Posted by: John Elliott | April 24, 2017

70 years after independence, India weakened internationally by under-performance

Place names and Dalai Lama visit are China-India’s latest weapons 

Usually outclassed by China, India scores a few points

While international attention has been preoccupied with Donald Trump and his reactions to North Korea’s nuclear capability and the war in Syria, India and China have been provocatively needling each other over their long-running and potentially explosive border dispute in the Himalayan mountains.

The world need not worry however because, instead of nuclear strikes or even, as often happens, troops crossing the undefined border, China last week issued new names for places in India’s north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims as its territory. This was in response to India allowing the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader who lives in India in exile, to go to the state earlier this month for a high profile eight-day pastoral tour.

Dalai-Lama_reuters.jpgIndia is not strong internationally and does not often score against China, its larger and more powerful neighbour. China usually has the upper hand – for example by blocking India’s membership of the little-known but significant Nuclear Suppliers’ Group in Geneva, and encircling India by developing close relationships and investing in countries that India regards as its bailiwick. China is also planning a massive One Belt One Road economic trading and transport corridor between Asia and Europe that has exposed India’s diplomatic weakness because the government does not know how to react.

India has however scored three times this month, firstly by allowing the Dalai Lama to go to Arunachal which China calls Southern Tibet, and then by laying out the red carpet in quick succession for state visits by Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, and by the president of Nepal. China is constantly trying to wean away these two Indian neighbours.

Last year, China undermined India’s regional role by striking $25bn agreements with Bangladesh, including the supply of two submarines. India struck back during Sheikh Hasina’s visit with a $9bn bundle of agreements including $4.5bn line of concessional credit. India also scored a point with Nepal by persuading it to scale back a ten-day military exercise with China that was taking place during the president’s visit.

China invests $2bn in Bangladesh gas

Today however it has been announced that two Chinese corporations are buying Bangladesh gas fields that account for more than half the country’s total gas output, with a price tag of $2bn, from Chevron. This is specially significant because it is China’s first energy investment in South Asia.

China showed unusual irritation, even anger, over the Dalai Lama, who has led a largely uncontroversial life in northern India since he fled from China in 1959. It always objects when he receives high profile welcomes abroad, which sometimes leads to countries such as the US and UK toning down the reception he receives.

Dalai Lama in Arunachal Pradesh

He has previously visited Arunachal six times since 1959, the last being in 2009, and Beijing always issues strong and ineffective complaints. This time it stepped up its (again ineffective) protests by summoning India’s ambassador in Beijing to warn, as the foreign ministry spokesperson put it, that it would “take necessary means to defend its territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests”. India should “immediately stop its erroneous move of using the Dalai Lama to undermine China’s interests” because, by permitting the visit, it had “escalated the boundary dispute” between the two countries.

China claimed that Narendra Modi had allowed the Dalai Lama to go to the area or the first time in nine years in order to provoke Beijing (at a time when relationships have been worsening), which of course India denied. The visit was specially sensitive because the Dalai Lama was boosting his role as the people’s spiritual leader with a long road journey through towns and villages to a monastery at Tawang that is the focus of Beijing’s territorial claims.  A day before he reached Tawang, where he had stayed when he fled from China, the official China Daily warned that Beijing “would not hesitate to answer blows with blows” if he was allowed to continue, which of course he was and did.

China retaliates

The more controversially outspoken Global Times suggested that China could retaliate by supporting the anti-Indian militancy in Kashmir – which, Delhi would say, it already does by condoning Pakistan’s role in the area’s currently escalating unrest. “With a GDP several times higher than that of India, military capabilities that can reach the Indian Ocean, and having good relations with India’s peripheral nations, coupled with the fact that India’s turbulent northern state borders China, will Beijing lose to New Delhi?”, the newspaper taunted.

Eventually however, China did no more , at least overtly, than re-naming the places – about which, of course, India complained.

The Dalai Lama tending to his Buddhist flock, and China’s response, are however just a by-play in a much larger story of India’s dwindling regional clout, which contrasts with the apparent strength of Narendra Modi’s government that aims to make the country internally and regionally strong and internationally important.

OBOR map - The Economist

India has for years aspired to be a player on the world stage and specially covets a seat on the United Nations Security Council, which China opposes. But, as its leaders recognise, it will not become such a player until it overcomes its economic and social problems at home, especially its hundreds of millions of undernourished and under-educated poor.

I was specially struck by this weakness after attending a series of recent conferences and seminars in Delhi. Many of the points are not new, indeed I covered them in detail in my book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Destiny, a couple of years ago. But they strike home three years into the Modi government, which should be making a better job of making India achieve its potential.

It started at a London School of Economic conference in Delhi where a discussion on India moving from being a “third world to regional power” showed that it wasn’t moving very far, even though it has the world’s fastest growing economy at around 7%. Ashley Tellis, a leading US academic who was reported earlier this year to be on Washington’s list for America’s next ambassador to India, said that the country was not “moving at a pace” that would enable it to take on China or enjoy the international clout of other world powers.

Vikram Sood, a former senior Indian diplomat, said it was inevitable that India’s neighbours would not like it because they were so much smaller. He might have added that India’s diplomats have not learned how to woo their smaller neighbours and are outclassed by China’s money-led diplomacy, though Sri Lanka has recently found China infrastructure investment terms too onerous.

A few days later, it was India’s failure to cope with One Belt One Road – the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) as it is also known – for highways, railways, sea links and pipelines to Europe that emerged strongly at the Observer Research Foundation, a leading Delhi think tank. China’s ambitious aim (map above) for 2049 is to utilise its surplus industrial and financial capacity, to develop trade and financial markets, and to extend its sea power and diplomatic reach by linking as many as 65 countries and 4.4bn people in Asia, East Africa, the Middle East and Europe. It builds on the ancient Silk Road and Trans-Siberian railway and other existing projects, as well as including China’s contentious claims to control the South China Sea.

Kashgar-Gwadhar-Road-and-Railway-LinksThis is a challenge for India because the project brings all its neighbours closer into China orbit. The plan also includes a basically separate project to built a China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) linking the ancient city of Kashgar in western China with Pakistan’s Gwadar port (built by China) on the Arabian sea close to the border with Iran (shown above in a Pakistani map).

India has objected to this because it goes through the northern region of Pakistan which India claims as part of Jammu and Kashmir. India does not of course seriously expect ever gain this territory, but it lodges the claim in response to Pakistan wanting India’s part of Kashmir. It objected without any success over 40 years ago when China built the Karakoram Highway, which forms part of the corridor, in Pakistan’s Northern Areas.

“For India, blocking the BRI is not feasible, ignoring it would be self-defeating,” said Manoj Joshi, a leading journalist and senior ORF fellow at the seminar. “New Delhi needs to work with like-minded states on a strategy that can use BRI to its own ends and minimise its downsides to its own economic and geopolitical standing”

The next day, at a Carnegie India seminar, there was anxiety about whether US-India ties, which have been developed over the past decade, would not be so important to Donald Trump. That could significantly weaken India in its dealings with China. And the day after that, at the Vivekananda International Foundation which is close to the BJP government, there was concern about how badly India sells itself to the world – and no real answers about how that could be improved.

Those few days, together with the Dalai Lama spat and the neighbourly visits, put the India story in context as it approaches its 70th anniversary of independence.

Despite all that has been achieved developing a poverty-stricken country to an increasingly modern economy, India has yet to develop the confidence or the ability to be significant in its own region and on the world stage. It is increasingly losing out to China and there is no sign of that changing.


  1. China tells a consistent story because the marketing message is carefully constructed and strictly followed. One group in China, the Han, have ensured that every other group is either eliminated or assimilated. An autocratic system of government for 70 years has facilitated the creation of a homogenous society with an origin myth to support its current telling of facts. India has none of those. It remains a civilizational construct rather than a unified racial entity. As a civilizational construct there are many voices within it each telling a different story. That is externally perceived as weakness in a world where unified voices seem stronger. The best thing that India can now do is to strengthen itself economically while still retaining the borders that it currently has. That will allow a future wise leader to build on the strengths that Mr. Modi will leave India with.

  2. Needless pessimism/undermining of India’s growing global stature from the Mlecchas. While China does have the economic head start, its best friends in Asia are still North Korea and Pakistan! The rest of Asia fears China’s dominance, and its aggression in the South China Sea have only reinfored these concerns. In this regard, its actions against India are only a part of the larger pattern of attempted hegemony of the region – and eventually the world. Which should scare you Mlecchas all the more.

    While India is not held in great esteem by anyone; yet, it is also not feared as a hegemonistic power. Historically, India, unlike China, has projected soft power in Asia and this continues even today. China’s largest failing through history has been the concentration of power and decision-making to a few who have the ability to turn policies 180 degrees on a whim; thus the destruction of its fleet that was unsurpassed in ancient times, and the Cultural Revolution more recently.

    India’s failing is its fractured governance and a perceived softness, but this may also be its strength in the long run. Even the EU faces these centrifugal forces, and democracy is the only glue that could unite. Like gravity, it is a weak force with enormous long-term consequences. As for India’s softness, its civilization remained intact through the millennia unlike that of Persia or the other civilizations that once dominated their respective regions. Don’t count India out as yet. It is only now slowly finding its feet after being near mortally wounded. If China were to eventually “win” and India to “lose”, it will be the world’s loss and not just India’s.

  3. No point Moaning, we have to begin somewhere; perhaps that beginning has been made by Shri Modi; might be 70 years too late. Looks like some reversals have happened and a realisation that the family is irrelevant. The key to success would be to avoid too much of an overdose of democracy without any obligations/commitments to the state, resulting in uncivil behavior. In short disciplining public on all fronts, including self styled vigilante groups. Let us hope for the best, on hope of better times we survive.

  4. Well said Edward. I could not agree with you more. The stance one takes when your primary goal is to create stability by creating jobs at all levels brings with it a lot of well earned wisdom . Modi’s attention to MSM’s will make much more change than we can imagine.

  5. I sometimes hear people complain that India would be more successful in removing poverty and making the economy grow faster if we had the same type of government as China. This is of course a load of rubbish. One day China will implode. it’s system of Communist Dictatorship will collapse with great violence and we in India will prosper not because of China but all because of India and the people of India. you seem to forget that India has been cursed with the worst type of democratic politics conceived to mankind. most of this has been imported from Nehru, his daughter and the daughter-in-law from Italy together with our home grown corrupt, inept and family dynastic politics.

    Mr. Modi is doing his best to undo the malaise and corruption of the past where government meant slogans, of Garibi Hatao and loot thy neighbour as well as for the government to control the commanding heights of Industry plus A Socialist Secular Republic being inserted into the Constitution by Madame Gandhi during her Emergency, with only one thought in her mind of being able to stay in power for ever.

    With the Modi revolution comes a huge change in the future of Indian democracy. if the people of India want it they will get Clean Government with a strong Opposition and the total elimination of the dirt of past politics. This is the power India needs. Sweep away the Italian Lady and her family and her cronies, and also sweep away all the other present day political leaders who have mis-managed and looted India, and have them replaced by good government with a strong opposition. it will happen believe you me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: