Even as the buzz starts to grow around the still inchoate Quad comprising US, India, Japan and Australia, and other countries in the region start to wake up to the dark clouds of a new Cold War advancing quite rapidly to engulf them, there are signs of a counter Quad or if you will, an Alt Quad Plus emerging in India’s immediate neighbourhood. The recent quadrilateral meeting between the foreign ministers of China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal has made people sit up and take notice of possible new alignments, which if they crystallise could have a very negative impact on India’s security and strategic environment. Although the Alt Quad meeting was ostensibly held to discuss cooperation to overcome the impact of the Chinese Virus, there was clearly a lot more to the meeting than meets the eye.
The way the Chinese foreign minister held up the China-Pakistan cooperation as model for combating the pandemic, coupled with his making a pitch for all four countries “to promote the joint construction of the Belt and Road Initiative, explore ways to synergize the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network, support the extension of the CPEC to Afghanistan, and create a regional network of connectivity”, is a dead giveaway of the real purpose behind the ‘Alt Quad’ conference. China is making a concerted push to build up its own sphere of influence, especially along its periphery. This is sought to be done by tying up the smaller countries in a relationship of dependence and subservience, ultimately leading to bondage. The more vulnerable a country, the more it is susceptible to blandishments, bribery, if required some bullying and even bludgeoning, by China.
For India this presents a clear and present threat. Scholars, statesmen and members of the strategic community in India have often voiced their concerns over the creeping Chinese encirclement of India. The Chinese footprint in India’s backyard has been expanding for years. One by one, the Chinese have been inveigling themselves with India’s neighbours. Pakistan was of course a lost case ever since it came into existence. The mutual animosity of China and Pakistan towards India has welded the ‘Iron Brothers’ together since the early 1960s. India’s strategic calculus had always factored the China-Pakistan collusion, so there was nothing new there until the CPEC project was unveiled. The fact that the project is more strategic than economic – its all about Gwadar and the likely Chinese Naval base either in Gwadar or one of the smaller ports in the vicinity – gave a new edge to the ‘all weather friendship’ and disturbed India’s strategic environment.
The mutual animosity of China and Pakistan towards India has welded the ‘Iron Brothers’ together since the early 1960s. India’s strategic calculus had always factored the China-Pakistan collusion, so there was nothing new there until the CPEC project was unveiled.
But it is no longer just Pakistan. Over the last decade or so, China has steadily made new inroads – in Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and even Afghanistan. Even before these countries started being enticed, enrolled, and entrapped, by the Chinese throwing dollops of money on unsustainable and unviable white elephant projects, better known as debt-trap diplomacy, they were being courted through soft diplomacy and military support. The Chinese supplied weapons to Sri Lanka during the civil war and even gave it diplomatic backing in international forums. Bangladesh entered into a submarine deal with the Chinese and when that raised eyebrows in India, the Bangladeshi officials explained it away as ‘toys for the boys’ – something that will keep the armed forces in good humour. China also reached out and supported the military dictatorship in Myanmar when it was ostracised by the West and treated as a pariah nation. In Nepal, the Chinese provided military assistance at the time of the Maoist insurgency, and over the years have inserted themselves into the politics of the country. It is the same story in other countries around India’s periphery.
In recent months, with a huge pushback building up against China’s aggression in many fronts and territorial expansionism, China’s efforts to stitch up the smaller countries into its these efforts have gathered pace and urgency. The Chinese have been openly interfering in Nepal’s political process to ensure that the govt of their favoured candidate KP Sharma Oli doesn’t collapse. In addition, they have started pumping in money into projects that Nepal will never be able to repay. Bangladesh has been offered a very attractive trade deal that will make it very dependent on the Chinese market and make it impossible to join any anti-China grouping. In addition, the Chinese are believed to have encouraged Imran Khan to reach out to Bangladesh and move towards normalisation of ties, something that will add to India’s discomfort if Bangladesh once again becomes a launching pad for anti-India activity. In Sri Lanka, the new government has once again opened the doors for China which is promising all kinds of economic goodies to ease things for the Island nation. With Afghanistan, a renewed effort is being made at multiple levels to gain a greater role during and after the ‘peace process’. Staring as it is at an imminent US abandonment, Afghanistan is in a bind and could be looking at China as a possible option to ensure that the Pakistanis keep the Taliban under control. Cut to the chase, China has moved fast and purposefully to replace India as the dominant power in South Asia.
For India, this is a very serious challenge. If China succeeds in its gambit, it will effectively put a strategic millstone around India’s neck and constrict her strategic space. Until now, China had only Pakistan to keep India tied down. Now it will have virtually every neighbour of India snap at her heel. Worse, unlike the original Quad which still is in an incipient state and there is as yet no clarity on its structure, framework and operational modalities, the Quad+ that the Chinese are trying to forge could be operationalised lot sooner than anyone can imagine.
If China succeeds in its gambit, it will effectively put a strategic millstone around India’s neck and constrict her strategic space. Until now, China had only Pakistan to keep India tied down. Now it will have virtually every neighbour of India snap at her heel
India must bear some of the blame for the deterioration in her strategic environment. Despite all the advantages and influence India’s has in her backyard, the one cardinal mistake she has made is of taking her eye of the ball. In country after country India has scored self-goals. After getting favourable outcomes in these countries, India has frittered away the advantage, almost as if she lost interest, or as if she believed that things had settled for good and will remain like that for all times to come. This is not the way aspiring powers deal with critical interests, even less so because India’s enemies and adversaries are always looking to step into any breach they notice. For instance, many Pakistani analysts believe that the current India-China stand-off will encourage and embolden India’s South Asian neighbours to look towards China as a counterbalance to India. It is, therefore, an imperative that India not just stay engaged, but also stay embedded and invested in the power structure of these countries in order to play a pivotal role in the power dynamics and retain her influence.
With the Chinese now stepping in, India’s task has become infinitely more complicated and difficult. There is no way India can match China in terms of spending power to win these countries over. To even attempt that would be to play on China’s turf. What India therefore needs to do is think differently, using her considerable leverages imaginatively to play on a pitch of her choosing, and if required take a leaf out of Shiv Sena’s book and dig up the pitch that has been prepared by an alien power. India must also take the lead to give shape to the original Quad. The emergence of this grouping will demonstrate to the neighbours that India means business and there will be political consequences for following the Chinese lead. Unless India can shed its inexplicable reluctance and put together a viable and potent alternative to China’s neo-colonial model of diplomacy, it will be difficult to defeat the mandarin marauders.