Post-pandemic Asia will pose significant strategic and economic challenges to India. The cracks in New Delhi’s recent approach to the region will be widened and further exposed. Business as usual will yield diminishing returns.
To start, the U.S.-China rivalry is sharpening. At one level, this does not pose an unprecedented problem for India. New Delhi has long sought to maximize its strategic autonomy amid such competition, especially during the Cold War. As long as it manages to maintain better relations with both the United States and China than they have with each other, India should have adequate room for maneuver. While easy in principle, however, this may in practice entail difficult tactical choices vis-à-vis China that could erode India’s already weak strategic position.
The summer 2020 standoff between Indian and Chinese troops on the contested boundary, during which India took great pains to avoid escalation, is a good example. Restoring the status quo ante will be a prolonged process, if it can be managed at all. New Delhi will face such tests not just along its border with China but also in neighboring South Asian countries where China seeks to expand its economic and political influence.
An India that considers economic openness problematic is unlikely to be a congenial partner for other Asian countries.
A separate prong of India’s approach to China’s rise has been the deepening of its engagement with other Asia-Pacific countries wary of Beijing, especially Australia, Japan, Singapore, and Vietnam. This has often taken the form of military exercises and strategic consultation, though the coronavirus is likely to impede such pursuits. Even before the pandemic’s onset, India had pulled out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership after years of negotiations. New Delhi withdrew out of concern that opening up Indian markets under the agreement’s terms would inflict serious harm on its domestic industries. This protectionist impulse has been reinforced by pandemic-induced shifts toward self-sufficiency. An India that considers economic openness problematic is unlikely to be a congenial partner for other Asian countries.
On the strategic front, India will be challenged by slowing economic growth and shrinking defense budgets. Allocations for capital acquisition—already diminishing relative to pay and pensions—will come down. This will impose serious constraints on the development of India’s naval power and its ability to contribute meaningfully to Asian maritime security.
India will be challenged by slowing economic growth and shrinking defense budgets.
India’s stance toward Asia has been premised on its self-evident attractiveness as a partner. But that assumption dates to the past decade, when India registered high economic growth and forged close strategic ties with the United States without undermining its relations with China. Each of those elements will be called into question in the post-pandemic world. Unless India positions itself anew as a strategic and economic partner, it will lose traction along Asia’s emerging geopolitical and geoeconomic fault lines.
- Srinath Raghavan