India cannot get ‘regional power’ status without US support

By Durdana Najam

The South Asian political landscape has been carved as much from traces of colonial legacies as from the alliances with the militarily and economically strong states such as the U.S., Russia and more recently, China. Post-World War II, South Asia has remained at the centre of international politics. The Cold War started and ended here. It was here that the war on terror began and seems to remain on the radar for the unforeseeable future. It is also here that China established the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a strategic part of its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Pakistan, because of its geographical positioning in the region, happened to be an integral part of all these three developments. Being a resource deficit country, with a ‘Machiavellian’ neighbour, India, on its eastern border who had played a decisive role in its breakup during the 1971 War, Pakistan could not have refused standing with the U.S. during both the Cold War and the war on terror.

However, post-9/11, the U.S. drew closer to India through different defence agreements and pacts, mainly to subvert China’s rising influence. This strategic partnership between the two fed into the sense of entitlement that India has had towards the region.

In the manifestation of this hegemony, India would:

-Provoke the Madhesis of Nepal to seek changes in its constitution

-Cross over into Pakistan’s settled area of Balakot, in a complete disregard of internationally recognized Line of Control

-Engaged in a standoff with China at Doklam Plateau, apparently to shield Bhutan

-Begin constructing an airport at the disputed land of Hollings in Partum Pare district of Arunachal Pradesh

-Compete with China in the ‘politics of corridors’ by entering into the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) agreement. The INSTC will connect India with Russia, Central Asian Countries, and Nordica and Arctic region. This corridor is being dubbed the Indian version of the BRI project.  .  

On the other hand, in order to erode CPEC’s influence and to reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan for its trade, India has also invested in the Chabahar port in Iran. Indian efforts to build hydro-power dams along the rivers in Afghanistan – that flow into Pakistan – and Iran is another step towards raising its strategic importance in the region. 

Previously, India had unilaterally made ineffective the South Asian Association of Regional Corporation. Diplomatic pressure was applied by New Delhi on Bangladesh, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives in 2016 to be absent from the conference, solely because it was being hosted in Pakistan.

Last but not the least, India has joined hands with Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, to destabilize Pakistan through supporting insurgencies and “spoilers”, both in Balochistan and in the country’s North West.

No wonder the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2017 said “we (USA) fully support India’s rise as a leading global power”. However, that was then – a time when India had not figured in the U.S. list of candidates for the trade war initiated by President Trump. Today, India is on the receiving end of Donald Trump’s angst that perceives the U.S. as a victim of unfair trade deals, both with its allies and others. The White House has also removed India from the list of Preferential Trade Benefits. India has been exporting $6 billion worth of goods under the agreement, according to the Congressional Research Service. 

The psychological effects of these decisions by the U.S. far exceed their economic cost to India.  The optics of taking the benefits back from ‘an ally’ send all the wrong signals about the future of US-India strategic partnership, especially in the context of India’s desire to affront China in the contest of regional power. 

Revamping trade policy has remained one of Trump’s election promises, which is enshrined in moving the U.S. from the periphery to the centre stage of political economy. With just over a year remaining until the next U.S. presidential elections, Trump may not be relenting, any time sooner, on his trade policy with India. Putting India in this tight slot, designed only for the opponents such as China and Mexico, could be read as India being used as an instrument of geopolitics to further the U.S. interests in South Asia with an aim to contain China. 

Like Trump, Modi has come to power on the wave of nationalism. Therefore, any optic that puts India in a sub-optimal position may not go well with the newly re-elected BJP government.

It will be interesting to see how India adjusts its tariffs and protectionist measures to realign with the U.S. in this new scenario. It remains to be seen if India has the wherewithal to become a regional power, leave alone global power sans the US backing?

Moreover, another major question arising out of this is whether this new shift in the U.S.-India ties will have an effect on India’s posturing towards China?

Matrix Mag reached out to Dr Syed Qandeel Abass – School of Political Science and International Relations of Quaid-e-Azam University – to get his opinion on these new developments.

“I doubt that India has reached a stage where, independent of the US, it could assert the debonair of a global leader. One example of it has been India’s compliance with the U.S. decision to impose trade sanctions on Iran. It will be a chore for India to divert the fulfillment of its energy needs away from Iran. Yet, India has agreed.  It was in this context that Iran had offered to link Chabahar with Gwadar”, says Dr Abbas. 

He further argued that, “to offset US and India’s influence, a new block comprising Russia, China and Iran is emerging in the region. Pakistan should become part of this block immediately. The U.S. will do everything, and for that India would be handy, of course, to sabotage the CPEC project.  This is also in India’s favour.  That is where U.S. and India meet for a common goal. Pakistan has to move away from the politics of reaction and become proactive, which will help the country in shedding the enigmatic India centric foreign policy option.”

The author is a columnist based in Lahore and can be reached at

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