The intensifying competition between India and China for influence in South Asia highlights the increasing importance of foreign investment in shaping the region. India, in order to establish itself as a key player in South Asia, will need to leverage foreign aid and investments. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has filled the investment gap in South Asia, funding various infrastructure projects in countries such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. India, recognizing the need to counter BRI projects, aims to accelerate its own infrastructure projects. The growing synergy between India and the US can contribute to regional development and stability, especially in light of China’s assertiveness.
Author: Radhey Tambi, Centre for Air Power Studies
As the competition between India and China for influence in South Asia intensifies, foreign investment becomes more important in shaping regional outcomes. This discussion is particularly relevant as China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) continues to expand, reaching the borders of almost every South Asian country. India will need to leverage foreign aid and investments to achieve its goal of becoming a leading player in South Asia.
South Asia remains one of the least integrated regions in the world. Since its announcement in 2013, the BRI has significantly filled this investment vacuum. China has funded the Hambantota port and Port City Colombo in Sri Lanka, the trans-Himalayan corridor and the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, and sealed an oil extraction deal with Afghanistan and a free trade agreement with Male.
Beijing has also capitalised on the development gap along the Line of Actual Control — the effective border between India and China — by developing villages and a new highway. China’s BRI has created dependency among South Asian countries by attaching conditionality to its aid. This could potentially serve Beijing’s military interests in the future.
This development has spurred India to accelerate its infrastructure projects in the region. Indian policymakers recognise the need to counter BRI projects to safeguard regional stability and prevent further erosion of India’s strategic space.
New Delhi enjoys civilisational and historical linkages rooted in shared culture, norms and tradition. Any developmental vacuum filled by an outside power that disrespects sovereignty will inevitably bite back. The economic crisis in Pakistan and Sri Lanka which embraced the BRI with great gusto is a glaring example. South Asia needs development, but not at the price of pushing the region into dependencies.
To this end, the growing synergy in India–US ties can foster infrastructural growth in the region, especially when Washington is engaging with smaller South Asian states to enhance its Indo-Pacific strategy. During her visit to South Asia, the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs announced that the United States would spend more than US$1 billion over the next five years on clean energy, electrification and small women-owned businesses in Nepal.
On the security front, the United States and Bangladesh have passed a draft agreement on the General Security of Military Information Agreement. But this requires Washington to accommodate and work in consonance with India, especially regarding China in South Asia. Managing China’s ambitious rise in India’s immediate neighbourhood where it is seen as bullying and coercing weaker states in the garb of development must be a priority.
India’s ability to provide nearly US$4 billion of aid to Sri Lanka demonstrates its economic regional potential. As India continues to hold a prominent position on the global stage, the world looks to it to take on a larger economic role.
India must combine diplomatic efforts with massive development…