As COVID-19 continues to devastate South Asia, one country is clearly winning. With India vacating its leadership role in the region, China has stepped up.
Even as countries around the world – and in its own neighborhood – depended on India for vaccine supplies, New Delhi was forced to suspend its vaccine exports in mid-April. The decision was the culmination of a series of policy missteps that led to a crippling shortage of vaccines, starting from delayed orders, a dearth of funds to step up production capacity, and an overall lack of planning for India’s own vaccine needs.
As New Delhi left the stage, in came Beijing. Late in April, China held a meeting with various South Asian foreign ministers. India was conspicuously absent. Then the vaccines began to flow: By the end of May, China had supplied over 1 million of its Sinopharm vaccines to Sri Lanka. Bangladesh had received half a million in its first shipment and Nepal is due to get a further 1 million shots soon.
China has also scored a few strategic wins beyond the realm of the pandemic. Last month, the Sri Lankan Parliament cleared a controversial bill that gives China near-complete control over the Colombo Port City – Sri Lanka’s attempt to create a hassle-free zone for foreign investment. But just as significantly, Sri Lanka had scrapped a strategically important port deal with India and Japan in February. Analysts have shown the glaring contradiction between those two decisions – more sign of China’s rising influence in Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa government.
The longer India’s pandemic lasts, the greater will be the space for Chinese influence in South Asia. But India’s total abdication of power to China is not in its neighbors’ interests either. Most South Asian countries would like a balance of power between Beijing and New Delhi in the region, giving them greater autonomy and leverage in foreign policy. That challenge became more real last month, after Beijing threatened Bangladesh over the latter’s speculated interest in the Quad. So, in recent times, Bhutan and Bangladesh have come to India’s aid, sending it vital oxygen supplies, drugs and protective equipment, to tide over the second wave more quickly.
China has also been helped by a total absence of regionwide cooperation mechanisms in South Asia. The whole purpose of regional cooperation would have been to deal precisely with crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. But early efforts by New Delhi petered out very quickly. Last year, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) set up a COVID-19 fund. But of the paltry $20 million that it held, $10 million came from India, and New Delhi decided to reserve full rights on how it would be spent.
The COVID-19 fund was a reflection of India’s biggest problem in South Asia. As the largest country in the region by some distance, New Delhi has traditionally dominated and hegemonized regional cooperation efforts. That has led to widespread mistrust and resentment amongst its smaller neighbors – all of whom are naturally suspicious of India’s intentions, given its size and significance in the region.
This is where COVID-19 has now thrown up unexpected opportunities. Many in New Delhi see aid from Bhutan and Bangladesh as an affront to India’s standing in the region. But to the contrary, the rise of its smaller neighbors during a crisis should greatly please New Delhi. Regional cooperation in South Asia is more likely to succeed if India’s neighbors step up and take the lead.
In recent days, Bangladesh has managed to break from India-centrality in South Asia more decisively, by offering an unprecedented $200 million currency swap arrangement to Sri Lanka amid that country’s depleting foreign reserves. Most significantly, this agreement comes after Sri Lanka failed to get a response from New Delhi late last year on a similar request. And it marks the first time that Sri Lanka is borrowing from a South Asian country that is not India.
On its part, India should facilitate and institutionalize such cooperation between its neighbors with less hubris and more gratitude – setting up regionwide platforms and mechanisms and allowing its neighbors to set the agenda. If New Delhi wants to keep Beijing out of its backyard, it has to step up regional cooperation in South Asia. The best actors to lead that effort are probably India’s neighbors.