India is finally kicking off a massive programme of road and airstrip building along its entire border with China after decades of neglect. A coherent policy to build seven new strategic roads in Arunachal Pradesh is a welcome move and is of great significance. It marks a pragmatic reversal of an old policy along the Himalayan border.
With this decision the Indian government has come out of the post-1962 mindset that improved road infrastructure in states bordering China could be used against India in the event of future hostilities. This strategic conduct by India i.e. to improve its internal connectivity right up to the disputed border is a belated reversal of old policy, which displays a new sense of self-confidence.
It also makes economic sense for India. Access routes are extremely useful if a state is to expand its political potential outward. They permit the establishment of political and diplomatic contacts, of alliances between states with common or complementary interests. Transport is a key element in the infrastructure and acts as a lifeline in linking the region. It provides services essential for promoting development. It plays a significant role in influencing the patterns of distribution of economic activity and improving productivity.
While India has been preoccupied with fighting cross-border terrorism on its own territory, China has been busy making significant inroads into India's backyard through cross-border economic and strategic penetration of Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives. Beijing's main objectives are said to be access to raw materials, commodities, natural resources and access to South Asian markets for Chinese goods and to expand China's influence in the region. However, China's support for India's smaller neighbours suggests that along with gaining access to markets and natural resources, Beijing also wants to make a point on the limits of Indian power in the sub-continent.
The politics of access to South Asia has played a crucial role in the region's military affairs, its political and economic development and in cultural connectivity. The multidimensionality of routes enhances an understanding of the interaction between the two facets of state policy - security and development. A route is both a geographical and a political idea. It can have both strategic and developmental consequences. Its benefits will be multidimensional.
China is ahead of India and has significantly upgraded communication infrastructure in Aksai Chin in the western sector, across Barahoti plains in the middle sector and in areas of Tibet facing Arunachal Pradesh. China has marked the turn of the millennium with a significant decision to embark on the development of strategic infrastructure in its western regions, particularly Xinjiang and Tibet. These Chinese frontier regions link China in one continuous chain with Eurasia, Central Asian republics, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Moreover, China's development of strategic infrastructure in Xinjiang improves its strategic capabilities in its westernmost regions.
To place India at the heart of the new Asian order, New Delhi is attempting to balance Beijing's power. The recent decision of developing roads in Arunachal Pradesh can be viewed as its effort to balance China's expanding physical connectivity in its backyard. India's current attitude is to develop a new security architecture in the region in a rapidly changing strategic environment. However, India remains wary of Chinese moves in South Asia and in its neighbouring countries. The rising profile of China primarily reflects its domestic concerns and a willingness to engage with the region via multilateral and soft means to secure its expanding economy.
Therefore, India needs to focus on modernising its own border infrastructure and creating capabilities for trans-border economic influence. Handling China's growing influence in its neighbourhood is likely to be the biggest political challenge for Indian foreign policy in the coming decades. China should not be treated with hostility, lest Thucydides be proved right when he said that when one thinks of the other as an enemy, the other becomes an enemy in reality. India should consider China as a partner instead of a potential rival. The construction of roads in Arunachal Pradesh is only the first step of a long journey and India has miles to go.