India’s Neighbourhood

A shrinking circle

By Dr D.K. Giri
(Prof. International Politics, JMI)

India’s credibility as a regional leader in South Asia and the cosy and harmonious relations it has enjoyed with all SAARC countries, barring Pakistan, is no longer the same. China is slowly and surreptitiously chipping away at India’s influence and credibility. It does so with its new-found wealth by trapping India’s neighbours into receiving loans, as they attempt to tap into China’s ‘surplus money’.
Is India to blame only itself for letting its neighbours move away from its sphere of influence? Or, one should be wary of China’s policy of expansionism, its adroit but duplicitous trade and economic relations? Beijing is always seeking to increase its options as it wants to curtail those of its adversaries, mainly New Delhi whom it perceives as its competitor. The jury is out on this: is it China’s aggression and economic dominance, its ‘smile diplomacy’, in South Asia, or it is India’s flip-flops with its neighbours?
The country of traditional long-time friendship and of its geo-political significance in the power play between India and China is Nepal. Both India and Nepal have had a very close relation without borders. In the past, even China had advised Kathmandu to sustain its closeness to India, as it has desisted from getting involved in Nepal’s internal affairs, and India-Nepal relations. But this is no longer the case. China is actively engaged with Nepal. It has roped the latter into its ambitious OBOR Project. It is contemplating a high-land rail link between Kathmandu and Tibet.
In the recent General election, the Left Alliance of Communist Party of Nepal and Maoist Centre has won and in six of the seven provincial elections. The Left Alliance, which would be led by KP Oli, as Prime Minister has been critical of India’s meddling in Nepal’s domestic issues. He has stressed the ‘inalienable’ sovereignty of Nepal, in an oblique reference to India’s ‘domineering’ stance, and has talked about ‘balanced relations’ with neighbours which means equal treatment to both its big neighbours – China and India. This is a snub to India as Nepalese have ‘kith and kin’ approach to India, privileging New Delhi over Beijing and Brussels, or Washington.
Obviously, Nepal is undergoing a tortuous transition to democracy from monarchy. The political stability promised by its leaders time and again is becoming a distant dream. India with its long experience of a stable democracy, unlike China which is authoritarian, should come handy for Kathmandu. Although economic interests override politics, without political stability there is no peace, security and economic progress. Is India able to proffer that choice to Nepal?
Similar is the scenario with Sri Lanka and Maldives, although in these two countries, it is purely economic interest. Since the end of the civil war, wherein Sri Lanka clandestinely sought and received support from China, Sri Lanka has tilted towards Beijing. It has handed over port Hambantota in a 99-year lease to the State-run Chinese company, China’s Merchants Port Holdings. The port was built with an investment of $1.5 billion, 85% of which came as a loan from China at an interest of 6.5%. Sri Lanka was to begin raising money from the port by 2013. But, it is estimated that the cumulative losses by 2016-end is $3 billion. Many observers argue that investment from China is a trap, yet they walk into it for the sake of political dividends at home and to keep their projects going.
Sri Lanka has been railing against a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with India, but is signing FTA with China. Beijing knows Lanka is an island of considerable strategic significance in the Indian Ocean. Why is Sri Lanka slipping away from India’s sphere of friendship?
Maldives, a small country known for its peace and stability, tuna and tourism is also signing a FTA with China. This August, it allowed three warships to dock in Male. It has joined the China’s Maritime Belt and Road initiative. A Chinese-Maldives friendship bridge is planned to be built between two Maldivian islands-Hulhumale and Male. The International airport is being renovated and expanded by the Chinese.
Recall, the contract to do so was given to GMR – Male International Airport Ltd. (GMIAL) and was later cancelled. GMIAL took it to International Arbitration Tribunal which ordered Maldives to pay to GMIAL $270 million. Maldives promptly paid, although India suspected China put the money. Almost 70% of Maldives foreign debt is owed to China, and the loan interest is 20% of Maldives budget.
Now, let us take the obvious candidate, Pakistan, which is ready to align with anyone against India. Because of the protracted and seemingly irreconcilable contention over Kashmir, the two countries have had no normal bilateral relation since they split, 70 years ago. Pakistan’s animosity against India got exacerbated by the creation of Bangladesh. In late 1980s, USSR invaded Afghanistan in order to secure maritime access, as USSR, now Russia and other splinters are land-locked countries. America promptly jumped into the fray to stall Russian moves by supporting Taliban and allying with Pakistan.
In the process, Pakistan got infested with terrorism, got financially and militarily supported by USA; all of which it turns against India. Washington realised that Pakistan was no longer an honest ally in fighting terrorism, so it roped in India to play an active part in Afghanistan. The influence of Soviet Union in the world declined, as the Union disintegrated, and China rose to replace USSR as the other super power to counter the US.
Like USSR was an ally of USA in the 2nd World War, China worked closely with the US in the globalised world. Pakistan swiftly switched side and went along with China. In making and unmaking of alliances in the region, the rivalry between Pakistan and India did not lessen; on the contrary, it became worse.
On December 18, Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Lt Gen (Retd) Nasser Khan Janjua has echoed the foregoing analysis in a seminar, and as an indication of Islamabad’s frustration, said that ‘nuclear war’ with India is a possibility as Pakistan would not fall into Indian provocation of conventional war and lose. We have heard such irresponsible and desperate utterances from Pakistan officials before, but such threats need not be treated as mere rhetorics, given the unstable and volatile nature of Pakistani politics.
A few days ago, there has been a dastardly attack on the Christians praying in a Church in Quetta. Targeting a tiny minority shows how insecure Pakistan has become under the shadow of Islamist terrorists like Haqqani network and Taliban. The provocation for this attack is supposedly Donald Trump’s audacious and ‘irresponsible’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, ignoring the spiritual claims of Muslims on it.
India’s Pakistan policy is in tatters in a sense, as there is hardly any sign of rapprochement between New Delhi and Islamabad. It seems ‘the balance of terror’ backed by strategic alliances stitched by both will be the new normal in their bilateralism.
All in all, India has to face the challenge of China which is shrinking the circle of India’s influence on its neighbourhood. I have so long maintained that India cannot match China at present in trade and investment, however detrimental they are to the recipients, and India will catch up and overtake China in 20 to 30 years time. But for now, India has to use its political and cultural resources to counter China, adopting a non-Marxist, but progressive and pluralist foreign policy. —INFA