How New Delhi can boost its sub-regional strategy

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 Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra 8 September 2019

To overcome the moribund South Asian regionalism, India has been at the forefront in launching sub-regional initiatives such as Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in 1997 comprising members such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, BCIM initiative in 1999 to establish an economic corridor between Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar and BBIN initiative in 1997 between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal with the objectives of forging cooperation on connectivity of power, transport and infrastructure. However, these groupings have not taken off in the primary and essential areas of cooperation (crucial to formation and sustenance of a regional grouping) such as economic cooperation and physical connectivity whereas, on the contrary, these initiatives have been witnessing lack of commitment and dearth of resources ever since their introduction.

Quite clearly, the success of the sub-regional groupings would depend on how India enhances its connectivity with as well as trade and investment in its neighborhood. As most of India’s neighbors are developing countries requiring continuous and planned investments, infrastructure and connectivity, New Delhi needs to direct resources more toward these larger objectives than rolling out massive but fluctuating aid and assistance in diversified areas. In this context, A. Choudhury and A. Nagda observe: “India increased its aid to the Maldives after the arrival of a pro-India government in 2018, while in Seychelles, it started giving money after a political opposition that was critical of the government’s pro-India tilt formed a majority in Parliament. Further, New Delhi’s aid to Nepal remained consistent despite anti-India upheavals in the latter” (A. Choudhury, A. Nagda, EPW engage, Vol. 54, Issue No. 22, 01 June, 2019,  https://www.epw.in/engage/article/how-india-funds-world-financial-assistance).

To demonstrate its sincerity toward the regionalization process, it is not only imperative that New Delhi shows commitment toward completion of bilateral projects in the neighborhood in time, attempts must be made to interweave the region in terms of development of infrastructure and connectivity. India directed much of its aid and investment in the neighborhood toward soft areas such as housing and shelter, water and sanitation, livelihood, education, research and training, healthcare, industrial development, arts, culture and sports, with a thrust on “grass-roots level development”. However, it failed to float a coherent strategy which could interlink infrastructure-building and regional connectivity and spur the regionalization process. In this context, a Carnegie India research paper notes: “New Delhi intends to prioritize development in its international engagement, but India will have to weave together its ad-hoc initiatives into one coherent road map to regional connectivity and infrastructure construction”. Furthermore, it goes on to argue: “New Delhi has been slow in identifying, initiating, and implementing a coherent approach to connectivity in the South Asia and Indian Ocean region. Although India has identified countries such as Japan as key partners in formulating a response, there has been little progress on a plan of action”. Juxtaposing India and China in a comparative perspective in terms of connectivity initiatives, the research paper noted: “China aggressively sought to connect its borders, India neglected its own, creating massive disconnects between its borders and hinterlands, especially on its Himalayan front. By helping create multiple access points via roads and ports, China is able to present an alternative to South Asian nations and cultivating the means to challenge India’s role as a South Asian power” (D.M. Baruah, “India’s Answer to the Belt and Road: A Road Map for South Asia”, Carnegie India paper, August 21, 2018, https://carnegieindia.org/2018/08/21/india-s-answer-to-belt-and-road-road-map-for-south-asia-pub-77071).

In an attempt to demonstrate its willingness to revitalize BIMSTEC grouping, New Delhi invited its member-states to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony this year. It has been also emphasizing on connectivity projects which could boost the volume of trade under its Act East policy. For instance, An India-Myanmar-Thailand highway is one of the key connectivity projects to draw Myanmar into intricate physical ties considering it is the only Southeast Asian country with which India shares a land boundary. Similarly, through Kaladan Multimodal project, India seeks to tighten inter-connectivity with Myanmar further. The project envisages connecting Kolkata to Sittwe port in Myanmar, and then Mizoram by river and road. Although India and Myanmar had signed a framework agreement in 2008 for the implementation of this project, it is far from being accomplished as yet. It shows lack of a coherent strategy on India’s part which could stimulate continuous engagement with its neighbors and facilitate the connectivity projects. 

Second, while greater connectivity will push trade and investment, base of sound regional economy lies in meeting most of the needs of the economies within the region. The economic lifeline of South Asian countries is defined by agriculture and trade of agro-based products which make their economies more competitive rather than complementary in nature. They look to the US, European countries and other industrially-developed countries for their trade. India will have to strive to rectify this trend by looking for and developing areas where the economies of the region would complement. Thus, New Delhi needs to lead efforts at developing common understanding among the countries of the region as regards this issue if it has to make sub-regional initiatives such as BIMSTEC successful.

Third, India has traditionally been more comfortable in dealing with neighbors bilaterally than through a multilateral framework. The nature of the assistance that India extended to its neighbors was bilateral and was driven more by India’s concerns related to Chinese growing investment and influence in the region rather than contributing to efforts at consultations, discussions, and collaboration to build regional efforts to managing economic, political and humanitarian problems in the long-run. For instance, India’s enhanced volume of aid and extension of lines of credit to its small neighbors like Nepal and Bhutan can be seen more as a response to rising Chinese influence in the countries than any attempts at contributing to the regionalization process. Similarly, when India perceived small neighboring countries were moving out of its orbit of influence, it, at times, resorted to coercive measures. Resorting to the economic blockade as a pressure tactic against Nepal and withdrawing subsidies on kerosene and cooking gas as a measure to pile up pressure on Bhutan to force them to change their allegedly pro-Chinese gesture substantiate this fact. The Indian approach toward the South Asian region showed a lack of enthusiasm for regional goal setting and formulation of collective strategies which are central to the evolution of regional integration. For instance, the proposals and offers made by New Delhi in the 18th SAARC summit held in Kathmandu in November 2014 were considered more as representing India’s unilateral gesture rather than proposals emanating from collective discussions and endeavor. In this context, academic and analyst S.D. Muni observes “Most of these gestures were seen by the South Asian leaders and analysts more as promises than concrete offers, and they fell below the expectations. They were not bold and far-reaching, in the assessment of informed critics. There were obviously pressures from the business and security stakeholders on Modi to unilaterally offer absolutely free entry into India of goods and movement of people (visa-free) from the SAARC countries” (S.D. Muni, “Narendra Modi’s Foreign Policy: Rebuild South Asian Neighborhood”, CLAWS journal, summer 2015, p. 32).

Singapore’s well-known diplomat Kishore Mahbubani in his book ‘The ASEAN Miracle’ brought out the importance of regular conduct of meetings in the evolution and growth of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). While ASEAN conducts 1000 meetings on all kinds of issues including health, infections, and pandemics, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) provide the platform to regularly consult on and discuss regional security issues involving external powers as dialogue partners. There were visibly no such regional efforts to discuss non-political and non-sensitive economic, technological, cultural, connectivity and health-related issues in the South Asian region. However, similar fatigue should not plague the BIMSTEC grouping.

Fourth, considering regimes either as pro-India or anti-India would make any serious Indian engagement with neighbors difficult if a political party presumably considered not so good for India’s interests comes to power. India’s reluctance to engage would bring more rigidity to bilateral relations rather than be helpful to it. It is evident how India followed the standard practice of engaging with specific political groups in the neighborhood which it believed would work in favor of its interests. For instance, India viewed Awami League Party of Bangladesh as favorable to its interests, saw its interests fulfilled with the rise of democratic forces in Nepal and perceived Maithripala Sirisena the incumbent President of Sri Lanka as pro-India. India’s reluctance to engage with divergent political groups in the neighborhood not only brought more rigidity to bilateral relations, but it also acted as a major roadblock in the way towards regional integration. Resetting relations with Nepal emerged as a challenge for India with Maoist parties forming a government there. Notwithstanding its pro-India gestures, Sirisena government of Sri Lanka did not hesitate to lease out land to China for 99 years for the development of Hambantota port. Thus, India must strive to work with all the working political establishments in the neighboring countries irrespective of their preferences and ideological leanings.

Fifth, India must underline the significance of migration, people-to-people contacts, geographical advantage and historical and cultural ties with the South Asian countries. According to a World Bank report, around five million South Asian migrant workers in India sent more than $7.5 billion in remittances back to their home countries in 2014, while just twenty thousand workers in China sent $107 million including to India. Migration and people-to-people contacts make India’s relations with other South Asian countries more organic than their relations with China. Therefore, India needs to maintain and cultivate these ties without being bogged down by the Chinese sway in the region.

Sixth, adequate attention must be paid to the emotions and sensitivities of the people of neighboring states. Political leaders in New Delhi must keep away from irresponsible remarks on immigrants from neighboring countries which might cause to raise eyebrows in the neighborhood. Resorting to cultural rhetoric like Hindutva and Akhanda Bharat and politics surrounding Ram Mandir and cow slaughter among others could play straight into the hands of opposing forces in the neighborhood. It is pertinent to understand that smaller South Asian states are continuously making efforts at defining their identity as different from an Indian identity. There is every possibility that attempts to create a different identity might turn into desires for anti-Indian identity if India fails to share trust with its neighbors.

Last, India must be viewed sincere in its approach toward resolving bilateral political issues pertaining to territory or issues of river water distribution. While New Delhi cannot be expected to compromise its national interests based on principles of law and justice, it must be honest in its attempts to resolve bilateral issues with small South Asian neighbors without being tied down by political pressures for instance, border issue (Kalapani and Susta) with Nepal and Teesta river water issue with Bangladesh. 

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