India as a net security provider in South Asia

India as a net security provider in South Asia

If one takes a more expansive view of what constitutes security, then India’s role in the region has much to commend it

Indian Army soldiers stand next to an upgraded L70 anti aircraft gun in Tawang near the Line of Actual Control (LAC), in Arunachal Pradesh. Credit: AFP File Photo

In recent years, policy discussions have dwelt on the possibility of India as a net security provider in South Asia. At the outset, it needs to be outrightly stated that at least one country in the region — India’s long-standing adversary Pakistan — would promptly contest the proposition.

From the standpoint of Islamabad, New Delhi is not only its principal external threat but also a detrimental force in the region. Quite apart from the wars that it had initiated and fought with India over Kashmir, Pakistan still has not come to terms with its role in the Bangladesh genocide of 1971. Instead, Pakistani apologists remain fixated on India’s intervention in the crisis. Also, the current Taliban regime in Afghanistan, to the extent that its views can be inferred, probably also shares some of Pakistan’s misgivings about India’s security role in the region. Worse still, India’s carefully targeted and highly effective aid programme is now in jeopardy. Despite the country’s dire and acute humanitarian needs, India’s ability and willingness to resume its earlier role under the current regime remains questionable. Nevertheless, it needs to be noted that despite Islamabad’s fitful cooperation, New Delhi has attempted to send much-needed supplies of wheat to the hapless country.

India has, for some time now, in varying and fitful ways, sought to play the role of a net security provider to the region. For example, in November 1988, it deftly mounted Operation Cactus which forestalled a coup attempt against the government of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the Maldives.

Around the same time, in an attempt to protect the rights of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka and to broker an accord between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government, it had sent the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) to the country. That effort, as is well-known, despite the best of intentions, turned into an utter military and political debacle. Even today, significant segments of the Sri Lankan political establishment harbour doubts about India’s role as a security provider to the region.

If one takes a more expansive view of what constitutes security, then India’s role in the region has much to commend it. For example, in 2005, when a massive tsunami swept both significant parts of South and Southeast Asia, even as it coped with its consequences at home, India mobilised its armed forces, especially its navy, to provide significant and swift humanitarian relief to the afflicted from Indonesia to Sri Lanka. Sadly, more recently, India’s informal blockade of Nepal in 2015 during the first Narendra Modi government, led to the dissipation of much, if not all, the goodwill that it had justly garnered as a consequence of its very swift and effective disaster assistance in the wake of the terrible earthquake in barely a year earlier.

Despite New Delhi’s efforts to limit the damage that ensued from the blockade, there is little or no question that its stock took a battering in its aftermath. Worse still, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which had long sought to diminish Indian influence in Nepal, promptly leapt into the breach.

New Delhi’s record was also blemished in the very recent past owing to its highly uneven performance in providing much-needed vaccines to its neighbours during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite an initial willingness to bail out its less-fortunate neighbours, faced with its own domestic needs, it faltered in its efforts. Once again, despite the dubious efficacy of the Sinopharm vaccine, the PRC swiftly exploited India’s lapse in the matter. Despite this uneven record, there is little or no question that given the growth of its military capabilities and diplomatic clout, India can help secure much of the neighbourhood. Indeed, it can be argued that its own security interests dictate that it plays such a role. Pakistan’s irredentist claim to Kashmir and its security establishment’s continued chicanery in the region aside, India has a compelling reason to take up such a mantle. Bluntly stated, it stems from the concerted efforts of the PRC to expand its footprint in the region.

The PRC, of course, would like the states of South Asia to believe that India is an untrustworthy and indeed malign force in the region. Simultaneously, it seeks to project itself as a possible benefactor especially with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Pakistan, quite understandably, given its long ties to the PRC, has embraced the project. More to the point, it has had no qualms about allowing a portion of this massive infrastructural project to be run through the disputed territory in a portion of Kashmir under its control. India has protested about the matter but to no avail whatsoever.

Sri Lanka, which had readily welcomed massive investments in its roads, airports and ports from the PRC based on colossal loans, is now not only saddled with enormous debts but also forced to lease the port of Hambantota to the PRC for 99 years to ease its financial burden. Since then, it has had significant concerns about the PRC’s largesse but seems unable to extract itself from the latter’s grip. Bangladesh too, perhaps with an eye toward limiting India’s overweening presence, has flirted with closer ties to the PRC, signing a series of major development accords in the recent past. However, if Sri Lanka’s unhappy experience is any indicator, it may well discover that the PRC’s apparent generosity can prove to be quite costly over the long haul.

Under these circumstances, India can, despite lacking the very substantial financial resources of the PRC, nevertheless help secure the region from a range of threats both military and otherwise.

With its increased military prowess, it can protect its littoral regions from piracy, from illegal exploitation of maritime resources and above all to secure regional sea trade routes. Also, as it has demonstrated in the past, it can promptly marshal resources to deal with a range of humanitarian crises across the region.

These, unfortunately, at least in the near term, are likely to become more frequent owing to the inevitable vagaries of climate change. It is true that New Delhi has not always been a benign actor in the region. However, on balance, there is little or no question that its actions have, for the most part, been beneficial. As this troubled region enters the new year, India can demonstrate yet again that it remains ready and willing to protect its smaller neighbours from the vicissitudes of both human and natural threats.

(The writer is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, US. His forthcoming book, edited with Dinshaw Mistry, is Enduring and Emerging Issues in South Asian Security (Brookings Institution Press and Orient Black Swan, 2022)

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