India steps up efforts to draw neighbours closer to counter China

Indian Foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is in Seychelles, where China has deepened defence co-operation. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - India has stepped up efforts to mend strained ties with its South Asian neighbours as it seeks to wrest back its waning regional influence from China.

This week, senior officials, including Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, are in Nepal and Sri Lanka respectively to discuss economic and security ties.

Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is in the island nation of Seychelles, where China has deepened defence cooperation through the transfer of aircraft and naval ships, apart from helping build its parliament building.

India has found it hard to match Chinese investments in infrastructure and security in smaller South Asian nations over the last decade, but its own policies have also added to the frayed ties with its neighbours, according to Mr Aman Thakker, adjunct fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and Shapiro scholar at the University of Oxford.

"India's approach to see these countries as its 'strategic backyard' meant it often took these countries for granted," Mr Thakker said in an e-mail. "China's role, while certainly not the only factor, is a significant factor in India's renewed push within the neighborhood and in the Indian Ocean region."

Border tensions

India's efforts to strengthen regional ties come at a time when New Delhi is preparing for its months-long Himalayan border conflict with China to extend through the winter. The military standoff started in May and since then both sides have moved thousands of troops, tanks, and missiles to the frontier, while fighter jets are on standby.

This week's meetings follow US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper's visits to South Asia last month that were aimed at bolstering a wider Indo-Pacific strategy to counter Beijing.

The Indian Ocean nations of Sri Lanka, Maldives and Seychelles are crucial for the informal Quad grouping - made up of India, the United States, Japan, and Australia - as they seek to counter rising Chinese influence across Asia.

In Nepal, Mr Shringla, who is the first senior Indian official to visit since a border spat in May, on Thursday (Nov 26) promised priority access to medicines and vaccines being manufactured in India to fight the coronavirus pandemic apart from infrastructure investments that include a dam.

Mr Jaishankar also announced plans to complete infrastructure projects worth US$91 million (S$122 million) during his Seychelles visit, while Mr Doval's visit to Sri Lanka will revive tri-nation maritime security talks with Colombo and Maldives that have been stalled for more than five years.

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