Neighbourhood Watch

Sub Title : India has to take deft steps so that it is able to draw countries veering towards China into its fold

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2021

Author : Ajay Singh

Page No. : 53

Category : Geostrategy

: August 5, 2021

China’s continual efforts at increasing its footprint in the South Asian Region and events as they are unfolding do not augur well for India’s aspirations of becoming a power to be reckoned with in the region. India has to take deft steps so that it is able to draw countries veering towards China into its fold

Changes in the Neighbourhood

India’s foreign policy faces a watershed moment. Rarely has it been confronted with events and happenings that threaten its influence so strongly in the region. It is not just the tensions on the LAC, or on the LOC (though fortunately there has been some measure of calm there). In Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Myanmar, events have conspired to shake India’s position, even as China creeps in.  How our ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy deals with these changes will enable us to hold our own against an increasingly assertive China, and shape our standing in the region.

In Afghanistan, India sees two decades of assiduous relationship building and over $ 3 Billion worth of investments at risk, as a triumphant Taliban seem poised to come into power. With the withdrawal of US troops, the Afghan government has simply unraveled as district after district has fallen into Taliban hands. 205 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts and major towns like Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar have already come under Taliban sway and entry into Kabul seems to be a matter of time. India has to be prepared to deal with the Taliban 2.0 regime. With a potentially hostile government in Kabul, India ‘s influence could be slowly eased out of Afghanistan. Even now, India is on the sidelines of initiatives on Afghanistan– be it Russia’s proposed regional grouping or even the Central Asian ‘Quad’ which incorporates USA, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. In spite of the huge reservoir of good will that exists; India may have little role to play in post-withdrawal Afghanistan.

With China and Pakistan all set to play a dominant role there, our own presence will be diminished and so will our connectivity to Central Asia. Our investments, including the 218-kilometer long Zaranj – Delaram highway which was to provide overland transit to Central Asia via the Iran port of Chahbahar could well atrophy. Indian diplomats have reached out to the Taliban so as to establish some measure of a working relationship, should they come into power. But the unpredictable nature of that regime will make it difficult to chart a course ahead. We could even find our warm relationship with Afghanistan turn hostile with an influx of Afghan fighters into Kashmir and Islamic fundamentalism creeping into our hinterland.

A similar instability is playing out in the Eastern flank as well. Myanmar has gone back to military rule this February, when the army took over power, imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi and the Commander -in- Chief, General Min Aung Hliang appointed himself as the head of the government. This coup has sent Myanmar back to the pre-2011 days under military rule and undone a decade of gains under democracy.

Myanmar poses a delicate problem. India has traditionally had very good relations with the Tatmadaw (The Myanmar Army) which has helped us by cracking down on North East insurgent groups operating from their soil. Yet, we have to stand by Aung San Suu Kyi and push for a restoration of democratic norms. As of now the army seems to be in no mood to relent in spite of nationwide protests and has launched a brutal clampdown which has resulted in a flood of refugees. There is a growing realization that the coup could not have taken place without China’s active connivance. China’s support to the military coup will isolate Myanmar further from the rest of the world and strengthen its own hold on it. India should join ASEAN initiatives for a return of democratic norms in Myanmar, and at the same time balance ties with the Tatmadaw. Else, besides the spill-over of instability, our plans to develop connectivity towards South East Asia will be affected.

The instability on our Eastern flank is to some extent, balanced by Bangladesh – which is one of our most valuable relationships. Under Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh has been sensitive to India’s security concerns and its crack down on anti-India groups on its soil, has helped curb fundamentalism and insurgency in our North Eastern states. Fortunately, the signing of the Land Boundary Agreement and the resolution of enclaves, has helped close a five decade long irritant. But others remain – especially in the sharing of waters and also the recent CAA protests which were perceived to be against Bangladeshis. Like other nations of the region, Bangladesh is being wooed by China, which has invested $ 21.5 Billion there – its largest investment after Pakistan. It also provided two Ming submarines and a frigate for its navy. Yet, fortunately, so far Bangladesh has remained sensitive to India’s security concerns and killed a plan to develop a deep-sea port at Sonadia which would have got Chinese presence dangerously close to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India cannot match China’s cheque books and our diplomacy has to be adroit to ensure that our interests are not compromised. The 50th Anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence will be a good opportunity to re-establish cultural and historical ties, but these will have to be backed with solid economic and political initiatives to ensure that Bangladesh does not veer away towards China.

Our relations with two smaller – but equally vital nations – in the region are also in a state of flux. In Nepal, under Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli, bilateral relations reached their worst phase ever. Much of it had to do with faulty policies. The imposition of the land blockade in 2015, to pressurize Nepal to amend its constitution, had made it wary of dependence on India. It turned to China which offered an alternative road to its own ports (although it was three times the distance from Indian ports of Vishakhapatnam and Calcutta) and a slew of infrastructure initiatives. China developed the Pokhara International Airport and Kathmandu Ring Road and also proposed a railway line from Kerung in Tibet to Kathmandu (which was fortunately shelved). Relations with India hit a nadir with the eruption Kalapani-Lipulekh border dispute, and for the first time in decades, the mood in the country is a strongly anti-India one.

It has taken months of diplomacy to patch the damage. Prime Minister Oli and his Nepal Communist Party were ideologically and politically aligned to China. Oli has been finally ousted and Sher Bahadur Deuba has taken over as Prime Minister after a turbulent year in Nepal’s politics. Deuba’s Nepali Congress is favorably inclined towards India and we may have an upswing in ties. Yet, Indo-Nepal relations are not something to be taken for granted. We have to adopt a neutral approach, and not make the same mistake of interfering in its internal affairs as we did in 2015. We hold the advantage of geography and can use people-to-people contacts to rebuild the relationship. Yet, we have to offer concrete projects (such as the railway line between Kathmandu and Raxaul which has been recently inked) to match Chinese offerings. That is a tall order, but will be essential if we are to regain our footing in the Himalayan kingdom.

If we are struggling to regain our footing in Nepal, we are quite on the back foot in Sri Lanka. Here Indian influence has gradually ebbed at the expense of China, especially with the return of the Rajapaksa clan to power. Both President Gotabaya and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda share an excellent rapport with China. In fact, it was during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s earlier tenure that the Hambantota port and airfield was sanctioned – a port which has now come into Chinese hands after Sri Lanka defaulted on payments.

In the past two years, ties between China and Sri Lanka have taken on distinct political and military overtones. In fact, Sri Lanka minted gold coins to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese presence has expanded in a slew of infrastructure initiatives, the Colombo-Katunayaka Expressway, the Mattu Airport and others. China has also eased out India in the development of Colombo Port City. (India and Japan were to initially develop the Colombo container terminal which has now been scrapped). This will give China a foothold in two of the most vital ports of the Southern Indian Ocean which could subsequently provide bases for its ships and submarines and also provide staging posts for deployments in the Indian Ocean.

The present regime is going through great length to state that India and Sri Lanka share the same relationship as before (‘India is a ‘relative’; all others are just ‘friends’’), but there is a palpable change. India’s security concerns which were always kept in mind by Sri Lanka, are now overlooked as it slips deeper in China’s financial embrace. The Sri Lankan tilt holds the greatest long-term strategic concerns for India and must be balanced before it is too late.

But in the Maldives, India seems to have managed the tilt quite well. After the ouster of the pro-China President Abdullah Yameen and the coming of the Ibrahim Solih, the island state is again veering back towards India. The recent agreement signed to develop the UthuruThilaFalhu naval base for the Maldivian coast guard will be a strategic asset for India. India was also party to the US – Maldivian Defense and Security Framework which will strengthen India’s position as a security provider in the region.

Yet keeping Chinese influence away from the Indian Ocean will get increasingly difficult. With naval bases in Gwadar and Hambantota, it has already encroached in waters we consider our own. And it will require deft footwork and a slew of regional initiatives to keep it so.

China and Pakistan

In all this, we have not even considered the two main antagonists – China and Pakistan. With Pakistan there was a glimmer of hope, following the ceasefire of February, but any possibility of dialogue came to naught with Imran Khan parroting the lines that there could be no talks till Article 370 is restored in Kashmir. Yet, signals emanating from Pakistan – including from their Army Chief – show that Pakistan is realizing the economic price it is paying with its prolonged hostility with India. But it is unlikely to change its stance.

The present geo-political situation now favors Pakistan. Afghanistan seems set to come under its influence, and its all-weather relationship with China is flourishing, especially via the CPEC (notwithstanding the debt trap they are falling into and the long-term consequences for its sovereignty). With a stronger China-Pak nexus – and perhaps buttressed by Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan, it is likely to raise the ante in Kashmir again and maybe even increase the level of hostilities there.

But the greatest challenge to our policy comes from China. The gloves are off now, and there is no doubt that future relations will be adversarial. They have not shown any willingness to move out of the areas they have entered in Eastern Ladakh, and their strategy seems to be to continue talks but maintain the status quo. This could be just the beginning. The incursions could occur with increasing frequency all along the LAC, tying down our troops and sucking in resources.

China’s growing presence is largely the reason for the present churn in ties with our NEIGHBOURs. And the pandemic that has hit the world has been another major factor. India, has been battered by the second wave of COVID 19, and its perceived mishandling of the situation has impacted our stature quite a bit. Our vaccine diplomacy – while initially a hit – has also stuttered. After the initial deliveries of vaccine to over 69 countries – we were unable to provide the promised stocks to Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – which did impact credibility. Plus, the steep decline of our economy has affected our own regional and world stature. That has to be addressed first, if we are to regain our standing.

India has to persist with its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and cultivate our neighbours, even as China woos them with its cheque books. The extent of China’s predatory financing is somewhat slowing down, and India could provide stable and trustworthy options. Regional initiatives like BIMSTEC and IORA can also be revived and we can use our unique geographical position to strengthen connectivity within the region. The entire neighbourhood – like the world – is going through a period of churn. How we emerge from it, how our economy revives, and how we cope with the geo-political changes will determine our regional and global position in the post-Covid era.