Neighbourhood narratives: India needs to be on its guard

If the China factor has always been there with regard to Pakistan, it has now become more prominent to the east in Nepal
Last Updated : 23 October 2021, 23:47 IST

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Our neighbourhood today presents a variety of differentiated country situations, each unique in itself. Afghanistan has seen a revolutionary reversal - an order has been overthrown and an older regime reinstated. For India, this represented a major setback. But then, the Afghanistan situation is also a good example of how much remains outside the ambit of government policy per se and how external factors over which we have little or no control, can massively impact us in our own neighbourhood.

With Pakistan, since 2016, there has been a virtually uninterrupted deterioration in bilateral ties with a progressive downsizing of cultural, economic and finally political relations. Things now appear more stable after the Line of Control (LoC) ceasefire of February 2021 but only minimally so. Have any structural changes occurred at all in bilateral relations since 2016? All the tensions and issues of the past five years seem to be following older rhythms. The only real change over the past 25-30 years has been the progressive falling behind of Pakistan vis-a-vis India in the accumulation of national power. Pakistan has, however, been able to address this power gap, even if not entirely neutralise it, because of the close relationship it has with China and the increase in the corresponding gap between India and China. In sum, we encounter today the same variables and constraints in dealing with Pakistan as always had faced.

If the China factor has always been there with regard to Pakistan, it has now become more prominent to the east in Nepal. Our getting sucked into Nepal’s internal Constitution drafting conflicts meant a downturn in relations in 2016 and a corresponding cementing in Nepal-China relations. With other South Asian neighbours - Sri Lanka and Myanmar in particular - while the big crests and troughs so evident in dealings with Nepal have been avoided, the China factor is strong and remains as an added complexity in our relations. Similarly in Bhutan, after the spike in India-China frictions following the Doklam standoff, there has been a greater foregrounding of the China factor than previously.

Each of our South Asian relationships is unique and there is no single explanatory or analytical lens that would yield a magic bullet of appropriate policy toolkits. While there is certainly much to be concerned about, there has never been a time when we would have been sanguine about all our South Asian relationships or totally satisfied with the results of our policies.

It is in the nature of all neighbourhood relations that they pose the greatest difficulties to any country’s foreign policy. We should have no expectation of beating this general trend. Given our size and preponderance and the overlap of ethnicity, religion and language in South Asia, it is inevitable that at any given moment one or more of our neighbours will have some cause to be dissatisfied with us as indeed we will have with them.

Are there any specific takeaways from the present context of our neighbourhood? Two related narrative factors come to mind. The first is China but not simply as a military, geo-economic or geo-political player. The fact is that across our entire region, China today provides a new narrative of modernity which appears almost irresistible to our neighbours. Obviously, this is because of the enormous material progress China has made in the past four decades and because the trickle down effect of this progress is so visible in China.

For our neighbours, who have long chaffed at being next to a much larger India, the rise of China has provided the perfect balancer. While this China ‘card’ is not in itself new, what has changed is the narrative force behind this card. There is little that we can do in the near term as it is an external factor over which we have no control. We can, however, modulate our response to it. Hopefully our own future growth will also show dramatic results and speak for itself. What is important in the present juncture is that we avoid viewing this change through an excessively securitised perspective however much Chinese postures push us to do.

Key factor

How and to what extent we can resist an excessive securitisation of our approach to South Asia as a whole will be really the key factor in determining how well we face up to the changes sweeping our neighbourhood today. Would a more ‘de-securitised’ approach apply for Pakistan also even while recognising that security considerations will remain dominant here?

There are no easy answers but we certainly need a clinical analysis of the efficacy of dealing with Pakistan only as a security issue on the LoC and not with a more broad based approach incorporating other aspects of our national power including economy, trade, culture but most of all diplomacy.

The second factor is that of a south Asia wide approach itself. Our frustrations with SAARC emerged and crystallised on account of the eroded relationship with Pakistan.

While largely opting out of SAARC process, we have simultaneously accorded higher priority to sub-regional cooperation minus Pakistan through Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). The Bay of Bengal community is obviously important in itself but there are obvious problems in viewing BIMSTEC as a counter to SAARC.

This is another area where it is now time to evaluate clinically whether in underplaying the narrative value of SAARC we have ended up undermining India’s central position in the region. The fact is that an empty space now exists in the regional cooperation space and this has possibly also facilitated the emergence of sub-regional groupings without India such as the Chinese Covid and poverty related initiatives that included other SAARC members barring India, Bhutan and the Maldives.

While there will always be areas and influences over which we have minimal control and which nevertheless impact our relations with our neighbours profoundly, we have to be on our guard that acts of commission or omission on our part do not create narrative vacuums for others to move into.

(The writer is a former High Commissioner of India to Singapore and Pakistan)

Published 23 October 2021, 18:17 IST

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