India Amidst a Regional Chaos

Anil Trigunayat

Neighbours are a gift of geography but sometimes become pains of history . India has also been blessed with a troubled neighborhood and has often been at cross roads especially with Pakistan and China . Both appear to have a zero sum policy with regard to India . While Beijing would like to see India confined to the South Asian landscape and is working for that through border incursions , aggressive policies ,creating hurdles in fighting terrorism yet hoping that India, due to its continued bilateral economic engagement and inherent economic dependencies ,will not respond effectively against the Chinese comprehensive designs.

They have been proved wrong this time as Galwan became a defining moment in India’s foreign policy choices towards China  including strengthening partnerships through multi alignments like the QUAD even as it does not believe in China’s containment.

China has emerged as a major challenge for India even as the two sides have had the highest ever bilateral trade and ongoing diplomatic and military dialogue to diffuse tensions on the LAC ( Line of Actual Control). In effect the LAC , in the hegemonistic terms ,can be termed as the ‘Line As per the Chinese’. India of 2022 is not the India of 1962 and is ready to respond in kind while hankering for the resolution of all bilateral issues through dialogue and peaceful means.

The two sides continue to cooperate in various regional and sub regional outfits like the G 20, BRICS, RIC and the SCO. PM Modi and President Xi Jinping have met at least 18 times and so have the NSAs , Foreign and  Defence Ministers to find some modus vivendi. But  as Dr S Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister  said  Indeed, the three mutuals – mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests – are its determining factors.

Any expectation that they can be brushed aside, and that life can carry on undisturbed despite the situation at the border, that is simply not realistic.  India will be hosting the SCO Summit next year as well as  the G20 Summit where the interactions will continue .

Pakistan refuses to see the benefit of a positive trajectory of bilateral partnership. It indulges in cross border terrorism against India as it vainly rakes up the J&K issue at the UNGA and the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation).

In the context of Afghanistan it refuses to acknowledge India’s contribution to the development of the embattled country and continues to follow a policy where role and engagement of India could be reduced . The Rawalpindi outfit continues to nurture proscribed terrorist groups like the Al Qaeda, ISIS , ISKP , Let , JeM and others while presenting itself as a victim of terrorism . It has found another point to argue about in the abrogation of Art 370. Suffering from economic and natural disasters it is inching towards a failed state which in itself is a difficult situation for India .

New Delhi follows a policy that progress and development and good neighborly relations are important for its own progress .  However, regrettably there has been no effort to improve their wayward behaviour which has led India to secure its borders and follow a logical policy of ‘Terror and Talks ‘ could not continue  even as PM Modi had followed  an exemplary out of the box approach to reach out to Pakistan when he  made a visit to the then PM Nawaz Sharif’s hometown ( Current PM Shehbaz Sharif’ elder brother ).

But the goodwill gestures were again followed by terror attacks in which complicity of Pakistan’s  security establishment remained unquestioned . Hence , while trying to expose  Islamabad’s nefarious designs India  showed that if a Pulwama happened a Balakot would be the response. Surgical strikes became the norm. But Pakistan and Pak based terrorists are being shielded by its ‘Iron Clad’ friend China at the UNSC whenever they are brought up for international censure and sanctioning.

Sino-Pak axis will remain a significant challenge and more robust response will be needed at every step of the way . ‘Shathe Shathyam Samacharet’ has to be the mantra to deal with such adversaries who are employing both traditional and nontraditional threats and means  as an instrument of their foreign policy. Continuous exposure and isolation policy will have to be pursued in the international domain despite the prevailing geopolitical fault lines.

India has consistently followed a policy that an economically stronger neighbour is an asset for its own security . But it has had its share of difficulties in maintaining the relationships at a comfortable level with her neighbours at one time or the other. Since neighbourhood is no choice and a stronger neighbour with a balanced outlook is a perquisite for one’s own growth India followed a non-reciprocal policy providing maximum possible assistance especially through preferential market access, capacity building and investments and security and Counter terrorism matrix.

India also emerged as a first responder and often a security provider be it water shortages and coup attempts or China calling back its loans in Maldives, devastating earthquakes in Nepal or  terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka or for that matter the recurring floods in Bangladesh.

The regional landscape has changed with the onset of Taliban in Afghanistan and exceptional economic crisis and political stability in Sri Lanka.

While India has opened avenues  of dialogue with Taliban and providing food and medical assistance to the afflicted people as a humanitarian gesture it has virtually singlehandedly tried to salvage the economic catastrophe in Sri Lanka by rendering varied assistance to the tune of nearly $ 4bn . It has stabilised situation in Maldives to a great extent even as some opposition continues .

With Myanmar India took a pragmatic approach so that it does not fully land in the Chinese embrace. Trade and investment continue apace. Nepal is also straddling along . the fact remains that Chain-India competition for strategic influence has provided the small neighbouring countries with the art of a balancing act . They do suffer with the ‘Big Brother Syndrome’ and have begun to fear the  debt trap as well as wolf warrior diplomacy of China which confronts them with a ‘Hobson’s choice’.

China’s port grabbing and infrastructure extensions , especially potential militarising due to long leases , have placed a major constraint and a rethink in some of the regional countries’ strategic questioning  from Bangladesh to Sri Lanka . This affords an opportunity for India to develop nuanced and mutually beneficial approaches especially through capacity building , preferential market access , enhancement in fully funded scholarship and addressing the challenges posed by the pandemic like it was done through ‘Vaccine Maitri’ and finally by the  Russia Ukraine war at a fundamental level.

The only expectation from regional partners remains that they would eschew any temptation which might afflict India adversely be it terrorism or for that matter economic projects inimical to India’s security. One could see the “ Gujral Doctrine” or provision of huge  and favourable investments and lines of credit and grants or for that matter a really focussed “ neighbourhood First Policy” of PM Modi. But China with its global ambitions and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) including CPEC ( China Pakistan Economic  Corridor)  as well as “ String of the Pearls”  strategy in the South Asian region through its cheque book diplomacy and expeditious project execution style has created  immense challenges to India. On both these counts India has lot to catch upon, since most of her neighbours with the sole exception of Bhutan have bought into the Chinese bait and pie especially for the BRI where India has sovereignty concerns . Hence more work with new strategies needs to be done.

Since SAARC itself has become hostage to Indo-Pak rivalry given Pakistan’s continued recourse to terrorism as a tool of state policy against India newer definitions of neighbourhood had to be devised. Hence the blending of Neighbourhood First Policy’ with “ Act East Policy” with emphasis on connectivity and sub regional cooperation i.e. BCIM, BBIN and BIMSTEC, IOR etc. Moreover the “Look and Act West Policy”  to strategically engage and expand the collaborative matrix  with the extended neighbourhood in the Middle East especially GCC countries and Israel  have acquired an unprecedented depth and possibly the biggest success of the Modi Governments foreign policy

Prime Minister Modi’s travels to all our neighbours several times over and his “ inter-personal touch” with his counterparts have provided an unusual comfort level and understanding which will reinforce ties in the bilateral, sub- regional ,regional  and multilateral context.

India’s “Neighbourhood First Policy” is non-reciprocal and development dividend driven. However, since we cannot change our neighbours a modus vivendi and confidence building measures and periodic reassurances are a  must .

In the rapidly  changing geopolitical and geo economic scenario as a result of several Black Swan events, It would perhaps be useful for India to evolve a holistic Asia centric policy with sub regional and overlapping regional foreign policy initiatives based on 2050 projections.

The article was also published in The Indian Observer as Trigs on Track:Diplomacy Unwound: India Amidst a Regional Chaos

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About the Author

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Anil Trigunayat, is the former Ambassador of India to Jordan. Libya and Malta