By Samir Nair
On April 25, a devastating earthquake struck Nepal and claimed the lives of over 8,000 people. In the immediate aftermath, India responded quickly and dispatched 500 relief personnel to Nepal to provide assistance. Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally assured his counterpart in Nepal of “support and assistance during this tough time.”
This approach is consistent with Modi’s efforts to bolster India’s ties with its neighbors and expand India’s regional footprint. Perhaps more importantly, it demonstrated India’s resolve not to cede ground to China as both countries vie for influence in Nepal and other strategically important countries in South Asia such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.
India’s ability to conduct large-scale humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations has been on full display since the earthquake hit. The country deployed a stream of military aircraft to Nepal, each carrying response teams, medical aid, and food supplies. The aircraft involved in the mission included three Lockheed Martin C-130Js and four Boeing C-17 Globemasters, which were purchased from the United States as part of two separate deals valued at $1 billion and $4.1 billion, respectively. India’s fleet of 10 C-17s is the largest outside of the United States and the 2011 deal under which India procured these aircraft represents its largest-ever military transaction with the United States to date. The use of these and other commercial planes to evacuate 5,000 Indian and foreign nationals from Nepal has burnished India’s reputation and comes on the heels of another major operation that saw India successfully evacuate 5,600 people (including 960 foreign nationals from 41 different countries) from war-torn Yemen.
The confluence of two events during the Nepal crisis—namely India’s use of U.S. military equipment to provide disaster relief and recognition that India is entrenching itself more deeply in the region—shows that India has started to emerge as a capable net security provider in Asia. This is a welcome development especially for the United States, which in recent years has viewed India’s rise as being in its own national interest. Through equipment sales, joint training exercises, and new mechanisms such as the U.S.-India Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), which is designed to facilitate technology transfers to India and defense co-production, the United States can help India further strengthen its capabilities in the areas of disaster management, counterterrorism, and maritime security.
India, for its part, has traditionally considered Nepal to be part of its sphere of influence. But in Nepal, as in so many other parts of the world, China has made inroads through large-scale investments in strategically important infrastructure projects like airports, power plants, and highways. The increasing pace of Chinese investment across the region has not gone unnoticed by Prime Minister Modi whose government has made engagement with India’s neighbors a policy priority as a result. Modi has offered Nepal $1 billion worth of loans for infrastructure development and urged Indian companies to invest in hydropower plants in Nepal. Modi, similar to China’s leaders, wants to use economic engagement to gain a strategic advantage in the region. With India’s gestures of goodwill in Nepal getting significant attention and Modi’s recent trip to Colombo continuing to generate positive momentum, it seems India is well positioned to regain ground as a regional power and facilitate engagement during the U.S. rebalance to Asia in the years ahead.
As Modi heads to China on May 14 for an official three-day visit, it will be interesting to see how both sides manage to forge closer ties against the backdrop of a larger competitive dynamic.