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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

David Van Praagh

India, surrounded Add to ...

As it approaches the 63rd anniversary of its independence this weekend, India is under siege.

The world's largest democracy - a necessary cliché here - is finally making impressive economic gains, and establishing itself as a tough-minded great power, in contrast to the tender-minded Nehru-Gandhi decades. But, largely for these very reasons, India finds itself confronted by dictatorial China or its proxies - most notably, Pakistan - on every side of the subcontinent.

To the north, complementing Tibet-based Chinese missiles aimed at Indian cities, Communists tied to Beijing have taken over Nepal, long considered part of India's sphere of influence. Forty-eight years after the Sino-Indian War in the Himalayas, and with the recent fall of the discredited Nepalese monarchy, it matters not that some Communists play a democratic game and others are rural insurgents. What matters is that India's main Himalayan buffer against Chinese expansion is gone.

To the south, neither Sri Lanka nor the delighted Chinese are trying to hide Beijing's effective capture of the civil-war-weary island. Traditional ties with India have been overwhelmed by a deluge of Chinese products, aid, investment and infrastructure projects. China's aim is a major base on the Indian Ocean to counter the Indian and U.S. navies. A strong presence in the Indian Ocean used to be a Russian threat. Now it is a Chinese near-reality.

To the east, China is firmly allied with the brutal military regime in Burma, also known as Myanmar, supplying arms to keep the Burmese people subjugated. India unwisely seeks to compete for the junta's favour. Indian interests in all of Southeast Asia are imperilled as China spreads its economic influence, including free trade with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Again, Beijing's strategic goal is naval control.

To the west, the military-dominated Pakistani government has not only reignited its compulsive drive to seize the Indian-held Kashmir Valley, as shown by anti-India protests by Kashmiris even as floods devastated much of Pakistan. It is pushing hard for control of Afghanistan when U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops pull out, and in the process seeking to end India's diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. Beijing would be euphoric if the international mission to save Afghanistan failed. And, never forget, China made Pakistan's nuclear weapons possible.

China's direct or indirect pressures on India are a vital part of its campaign, now openly proclaimed, to establish itself - and be recognized - as a global power, not just a regional one. But, despite its spreading economic clout, and its intimidation tactics and arm-twisting of smaller countries, it is still far from its goal. The U.S. Pacific Fleet, whose theatre of operations includes the Indian Ocean, is still the dominant military force in Asia and the Pacific, as demonstrated by its recent exercise off the Korean Peninsula and China itself - protested mightily by Beijing. India remains the dominant regional power in South Asia, by virtue of having won four wars against Pakistan. Its navy is comparable to China's and boasts two aircraft carriers, while Beijing still has none.

But there is no doubt that China has made substantial gains all around India - in Tibet and Nepal, in Sri Lanka, in Burma and Southeast Asia, in supporting Pakistan in Afghanistan.

In order to prevent further gains, Indian foreign and defence policy needs to remain firm but not provocative, and to reinforce India's strategic alliance with the United States.

This is not guaranteed. A strong anti-U.S. lobby still exists in India. If Rahul Gandhi should become the fourth-generation Nehru to become prime minister, it would not only mock Indian democracy - it would greatly increase the risk that India would return to the policies of non-alignment, appeasement of China and state control of the economy.

At that fateful August midnight in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of keeping India's "tryst with destiny." But only now can that tryst be fulfilled by India's taking its place as an indispensable member of an alliance for democracy.

David Van Praagh is the author of The Greater Game: India's Race with Destiny and China . He is a professor of journalism at Carleton University.

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