In order to get over the recurring phenomenon of Pakistan’s obstructionist moves within the South Asian region as well as invigorate its ‘Act East policy’ with an objective to explore the potential of the Indian Ocean rim region which is projected to be very expansive and match the expanding Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region that New Delhi’s regional focus gravitated toward BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation).
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 Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI). Almost all the members of BIMSTEC except India and Bhutan are also stakeholders of China’s BRI. US has embarked on an ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy to counter China’s Belt and Road initiatives and mitigate strategic concerns emanating from Beijing’s connectivity projects.
The enhanced Chinese footprint in the South and Southeast Asian region through BRI and US through Indo-Pacific strategy has raised possibilities of swift militarization of these regions. In this context, US representatives recently discussed and pushed the strategy with the Himalayan states such as Nepal and Bhutan. Therefore, India needs to tread a cautious path to forge ahead with its sub-regional strategy focusing on connectivity, infrastructure, peace and development.
Quite clearly, to overcome the moribund South Asian regionalism, India has been at the forefront in launching sub-regional initiatives such as Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in 1997 comprising members such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, BCIM initiative in 1999 to establish an economic corridor between Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar and BBIN initiative in 1997 between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal with the objectives of forging cooperation on connectivity of power, transport and infrastructure.
However, these groupings have not taken off in the primary and essential areas of cooperation (crucial to formation and sustenance of a regional grouping) such as economic cooperation and physical connectivity whereas, on the contrary, these initiatives since their inception, witnessed lack of leadership, resources, and institutionalization.
For instance, BCIM remained a Track II initiative for India till 2013, and it took 17 years for BIMSTEC to establish a permanent secretariat in Dhaka in 2014. BBIN initiative which was activated following India’s failure to push through the Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) in the SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu proved to be a fledgling initiative with Bhutan’s subsequent withdrawal from the agreement. Last year, KP Oli government’s decision that the Nepalese Army would not participate in the first ever joint military exercise of BIMSTEC and its expressed willingness to participate in a joint military exercise with China raised eyebrows within India’s foreign policy circles.
However, 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.
Evidently, the success of the sub-regional groupings would depend on how India enhances its connectivity with as well as trade and investment in its neighborhood. As most of India’s neighbors are developing countries requiring continuous and planned investments, infrastructure and connectivity, New Delhi needs to direct resources more toward these larger objectives than rolling out massive but fluctuating aid and assistance in diversified areas.
In this context, A. Choudhury and A. Nagda observe: “India increased its aid to the Maldives after the arrival of a pro-India government in 2018, while in Seychelles, it started giving money after a political opposition that was critical of the government’s pro-India tilt formed a majority in Parliament. Further, New Delhi’s aid to Nepal remained consistent despite anti-India upheavals in the latter” (A. Choudhury, A. Nagda, EPW engage, Vol. 54, Issue No. 22, 01 June, 2019, https://www.epw.in/engage/article/how-india-funds-world-financial-assistance).
Emphasis on Regional Connectivity
To demonstrate its sincerity toward the regionalization process, it is not only imperative that New Delhi shows commitment toward completion of bilateral projects in the neighborhood in time, attempts must be made to interweave the region in terms of development of infrastructure and connectivity.
India directed much of its aid and investment in the neighborhood toward soft areas such as housing and shelter, water and sanitation, livelihood, education, research and training, healthcare, industrial development, arts, culture and sports, with a thrust on “grass-roots level development”. However, it failed to float a coherent strategy which could interlink infrastructure-building and regional connectivity and spur the regionalization process.
In this context, a Carnegie India research paper notes: “New Delhi intends to prioritize development in its international engagement, but India will have to weave together its ad-hoc initiatives into one coherent road map to regional connectivity and infrastructure construction”.
Furthermore, it goes on to argue: “New Delhi has been slow in identifying, initiating, and implementing a coherent approach to connectivity in the South Asia and Indian Ocean region. Although India has identified countries such as Japan as key partners in formulating a response, there has been little progress on a plan of action”.
Juxtaposing India and China in a comparative perspective in terms of connectivity initiatives, the research paper noted: “China aggressively sought to connect its borders, India neglected its own, creating massive disconnects between its borders and hinterlands, especially on its Himalayan front. By helping create multiple access points via roads and ports, China is able to present an alternative to South Asian nations and cultivating the means to challenge India’s role as a South Asian power” (D.M. Baruah, “India’s Answer to the Belt and Road: A Road Map for South Asia”, Carnegie India paper, August 21, 2018, https://carnegieindia.org/2018/08/21/india-s-answer-to-belt-and-road-road-map-for-south-asia-pub-77071).
Convenience of bilateralism needs to 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 contributing to 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 more as a response to rising Chinese influence in the countries than any attempts at contributing to the regionalization process. 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 and withdrawing subsidies on kerosene and cooking gas as a measure to pile up pressure on Bhutan to force it to change its allegedly pro-Chinese gesture substantiate this fact. 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.
For instance, the proposals and offers made by New Delhi in the 18th SAARC summit held in Kathmandu in November 2014 were considered more as representing India’s unilateral gesture rather than proposals emanating from collective discussions and endeavor.
In this context, academic and analyst S.D. Muni observes “Most of these gestures were seen by the South Asian leaders and analysts more as promises than concrete offers, and they fell below the expectations. They were not bold and far-reaching, in the assessment of informed critics. There were obviously pressures from the business and security stakeholders on Modi to unilaterally offer absolutely free entry into India of goods and movement of people (visa-free) from the SAARC countries” (S.D. Muni, “Narendra Modi’s Foreign Policy: Rebuild South Asian Neighborhood”, CLAWS journal, summer 2015, p. 32).
Flexible Approach to 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.
Respecting 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 assisting 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 Sincere and 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 must be viewed sincere in its approach toward resolving bilateral political issues pertaining to territory or issues of river water distribution. While New Delhi cannot be expected to compromise its national interests based on principles of law and justice, it must be honest in its attempts to resolve bilateral issues with small South Asian neighbors without being tied down by political pressures for instance, border issue (Kalapani and Susta) with Nepal and Teesta river water issue with Bangladesh.
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.
Extensive Engagements and Dialogues
Singapore’s well-known diplomat Kishore Mahbubani in his book ‘The ASEAN Miracle’ brought out the importance of regular conduct of meetings in the evolution and growth of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). While ASEAN conducts 1000 meetings on all kinds of issues including health, infections, and pandemics, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) provide the platform to regularly consult on and discuss regional security issues involving external powers as dialogue partners. There were visibly no such regional efforts to discuss non-political and non-sensitive economic, technological, cultural, connectivity and health-related issues in the South Asian region. However, similar fatigue should not plague the BIMSTEC grouping.