India, not China, is the dominant country in South Asia, maintaining peace together with the US — the necessary condition for the economic integration of the region

by Panos Mourdoukoutas

That’s according to a recently published United States Institute of Peace (USIP) report, titled “China’s Engagement with Smaller South Asian Countries.” “In general, the United States is deepening its security relations in South Asia, with the major exception Pakistan,” explains the report. “The United states has worked to build its relationship with India, the dominant country in the region, as a strategic partner and has bestowed on it the status of “major defence” partner.”

Meanwhile, America, not China, is the major export market for smaller South Asian countries (SSA) in the region, according to the same report. Specifically, America is the top export market for Bangladesh and Sri Lanka; and the second market for Nepal and the Maldives. In fact, China is a major exporter rather than importer to these countries.

Still, China’s presence in the region is deepest in terms of infrastructure investing, which is on “balance,” positive for the economies of these countries, according to the USIP report.

“On balance, SSA countries have benefited from China’s growing economic and military engagement with them in the region. Chinese projects have helped increase connectivity within these countries as well as with external trading networks."

Still, their “asymmetric relationship” with India has prevented them from accommodating China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean.

As a result of their asymmetric relationship with India, SSA countries do not have the political will or capacity to meaningfully cross this rising power. This includes providing military basing access to China. Despite periods of these countries’ histories when their leaders experienced poor diplomatic relations with New Delhi—such as during President Yameen’s administration in Maldives—even then they did not offer China military bases. The leaders of SSA countries retain enduring memories of India’s operational reach and the impact of economic penalties (for example, Nepal’s and Bhutan’s experiences with blockades). New Delhi’s prerogatives are a factor in the SSA countries’ decision making that cannot be underestimated, despite China’s expanding range of activities in the region.

The situation may change in the future, however. India is falling behind China under Modi in military spending and reforms, according to a Bloomberg report; and America is too stretched to maintain its dominance around the world.