Raja Mandala: Regional India, global South Asia

As other powers engage South Asian nations, Delhi must deal with a changing Subcontinent.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Updated: May 31, 2016 10:43 am
Narendra Modi

Their presence at the G-7 summit at Ise-Shima, Japan, last week was hardly noticed in India. But among the six leaders of the developing world present in the outreach session were Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh, and Maithripala Sirisena, president of Sri Lanka.

The Japanese invitation to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka underlines the remarkable rise in Tokyo’s strategic interest in the Subcontinent. It also highlights the growing salience of South Asian nations on the international stage.

Japan is a late entrant to this game; China has already begun to integrate India’s neighbours into its larger international and regional strategies. The $ 46 billion China-Pakistan economic corridor is only one example. In another, Beijing has given Colombo and Kathmandu the status of a “dialogue partner” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

As other powers begin to devote quality time to engaging South Asian nations, big and small, Delhi must lend additional depth and energy to its current “neighbourhood first” strategy. Above all, it must come to terms with the unfolding globalisation of the Subcontinent.

Much of the international discourse on South Asia often gets reduced to the India-Pakistan relations; this only helps mask the significance of the other nations in the region. And the reference to them as “smaller nations” of the region is largely inaccurate.

In terms of population size, Bangladesh is the eighth largest in the world with its numbers standing at more than 160 million. Afghanistan (33mn) Nepal (29mn) and Sri Lanka (21mn) are at 40th, 46th and 57th positions respectively. Only Bhutan and Maldives, with their populations below 1 mn, may be termed as mini states.

Since independence, India has been compelled to pay special attention to a Pakistan that punched way above its weight in the world. An Islamic identity, critical geopolitical location, association with Western military alliances and the possession of nuclear weapons have given Pakistan much weight in regional affairs.

India has also devoted considerable energy towards Afghanistan that has been at the centre of the Great Game for more than two centuries. It has become a vital part of India’s strategy towards Pakistan and the battle against violent religious extremism. With its focus on the Af-Pak region, however, Delhi has tended to miss the growing strategic significance of the other nations in the neighbourhood.

Bangladesh is today one of the fastest growing economies of the world and is open to massive investments in the infrastructure sector. No wonder, China and Japan are competing vigorously for project contracts in Bangladesh. Both Beijing and Tokyo also see the country as the fulcrum of the eastern subcontinent and a bridge between South Asia, China and South East Asia.

Long viewed as India’s buffers to the north, Bhutan and Nepal have now become theatres of contestation with China. To the South, Sri Lanka is rediscovering its central location in the Indian Ocean, as all major powers like China, US and Japan pay unprecedented attention to Colombo.

Maldives, which straddles the vital sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean, has now become a highly coveted piece of maritime real estate as China turns its gaze upon the Indian Ocean.

The new geopolitical dynamism animating all corners of South Asia poses a number of important challenges for India. One, Delhi no longer has the luxury of viewing the region as India’s “backyard”. It must begin to recognise the growing gulf between its claims of primacy in the region and the growing economic, political and military influence of China in the Subcontinent.

Two, the new international opportunities have allowed the ruling elites in our neighbourhood to pursue greater “strategic autonomy” from India. This means Delhi will have to work harder than ever before to retain its historic leverages in the neighbourhood.

Three, the economic geography of the Subcontinent was inherently in India’s favour. Partition, the inward economic orientation of socialist India, and the neglect of connectivity and commerce at and across the frontiers has seen Delhi squander many of the inherited advantages. Modi’s India is trying hard to compensate but the scale and scope of its initiatives are no match to the Chinese efforts to reconfigure the economic geography of the Subcontinent.

Four, India’s “neighbourhood first” strategy is complicated by its deep involvement in the internal politics of the South Asian nations. Unlike in the past, those who resent India’s intervention don’t have to merely lump it. They have countered it by seeking intervention of other powers. Delhi, therefore, will have to rethink the nature of its intervention in the internal affairs of its neighbours.

Last but not the least, India must stop seeing itself as the “lone ranger” in South Asia. While it must necessarily compete with rival powers when they threaten its interests, it must also learn to collaborate with friendly powers, wherever possible, in shaping the regional environment. This requires a new mindset in Delhi that focuses on strategic regional outcomes rather than the right to unilateral means.

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

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First Published on: May 31, 2016 12:39 am
  1. K
    K SHESHU
    May 31, 2016 at 11:35 am
    Relationship with south Asian countries is not satisfactory. India has squandered many opportunities in showing its diplomatic skills to improve friendly ties. The madhesi problem of Nepal or differing strategies with stan , the diplomatic handling of foreign affairs has found wanting at the crucial junctures !
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      Ranjem Fedas
      Jun 1, 2016 at 1:03 am
      LOL the author lives in lala land. China has taken territory from india, but the focus is stan. India dismembered stan in 1971 but the focus is stan. stan is such an interest qmongst political, military and other circles, India will never be able to deal with it. China's approach is different than India it never interferes in internal issues like Nepal or Bangladesh. With political issues in am India will lose the game to China in Bangladesh also. These are issues india knows but can't do anything about apart from disturbing stan which also it won't be able to do for long.
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      1. B
        Bihari Krishna
        May 31, 2016 at 5:40 pm
        India has never pla its due role in south Asia in a proper manner, that is, with a conviction that the w could be bigger than the sum of its parts. Somehow, the succession of the country's leadership--no matter which party or ideology at the helm-remained captive to its own version of age-old Monroe doctrine and tormented all its neighbours to show that it is India that decides their destiny. In the case of stan it is even worse. While stan would probably never forget India dismembering the erstwhile stan, the 1948 UN resolution on Kashmir has continued to keep the ball in India's court for its resolution that can be worked out only with India, stan and Kashmir working together. Unless there is fundamental change in the mindset and policies of New Delhi, it will continue to be overtaken by other powers, China being the one gaining the most in recent years. For instance, the recent mindless India's blockade of Nepal (and its childish denial) forced the latter to go completely in the embrace of China that has suddenly turned the Nepal-India relation on its head to latter's immense disadvantage. Henceforth, India would never have the/ kind of sway in Nepal that it had enjo all these years and decades until only a few months ago. However, the strange thing remains that such long string of setbacks all around does not seem to embarr India that otherwise should have been playing a major role at the world stage. In any case, India must reincarnate herself in her regional policy, and the starting point should be to bring in a fresh breath in New Delhi to think and chart a new course of action, preferably in cordial consultation with its neighbours
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        1. G
          GauravFulmamdikar
          May 31, 2016 at 5:53 pm
          India is a respected and responsible neighbor in the subcontinent.....it has proved its credentials time and again. We must try to construct economic bridges with our neighborhood....as economy calls shots these days. Also we must respect sovereignty of our neighbors( very recently Nepal issue was rather a politico-diplomatic mismanagement on India's part). As regards stan.....we must trade cautiously....as always....for it is a back-stabber.also we should strengthen our strategic strengths with our neighbors.
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            BharatK
            Jun 5, 2016 at 11:03 am
            What is South Asia means? Another jargon.
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            1. K
              K. K.
              May 31, 2016 at 4:38 pm
              What consequences does this writer see, if Delhi does not change its old policy. Or Why should Delhi change its policy in South Asia.
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              1. S
                SP
                May 31, 2016 at 6:41 am
                The write should be careful in the choice of his words. It is the Indian sub-continent and not South Asia or South Asia sub-continent. South Asia as a term has been started by stan and by a particular community as a ploy to undermine the ancient history of the Indian sub-continent.
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                  BR
                  May 31, 2016 at 10:16 am
                  The way India was governed from 1947 till 2014 indicated a people who did not understand democracy or federalism, or else such step motherly treatment of northeast would not have happened. After 1971, we had great opportunity while respecting Bangladeshi sovereignty, to undo the economic disconnect parion had done upon West Bengal, am, Tripura, Manipur, Nagaland, and Orissa at least, but we chose not to. Now Bangladesh is marching on, don't forget pre British the GDP of Bengal alone was 12% of global economy, while India as a w was 25-30%. So without colonial loot, all our Indian subcontinent people are bound to get back up there.
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                    Ramesh Grover
                    May 31, 2016 at 3:33 am
                    All the points raised in this article are balance and well pointed. Do we have right think tanks for each area of significance to work out suggestions for road maps?
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                      rkannan
                      May 31, 2016 at 12:50 pm
                      Raja is correct when he says India pays too much attention to stan and too little to other nations in the Indian sub continent. stan actually is a smaller economy than Bangladesh and we should treat it as less important than Nepal and Sri Lanka because it is irrelevant in the world stage. We also need to focus on quick completion of Chabahar port which would enable access to Afghanistan and Central Asia completely byping insignificant stan. stan has chosen to be virulently anti India and the sooner we ignore it, with the contempt it deserves, the better will be our growth. China is already talking of using the Chabbahar port and Gawadar will probably only remain a Chinese naval port in the future.
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