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Delhi entangled in the Dragon’s String of Pearls

Monday, 11 May 2009 - 3:59am IST | Place: New Delhi | Agency: dna

In the chaos of its neighbourhood, India is losing out to China in the struggle between the two Asian giants to win friends and establish strategic depth.

In the chaos of its neighbourhood, India is losing out to China in the struggle between the two Asian giants to win friends and establish strategic depth. Many in government and outside are blaming it on New Delhi’s lack of a grand strategy, inept diplomacy, and inability to overcome domestic political compulsions to build powerful relations in the volatile region.

In Nepal, the resignation of Maoist prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and the resultant chaos will not only erode India’s popularity in the Himalayan republic but also make it easier for China to strengthen its foothold there. The final countdown to the end of the LTTE in Sri Lanka marks another stage of the competition between India and China for supremacy in the Indian Ocean region. There is no doubt who is winning.

“We don’t have a grand strategy,” admits retired admiral Arun Prakash, among India’s finest strategic analysts. As navy chief, he had initiated several steps to increase India’s influence in the Indian Ocean.

“We are aware of China’s efforts in the neighbourhood. But the question is whether we have a comprehensive strategy to counter them and to secure our interests,” says a senior official who looks after the region for his agency. The official, who is not from the external affairs ministry, is clear whom to blame: the ministry and its diplomats.

Sujit Dutta, senior fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, agrees: “China is running ahead of India on several counts.” 

Many within the intelligence and military set-ups agree with the assessments and complain that India is not even playing catch-up. They believe China’s so-called ‘String of Pearls’ strategy to create locations of strategic importance such as ports and military bases in the Indian Ocean region has been a success. On land, China is moving quickly to occupy crucial positions in countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh that India is ceding.

“India has good cause to feel threatened because of China’s quick expansion and opaque nature of their military plans. We must presume there will be a clash,” warns Prakash.

Many experts who have been watching this India-China race lambaste the government for its short-sighted, sometimes arrogant, mostly complacent diplomacy that is accelerating India’s losing streak. Officials in agencies dealing with the neighbourhood — navy, army, intelligence, etc — say their suggestions are often ignored.

The most vivid examples of the failure of India against Chinese aggression are to be seen in Lanka and Nepal. Through the chaos in both places, China’s growing clout is becoming clear. It is also showing up how poorly India has conducted itself.

In Lanka, it is with Chinese fighter aircraft, guns, and bullets that the army is fighting the LTTE. The  Chinese are also developing the massive, strategic Hambantota port. There is even a Chinese military warehouse on the island.

In Nepal, “we have lost the entire advantage we had in the last two days (when Prachanda resigned) because at the highest levels we are just plain afraid of the Maoists without a proper understanding of them,” said a recently retired senior officer, who for years handled the country. “We should have stood up for civilian supremacy over the army, and we should have helped to stabilise the democracy there. Instead we messed it up, to China’s advantage.”

The story is similar in other countries in the neighbourhood.  In each of these, India is being outwitted by the Chinese to occupy a strategic position. In many of these countries, the Chinese are building ports, roads, and railways. They have opened up pipelines of cheap military wares and money to almost every one of them, and the communist country is moving with alacrity to emerge as the most important player in Myanmar, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Indonesia. Until recently, India was the most important partner of many of these countries and New Delhi’s “soft power” diplomacy worked better than the Chinese dragon’s aggression.

This is happening as India and China struggle to secure energy sources — a huge flow of oil, coal, and other strategic commodities through the Indian Ocean — in the Gulf and Africa. It is through the same crowded sea lanes, where several straits are already choked, that these exports and imports will flow.

We don’t have a grand strategy. India has good cause to feel threatened… by quick Chinese expansion and opaque nature of military plans. We must presume there will be a clash.
—  Admiral Arun Prakash (use mugshot), former navy chief

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