Challenges in South Asia – Can India Ride the Tide?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 18 May , 2023

India’s role in diplomacy and strategic thinking has a rich legacy. From being a civilizational state to embracing non-alignment, the contours of statesmanship have taken a new dimension. The fruition of Indian foreign policy making is the efforts of the collective leadership, spanning over seventy years. The multiplicity and often contrarian viewpoints symbolize the rich legacy of policies, culminating in India’s rise over the geopolitical tides of time.

The contemporary age is beset with opportunities, challenges, and limitations. It is often the pursuit of the former that averts conflicts to a great extent. This is achievable with hard-nosed diplomacy, aimed at possible solutions. Many geopolitical issues are tempered without reason that belies the diplomatic approach over military means. Subjects such as – Peacekeeping, Non-proliferation, or Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) often take a back seat while mainstream media sets the agenda, for news interpretation.

The South Asian landscape

The South Asian region has witnessed many events since the break-up of the British Empire where many countries gained independence. South Asian geopolitics has historic imprints deeply rooted within the subcontinent. The British Empire once stretched far from Iran and Afghanistan (in the northwest) to Burma (in the east) and Southeast Asia. The boundaries of the South Asian region remain fluid and are subject to differing interpretations. For nearly forty years after Independence, these countries were marginal to the security interests of the both the main protagonists of the Cold War – United States and the former Soviet Union.

In this age, Asia’s prosperity remains integral to the world, especially, the United States and Europe. With about three percent of the world’s territory, South Asia possesses nearly a quarter of the world’s population. Hydroelectric power, oil, agricultural commodities, and Asia’s rich mineral resources play a key role in trade. South Asia’s interests have been influenced greatly by migration, maritime trade, and global politics. The Indian Ocean continues to be a major trade area where interests between countries, compete for the free flow of goods and services. While India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan have important links to the Gulf states, Iran is almost a bridge to West Asia. Many conflicts remain contested and very often geo-economics and trade are a means for access to these resources.

The geopolitics of South Asia has remained in flux. Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to face extremist threats where their citizens have very little choice. India and China have their areas of disagreement over territorial and boundary disputes. With the rising trade deficit that India faces with China, Beijing’s clout in the South Asian region, emanates from its military, and economic prowess. Conflicts over water resources, control over supply chains, and trade routes do play out in India-China dialogues. Sri Lanka recovering economically has its policy towards great power politics within the region. While Nepal, Maldives, and Bhutan being small states, do struggle to stand up to India and China. Bangladesh and India share agreements on many issues, but the country faces internal challenges for democratic and economic emancipation. Between Europe and the ASEAN region, South Asian countries play a key role in mapping global differentiators, which necessitates a deeper focus on this region.

Sparring Powers in South Asia – India and China

The recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) foreign minister’s meeting in Goa has stoked varied perceptions among leaders. The India-Pakistan conflict received wide media coverage as exchanges between the foreign ministers of these two states played out. The recent arrest of Prime Minister Imran Khan, and Pakistan’s economic turmoil besides the lack of settled borders between China and Pakistan have kept Indian intelligence agencies on guard. China’s rise in the ecosystem of multilateral trade pacts and leverage via UN-sponsored resolutions plays heavily in the shadows but all doesn’t seem well.

India’s perceived rise in South Asia (as viewed by Chinese policymakers), weighs into China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) strategy (the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, and projects in Gwadar, Kyaukpyu, Hambantota, Melaka, Penang, and Djibouti are a few examples of Chinese investments across countries). While New Delhi tries to stave off miscalculations in South Asia, a lot of strategies pose inherent constraints. In the last decade, K.P Oli in Nepal had a landslide victory with his Left Alliance, while in Pakistan Imran Khan won five National Assembly seats by popular vote, and Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka People’s Party ruling group coalition had a victory of 145 seats, but the government of Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka could do little to dent Chinese aggression, albeit India found some options for manoeuvre. As geography largely sets the tone and tenor of geopolitics, India and China do spar over their spheres of interest within the region.

Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka

The emergence of Bangladesh in South Asia encompasses estranged historic and cultural ties with erstwhile Pakistan. Although Bangladesh and India share close geographic proximity, India-China matters are largely prevalent in policy discussions. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamat-e-Islami have frequently taken positions over India on many issues. The bonhomie with Beijing by governments in Bangladesh stems from the country’s strategic choices. China’s FDI investment flows in Bangladesh and its relations as a strong military and trading partner often position Dhaka as being wary of New Delhi. In the past, Mao’s China strongly opposed the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. While decades have passed on, many in Bangladesh are disappointed with the Chinese support for the Junta in Myanmar (the Rohingya issue), despite Beijing’s balance towards rapprochement. Bangladesh maintained a balancing act between China and India but in 2023, Dhaka worked on an Indo-Pacific outlook, that echoes the Indo-Pacific strategy. The 2024 elections in India and Bangladesh could chart a new strategy for China and the U.S. As India-Bangladesh relations remain poised at the moment, economic influence would determine the strategic out come in diplomacy.

India and Nepal share deep cultural and historical links. China and Nepal do share borders but the current India-Nepal dialogues are factored within Beijing’s strategic calculus. China has also been one of the leaders in exporting large dams. Chinese corporate entities have huge investments in Asia. Renowned strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney, in his timely classic- ‘Water- Asia’s New Battleground’, explored this subject in-depth. Between China and Nepal, in 2021 the deal to develop hydropower projects on the Marsyangdi River was set in vogue. China has always tried to bolster the communist bloc in Nepal, but various issues like the Tibet refugee movement have factored in. India has been working with various governments in Nepal since the – ‘1950, (under the Treaty of Peace and Friendship)’. While the Nepal policy is a constant work in progress for Indian governments, Beijing has had an edge over Kathmandu.

Sri Lanka is placed a few nautical miles across India’s coastline. The country remains deeply embedded in India’s maritime and security policy framework. India-Sri Lanka ties have always been in the cross-hairs with Beijing. While China did establish formal diplomatic ties with Sri Lanka in the ’50s, the recent economic meltdown was a blunder by relying on Beijing. China emerged as a major partner for Sri Lanka (infrastructure projects), but many are currently under scrutiny. India was one of the first countries to respond to Sri Lanka’s call for help in dealing with debt and economic crises. In 2022, about $ 3.8 billion flowed into Sri Lanka from India via loans, grants, and currency swap arrangements. Although the ghosts of the Sri Lankan War resurface as wounds among the Sinhalese majority, political insiders still recall the non-aligned approach of most Bandaranaike governments.

Afghanistan and Pakistan    

The conflict between India-Pakistan and Pakistan-Afghanistan makes the region intertwined in conflicts. The India-Afghanistan relationship has evolved over a long period of time. Afghanistan has large natural resources and a vast rich landscape of metals and minerals. China recently released a paper on its policy for Afghanistan. After the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, China has tried to embolden its position by focusing on issues such as sanctions by the U.S. on the country and Beijing’s support for stability by the Taliban. Besides China’s BRI strategy, issues like narcotics, and cross-border terrorism remain under discussion both in New Delhi and Beijing. With China’s success in Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Taliban has also welcomed political support from Beijing. Although India had negotiated with officials in Pakistan to send 50,000 MT of wheat for the Afghan citizens (when the Taliban captured power in Kabul), there is still a lot of water under the bridge. In 2023, India’s influence in its extended neighbourhood is being countered by Beijing’s offensive.

The India-Pakistan relationship remains one of the most demanding aspects of Indian foreign policy. The dispute between India and Pakistan has remained unresolved. India’s four major wars with Pakistan and cross-border terrorism continue to plague both nations. Kashmir, a central thread(region bound with conflicts), across borders, has reached a point of no return. In 1998, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, both governments had initiated confidence-building measures, but the present conflicts have snowballed into anarchy. As terrorism continues to haunt India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, recent negotiations have rarely reached a consensus. China is invested heavily in Pakistan via the ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’. While the Pulwama and Balakot flashpoints have taken on twisted interpretations, the risk of any such escalation remains dangerous. Although Kashmir has always been a central feature among officials in New Delhi and Rawalpindi, the matter remains more strategic. With the control of Kashmir, India gets a window to Central Asia along a border with Afghanistan, but Islamabad would not let it pass due to leverage with China and the water security calculus within the ‘Indus framework’. As the current situation remains critical in Pakistan, New Delhi and Beijing would continue to monitor their interests within this region.

Maldives and Bhutan

The Maldives being an archipelagic nation sits in the middle of the Indian Ocean, located 300 miles from the coast of India nearing 450 miles southwest of Sri Lanka. India’s equation with the Maldives has always been a zero-sum policy. In the recent past, the Indian Navy succeeded in blocking (former president of Maldives) Abdullah Yameen’s moves (an atoll, 19 km from Lakshadweep gift for China to establish a radar station). In 2023, India and Maldives held the 4th Defence Cooperation Dialogue (DCD) in Male while in January External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar, took part in the ceremony of the Hanimaadhoo International Airport Development Project. Prime Minister Modi reaffirmed his commitment to the role of India as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region. Moreover, bilateral trade between India and Maldives has been growing steadily, registering an average of about 20-30 percent growth every year.

Bhutan remains one of India’s closest neighbours. China’s relations with Bhutan have to be viewed through the current prism of India-Bhutan ties. In 2017, after the Doklam stand-off, Bhutan has been drawn into an untimely disposition with China. With the Kalpani dispute (between India and Nepal), Bhutan’s fear remains imminent. Reports from think tanks and satellite imagery have also indicated the existence of the Pangda Village (the disputed territory). While China and Bhutan signed agreements to hasten negotiations to resolve their boundary dispute, India has stepped up the game. In the past, Beijing has tried to woo Thimpu with economic packages (in 2017, a $ 10 billion economic assistance package) for weaning it away from New Delhi’s orbit. Memories of the integration of Sikkim with India had created apprehension within Thimpu, but the kingdom still keeps a watch on Beijing (after, the 1959 Tibetan uprising). In March 2023, Thimpu assured New Delhi, that these discussions will involve all parties and would not happen bilaterally.

Can India Ride the Tide – A Way Forward

As the world heralds a new inflection point, there are great perils and predilections. The Russia-Ukraine conflict erupted and disrupted the existing international order. The economic repercussions percolated to the Global South, creating new challenges. With rising instability, there has been increased defence spending by almost all countries. Looking forward, besides Europe, China, and India, many parts of Asia are likely to face strong headwinds. The unresolved border issue between India and China makes it all the murkier. Beijing sees itself as a global power where India stands in its way. The reckoning of realpolitik arises with the asymmetries of allies, strength, and their perceptions (between Beijing and New Delhi) over the South Asian subcontinent.

There has been a huge debate among scholars of international relations regarding the approaches to ‘Non-alignment’ and ‘Strategic autonomy’. In 2018, at the Raisina Dialogue, delegates from Washington spoke about China being the disruptive force in the Indo-Pacific region. Francis Fukuyama had anticipated a liberal wave that came close to the American line in strategic thinking while John Mearsheimer’s vision of ‘Realism’ is what many reckon in this age. Countering the ‘Chinese Long-game’, would need a new line of thinking, between scholars, diplomats, and security practitioners.

The Westphalian notion of geopolitics in contrast to China’s worldview, makes India’s multi-alignment strategy seem directionless. India’s abstaining in voting in the U.N. resolutions on key issues has been perceived differently by many European countries. Some observers doubt the efficacy of this policy in a world that is tumultuously in disarray. The Indian government has so far succeeded in not riding horses in the same lane (the U.S., Russia, and China) but the geopolitical currents in West Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Indo-Pacific could tip the scale to a new inflection point. With the wealthy economies, having disproportionate economic power, there can be setbacks to international trade, finance, and global governance.

India being part of the G-20, can help New Delhi leverage representation on key issues. Also, India needs to synergize strategies in regional groupings such as – Bangladesh, BhutanIndiaNepal (BBIN) Initiative, The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), and The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). As China wields enormous influence in South Asian politics, New Delhi must ensure that its role in the Quad doesn’t work against India by creating hostility towards China and Russia. India’s strategies with the Russia-India-China Grouping (RIC) or Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) should not dent its policy objectives with the West but adapt to the geopolitical realities, that serve India’s national interest. India’s strategic calculus would require deft diplomatic maneuvering with the global powers. As the Indian general elections in 2024 appear, New Delhi’s challenges would only increase. The tipping point for the present government will be focused on managing India’s economic woes, facing a nuclear-armed Pakistan and a belligerent China. This comes at a time when India takes the lead in South Asian affairs.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Manavik Raj

is a policy analyst based in Bengaluru, India. He is currently, a Fellow with -‘Global Policy Insights’, and a Visiting Senior Fellow with -‘Red Lantern Analytica’. He focuses on policies, issues, and conflicts across India, South Asia, and the ASEAN region. His research interests are in areas, such as non-traditional security, media studies,and public policies in South Asia.

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