India & Neighbours
By Dr. DK. Giri
(Prof. International Politics, JMI)
‘India should be more pro-active to stop China in Myanmar’, is Japan’s envoy in Myanmar, Yohei Sasakawa advice. In the yester years of non-alignment, New Delhi would have grumbled at to such unsolicited suggestion, but given the growing closeness between India and Japan; both members of ‘Quad’, this comment should be taken seriously. Not only Myanmar with which India has quite old relationship, and shares 1600 km border, India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy is up for serious re-working especially as China is aggressively making in-roads into the Indian sub-continent.
Currently, there are three political hotspots India ought to engage with. They are: the instability in Maldives following the imposition of emergency, second, government formation in Nepal in its transition to democracy from monarchy, and the continuing crisis of Rohingya which internationally unsettles Myanmar.
Arguably, India could re-assert her pre-eminent position in South Asia, in promoting regional peace and economic integration. It has natural geographical advantages, economic complementarities, shared cultural heritage and advantageous strategic position. But is New Delhi doing enough and effectively in monitoring and mentoring its neighbourhood? Prime Minister Modi began well by inviting all the heads from the neighbourhood to his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014. He repeated this move by having 10 heads of ASEAN on this year’s Republic Day parade.
Apparently, such diplomatic bonhomies are good photo-ops, if they are not translated into concrete action on the ground. New Delhi will have to counter China’s belligerent moves, policy of expansionism, backed by its enormous economic clout, and military might. Admittedly, India is fifth of Chinese economy and lesser in military, but it has other comparative advantages in political, cultural and diplomatic terms which its neighbours appreciate and acknowledge. India has the potential to catch up and overtake China in economy too provided the political leadership pursues the economic goals with ingenuity and urgency. Does New Delhi have a choice? Countering China is no more a political rhetoric, it is a strategic necessity. Any complacency and inefficiency in India’s neighbourhood policy would pave the way for China.
Evidently, Maldives has moved closer to China with signing of a Free Trade Agreement. Interestingly, the FTA was passed by the Maldives Parliament in the midnight in the absence of opposition Members. This is the second FTA secured by China after it signed one with Pakistan. The present President of Maldives Abdulla Yameen Gayoom is said to be deeply corrupt and highly authoritarian. He is plundering the country’s exchequer in complicity with his young Vice-President who runs several rackets. Politically, Yameen is repressive, imprisoning and eliminating his opponents.
The current crisis erupted as the Supreme Court ruled on 1st February that government’s action on incarcerating the Opposition leaders as politically motivated. President Yameen refused to accept the Supreme Court’s verdict, cracked down on the judges, political opponents, and imposed a 15-day emergency in the name of “fighting the disruption of the function of the executive power, infringement on national security and public interest”. The Opposition called it a desperate move to purge the political opposition, the judiciary and Parliament. The Chief Justice and other judges were under house arrest, the opposition MPs have urged the international community to impress upon their government to respect the rule of law.
The US and other western democracies including India have called for the ‘rule of law’ to be respected. The US has mildly warned the Maldives President to restore normalcy and political order as the world is watching.
What is New Delhi up to? India has had close relations with the island country. But, NaMo is yet to visit the country, although he has hosted, President Yameen in India. This is a glaring omission, and not in conformity with ‘Neighbourhood first’. It is time for New Delhi to act fast and smart in restoring the democratic order in Maldives.
To be sure, Maldives is a small country but has significant strategic importance. The question of non-intervention in internal affairs of other sovereign countries no longer applies when a country’s constitutional machinery breaks down, political rights and civil liberties are threatened. India has intervened in the past in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and even Maldives. Not doing so now will reduce India’s importance in the region and leave it open for China to meddle.
A few days ago, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj made a short visit to Nepal. It was a move to make-up with the Prime Minister-elect K.P.S. Oli, a pro-Chinese Left politician. The visit was a follow-up of a congratulatory message by Modi. NaMo’s visits to Nepal in the early days of his premiership had raised an euphoria on India-Nepal relations, which began to wane with the promulgation of the Constitution, wherein people of Indian origin in Nepal were allegedly given a bad deal. The relations reached its nadir when the Madhesis imposed a blockade on essential items transported from India, again allegedly, with tacit support from New Delhi.
The anti-India mood in Nepal began to grow, and refuses to subside since. New Delhi has failed to dispel Nepal’s apprehension of bullying and patronising approach of India. Kathmandu, on the other hand, is moving closer to China to balance off New Delhi’s overwhelming influence. It has joined the China’s controversial BRI project and is planning other joint projects. New Delhi will have to give up its inconsistent and segmented approach to Kathmandu and revive its old traditional tie with Nepal.
Myanmar is another hotspot India needs to deal with urgently, as an important strategic partner like Japan has alerted. China is taking keen interest in Rohingya issue that poses major international embarrassment for Myanmar. It is developing the Kyaukpyu Port into a deep water port with an investment of $7.3 billion. This will give a domino effect for China’s maritime strategy in the region. Beijing intriguingly is supporting economically both the government as well as the armed groups, namely the Kachin army. Therefore, both the military and the government are wary of China.
India has announced last December $25 million socio-economic development projects in Rakhine. It is building a tri-lateral highway which will connect India, Myanmar and Thailand. In order to compete with Chinese investment, India needs to partner with Japan which has brokered a national ceasefire agreement between nine ethnic groups and has extended a rehabilitation assistance of $100 million. Along with development assistance, New Delhi should extend an active helping hand in resolving the Rohingya crisis, which Naypyidaw considers a complex issue. The US is ambivalent on Myanmar, was brooding sanctions, cancelled visas for Aung San Suu Kyi. So, it is all the more urgent that New Delhi steps in to resolve the Rohingya crisis and teams up with Japan in Myanmar’s development.
All in all, New Delhi needs to spruce up its neighbourhood policy to counter China. In addition to three discussed above, attention needs to be refocused on Sri Lanka, and Pakistan as well. Dealing with Pakistan challenges India’s entire foreign policy but Sri Lanka is not so tough to retrieve from China’s influence. Finally, one can convincingly conclude India’s neighbourhood policy should put China as the most important factor to reckon with.—INFA