India has stepped up efforts to mend strained ties with its South Asian neighbors as it seeks to wrest back its waning regional influence from China. This week senior officials, including foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, are in Nepal and Sri Lanka respectively to discuss economic and security ties. Indian Foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is in the island nation of Seychelles, where China has deepened defense co-operation through the transfer of aircrafts and naval ships apart from helping build their parliament building.
India has found it hard to match Chinese investments in infrastructure and security in smaller South Asian nations over the last decade, but its own policies have also added to the frayed ties with its neighbors, according to Aman Thakker, adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Shapiro scholar at the University of Oxford.
“India’s approach to see these countries as its ‘strategic backyard’ meant it often took these countries for granted,” Thakker said in an email. “China’s role, while certainly not the only factor, is a significant factor in India’s renewed push within the neighborhood and in the Indian Ocean region.”
India’s efforts to strengthen regional ties come at a time when New Delhi is preparing for its months-long Himalayan border conflict with China to extend through the winter. The military standoff started in May and since then both sides have moved thousands of troops, tanks, and missiles to the frontier, while fighter jets are on stand-by.
This week’s meetings follow U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s visits to South Asia last month that were aimed at bolstering a wider Indo-Pacific strategy to counter Beijing. The Indian Ocean nations of Sri Lanka, Maldives and Seychelles are crucial for the informal Quad grouping — made up of India, the U.S., Japan, and Australia — as they seek to counter rising Chinese influence across Asia.
In Nepal, Shringla, who is the first senior Indian official to visit since a border spat in May, on Thursday promised priority access to medicines and vaccines being manufactured in India to fight the coronavirus pandemic apart from infrastructure investments that include a dam.
Jaishankar also announced plans to complete infrastructure projects worth $91 million during his Seychelles visit, while Doval’s visit to Sri Lanka will revive tri-nation maritime security talks with Colombo and Maldives that have been stalled for more than five years.