Mohammad Zare

South Asia; a New Center for Strategic Rivalries

Date of publication : February 23, 2018 20:11 pm
City Palace, Udaipur, is a palace complex in Udaipur, in the Indian state Rajasthan

If we divided regional and international rivalries into active, semi-active and inactive categories, South Asia could be considered as a center for inactive rivalry between regional and international powers, at least, during the past decade. However, the existing trends and the quality of the moves made by regional and international powers, especially the United States, China, and India, show that this issue is changing and deepening of strategic rivalries among these countries in South Asia can be considered as one of the serious and growing trends. This trend can even change the attitude of these countries toward the Islamic Republic of Iran and cause Iran to face new strategic options in its eastern and southeastern security environments in the near future. As evidence to this claim, one can point out the special news coverage given by Indian and Chinese media to Iranian president’s visit to southeastern city of Chabahar to inaugurate the first phase of Shahid Beheshti port and also unveiling of the Persian Gulf training destroyer.
Some Indian media dubbed inauguration of the first phase of Iran’s Shahid Beheshti port as a response to China’s strategic investment in Pakistan’s Gwadar port while Chinese media, on the other hand, were trying to highlight a competitive attitude similar to that of the Indian media in their society. Meanwhile, unveiling of the Persian Gulf training destroyer was reflected in various ways by Chinese media and some reports tried to compare it with China’s 0B52 destroyer. At any rate, these two examples show that both China and India have become much more sensitive about developments in their western security environment. This sensitivity can cover a vast geographical expanse, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Nepal and Bangladesh. Naturally, the attitude of these two countries toward other regional actors and their attractions, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, will emanate from these strategic rivalries. The following issues can be considered as some of the important reasons behind escalation of strategic rivalries in this region:
America’s agent making policy and redefinition of India’s foreign policy
An important and undeniable reality, which must be mentioned here, is that the United States has been facing a crisis with regard to allocation of strategic resources, especially in the past eight years. Basically, election of Donald Trump as the US president and his policies, especially his “America First” motto, have their roots in an effort to organize and balance the allocation of the United States’ strategic resources. The global economic crisis in 2008, affected allocation of strategic resources of the United States and, almost for the first time in the past 15 years, forced Washington to take the issue of the cost-benefit relationship more seriously when it comes to US intervention in international politics. For example, a report by the US Defense Department, Pentagon, in 2010 mentioned India, for the first time, as an actor creating security in the Indian Ocean region. In 2012, it was announced that India was part of the United States’ strategic turn toward Asia. The national security strategy of the United States for 2015 even went beyond that point and emphasized that the United States supported the role of India as a provider of security. Americans announced that there was extensive correlation and convergence between India’s “Act East” policy and Washington’s turn toward Asia. Finally, the New York Times released a report in 2015 on a trip to India by former US President Barack Obama, in which the paper claimed that the first 45 minutes of talks between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Obama were about China.
Therefore, the United States and President Trump have focused on a new mechanism, which is to make agents and reinvigorate such agents as India, Japan, and Australia in addition to provide grounds for this actors to play a role in regional and international issues, especially by taking advantage of their capacities to contain China. As a result, the United States’ new strategy in Afghanistan, talks about Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, and establishing the group of four countries (the US, India, Japan and Australia) can be considered as important manifestations of this policy and strategy of the United States.  One of the important impacts of this strategy is redefinition of India’s foreign policy and its effort to find a reliable strategic ally, which India seems to have chosen the United States as its strategic ally. India’s concern about the rising power of China and its influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region has caused New Delhi to gradually distance from its traditional policy and make an effort to redefine its foreign and security policies. India has been also trying to sway more influence in its western security environment, especially Afghanistan, and other countries in South Asia.
China’s effort to bolster its influence in South Asia 
The second reason behind intensification of regional rivalries and their continuation over the next decade is an effort on the part of China to boost its influence in South Asia. Of course, China has not offered any official and general strategy or document on South Asia so far, but in general, and based on China’s behavior in this region, four goals can be mentioned as the main goals pursued by China in South Asia. Those goals include: 1. to control further increase in India’s power by taking advantage of the existing rivalries between India and Pakistan; 2. to expand its own economic activities and influence in the region; 3. to boost its access to and influence in the Indian Ocean; and 4. to fight terrorism and religious extremism.
In the field of economy, China has not been able yet to replace India in South Asia, but in reality, China’s trade with countries in this region has increased from about two billion dollars in 2000 to 40 billion dollars in 2015. On the other hand, investment by China in South Asian countries, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, has been rapidly on the rise. Among the most recent measures taken by China in this region one can mention the free trade agreement that China has signed with the Maldives. This is the second free trade agreement that China has signed with countries in this region after a similar agreement was signed with Pakistan and it seems that China is planning to generalize this issue to other countries like Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. At any rate, it seems that China has been successful in promoting a mentality according to which regional countries need it in the field of economy and also need China’s investment in the regional infrastructure. On the other hand, regional countries seem to have accepted this issue due to their need to China’s investment to help their economic growth and development. In other words, if this process is completed, one would be able to claim that after successful domination over geo-economics of Central Asia, China is currently gaining another similar success in South Asia. Perhaps, it is due to increased presence and influence of China in this region that Japan's foreign minister announced that he would travel to South Asia and visit Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India in January 2018 in a bid to control and manage part of China’s influence in this region and in the Indian Ocean in cooperation with India. 
China’s military strategy document for 2015 has clearly talked about the country’s plan to become more active in the sea. China’s strategic outlook was land-based for many years and it seems that China is trying to pull off a gradual shift in this regard and put its new focus on the sea. China’s effort to implement its “String of Pearls” strategy, to promote Maritime Silk Road, and to gain more influence in the Indian Ocean region can be assessed on this basis. China Daily had published an article years ago in which it had been emphasized that India alone would not be able to make Indian Ocean secure and if the Pacific Ocean could provide enough capacity for simultaneous presence of the United States and China, the Indian Ocean was also capable of providing adequate capacity for the concurrent presence of China and India.
On the whole, deepening of the strategic rivalry between such regional powers as India and China, and presence of the United States as an interventionist factor are indicative of a growing trend in South Asia. Although such rivalries are currently focused on geo-economic rivalries, it seems that further intensification of these trends can intensify future geopolitical rivalries among these actors more than any time before and force every one of them to review the way they choose to find strategic allies. As said before, the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the important actors, which can play an important role and enjoy a significant position in both Chinese and Indian strategic visions. Therefore, important questions that must be thought about and addressed in this regard are “what should be the strategic choice of the country under these circumstances and is there any need to make a strategic choice in this new center of rivalry?”

© Abrar Moaser Tehran


Mohammad Zare, an expert on East Asia affairs, is the guest contributor to IRAS
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