China's recent provocations in Ladakh mark the latest manifestation of Beijing’s growing clout in India’s backyard. The current border crisis, which has plunged India-China relations to their lowest point in decades, will sharpen New Delhi’s desire to push back against Beijing’s deepening footprint in South Asia. Mustering the capacity to do so, however, will not be easy.
The main accelerant of Beijing’s growing presence in South Asia is its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—a mammoth transport corridor project that uses infrastructure investments to gain influence and access to markets and strategic spaces. In South Asia, BRI is most visible in Pakistan, where the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has become the project’s most operationalised component. New Delhi opposes CPEC because it entrenches one bitter rival on the soil of another, but also because it is envisioned to pass through territory India claims as its own. And yet, BRI’s tentacles extend far beyond Pakistan. Last year, a Chinese thinktank released a report that identifies three additional South Asia-focused parts: the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (an admittedly ambitious component, given its inclusion of a BRI-resistant India), the Trans-Himalaya Corridor (involving investments in Nepal), and a Maritime Silk Road initiative enveloping Bangladesh, Maldives, and Sri Lanka. Each part has made ample progress, though India has unsurprisingly not participated in BCIM.