China’s increasingly rough-handed and assertive foreign policy towards its neighbors is raising India’s diplomatic and economic clout in the region.
In recent weeks, Mongolia and Vietnam have provided striking examples of India’s new assertiveness.
Mongolia, China’s northern neighbor, a predominantly Buddhist country that follows the Tibetan form of the doctrine has once more received the Dalai Lama, sparking yet again China’s fury. In response, as the Dalai Lama was giving lectures in Ulaanbaatar’s temples in November, Beijing hiked tariffs on Mongolian trucks moving through Chinese territory, slowing transport so severely that it has effectively turned into a blockade.
With its vehicles stopped at the border and winter temperatures already at -25 degrees Celsius, Mongolia may soon face shortages of essential goods. The Mongolian ambassador to Delhi, Gonchig Ganbold, is calling on India to act as an intermediary: “India should come out with clear support against the difficulties that have been imposed on Mongolia by China, which is an overreaction to the religious visit by His Holiness Dalai Lama. We have not changed our ‘One China’ policy, so Beijing’s response to Mongolia hosting the spiritual leader is really not justifiable,” he said on Dec. 7.
This latest spat comes just as Mongolia, which has been suffering from an economic downturn since the boom in commodities turned into a bust, was negotiating a $4.2 billion loan from Beijing. After the Dalai Lama’s visit to Ulaanbaator, China has suspended all diplomatic talks indefinitely, and Mongolia has decided to shift to a discussion with the IMF and Delhi to obtain the needed cash. Vikas Swarup, of India’s ministry of external affairs, has pledged that India is “ready to work with Mongolian people in this time of their difficulty.”
Swarup also referred to the visit by India’s prime minister Narendra Modi to Mongolia in 2015—a first by an Indian head-of-state—during which a credit line of $1 billion was announced that Mongolia may now draw on.
Mongolia has long tried to counter the tyranny of its geography (the small landlocked nation is squashed between Russia and China) with what it terms the “Third Neighbor” foreign policy, an active pursuit of steady exchanges with countries other than Russia and China implemented since the 1990s, and India is shaping up to be one of these. That does not sit very well with China, which described Ulaanbaatar’s calling on India for assistance “politically hare-brained”, in a typically aggressive editorial in one of its national newspapers.
The ongoing dispute in the South China Sea, meanwhile, has pitted China against all its maritime neighbors as Beijing attempts to claim all the islands and waters that sit inside the highly controversial “nine-dash line.”
Here India is intervening by providing military assistance.
When Narendra Modi visited Vietnam in September, he announced a $500 million credit line to Hanoi for “defense cooperation” and said India would “upgrade our strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership,” which would deepen education and support ties between the two countries’ military forces.
When Vietnam’s defense minister General Ngo Xuan Lich visited India this month, more contracts were signed directly with the Indian Ministry of Defense. Indian Air Force pilots will train Vietnam’s People Army Air Force pilots to operate “multirole” combat aircraft, which are used in air to air and air to ground fighting, and construct patrol boats that will presumably counter China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.
Beijing’s inability to deal with its neighbors in anything but an aggressive, ill-tempered manner is making it easy for India to put its “Look East” policy into action.