Managing Neighborhood: India’s unremitting challenge

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Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra, 29 June 2019   

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru carried an innovative perspective on world politics based on a policy of Non-Alignment that could grant India – a newly independent country – the necessary maneuverability and independence of action for its long-term development at a time when the global politics was engulfed by the Cold War alignments and militarization. However, his approach toward the South Asian neighbors was moved by the need to secure India’s land and oceanic borders even if that entailed primacy gained through dominance. Vulnerabilities emanating from Chinese activities in the neighborhood drove India’s neighborhood policy rather than independence of action. Contentious boundaries with China and Pakistan and later China-Pakistan axis shaped the contours of India’s policy toward its neighbors. India’s vulnerabilities in its neighborhood were evident from India’s interest in continuing with the protectorate arrangements of British India in the Himalayas as a successor to the imperial rule. The three bilateral agreements that Nehru signed with Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal during 1949-50 retained the spirit of the agreements signed between these Himalayan states and British India in order to secure the imperial rule from external threats.

The forward policy of Nehruvian era which endorsed the idea of erection of military outposts in the disputed India-China border areas claimed by China as its territory and launching of aggressive patrols indicated India’s inclination to avoid vulnerabilities emerging from it neighborhood and the unresolved boundary question led to a border war with China in 1962. Although Nehru was unwilling to subscribe to a policy of rapidly developing India’s military resources and his commitment to universal peace and nuclear disarmament acted as a political check, the country’s defeat in the border war with China, the Chinese nuclear explosion in 1964, growing sway of China-Pakistan alliance in South Asia and  Pakistan’s attempt at bringing Cold War to India’s doorstep by allying with the US were the primary reasons giving rise to a strategic climate within India favorable to development of nuclear weapons alongside enhancement of conventional military capability.       

India under Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi’s leadership adopted assertive regional policies as she perceived the South Asian region was becoming vulnerable to the external pressures seeing that in support of Pakistan, the US moved its Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal during 1971 Indo-Pak War waged on the question to determine East Pakistan’s future and around this time, Pakistan had facilitated lines of communication between the US and China. It was the growing Chinese regional influence particularly that led India to offer trade benefits to states such as Nepal and Bhutan in return for their allegiance to India. Most of the small neighbors perceived treaties with India unequal on account of restrictions prohibiting them from engaging outside powers in their attempts at addressing internal conflicts without India’s approval and assistance. India’s intervention in Pakistan’s and Sri Lanka’s civil wars was viewed more as a hegemonic gesture from India rather than as role of a regional balancer.

India’s Changed Approach could not inspire trust

The Gujral doctrine, propounded by the former Minster of External Affairs I.K. Gujral in 1996 who later became Indian Prime Minister, was a response to address an atmosphere of distrust that characterized India’s relationship with its neighbors for long starting from India’s unequal treaties with Nepal and Bhutan to the evolution of Indira doctrine designed to push the neighbors toward seeking India’s assistance to resolve their internal problems and oblige the external powers to stay off the region onto Rajiv Gandhi’s commitment to follow Indira doctrine to its conclusion by intervening in Sri Lankan civil war. The doctrine marked a departure from India’s earlier obsession with keeping the region within its orbit of influence to an inclination for non-interference and non-reciprocity. For instance, India stopped intervening in neighboring states’ foreign policy decisions that was previously considered crucial to India’s security. For instance, India did not contest Sri Lanka’s arms purchase from Pakistan. The principle of non-reciprocity which demanded unilateral positive gesture from India to maintain neighborly relations irrespective of the capacity of other small states to reciprocate allowed New Delhi to gradually convert existing treaties with neighbours into free-trade agreements.

However, the effectiveness of the Gujral doctrine appeared pale in the face of the enhanced Chinese footprint in the region which became more pronounced under Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI). New Delhi began to view regional developments from a military security driven perspective instead of seeking for regional cooperation based on non-reciprocity. The perception and narrative of Chinese threat continued to be articulated by developments such as India’s defeat in the 1962 border war, continuous Chinese supply of arms and nuclear technology to Pakistan irrespective of India’s concerns, Beijing’s flexing of muscle in its neighborhood, occupation of Tibet and expansionist territorial claims by portraying Arunachal Pradesh-an Indian territory as part of China and its palpable intrigue in its unwillingness to disrupt its ally Rawalpindi’s alleged connection with religious radical groups. A 74-day long military stand-off between India and China in Doklam located on the strategic tri-junction of Bhutan, China and India further corroborated India’s sensitivities to Chinese role in neighboring countries. This incident fed into the narrative that India needs to continue to strengthen and modernize itself militarily not only to avoid a humiliating defeat of 1962 but to deter China from making military inroads into the South Asian region.

The lesson that India learnt since 1962 border war was its lack of conventional military ability to take on China. India has ever since more focused on developing its military capacity by modernizing and investing larger portion of its budget towards defence preparedness. As per data on arms transfers released by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), massive arms imports by India turned it into the world’s largest arms importer accounting for 12% of the total global imports for the period 2013-17.

China was able to forge close ties with political leaderships and business elites among the South Asian countries and moved a large amount of capital in the shape of concessional loans to the countries for infrastructural projects. On the other hand, Indian aid to the South Asian countries even while was lesser in volume but was targeted at sectors like housing and railways and exerted greater impact on local population. According a World Bank report, around 5 million South Asian migrant workers in India sent more than $7.5 billion back to their home in the form of remittances in 2014; in the same year only 20 thousand South Asian workers in China sent a meager amount of $107 million back home. These statistics drive home the point that India’s economy and that of the South Asian neighbors is more organically inter-linked due to socio-cultural and geographical reasons than their economic linkages with the China’s export driven economy.

Due to its long-standing political and cultural penetration in the neighborhood, India believed it could manipulate internal political and cultural conditions within neighbors to foster its influence and undercut nascent Chinese foray into the region. It kept anchoring certain political parties to maintain its dominance in the region, increased the amount of aid and extended lines of credit and quickly responded to humanitarian disasters in the region.

BRI and India’s shrinking influence

The neighbors while perceived threat to their sovereignty and territorial integrity from India’s neighborhood policy for long and many times took the form of resentment and statements suggesting India not to interfere in their internal affairs, China, a relatively new player in the region was not viewed from this perspective. As a result, the small South Asian countries either used the Chinese card to dissuade India from embarking on a robust regional policy or they allowed China a bigger role in the economic development and modernization of the countries. China’s mega connectivity project ‘BRI’ received warm welcome from the small states as they saw a huge development potential from the initiative and some expressed their willingness to see China as a full member of SAARC. While such pro-China gestures in the neighborhood is not seen favourably by India, small states were hard-pressed to walk a cautious path given India’s deep economic, political and cultural penetration in the region much before China’s entry. While Beijing used catchphrases like ‘One Belt One Road’, Silk Road and Maritime Silk Road project to emphasize its economic thrust and regional necessity, India continued to perceive a threat of ‘encirclement’ in the Chinese move. The Chinese project took off in the form of construction of roads, railways and air ports in landlocked Nepal to creation of ports, bridges and airport facilities in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives. Chinese influence in the South Asian region became evident during the 18th SAARC Summit held at Kathmandu on November 26-27, 2015 when the South Asian countries including Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives expressed their willingness to induct China from an ‘observer’ status since 2007 to full membership in SAARC.

Attempts at resetting India-China relations could not ally India’s Concerns

Even while India and China attempted to reset their relations post-Doklam standoff from Wuhan meeting in April 2018 through a meeting on the sidelines of SCO to BRICS summit meeting in July 2018 and Indian Prime Minister Modi distanced New Delhi from any group or policy primarily that aimed at containing China in the Indian Ocean at the Shangri-La Dialogue forum in Singapore on June 1, 2018, New Delhi looked poised to beef up its defence preparedness in view of growing Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean and along the Himalayan borders.

China not only acquired a naval base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, there were reports of Chinese warships and nuclear submarines making port calls in Colombo. In the Maldives, Chinese influence enhanced allegedly on account of Beijing’s muscling its way into diminishing Indian influence in the archipelago state.

While China and Pakistan are developing the Gwadar port as part of China-Pakistan economic corridor – purely a commercial venture – but there were reports which suggested that China planned to deploy nuclear submarines at the port.

Further, KP Oli government’s decision that the Nepalese Army would not participate in the first ever joint military exercise of BIMSTEC scheduled to be held from September 10, 2018, its willingness to participate in a joint military exercise with China and its attempts at lessening his country’s economic dependence on India by securing port and road facilities in China raised eyebrows within India’s foreign policy circles.

New Delhi’s BIMSTEC diplomacy

India has been cautious as to the intensity of the rise of Chinese influence among the neighboring countries close to the Indian Ocean once they became stakeholders of BRI initiatives. Almost all the members of BIMSTEC except India and Bhutan are also stakeholders of China’s BRI.

India’s shifting focus could address the concerns emanating from the rising Chinese influence among the neighbors through a web of greater connectivity and coordination among the BIMSTEC members. For instance, India-Myanmar-Thailand highway is one of the key projects to enmesh 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. Considering the size of population and volume of GDP (about $2.8 trillion), it is understandable that the region carries high potential in terms of regional trade and investment. According to a knowledge paper “Reinvigorating BIMSTEC” published by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in 2018, the trade potential of the region is projected to be as high as $250 billion, as compared to the current volume of intra-regional trade of $40.05 billion which is just about 6 per cent of the entire trade conducted. The Bay of Bengal of the Indian Ocean is not only significant on account of presence of huge untapped resources primarily in the shape of massive reserve of natural gas, it provides route for about 25 per cent of global trade. India must not only aim at completing the ongoing connectivity projects but it needs to emphasize on greater acceptance of its intents and policies among the neighboring countries against the backdrop of fledgling trust stemming from its historical flip-flops.