Raja Mandala: Where geography is destiny

India must pay more attention to the ties that bind it to its neighbours.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published: January 2, 2018 12:10 am
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India, India china relations, India neighbours, India Nepal relations, Indian foreign policy, India Maldives ties Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Express File Photo: Prem Nath Pandey)

A series of developments in the Subcontinent at the end of 2017 cast a pall of gloom over Delhi’s foreign policy discourse. The lament was about India losing to China in its own neighbourhood. After all, China has just signed a free trade agreement with the Maldives, has won a long-term lease with Sri Lanka for the Hambantota port, and seen the “pro-China” parties win the elections in Nepal.

These may be immediate political setbacks for Delhi. But they do not in any way change the geography that binds — for good or bad — India to its neighbours. Instead of mourning China’s rising profile in the Subcontinent, Delhi should reflect on its past failures to respect the logic of geography in the neighbourhood and find ways to correct them.

Delhi’s foreign policy discourse must stop seeing the competition with China in the Subcontinent as a limited overs cricket game with one winning and the other losing at the end of play. Even if Delhi “loses” most of the presumed “encounters” with Beijing in the near term, there is no way China can eliminate, let alone neutralise, India’s weight in the Subcontinent.

Consider China’s example in East Asia. When the People’s Republic was born in 1949, few of its neighbours were willing to extend diplomatic recognition. Many of them aligned their economies with those of the US and Japan rather than with China. But once China opened up its economy in the late 1970s and embarked on regional integration, the consequences of China’s size came into play. Today it is the largest trading partner for all the nations on its periphery. Whatever the political problems China’s neighbours might have with Beijing, few are willing to forego the economic opportunities it presents.

Therein lies the first lesson for India. Although Delhi inherited an integrated commercial space from the Raj, independent India’s socialist orientation meant a steady loss of regional economic perspective, declining emphasis on trade with the neighbours and a steady neglect of connectivity with them. Although three successive prime ministers — Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi — have talked of regional economic integration, they have found it hard to get it going.

Delhi’s economic ministries have little strategic sense of the neighbourhood. For them Bhutan is as alien as Bolivia. Consider the most recent example of demonetisation, when Delhi paid little attention to the consequences for Nepal and Bhutan that are so closely tied to the Indian economy. On the economic front, then, Delhi is losing to itself rather than to Beijing.

The problem is similar on the security front. After it launched itself in 1949, the PRC found many of its neighbours locked in military alliances with America. The US military sat on all the islands facing China. Today, Beijing’s growing economic influence in the neighbourhood coupled with expanding military strength, are making it harder by the day for the US to sustain its forward military presence in China’s frontyard.

China’s proximity then trumps the massive military power differential between Beijing and Washington. Similarly, India’s proximity makes it hard for China to ever contain Delhi in the Subcontinent. To be sure, China might one day in the near future get a military base in Karachi or Gwadar. But the idea that China can “encircle” India in South Asia remains far-fetched. However, it has gained some credence, because India’s civilian defence leadership has long stopped thinking about an integrated defence of the region.

If China has reclaimed its geographical primacy in East Asia through sensible policies, so can India in South Asia. Size and geography allow Delhi and Beijing to dominate their neighbourhoods. It is never easy for outside powers to dominate the periphery of another. At the same time, it is always difficult for the regional hegemon to have a good neighbourhood policy.

For the smaller neighbours, it is always a fine balance between seeking some strategic autonomy by inviting external powers and provoking a military or political intervention by the hegemon. Ukraine, for example, lost Crimea to Russia when Moscow thought Kiev had gone too far towards the West. America and Europe have no desire to fight Russia on its periphery and there is no way Ukraine can now get back Crimea.

Political leaders among India’s smaller neighbours do know this and many of them would not want to cross the somewhat fuzzy red lines when it comes to military alignment with China. Similarly, India knows there are limits to its strategic partnerships with China’s neighbours in East Asia.

The hegemon also knows that it can’t always dictate policies to its smaller neighbours. China can put some pressure on North Korea, but it can’t control the leadership in Pyongyang. India has the same experience in Nepal and Maldives. Delhi, like Beijing, knows frequent interventions in the internal affairs of the neighbours have costs. The question is always about judging when it is prudent to intervene.

Proximity at once generates intimacy and hostility between a hegemon and its neighbours. India’s problem is not about competing with China in South Asia, but managing its messy interdependence with the neighbours with some strategic vision and a lot of tactical finesse.

The writer is director, Carnegie India, Delhi and contributing editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’.

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More From C. Raja Mohan
  1. Bihari Krishna Shrestha
    Jan 2, 2018 at 10:20 pm
    The self-serving Babus and their political acolytes in Delhi would certainly feel good by the author's suggestion that India's alienation from its immediate neighbors is after all a function of India's size. It helps them absolve themselves of any sense of guilt for continuously mismanaging its relationship with them all for the full seventy years of India's existence. But China, a still bigger country, now has attracted all its neighbors including those in south Asia with offer of generous help in a win-win relationship that, by implication, has also acted as the much needed countervail against habitually destructive and disruptive India. Given that India continues to house most of the world's poor and dispossessed all these years--a source of disgrace for her at the world stage-- and that, unemployment of its unskilled masses remains the most intractable problem for her, better sooner than later, India too must join the China bandwagon instead of doing things to antagonize her.
    1. bhimsen66
      Jan 2, 2018 at 6:15 pm
      Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Maldives and a few other in Africa have no national agenda. Shorn of any progressive, compe ive spirit they are easy pickings for vultures such as China. Had it not been for the loot by UPA, India would have purchased these countries very early when the clout of US was fading in the UN during the Obama regime. The inhabitants of minions countries are good for nothing suitable only for labour intensive work.
      1. Devendra Gautam
        Jan 2, 2018 at 8:56 pm
        You know why this is so? Because the world's largest demon-cracy has planted its agents in countries like Nepal, agents that have killed indigenous ins utions and have long been pursuing its vested interests and divisive agendas. No new or old ins ution can survive in Nepal because alien interests prevail here, always. Otherwise, a country like Nepal, probably the oldest country in the continent, would not have been reeling under chronic political instability.
      2. Samar Pahari
        Jan 2, 2018 at 3:50 pm
        Rajamohan today has come to the conclusion that India is losing its clout in its neighborhoods and China poses a real challenge here. He has perhaps pulled out an old book on India's foreign policy paradigm and by reading it rediscovered the old bogey. What China did India never cared to do and what China always avoided India always courted it. Never ever India had any friendly neighborhood because we started our journey with a megalomaniac at the helms who had a very condescending at ude of an Western Imperialist towards the neighbours of India.He gave away sovereignty of Tibet to China as if it was his father's jagir. He gifted all the river waters to Pakistan to an inimical Pakistan without taking any concessions from them through formal arrangements as if he was making a personal gift to his stable boy.He treated Nepal as a step-by-step of India forgetting the first lesson of twentieth century that no country can be held under political thraldom.
        1. Samar Pahari
          Jan 2, 2018 at 4:26 pm
          Inspite Buddhist connection neither Burma nor Sri Lanka was ever well disposed to India. China waited patiently for Hong Kong and Macau but India burged into Goa like a rampaging bull. The only country that was willing to do Indias bidding was politically insignificant but strategically located Maldives.But India never appreciated that strategic advantage. It woke up only after Saudis and China grabbed it. By pushing LATTE into Sri Lanka and JNU trained Maoists into Nepal it succeeded into making these countries hostile. Just analyse these facts to get at the root of India's failure beyond India China binary.
        2. Krishna Sharma
          Jan 2, 2018 at 3:42 pm
          True, India's size alone gives it a geopolitical clout in neighborhood. And all the neighbors know this. But the way the Brown Sahibs had been acting, has caused all the neighbors to suspect their intentions. And this had and has been the real problem. And this has caused all neighbors to be suspicious.
          1. Om Prakash Gupta
            Jan 2, 2018 at 2:45 pm
            Modi Government started with right motto of paying more attention to relations with neighbours and accordingly Prime Minister Modi invited all SAARC heads of governments to his inauguration in May 2014 but results as listed by writer in this article show that policies have been badly implemented creating more problems for India. Takeover of Hambantota port for 99 years lease shows that China has acquired physical capability to disrupt maritime traffic between the southern coast and the eastern coast of India which is the biggest dent in the national security of India made during the Modi administration. From December 2017 onward the southern economic belt of India for the first time in the history of India has become vulnerable to Chinese machinations.
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