Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses delegates at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing last year. Photo: AFP / Fred Dufour

India has been creating a “Necklace of Diamonds” to counter the “String of Pearls” created by China.

Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia are some of the countries where China is establishing maritime bases as a “String of Pearls” to improve its influence and military networks. The “Necklace of Diamonds” comprises Changi Naval Base in Singapore, Chabahar Port in Iran, the Assumption Islands in Seychelles, and Duqm Port in Oman.

In addition to this, India is creating strong ties with Vietnam and Mongolia to counter the Chinese “String of Pearls” strategy. 

China’s investments in its String of Pearls exceed the investments made by India for its Necklace of Diamonds. Hence China’s allies are likely to be stronger than India’s.

China has invested US$60 billion in Africa under its String of Pearls strategy, whereas India’s largest investment for its Necklace of Diamonds amounts to $8 billion, in Chabahar Port.

The only noteworthy investment made by India that affects China significantly has been at Sabang, Indonesia, which is close to the Malacca Strait. Around 80% of China’s oil imports pass through that strait, thereby making India’s presence in the region a point of concern for China.

Though both countries have strong allies, during the current pandemic crisis, no country wants to get into a cold war with China, which supplies essential pharmaceutical products to nations worldwide. Hence India’s Necklace of Diamonds strategy to counter China’s influential networks may not work in the current situation.

India’s Necklace of Diamonds also may not be as strong and effective as China’s String of Pearls in the India-China border issue. 

Ever since the rapid spread of the virus that causes Covid-19, all nations’ economies have been vulnerable. In India, because of the lockdown, there has been a downfall in economic output and employment. Industries are struggling to come to terms with a new normal against the backdrop of rising debts and crashing investments. 

The tension at the border in the Galwan Valley has not been resolved. China is negotiating from a position of both military and economic strength.

China’s meteoric rise to power by capturing various essential markets in several countries across the world has made economies dependent on it. India’s allies may not be able to free themselves of their interdependence with China. Hence they may not be able to give effective support to India.

Therefore, India-China border relations are not just about guns but also about the rising economic power of China, which has resulted in countries being dependent on it for essential supplies. 

The self-interest of India’s allies may overpower their desire to support New Delhi amid its tensions with China. Hence, though the border issue is mainly about power involving guns and diplomacy, in the larger picture of global politics, it inevitably turns into a conversation about economics and cheap imports from China. 

The Five Eyes look inward

The Five Eyes comprise New Zealand, Australia, the US, Canada and the UK. It is an alliance for joint intelligence. The Five Eyes have their own woes that deter their ability to assist India under the given circumstances.

The economic interdependence that countries have with China is making it difficult for them to comment strongly on the India-China border situation. China has been consistently berating the policies of Australia and using its command over the UK markets to force their hands. In addition to this, any statement made by West states is at risk of being debunked by their inability to curb socio-economic instability at home. 

The Five Eyes will not be able to take any action against China in its border dispute with India because speaking against China will have economic repercussions on them, a risk they may not be willing to take considering the domestic situation created by the pandemic in their respective countries.

Moreover, any comment made by international bodies on the border dispute will be seen as an intrusion in China-India bilateral relations. Though US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “We welcome India’s ban on certain mobile apps that can serve as appendages of the CCP’s surveillance state,” depicting support for India amid the border tensions, it cannot be assessed as to how far the US-India relationship and support would go.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson too has said he regarded the India-China border situation as “very serious and worrying,” but he has not suggested that Britain will be supporting either country in their border dispute. He has in fact advised both countries to solve the issue “between them,” thereby depicting the unwillingness of the UK to take a stand.

Though Canada has a large ethnic Indian population and has seen various anti-China protests because of the recent border standoff, there has been no official communication or statement by Canadian officials on the issue.

Similarly, Australia has noted that border tensions have risen in the Indo-Pacific region. According to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, “Tensions over territorial claims are rising across the Indo-Pacific region, as we have seen recently on the disputed border between India and China, and the South China Sea, and the East China Sea.” However, he has not mentioned any support Australia will be offering to India or China.

There has been no official statement from New Zealand on the issue either. Though the India-China border situation is grave, it does not affect the Five Eyes directly, hence they are unwilling to step in between issues that are bilateral and do not involve them. 

Salami slice strategy

China has been using the “salami slice” strategy for a while now for its territorial conquests. This refers to minor actions being strategically executed whereby without provoking any reaction from others, one achieves major ground realities over time. 

This art of acquisition has been employed by the Communist Party of China to draw neighbors of India into a river of debt, thus ensuring its steady dominance over their territories. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan have been major pawns in this power play of isolating India.

China has made major investments in these countries and given them countless loans in times of need. Their support extended toward India could result in China’s retaliation created by the power of debt. Hence Beijing has ensured diplomatic power in the region by putting India’s neighbors in debt to China, which has turned them into its allies. 

While the world is still vulnerable and recovering from the pandemic, China has not shied away from flexing its military muscles to establish supremacy over neighboring countries, which has been achieved through its strong hold over their economies through debt diplomacy.

Via economic initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative, China has created strong allies among India’s neighbors. China has used economic strategies to build on diplomatic relations with Pakistan, Nepal and other Asian countries, whereas India needs to rebuild strong diplomatic relations with its own neighbors. 

Desirable strategy for India

The best way to settle this score is through artfully crafted diplomacy. China has been biding its time and has been rising peacefully. According to the World Trade Statistical Review of 2019, China is the leading player in trade across the international market followed by the US and Germany. With a share of 17% of the global export market, it has made itself a quintessential player in the sphere of trading. 

India is already at a low phase of the development trajectory in terms of economic growth. India cannot afford a war right now when its military structure is outdated. Moreover, India’s defense budget is merely 1.5% of its $67 billion gross domestic product. China’s economy is three times as big as India’s at around $230 billion and its defense budget is 2% of that. Hence China’s defense budget is significantly greater than India’s.

India is the also second-largest importer of arms. This makes the situation even more sensitive for India as its defense equipment is the responsibility of another nation and not indigenous.

While France and Russia have been helping India by providing arms, they have not outrightly expressed their support in India’s favor. Military standoffs at the snowy peaks of the Galwan Valley could quickly escalate to a devastating war if proper mitigation and compromise on both sides are not reached. 

India’s best hope is to use the strengths that it has to the best of its advantage, one of them being the huge user base that India provides to the Chinese applications and businesses. The latest development has resulted in 59 apps including high-grossing ones like TikTok, WeChat and e-commerce portals such as Shein being banned on the grounds of being malicious and a threat to national security.

This strategy also weakens China, which has gained its dominance in the global arena because of its economic policies. A strategy that hits China economically is smarter than one that is direct and escalates tension at the border, which India is currently ill-equipped to deal with. 

Conclusion

India’s Necklace of Diamonds may not be enough to combat China’s strategic String of Pearls during the current border situation.

Even the Five Eyes have not expressed willingness to lend any support to either India or China amid the border tensions. This is mainly because they would want to maintain friendly economic relations with both India and China.

Hence though the issues happening in the world concern global politics, their impact over global economics will be prioritized. In this conversation regarding global economics, India’s choice of banning apps from China is a strategic and diplomatic one, which is a better decision than escalating the situation at the border.

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Vidhi Bubna

Vidhi Bubna is a freelance writer based in Mumbai who covers politics, defense, economy and international relations.

Sanjna Mishra

Sanjna Mishra is a recent graduate in international relations and an aspiring civil-service candidate who is passionate about global politics.