India Next Door, China Over the Horizon: The View from South Asia

Teresita C. Schaffer
Teresita C. Schaffer Former Brookings Expert, Senior Advisor - McLarty Associates

September 12, 2011

Editor’s Note: The following is a summary of Teresita Schaffer’s chapter in the book Strategic Asia 2011-12: Asia Responds to Its Rising Powers – China and India, available starting September 14, 2011 through the National Bureau of Asian Research.

Main Argument:

For Pakistan, the rise of India is a strategic nightmare, while the rise of China is an opportunity to curb India’s advancement and reduce dependence on the United States. Afghanistan sees its ties with India and China, as well as with the U.S., as vehicles for blunting interference by its immediate neighbors, especially Pakistan. Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka generally accept India’s primacy in their region. Bangladesh and Nepal see their ties with China as a way of increasing their freedom of action against India; Sri Lanka sees both India and China as means to emphasize its independence from Western donors.

Policy Implications:

  • India’s South Asian neighbors look on India and China with one eye on relations with the U.S. Most of these countries are seeking either to balance a hostile relationship or to hedge against excessive dependency on the U.S. or India.
  • India is still the major player in South Asia, and is becoming more active in East Asia.
  • China’s security profile and economic heft in South Asia have risen dramatically in the past decade. India’s economic growth will determine whether New Delhi maintains its influence in its own neighborhood.
  • The Indian Ocean is the arena where the India-China rivalry will play out. U.S. strategic goals align well with India’s, and U.S. interests would be well served by treating the Indian Ocean as a single policy space.
  • The smaller South Asian countries, especially Sri Lanka, will play a greater role in the dynamics of the Indian Ocean region than traditional U.S. policy would indicate.