Seema Guha is a senior journalist writing mainly on India’s foreign policy. She has covered conflict situations in the northeast and has reported extensively on the ethnic war in Sri Lanka.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s neighbourhood policy took a beating last year. Though India’s engagement with the US, Europe, East Asian nations and the Gulf region made significant progress in 2017, ties with South Asian nations left much to be desired. Considering that when Narendra Modi took office in 2014, “neighbourhood first” was the mantra over three years down the line, Delhi’s relations with some of its closest neighbours have slipped even as China’s footprints in South Asia has grown dramatically.
For a nation with big power ambitions it is imperative to be in a position to manage regional rivalries and allow the neighbours to be part of the India growth story. Delhi needs peace in its periphery to concentrate on development and lift millions of people from vicious cycle of poverty. However efforts are on to repair the damage. Maldives the Indian Ocean archipelago, had been steadily moving into China’s orbit.
After a disastrous year, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen dispatched a special envoy to Delhi to smoothen the fault lines and reassure the Indian leadership.
In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi began with a bang. He was the first Indian leader to invite leaders from the neighbourhood to attend his swearing in. SAARC leaders, including Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif was in attendance. In fact, Modi and Sharif held an excellent first meeting. Since the division of the country in 1947, managing relations with Pakistan has been a major challenge for all Indian prime ministers. The two nations have fought three wars. The Line of Control (LoC) continues to be tense with shelling and intense firing from both sides. Kashmir continues to be the major factor in the bitter ties between the two nuclear armed South Asian neighbours. At the moment ties remain tense and a peace dialogue between the two appear remote.
To be fair to Modi, he went out of his way initially to extend a hand of friendship to the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who incidentally has long tried to make peace with India. In the initial months of his rule, Modi got fulsome praise for his handling of ties with Pakistan His unscheduled visit to Lahore, on his way back from Afghanistan, to wish Nawaz Sharif on his birthday was a astute move.
However, as always the move was disrupted by a terror attack. This time it was a deadly strike on the frontline air force station in Pathankot.
Since then despite both Modi and Nawaz Sharif’s best efforts the situation has gone from bad to worse. Pakistan’s military, those who decide on that country’s relations with India, made sure there could be no chance for peace. Sharif’s hands were tied and soon afterwards Kashmir came to a boil. Attacks across Kashmir further fuelled anger in India. Hardliners in the Pakistan military had their way.
While the Pakistan army had got away by playing footsie with terrorists when it came to India, it is now in President Donald Trump’s firing line for its slippery tactics in Afghanistan. Wary of Indian presence in Afghanistan, committed to gain strategic depth in Afghanistan by ensuing that in any future political settlement in Afghanistan the pro Pakistan elements within the Taliban, mainly the Haqqani network gets a solid representation. Pakistan is in all sorts of trouble. America is planning to stop all military aid, to the tune of $1.3 billion to Pakistan. The State Department had earlier held up $225 million in military financing from Pakistan.
But with Pakistan now the centre piece of President Xi Jinping’s ambitious one belt on road project, China may bail out its all weather friend. It has already committed over $50 billion for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Yet China, which wants stability in Afghanistan may also quietly ask Islamabad not to encourage the Haqqani network. Publicly it has praised Pakistan’s efforts in combating terror. The Taliban still continues to be in control of large swathes of Afghanistan. Even worse, the ISIS is now making its presence felt and has been responsible for a number of deadly terror strikes, including in Kabul the capital city.
Once Modi was certain that Pakistan was in no mood to track the terrorists involved in Pathnkot, India tried to isolate Pakistan.
While every country condemned the Pathankot attack, no one was willing to do more. Despite tall claims by the government of international isolation of Pakistan, there was little impact on the ground. Yet now things may change with the latest US move. Much will depend on how the US-Pakistan ties finally pan out. The bright spot for Pakistan is that the US needs to send all its military supplies to his troops in land locked Afghanistan, through Pakistan territory. Iran is the only other outlet, but that is not an option for the US. Apart from this, Washington will need Pakistan to get the Taliban to the negotiating table.
There is little any Indian government can do at the moment with Pakistan. What, however, are major failures are ties with Nepal and the Maldives, as well as steadily growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka. “India is doing its utmost to send our neighbours to China’s arms,”
said CPM leader Sitaram Yechury. “Nepalies are our twin brothers, we have so much in common and yet by imposing a blockade that brought untold suffering to the ordinary Nepali, Delhi has pushed Kathmandu to China’s waiting arms.”
But to Nepal first, where India had over stretched its hand. Like all other previous PM’s Modi’s first visit abroad was to close friend Bhutan. But he followed this up with a trip to Nepal, where he addressed a joint session of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly. Modi’s visit to Nepal, was an unqualified success. People lined up the streets to catch a glimpse of the new Indian leader. His stirring speech in Nepal’s parliament was applauded by all and Nepal felt they had a friend in the new prime minister. During the devastating earthquake in 2015, India was the first country to reach out to Nepal and fly rescue sorties. Delhi also sent in large quantities of relief material. The domineering presence of the Indian media annoyed many Nepalis and there was a backlash against India. But at the political level ties remained intact.
Trouble began when Nepal announced its new Republican Constitution and the Indian-origin Madhesis felt shortchanged . Delhi backed the Madhesi demand for a fair deal to all citizens. India charged the Nepalese elite of refusing to give Madhesis their rightful dues as equal citizens of the republic. Protests erupted in the terai and there was widespread violence.
India is Nepal’s lifeline and from petroleum products to medicines and essential commodities, all supplies go through the border gates from India. The supply lines were turned off. According to Indian officials Delhi had not imposed the blockade. Indian truckers refused to ply because the Madhesi protests led to serious law and order problems. But few took the official explanation seriously. The ordinary Nepali both in the plains and in the Kathmandu valley were hard hit and blamed India for their misery. The falling out between the two neighbours was bitter and has lingered on.
The then Prime Minister KP Oli naturally turned to China for help. Beijing gladly reciprocated. Prime Minister Oli, publicly blamed Delhi for siding with the Madhesis and organising the blockade. A month after the Indian blockade was lifted, Oli visited China (March 2016) and signed a commercial agreement for alternative supply of pertroleum products. In a bid to diversify its total dependence on India, Oli decided to ensure that 33 percent of Nepal’s annual demand of over one million tonnes of petroleum products would be sourced from China. Delhi uneasy with Oli’s pro-China stand, ensured that Oli was dislodged by the Nepali Congress’ Sher Bahadur Deuba as PM.
In the latest election, the first since the Republican Constitution, the Left parties which had forged a loose alliance to fight the polls have won a landslide. KP Oli is slated to be the new Prime Minister.
With Oli in the saddle, China’s presence in Nepal will further expand.
Despite public noises of friendship, Oli is unlikely to forget that Delhi had pulled the rug under him and China had extended all help in Nepal’s hour of need.
All is not lost yet. Much can be repaired as India and Nepal share strong religious, historical and cultural bonds as well as excellent people to people contacts. The open border with Nepal allows thousands of Nepalese to live and work out of India. Strain in India-Nepal relations could adversely affect the livelihood of thousands of Nepali citizens and remittances that flow from India could dry up. No Nepalese government can afford to do that, so while China will be spreading its wings in Nepal, India’s presence in the Himalayan state cannot be wished away.
Maldives has always had excellent ties with India. But with President Abdulla Yameen in the saddle things have changed. In March 2015, Modi called off a scheduled visit to the Maldives after Yameen slapped terror charges against Mohammed Nasheed, the leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party. The same year after India’s snub to Yameen, Maldives brought in a new legislation which allowed foreigners to own land in perpetuity provided they invested one billion dollars in the island economy. The only rider, provided 70 per cent of the land is reclaimed from the ocean. The move naturally triggered concern over land grab by China, a country which had mastered the technology of churning the ocean beds. It has fortified and expanded craggy islands in the South China Sea and fortified them to provide for landing strips for Chinese planes. Fears of China establishing a naval presence in the Maldives in future was rampant in India.
President Xi Jinping visited Maldives in 2014, and the Indian Ocean island nation remains an integral part of his plans to revive the ancient maritime silk route. The modernisation of the Maldives international airport, allotted to India’s GMR, a private infrastructure behemoth,
by Nasheed was scrapped by his successor. Instead, a Chinese company was called in. In December, during Yameen’s visit to China, a free trade agreement was signed. The opposition claimed that the agreement was approved by just 30 votes in the 85-member house and was not legal. To top it all, soon after the FTA with China was signed, the Maldives government suspended three members of a local body for meeting Indian Ambassador Akhilesh Mishra without seeking prior approval. All this has cast a large shadow over India ties with the Maldives. Now, however, President Yameen has sent in his special envoy to mend ties But this does not mean that China has been pushed to the corner.
Ever since President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe took office in Colombo, relations with Sri Lanka has flourished. Yet China’s presence in Sri Lanka is also spreading. It is building the new Colombo port city at a cost of $1.4 billon, the largest FDI project in the island state. Sri Lanka plans to develop the city into a major financial hub. Earlier China built the Humbantota port, which was initially offered to India.
The Colombo port city project when completed is expected to transform the country’s economy. This is something India should not hold against Colombo, as all governments will take what is best on offer. Bangladesh, another close friend of India, also has China taking up projects. This is inevitable.
The reality is that both Asian giants India and China will be around each other’s periphery. China remains cash rich so it is natural for India’s neighbours to take advantage of infrastructure projects that Chinese money brings in. Getting annoyed with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal or Maldives is not the answer. China’s maritime silk route and its one road one belt initiative is a big idea. With no other country, including the US have anything as good to offer, countries will naturally veer towards Beijing.
India needs to work on what it is good at. Smaller projects like those done in Afghanistan, which touch the lives of ordinary people is something Delhi needs to go in for.
Afghanistan, a country which at one point hated India for its support to the Najibullah regime, has completely turned around. India should take out the Afghan blue print and apply it to the rest of its South Asian neighbours. It may not be politically expedient for the Modi government to do so, but encouraging people to people contacts is the way forward in Pakistan. The message to the people there should be, we are against your military but we are for the people of Pakistan.
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