External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s travels to Sri Lanka last week and the incoming visit of Nepal’s foreign minister, Pradeep Gyawali, this week bring India’s neighbourhood diplomacy back into focus. The two visits also highlight the perennial questions on India’s role in the domestic politics of other South Asian nations.
India’s reluctance to be drawn into the latest round of political turmoil in Kathmandu has drawn much attention. Delhi’s refusal is in contrast to Beijing’s active effort to preserve the unity of the ruling communist party in Kathmandu.
Has India finally recognised the virtue of non-intervention in the internal affairs of its neighbouring countries? And is Beijing breaking from its proclaimed principle of non-interference in other societies?
Not so fast. Neither Delhi nor Beijing are departing from the basic traditions of their foreign policy towards the neighbours. Interventions on their periphery have been an enduring feature of Indian and Chinese foreign policy. The problem is less with their diplomatic practice than the misleading public discourse on the principles of “sovereignty and non-intervention”.
That India can’t simply stand apart from the domestic politics of its neighbours was quite evident during Jaishankar’s remarks in Colombo. Jaishankar underlined the importance of Colombo addressing the expectations of the Sri Lankan Tamil minority for “equality, justice, peace and dignity” within a united Sri Lanka.
China’s rhetoric on non-intervention never corresponded with the reality of its foreign policy. In the 1960s and 1970s, it fanned communist revolutions all across Asia. There was a brief pause during Deng Xiaoping’s tenure when China sought to end Maoist excesses at home and abroad to focus on economic development.
As China became strong and its interests in the neighbourhood began to grow, it determined to shape outcomes in other societies. China’s current behaviour in Nepal is not an exception to the rule; it is very much part of China’s current interventionist strategy across Asia and beyond.
To make matters a little more complicated, India and China always insist that other countries should stop interfering in their respective internal affairs. It is tempting to call out this hypocrisy; but big nations always intervene in other nations but fend off potential threats to their own sovereignty.
That does not, of course, prevent others from messing with Delhi and Beijing. Most recently, India reacted strongly to the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comments on the farmers’ agitation. The US and its allies regularly criticise China’s domestic policies, most recently Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong. Delhi and Beijing have a long record of accusing the other of interference in their domestic politics.
Intervention is part of international life; and the rhetoric on sovereignty in the international discourse tends to be, as one scholar put it, “organised hypocrisy”. All powers — big and small — frequently violate the principle of sovereignty.
The concept of national sovereignty was never absolute. The ability to secure one’s sovereignty depends on a state’s comprehensive national power. Big nations tend to intervene more, and the smaller ones find ways to manage this through the politics of balancing against their large neighbours.
Ironically, preventing intervention by one power invites intervention by another. For example, Nepal has long resented India’s interventions and saw Beijing as a benign neighbour. But as it gets closer to China to balance India, Nepal finds Beijing has its own imperatives for intervention.
The pressure for external intervention often comes from major domestic constituencies within. For example, the conflict between Sinhala majority and Tamil minority in Sri Lanka produces Chennai’s political pressure on Delhi to intervene in Sri Lanka.
The demand sometimes comes from outside. In Nepal, for example, elite competition sees different factions trying to mobilise external powers to gain the advantage over their domestic rivals. In recent years, we have also seen the intense interaction between domestic power struggles and external powers like India and China. The Maldives is one example.
For India, the question is not about choosing between intervention and non-intervention. It is about carefully managing the unavoidable and dynamic interaction between the domestic political processes of India and its neighbours. Given the nature of South Asia’s political geography, very few problems can be isolated within the territories of nations. There is also the tension between the shared cultural identity in the subcontinent and the determination of the smaller nations to define a contemporary identity independent of India.
The bitter legacies of Partition leave the domestic political dynamics of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan tied together and complicate their interaction as separate sovereign entities. India’s relations with its smaller neighbours are also burdened by the legacy of India’s past hegemony and the emerging challenges to it.
India can neither stand apart nor jump into every domestic conflict within the neighbourhood. The real question, then is, when to intervene and when to avoid it. There is no single formula to guide policy on this score. It is always about political judgement about specific situations.
If the concept of national sovereignty is limited by circumstance, so is the effectiveness of third-party intervention. External interventions in the domestic politics of neighbours are rarely successful and produce unintended consequences that acquire a life of their own.
Big powers tend to underestimate the costs of intervention in their neighbourhood and overestimate the prospects for success. Active and direct intervention in the domestic politics of neighbours must be a prudent exception rather than the rule in India’s regional diplomacy.
Even the most powerful nations find it hard to compel the smallest states to do what is right on such issues as democratic governance, minority rights and federalism. They must come out of the organic evolution of each society. Democracy and good governance can never be an outsider’s gifts to a nation.
India can encourage, but can’t really force Colombo and Kathmandu to respect the rights of Tamils and Madhesis. But given the intricate web of linkages across South Asian borders, Delhi can’t avoid dealing with these difficult issues either.
The subcontinent has historically been an integrated geopolitical space with a shared civilisational heritage. Equally true is the reality of multiple contemporary sovereignties within South Asia. In dealing with these twin realities, the principles guiding India’s engagement are not too difficult to discern.
As Jaishankar promised Sri Lankan leaders in Colombo, “India will always be a dependable partner and reliable friend” and is committed to strengthening bilateral ties “on the basis of mutual trust, mutual interest, mutual respect and mutual sensitivity”. These are not easy principles to follow. But the new vocabulary on “mutual respect and mutual sensitivity” is certainly welcome. Delhi’s consistent pursuit of this framework could help India better manage the complex dynamic with its neighbours.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 12, 2021, under the title “Engaging the neighbour”. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express