Multilateralism: Key to success of India’s regional diplomacy

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Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra 26 June 2019


Apart from getting over the recurring phenomenon of Pakistan’s obstructionist attitude as well as moves within the South Asian region, India’s regional focus gravitating toward BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) falls squarely with its ‘Act East policy’, its strive to contain Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region and explore the potential of the Indian Ocean rim region which is projected to be very expansive.  The immediate causes for the India’s shift of focus can be ascribed to Pakistan’s opposition to New Delhi’s proposals on regional connectivity, continuing cross-border terror attacks including Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama which also resulted in cancellation of 19th SAARC Summit that was to be hosted by Islamabad. Pakistan became a major factor in impeding New Delhi’s regional diplomacy and forcing it to change its tack.

However, New Delhi needs to seek changes in its traditional approach to regionalism which are also partly responsible for lack of integration within South Asia as way to foster the spirit of multilateralism and take regional cooperation within BIMSTEC ahead. As BIMSTEC is a South Asia-Southeast Asia sub-regional grouping which comprises five countries from South Asia – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the success of the grouping would depend on how Indian manages its relations with the South Asian countries.

Convenience of bilateralism must be shunned   

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 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 as a response to rising Chinese influence in the countries than any attempts at contributing to the regionalization process. New Delhi provided relief assistance to Rohingya refugees to mitigate the humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh 2017. However, it could not lend unambiguous support Bangladesh, which hosted the largest inflow of Rohingyas and underwent a humanitarian crisis, at international platforms which ran contrary to Bangladeshi expectations. India did not want to antagonize the new government in Myanmar and lose its engagement with a country placed in a prized-geostrategic location and repeat the mistakes of 1990s. In such contexts, India could have resorted to a multilateral approach to handle the crisis.

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 did not contribute to a benign image of India in 1989-90. New Delhi was implicated and criticized towards the end of 2015 for its alleged unofficial role in forcing an economic blockade in favor of Madhesi population as way to exert influence on the constitutional developments in Kathmandu. India has also failed to take cognizance of the Nepalese expectation to assist in the repartition of Bhutanese refugees rather several requests from Kathmandu have been cold-shouldered by New Delhi. Similarly, former Prime Minister of Bhutan, Jigme Y Thinley’s suspicious move to court China and discuss with the Chinese counterpart on issues allegedly pertaining to formal diplomatic presence and a land-swapping deal involving the strategically located areas in the tri-junction of India-Bhutan and China led India to withdraw subsidies on kerosene and cooking gas as a measure to pile up pressure on Bhutan to force it to change its stance which was subsequently withdrawn and the succeeding Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay maintained close relations with the Indian leadership.

Avoiding reliance on unilateral gestures

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. Over the years, South Asia has only witnessed a spate of regional initiatives in the form of Indian sponsored proposals involving unilateral gestures and concessions from New Delhi. What is missing in the region is a collective endeavor in the form of inputs, feedback, consultations, and discussions before proposals are initiated. It is significant that any regional or sub-regional initiative needs continuous consultations, discussions, and brainstorming. It was the former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who proposed the idea of establishing the South Asian University (SAU) in Dhaka involving New Delhi’s principal contribution to its establishment and operating costs which later witnessed visa-related problems and Pakistan dithering from contributing to its operating costs in time. It is alleged that India, in order to demonstrate its commitment to SAARC following its postponement of 2005 Summit for eight months due to differences with the host Khaleda Zia government of Bangladesh, mooted this idea.

South Asia Satellite also known as GSAT-9 is an Indian gift to the South Asian countries barring Pakistan. The spacecraft developed by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) cost New Delhi around 450 crores of Indian rupees and aimed at facilitating broadcasting and internet services, disaster management, telemedicine, tele-education and weather forecasting in the region. Notwithstanding the noble objectives underlying this effort, this symbolized India’s unilateral gesture rather than the idea emanating from collective discussions and endeavor. Similarly, during the 18th SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu in November 2015, India under Modi’s leadership came up with proposals for three agreements on the road, rail and power with an objective to push regional trade and connectivity ahead. While these connectivity proposals did not find any breakthroughs except the lone face-saving success being the signing of the Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation, most of the unilateral gestures from New Delhi were viewed with skepticism by the South Asian leaders. The only successful outcome was possible due to palpable interest in and persistent persuasion by most of the SAARC members mobilizing consensus on the proposal.

Perspectives on Regimes in the Neighborhood

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. Similarly, Abdulla Yameen, former President of the Maldives did not show any change in behavior according to India’s wish despite the cancellation of India’s Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the country on the ground of deteriorating political conditions there. Thus, India must strive to work with all the working political establishments in the neighboring countries irrespective of their preferences and ideological leanings. 

Sensitivities of people in neighborhood

New Delhi must keep sensitivities of people in mind even while it is engaged in constructive operations in neighborhood. It must be noted even while New Delhi has earned reputation in dispatching humanitarian missions soon after natural disasters or humanitarian crisis affected any of its neighbors and quickly responded to Nepalese crisis following an earthquake in 2015, this purely non-military and assistive role which should have enhanced India’s soft power in the neighborhood – astonishingly and ironically, drew criticisms from Nepalese because the Indian media was alleged to be insensitive and biased in its coverage of the disaster.

Political leaders in New Delhi must keep away from irresponsible remarks on immigrants from neighboring countries which has caused 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 because they were once part of Indian civilization. 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.

A focused Approach

India must have to focus on timely accomplishment of the bilateral projects running in the neighboring countries to enhance its reliability and acceptability in the face of Chinese sway in the region. India’s ‘Act East’ policy thrust should not lead to a myopic approach with overemphasis on the littoral countries of the Southeast Asian region at the expense of the littoral countries of the South Asian region as well as members of BIMSTEC such as Sri Lanka (which may not be considered significant to India’s eastward thrust) and not yet a member of the organization – Maldives where China has enhanced its footprint to the exclusion of New Delhi’s influence. The countries are not only engaged in ports and interconnectivity projects with China under BRI, these are recipient to arms and military assistance from China too.  

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