India and The South Asian Neighbourhood
Amb Kanwal Sibal

India’s relations with its neighbours need to be analysed frankly and unsentimentally, without recourse to the usual platitudes when pronouncing on the subject. It is fashionable to assume that there is some larger moral imperative that governs relations between neighbours, with the bigger country obliged to show a level of generosity and tolerance towards a smaller neighbour that would not be applicable to attitudes and policies towards a more distant country. The compulsions of “good neighbourliness” between countries are, however, not the same as between neighbours in the same building or the same street. In the case of the latter the rights, obligations and duties of citizenship are the same, all live under the authority of the same state and conflicts are mediated through the instruments of law. We should not commit the mistake of transposing to international relations the codes of conduct between citizens of the same country. The commandment “Love thy neighbour as thyself” elicits no obedience from the chancelleries of the world.

Before talking of India and its neighbours we should have a clearer idea of what, in India’s eyes, constitutes its neighbourhood. Should we look at India’s neighbourhood strategically or geographically? If the first, then a case can be made out that India’s neighbourhood encompasses the entire region from the Straits of Hormuz to the Straits of Malacca. This is India’s security parameter. Developments in this region have a major impact on India. On the western side, six million Indians are employed in the Gulf, sending back almost $35 billion as remittances. This region is the largest supplier of oil and gas to India. This area is the heart of Islam and influences and ideologies emanating from there impact on our immediate external environment and indeed, to an extent, the domestic scene. In any case, if India had not been divided in 1947, its western frontier would have extended to the Persian Gulf.

In the east, India’s possession of the Andaman and Nicobar islands stretches our frontiers to the other choke-point, the Malacca Straits. The Bay of Bengal has Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand as littoral countries. This stretch of the sea is our link to Southeast Asia and beyond. For buttressing our Look East policy this area is of vital importance. Apart from India forging bilateral ties with these countries, the security of the sea lanes of communication in an area where the only regional blue water navy is Indian devolves some special responsibilities on India.

If geography alone were to determine who our neighbours are, then Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives constitute the core of our neighbourhood. Myanmar is a contiguous neighbour, but as we have conditioned ourselves over the years to view essentially the SAARC countries as our neighbours, Myanmar is lost sight of, despite its critical geograhical location adjacent to our north-eastern states. Myanmar, which applied for full membership in May 2008, has yet to consummate it. However, with the rapid changes in the country, its opening up and the progressive removal of sanctions it has been subject to, its profile as India’s neighbour will keep rising.

Aghanistan may not be a direct geographic neighbour today, but given the fact that we consider Pakistan’s occupation of the northern areas in Jammu and Kashmir as illegal, we can in a sense treat it as one. In any case, with the inclusion of Afghanistan as a full member of SAARC, the political case for treating Afghanistan as an integral part of our neighbourhood stands reinforced.

With China’s occupation of Tibet, that country has become our direct neighbour. The outstanding border issue between India and China constitutes a major Indian foreign policy problem, colouring our relationship with the world’s foremost rising power. Moreover, in India’s perception, China has adversely influenced India’s relations with its South Asian neighbours. China therefore qualifies as India’s most formidable neighbour, affecting India’s role not only in the South Asian region, but in Asia as a whole, and even at the global level.

The management of relations with neighbours is always a declared priority of any country’s foreign policy. The assumption is that a stable neighbourhood strengthens a country’s foreign policy posture, whereas an unstable and troubled neighbourhood saps its ability to act fully effectively on the international stage. The credibility of a country’s regional and global posture, it is believed, is also undermined if it is seen as embroiled in disputes and conflicts with neighbours. The accepted view is that the time and energy spent in controlling events in the immediate neighbourhood is at the cost of pursuing wider interests at the regional and global level.

In actual fact, most countries have very problematic relations with neighbours, and yet many are not held back because of this. Historically, Britain rose to global power status despite almost ceaseless conflicts with its neighbours. France became a world power despite being embroiled in wars with neighbours. China has huge problems with its neighbours, without this affecting its inexorable rise today as a global power. Turkey has problems with virtually all its neighbours, without this materially affecting its rise to regional power status. It is, therefore, open to question whether a stable neighbourhood is a pre-requisite for a country’s rise to regional or global status. There are many other factors at play that allow countries to rise and flourish even if their neighbourhood is not peaceful.

While in theory the need to have a peaceful, stable and friendly neighbourhood may appear self-evident, what would that mean in practical terms? Can one have good relations with neighbours simply because that would be desirable in itself? Can one build such relations unilaterally? To what extent should one be willing to make concessions? Should one look for reciprocity or not? How far is it the responsibility primarily of the bigger country to make the requisite effort in forging positive relationships? Is a smaller country always right in its demands? Can a country demand or plead for extra consideration simply because it is smaller? Should it on that basis be entitled to a more sensitive treatment of its fears, vulnerabilities and even paranoia?

These are not the only issues that arise in any examination of the conditions in which neighbouring countries relate to each other. What about the role of third parties, of external actors? During the Cold War period, the competing powers had an incentive to extend their political and ideological reach to all corners of the globe. In that process relations between neighbours, who were pulled at times in different ideological directions, were distorted, adding to already exisiting tensions or misunderstandings. Today, in the age of globalisation, different pulls and pressures operate, and these could be helpful or harmful depending on circumstances.

The short point is that countries cannot always act in their neighbourhood as they please depending on local advantages in power equations. Outside forces will be there to provide a counterbalance, either because a particular country might want to bring an external power into the neighbourhood to reduce the weight of a perceived regional hegemon, or external powers themselves, pushed by balance of power considerations, or policies of containment, may intrude into the region on their own and manipulate their local partners for larger strategic purposes.

Sections of Indian public opinion are acutely conscious of India’s failure to stabilize its own neighbourhood. It is argued that India as the biggest country in the region has the primary responsibility for managing the regional environment. Often India is criticized for not being sufficiently generous to its neighbours, of hesitating to make unilateral concessions to them, which it is believed it can well afford to do. Such concessions are advocated especially on the economic side, the argument being that India as a huge economy can easily absorb the limited sacrifice that is expected of it, and in the process can attach the neighbouring economies to itself in a mutually beneficial manner. The stakes which develop because of this interdependence would theoretically make it difficult for other governments to pursue adversarial policies beyond a certain point. Poor border management, failure to create proper border posts and customs infrastructure is viewed as another example of insensitivity to the need to facilitate relations with neighbours.

Such criticism overlooks many complexities. For one, India’s capacity to order its neighbourhood in a manner congenial to its requirements is exaggerated. India did intervene in Sri Lanka in agreement with its government, but the experience left it chastened to the point that it rejected an intrusive role in Sri Lanka later as the ethnic conflict grew, even when other countries prompted it to take greater responsibility for steering the course of events there in the right direction. It abdicated playing the central role in the developments leading to the defeat of the LTTE, and it is to be seen how much constructive influence it can bring to bear in ensuring that the present opportunity to settle the Tamil question equitably is not lost. India’s intervention in the Maldives at the request of its government was more successful, but this cannot be construed as an attempt by India to shape its immediate environment to suit its needs, or a model for future interventions.

India has been sensitive in handling the issue of democracy in its neighbourhood. Even as western democracies seek to impose democratic values on others and use instruments of moral reprobation and boycotts to coerce select non-democratic countries to reform their political systems, India has abjured such thinking. Its basic approach is to do business with whichever government is in power. Even as there is awareness that a truly democratic system in Pakistan, that limits the power of both the armed forces and extremist groups, would be beneficial to India-Pakistan ties, India has not sought to interfere in Pakistan’s internal politics. On the contrary, it has willingly done serious business with Pakistan’s military regimes, especially that of General Musharraf. Likewise in Bangladesh, India has never rejected serious engagement with the military regimes there. In the case of Myanmar, even at the cost of earning some diplomatic flak, India has sought to build close ties with it irrespective of the country’s regime for reasons of overriding national interest. India will of course abide by legalities and UN sanctions against any country for transgression of norms, but participating in a crusade for democracy because of a sense of superior political values is not part of India’s thinking about its neighbourhood and beyond. For India this is practical politics, shorn of the hypocrisy of those who promote democracy selectively and at lowest political and business cost to themselves.

India, despite its size and power, is, ironically, the country most targetted by terrorism from its own neighbourhood. Although terrorism is now considered a global threat and the consensus that it should be fought collectively by the international community has been largely forged, India is still threatened by this menace as Pakistan, where the epicenter of terrorism lies, has not yet been summoned by the international community, acting through the UN, to eradicate it. The US and its allies want Pakistan to control terrorist activity directed at them in Afghanistan, and deal as well with domestic terrorism that threatens to impair Pakistan’s capacity to support them. Terrorism directed at India remains a secondary western concern. Even US pressure, however, has not compelled Pakistan to break its links with the Haqqani group. The rise of religious extremism within Pakistan and the surrounding Islamic world, extending now to North Africa, is creating conditions for more jihadi violence. Pakistan’s failure to take any substantive step in the last four years to try those responsible for the Mumbai terrorist attack and the unwillingness of its leadership to accept that terrorism remains a crucial outstanding issue in India-Pakistan relations indicates that the nexus between the jihadi groups and political and military power centres in Pakistan will not be easily broken. India by itself lacks the capacity to coerce Pakistan to abjure terrorism as an instrument of state policy, especially as Pakistan now has the nuclear cover for its lawless activities. Pakistan sees the extremist religious forces that resort to terrorism as allies against India and potentially in the takeover of Afghanistan after the western forces depart.

Within the SAARC region, apart from the recognition by the Karzai government of Pakistan’s sponsorship of terror, the other countries keep their political distance from the problem. Each of them, barring Bhutan, has interest in maintaining good ties with Pakistan for a mixture of motives that include leveraging Pakistan’s hostility towards India to their own advantage, combining forces against the threat of Indian domination, putting constraints on India’s freedom of action within the region, not to mention the need to politically manage their own Muslim communities. Pakistan of course has always had interest in undermining India’s leadership role in South Asia. SAARC conventions on combatting terrorism have little meaning given Pakistan’s complicity with terrorist groups. Pakistan in fact uses Nepal and Bangladesh as bases for infiltrating terrorists into India, or in the case of Bangladesh, using local extremists for targetting India, though with Sheikh Hasina’s government in Bangladesh this activity has been greatly curtailed.

The debate about unilateral concessions versus reciprocity is somewhat besides the point in international relations. A big country has no less responsibility than a small one to legitimately maximize its own interests. No country can sustain a policy of making unilateral concessions. If the logic is accepted that it is for the bigger country to make concessions, then it could be argued that the US should base its international policies on making unilateral concessions to all. And so should China. India has tried a policy of unilateral concessions in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, but the results have been meagre. It is ultimately a question of pragmatism. If making a concession in one area can yield a return in another area, it should be made. In any case, reciprocity need not be confined to balanced exchanges in specified areas. If Nepal, for instance, had been more sensitive to India’s security interests because of the open border, India could have been generous in areas of Nepal’s interest. If Bangladesh, as is the case now, is more cooperative in dealing with anti-Indian insurgents seeking shelter on its territory, it would certainly make India more receptive to some of its demands on the commercial side. In fact this has already happened. What does India do in a situation in which Nepal has for years blocked any progress in implementing joint water resources projects, or Bangladesh has until now even refused to talk about according transit rights through its territory to north-eastern India or make a joint effort to promote energy security along with Myanmar?

Rather than look at such issues within the framework of bilateral relations between India and its neighbours, they should be looked at within the framework of SAARC. The problem of unilateralism or reciprocity disappears once the SAARC countries as a whole agree on terms of trade and economic exchanges. Unfortunately, Pakistan right from the start worked to limit progress within SAARC so that its own policy of linking trade exchanges with India to a resolution of the Kashmir problem did not get undermined. For this reason, it did not adhere to its obligations to India under SAFTA. Indeed, because of Pakistan’s obstructive policies economic integration in the SAARC area is poor. This situation is beginning to change with fruitful talks between India and Pakistan to enhance trade with each other. Pakistan has agreed in principle agreed to grant by the year-end MFN treatment that it has long denied to India. With the just concluded Commerce Secretary level talks substantive steps on the trade and investment front have been listed in the joint statement. This change in Pakistan’s attitude has occurred not because of India’s prodding but because of an internal assessment Pakistan has itself made on the advantages to it from expanded economic ties with India, given the dire economic straits Pakistan is in. Pakistan has not yet felt the same compulsions on terrorism and other differences with India and hence it clings still to its negative political postures. Now that Afghanistan has joined SAARC, common sense would dictate that Pakistan accord transit rights through its territory to facilitate Afghanistan’s trade with India as part of the process of stabilizing Afghanistan and giving its people economic opportunities so that they can, amongst other benefits, expand their legitimate economy and conditions are created for the reduction in size of the illegitimate drug based economy.

India, of course, physically dominates its neighbourhood. Most of its neighbours are very small in comparison, geographically, demographically and economically. Even Pakistan, the second largest country in South Asia, is less than 15% of India’s size demographically and economically and is not too much more geographically. Beyond the disparity in size, India’s neighbours share with it strong civilizational, cultural, linguistic and ethnic ties that are deeply rooted in history. Normally these bonds should have brought the countries of the India sub-continent closer together, being theoretically the building blocks of an enduring people to people relationship. But this has not happened for various reasons. For one, India’s overwhelming civilizational influence makes the neighbouring countries feel insecure in their separate identities. As identity is a core constituent of a sense of nationhood, these countries want to foster it by consciously asserting their separate identity.

The ethnic links, such as those of the Madhesis in the Terai in southern Nepal and the Sri Lankan Tamils with the Tamils in Tamilnadu, instead of being a human link between India and these countries, as is the case with the Indian diaspora abroad and their country of origin, is a source of tensions. These sections of the population are not as yet fully integrated into the societies in which they live and suffer from disabilities. They are either suspected for their extra-territorial loyalties or are seen as instruments of Indian influence, or the sympathy and support they receive from groups in India create an atmosphere of distrust in bilateral relations.

From the viewpoint of India’s South Asian neighbours realpolitik would demand that they try to balance India’s weight by bringing into play external powers. This with the objective of giving themselves greater margin of manoeuvre vis-a-vis India, extorting more concessions from it than would be the case otherwise, not to mention making themselves more eligible for economic and military assistance from powers wanting to check-mate India’s rise or imposing costs on India for not following policies congenial to their interests.

Pakistan has, of course, in its obsessive pursuit of “parity” with India and a pathological refusal to accept any status of inferiority vis-a-vis it, has been most instrumental in facilitating the entry of outside powers in the sub-continent. Today China is Pakistan’s biggest defence supplier. The US too has not stopped supplying advanced arms to Pakistan as part of its policy to obtain the cooperation of the country’s military to help combat the insurgency in Afghanistan. With the US more and more cognizant of Pakistan’s duplicity on the terrorism front, tensions in US-Pakistan relations are palpable and Pakistan’s support for the US in Afghanistan now a question mark.

The US policy of hyphenating India and Pakistan was decisively abandoned by the Bush Administration in its approach to the nuclear equation in South Asia, though the US thought it necessary to balance its leaning towards India by elevating Pakistan to the status of a “non-NATO ally”. With the change of Administration in the US and the Afghanistan morass in which it is caught, Pakistan had found more room to leverage US dependence on it for its operations in Afghanistan to question the legitimacy of India’s presence and policies in Afghanistan, not to mention press it to extract some concessions from India on making progress on outstanding India-Pakistan issues without Pakistan being required to move credibly on the issue of terrorism directed against India from its soil. This has now changed, with the US openly supporting a stronger Indian political and economic role in Afghanistan, as well as in military training. India was the first country with which Afghanistan signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement. In Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Indian and US policies have converged far more than was the case in the past, with the result that the governments of these countries are no longer able to leverage India- US differences as before to counter the Indian weight.

China, with its increased political, economic and military weight, continues its policies to counter what one of its commentators described as India’s hegemonic policies vis-a-vis its neighbours. It continues to deepen its strategic relations with Pakistan, with current activity in the nuclear field, major road and power projects in POK and the development of Gwadar port. In Afghanistan China is investing heavily in the mineral sector. Geopolitics seem to dictate close China-Pakistan cooperation in Afghanistan, despite current uncertainties about Pakistan’s ability to contain its own internal failures.

In Nepal, China is becoming more assertive in demanding that it be given equal treatment with India, one example of which is to ask for its Friendship Treaty with Nepal to match the one with India. With the Maoists now a powerful political force in Nepal, and given their ideological compulsion to be seen as drawing Nepal closer to China, coupled with their periodic rantings calculated to inflame public opinion against India, the political terrain has become more favourable for China to expand and deepen its presence and influence in Nepal. This can only make India’s task in handling Nepal more difficult.

China’s position in Bangladesh is entrenched. Even the friendly government of Sheikh Hasina would see it in its interest to maintain close ties with China for the many benefits it can derive from that, including giving India an incentive to woo Bangladesh more. China has earned the gratitude of the Sri Lankan government by supplying it arms that helped in defeating the LTTE militarily. Sri Lanka, along with Myanmar, Bangladesh and Maldives, are, in India’s eyes, targets for the naval ambitions of China in the Indian Ocean area to protect its vital lines of communication through these waters. The so-called “string of pearls” strategy involving construction of new port facilities in these countries may have commercial goals in view in the short term but is likely to have military goals in the longer term perspective, To promote these objectives China is bound to step up further its engagement with these countries, especially with increasing material means at its disposal, posing further challenges to India’s equities in its neighbourhood. India follows closely China’s initiatives in Sri Lanka on the political, economic and military front, including the visit in September of the Chinese Defence Minister to Sri Lanka, the first such visit ever. He seems to have emphasized that the Chinese Army’s efforts in conducting friendly exchanges and cooperation with its counterparts in the region are intended for maintaining regional security and stability and do not target any third party.

China has, of course, every right to take dispositions in the Indian Ocean area to protect its trade and energy flows. The countries with which China is cooperating are independent, sovereign countries and have economic and investment plans of their own to which China with its vast financial resources can contribute. Ultimately, for India’s neighbours, it is a question of political judgment how far they should be cognizant of India’s concerns and how to balance sometimes different pulls so that they do not become platforms for tensions because of the divergent interests of external partners.

One can broadly conclude that India will not be able to shape its immediate environment optimally for itself in the foreseeable future. Unless Pakistan is ready to genuinely end its politics of confrontation with India, an integral part of which is the over-assertion of its Islamic identity, its propagation of the jihadi mentality, its nurturing of extremist religious groups involved in terrorism, and the political domination of the military in the governance of the country, the SAARC region will remain under stress.

Afghanistan presents potential problems of a grave nature. If the extremist religious forces ultimately win there, the strategic space for these obscurantist elements will expand enormously, with the risk of a seriously adverse fall-out in the region that has either other Islamic countries or large populations of Muslim faith living in non-Muslim countries. A triumphant radical Islamic ideology can be destabilizing for the religiously composite societies of South Asia. Pressure on India from these forces would grow. The increasing Talibanisation of Pakistan would be most deleterious for the South Asian environment.

The prospects for a border settlement with China remain distant. China has, on the contrary, added to tensions by making aggressive claims on Arunachal Pradesh. India has been compelled to begin upgrading its military infrastructure in the north in the face of mounting Chinese intransigence on the border issue. With Chinese actions in the East China Sea and South China Sea, India has to be even more on the alert. The tactical alliance between India and China on climate change and WTO issues should not obscure the deeper sources of India-China problems. It must be said though that both sides have managed to prevent their differences from erupting into military confrontation. No bullet has actually been fired on the India-China border since 1967. China has become India’s biggest trade partner in goods, which is a remarkable development.

The political drift in Nepal portends continuing instability there with all its deleterious consequences for the economy. India has to play its role without getting embroiled in domestic controversies to the extent possible, though traditionally anti-Indian forces there would continue to propagate the canard of overbearing Indian interference in Nepal’s internal affairs. With the Sheikh Hasina government in power in Bangladesh India’s relations with that country seem set to improve. Bangladesh is showing an unprecedented willingness to deny safe havens to anti-India insurgents and discuss transit issues. If it opens up doors for Indian investments in the country the economic issues in the bilateral relationship can be addressed to mutual advantage. Bangladesh can play a positive part in linking the eastern region of South Asia to Myanmar, Thailand and beyond. A solution has to be found, however, to the problem of illegal Bangladeshi migration into India.

The commencement of a dialogue between the US and the Myanmar junta validates India’s policy towards that country. If the US has woken up to the danger of leaving China to consolidate its hold over Myanmar, it is all to the good. Here again, India cannot prevent Myanmar from developing close links with its neighbour China. How far it should move in that direction and lose its capacity to manoeuvre is for the Myanmar government to decide. So long as India-China relations are not normalized, India will always have concerns about strategic encirclement.

India’s very cordial relations with the Maldives need to be nurtured, especial in view of the attention it is receiving from China at the highest level. The spreading piracy in the South Eastern Indian Ocean also makes Maldives more central in combatting this menace. Maldives is gripped with domestic political turmoil, placing India in a delicate position of being invited to intervene in favour of a duly elected government and hesitating to get embroiled in internal political rivalries.

Bhutan has been the only real success story in terms of India’s relations with its neighbours. Bhutan has border differences with China. It has kept its distance from Pakistan and the great powers as well, giving them little scope for interfering in its relations with India. This underscores the point that good relations between India and its neighbours depend not only on wise policies on our side, but, equally, the pursuit of wise policies by our partners.

Our relationship with Sri Lanka has been burdened in recent years by the Tamilian issue. We have handled it as well as we could from at our end. Despite the sensitivities in some quarters in Tamilnadu, we have supported Sri Lanka on the issue of terrorism. We have been both principled and practical.

As a neighbouring country we cannot ignore what is happening in Sri Lanka if developments here have a political impact in India. On the one hand, India must not intervene in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs; on the other, if they impact on India’s internal affairs, a case for a dialogue opens up with a view to helping find constructive solutions.

The nearly three-decade long armed conflict between Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE came to an end in May 2009. The armed conflict created a major humanitarian challenge, with nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians housed in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). India has put in place a robust programme of assistance to help these IDPs return to normal life as quickly as possible.

India does reiterate at the highest levels the need for national reconciliation through a political settlement of the ethnic issue. The element of time is important. With three and a half years having elapsed since the military conflict issues got resolved, a solution to the political issues remains pending. Whether the level of statesmanship required to deal with complex issues in a longer term perspective will be forthcoming or whether shorter term calculations of political advantage will dictate policy remains to be seen. Democratic governments are always generous with their own people, and no polity can be stable without mutual trust between its various sections. This is the challenge Sri Lanka faces.

Published Date: 19th November 2012, Image Courtesy: Rediff

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