How Great Power Rivalries Are Putting South Asian States In Difficult Positions? – OpEd


The Quad-China rivalry and ‘scramble’ for Indo-Pacific have made the region, especially South Asia, geopolitically significant within a few years. For the last two decades, the region had the least priority in the US foreign policy as it was busy with its costly Middle East policy. But after the rise of China, the region has become important to the US foreign policy to ‘contain’ China.

While the region is drawing US attention, South Asian politics is traditionally characterized by Sino-Indian rivalry and Indo-Pak rivalry. Other small states, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan rely on peaceful and balanced policy to navigate their foreign relations. These small states used Sino-Indian rivalry to create their space and refrained from picking any sides by following a strategy of hedging and balancing. But as geopolitics is intensifying in the context of the Quad-China stalemate, great powers are now expecting them to clear their stance, undermining the foreign policy autonomy of these states. Apart from the foreign policy aspect, the impacts of the Great power rivalry also largely affect these states in many various areas, including economic, trade, and development.

Impact of the Superpower Rivalry in Regional Politics

As mentioned previously, South Asian states use hedging and balancing between India and China without picking sides. But the growing US interest in creating a new dimension where states find it difficult to align their strategy and national interest accordingly. While many take Quad as a binary opposite of China, it seems it does not consider regional politics. The Chinese stake in South Asian politics allows the states to balance India’s regional hegemony. The US Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) also includes empowering India- the powerhouse in this region. So, alliance building with Quad and supporting an ’empowered’ India, which also means rejecting China- shrinks the space for regional politics for these states. The same also goes for joining the Chinese side. These countries maintain excellent bilateral relations with China and most of the Quad members, especially with Japan– one of this region’s largest development partners.

Moreover, these states are no match in terms of military strength compared to the USA, India, Pakistan, and China. According to the Military Strength Ranking 2022, the USA, China, India, and Pakistan are ranked consecutively at 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 9th, while Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan are ranked consecutively at 46th, 79th, 119th, and 140th. These states also do not have aggressive militaristic ambition and have the least intention to join the superpower rivalries. For maritime security, they rely on multilateral forums. The revival of Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) and active participation in the Indian Ocean Rim Organization (IORA) bear such testimony. But in the current reality, great powers are pursuing them for their interest. While China is using its ‘Charm offensive’, the US and its allies are flexing their structural and soft power to pursue these states. And between the choices, the states are finding themselves in a dilemmatic position where the autonomy and ambition of the foreign are at stake due to their complex interdependence upon the great powers and the logic of the regional politics.

Economic Impact

Apart from political impact, the rivalries are also bringing economic effects on these least developed and transitioning states. In the age of globalization, every action has a ripple effect on the global economy. The rivalries and wars are resulting in soaring commodity prices. As the Ukraine crisis is deepening, the cost of energy is skyrocketing. The following sanctions on Russia have also created new issues for small states who have bilateral trade and development projects. Again, as Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of Sunflower, Wheat, and Barley, the price of these essential commodities is likely to increase in the coming days. Both Russia and Ukraine have a large export market in South Asia.

However, The China-US trade war has already increased commodity prices, including soybeans. The trade war has already disrupted the supply chain and adversely impacted global trade and investment. In a ripple effect, these developments are adversely affecting the everyday lives of ordinary people and are posing a severe threat to food security and global hunger.

The current context reminds us of the famous account of the Melian Debate written by Thucydides. In the history of the Peloponnesian war, Melian debate revealed how Athenians owing to their self-interest, trust issues, and insecurities, coerced Melos- a small neutral island to join their quest against the Spartans. And later, through the writing of Thucydides, we know the fateful end of the Melos- who wished to remain neutral, at the hand of the Athenians. It seems currently, a ‘New Melian Debate’ is going on, where like the old time, great powers are trying to ensure small powers allegiance towards them by using their coercive power while undermining their foreign policy autonomy, national interest and self-determination.

In conclusion, it seems amid this heated geopolitics, small South Asian states are finding it challenging to navigate their neutral foreign policy in the absence of a Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and effective multilateralism. To mitigate the pressure, countries who wish to maintain neutrality should come together and promote a multilateral approach to ensure their security and development. A forum like NAM might also help these states. And lastly, in the era of unprecedented interconnectedness and complex interdependence, great powers should accommodate these states’ imperatives and peoples. They should have a benign perspective while dealing with small powers.

The article was first published in Aequitas Review 

Mufassir Rashid

MD Mufassir Rashid is an independent Research and Analyst on Political Economy. He has completed his B.S.S in International Relations from University of Dhaka, and his M.S.S from same department with specialization in International Political Economy.

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