’ power positions in the South Asian as well as the Indian Ocean region. Needless to say, however, realist politics defies reason.

Massive resources at China’s disposal could have been utilized to strengthen SAARC once China was allowed to play a greater role within the framework. Currently, as an observer only, China cannot initiate any proposal, nor can it participate in discussions and deliberations within the forum. India believes that inclusion of China would lead to a Chinese veto (given that all the decisions within SAARC need consensus for approval) on India-led initiatives within the body.

Understandably, inclusion of China as a dialogue partner into the SAARC framework would help in discussing regional concerns related to Beijing-led regional infrastructure development and connectivity projects and address several issues related to terms and conditions of loans, benefits for local economies, and sovereignty concerns of countries in the region.

India’s reluctance to allow China a major role in the South Asian and Indian Ocean region has been driven by a host of factors. One is India’s apprehension of an unencumbered China that would result in a China-centered economic order in Asia. This concern largely stems from India’s massive trade deficit in favor of China – a factor crucial to New Delhi’s decision to opt out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations last November.

Similarly, another factor standing in the way of India-China relations in substantive terms is New Delhi’s failure to decipher and understand Chinese diplomacy. This fact has turned Beijing into one of the most unpredictable players in the eyes of New Delhi in the regional scenario.

For instance, despite continued bilateral efforts at improving relations after the 2018 Wuhan summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chinese attempts at raising the Kashmir issue again at the UN Security Council in the beginning of this year has baffled many within the Indian strategic circle. It is worth mentioning that despite China’s initial reactions to India’s Kashmir move – bifurcating and integrating Kashmir and Ladakh as union territories by removing special constitutional provisions – Beijing moderated its stance prior to the Mamallapuram summit between Modi and Xi last year. China suggested that Kashmir is a bilateral India-China issue based on the two nations’ mutual understanding that formation of a union territory in Ladakh has no impact on their territorial disputes.

Despite attempts at introducing more confidence-building measures to reduce the chances of actual conflict, the two countries are involved in a Cold War-like situation, with their competing regional strategies and maneuvers at undercutting each other’s regional influence. Suspicion of China’s regional ambitions has pushed India to strengthen the Quad (the US, Japan and Australia are the other members) in the Indo-Pacific region by upgrading cooperation in the grouping to the ministerial level. On the other side, China is working on plans to integrate its territory with the Indian side of the Himalayan landscape with sophisticated transportation networks. For instance, the Chinese plan to construct a railway from Tibet to Kathmandu would not only dilute the Tibetan claim of more autonomy but would enable China to make a strategic push into India’s sensitive periphery.

After the Wuhan summit there was some progress in India and China reciprocating each other’s goodwill gestures, but that did not entail a significant reorientation or shift in relations. For instance, while Beijing agreed to stop blocking the United Nations from listing Masood Azhar as a terrorist, New Delhi did not defy Beijing’s one-China policy and took care not to invite the political head of the Tibetan government-in-exile or a Taiwan representative to Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in 2019, making a turnaround from the earlier strategy the same government had adopted after coming to power initially in 2014. Similarly, last year also witnessed India and China making commitments to collaborative efforts in third countries such as Afghanistan.

However, all these gestures fall flat when one considers the larger geopolitical moves and strategies of both countries. For instance, China is inclined to see its geopolitical objectives being better served by Pakistan rather than India, whereas India would like to be favorably disposed toward the US to balance its interests and concerns vis-à-vis China rather than investing complete trust in China.

Meanwhile, amid their competing strategies, regional disorder is getting aggravated as India is shunning the only country with sufficient clout in Pakistan that could be capitalized on to exercise influence and push Islamabad to mend its ways.

Beijing’s preference for a mediating role in recent years, as witnessed in its attempts to broker peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban and between Bangladesh and Myanmar on the Rohingya refugee issue, demonstrates China’s increasing political capital in the wider region, which can be useful for South Asian countries in sorting out their differences, which India cannot do alone because of the big-brother syndrome attached to it. Similarly, China’s BRI is an open-ended and long-term infrastructure and connectivity project whose sustenance could need India’s involvement considering the demographic dividend projected to be swinging in favor of India.

India-China cooperation in strategic areas would also help reduce the influence of extra-regional powers in the larger Indo-Pacific landmass and contribute to peace and security in the region.