With President Barack Obama having left town, it’s time for India to deal with the consequences of its three-night stand with the United States.
While the world’s last remaining superpower may be keen for the world’s largest democracy to be its new best friend and a counterbalance to an increasingly bellicose China, the South Asian nation has its own local issues.
First off is the fact that many of India’s neighbours just don’t trust it. From Pakistan through Nepal to Sri Lanka, a series of disputes and missteps make the region wary of New Delhi playing a stronger role.
India’s long-running dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir means the two countries have a fraught relationship, while its long-term support for Nepal’s royal family has soured relations with its Maoists. And while Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war may be over, many remember India’s disastrous intervention in 1980s, when its peacekeepers had to be sent packing by both sides.
So while Washington may be keen to strengthen ties with India to have it play a balancing role in the region, New Delhi needs to spend time tending to its own back yard if it is be a serious leader. The key to that, says Rory Medcalf from the Lowy Institute think tank, is its soft power.
India can never hope to challenge China’s military strength, nor do its neighbours want it to. As such, it needs to use its rupees and its charm to bring its neighbours into its sphere of influence. While “We’re Not China” may work as a sales pitch for now, it will need deep roots to keep the region sliding towards Beijing.
“India has a soft power edge over China in Southeast Asia because it is not seen as a threat there. But in its South Asian backyard, India is not much respected or trusted – and its lack of ‘great-heartedness’ in its own region has given Beijing openings to exploit,” says Medcalf.
India also needs to be careful of its own relationship with China. While they may have gone to war in the 1960s and still have disputed borders, China has now surpassed the United States to become India’s largest trading partner. It is a relationship New Delhi will be loath to jeopardise, even as it plots its own path towards regional influence and a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, a move backed by Obama on his visit.
In fact, says Medcalf, the possibility of a seat at a revamped Security Council could be a good thing for the relationship.
“To be stable this relationship ultimately needs mutual respect, and China would have to see India in the Security Council as something like a peer. Right now China does not really see India as its equal,” he says.