Can India remain a pre-eminent power in South Asia? «

Can India remain a pre-eminent power in South Asia?

Relation between Nepal and India has the foundation based on close historical, cultural, religious and people-to-people ties. However, the strategic ties between them is based on the Sugauli treaty that was signed between the British East India Company and the Nepalese regime in 1816 which demarcates the Nepal-India border.

In November 2019, India issued a fresh map including the disputed territory of Kalapani as its own while Nepal too was consistently claiming as Nepal’s own. The tension was further escalated when 80 kilometers Lipulekh road was inaugurated by the Indian side through Nepali territory. Nepal sensitized the issue calling it as “unilateral act” . The objection was raised calling for a diplomatic solution over the issue but Indian side denied the Nepalese concern. Consequently, Nepal also launched its fresh map claiming all the disputed territory as its own. This has stemmed the diplomatic fallout between Nepal and India concerning the solutions towards the border dispute.

The disruption of essential supplies because of civil unrest in Terai that arose after the declaration of new constitution in 2015 has already created deep anti-Indian backlash in Nepal. Nearly all Nepalese are convinced that, it was an unofficial blockade from the government of India. And with the recent emergence of border issues, Nepal continues to translate anti-Indian sentiment inviting further trust deficit between the neighbors.

Since the adoption of constitution through constitution assembly in 2015, Nepal is going through comprehensive transformation on political, economic and social front. On such circumstances, it is utterly counterproductive for India to continue the old-fashioned ways of dealing with its immediate neighbor by recurring the issues of border conflicts.
Notwithstanding this, India consistently professes “neighborhood first” policy. Their foreign policy architecture states that, it respects the territorial integrity and sovereignty of its neighbors and expects to work on bilateral basis for mutual cooperation. In contradiction, its foreign policy practice concerning its neighbors’ is manifesting a depressing reality.

India’s old neighborhood policy vis-à-vis Nepal in particular and other South Asian countries, in general, is often criticized for being big-brotherly, less consultative, less cooperative engagements and lacking the idea of mutual respect.

India also has transboundary water disputes with Nepal, Bangladesh, China, Bhutan and Pakistan. Not to mention, there are instances of firing and killing of border guards in India-Bangladesh border. Likewise, Indo-Bhutan relationship has persisted considerably complex and enigmatic. Much of the Bhutanese population acknowledge that, India has interfered on Bhutan’s foreign relations with China in such a way that, Bhutan does not engage with China in a diplomatic relation.
India already has an evergreen political animosity and extremely frosty relationship with Pakistan. Similarly, despite India’s expanding diplomatic engagement with China, relationship has been falling apart. The geopolitical standoff at the tri-junction on the bordering area of China, India and Bhutan at the Doklam has not been resolved yet. India’s fierce face-off with China at Ladakh is very fresh.

India has an unpredictable superpower at its northern border, China. While India’s geopolitical and geoeconomic rival is ascending to global superpower status, it is extremely important for India to re-visit and re-craft its foreign policy instrument. It must be mindful concerning the changing political discourse within South Asia and be sensitive to neighbor’s perceptions and boost the regular interactions at both political and diplomatic plane.
Despite India’s reluctance, all of India’s neighborhood support and welcome the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China. Along with the rise of China, its influence in South Asia is growing vibrantly. This is more visible in Nepal, Pakistan and Myanmar.
More recently, China has been more influential in Nepal by engaging itself in the development of infrastructures and also in the soft power diplomacy of various ranges. India is concerned about rising influence of China in Nepal. Nevertheless, instead of adhering to self-introspection and fact checking, it keeps taking the easy method of blaming Nepal.

India also feels threatened against the assumed collaboration between Pakistan and China as it is likely to constrain India’s growth and has potential risk of being boxed within South Asia.
The South Asian region is full of contradictions, disparities and paradoxes.
Since the attack on the military base in Uri on September 18, 2016, India has been constantly narrating that, “entire neighborhood ‘minus one’ has been a good story” clearly referring to Pakistan. Following the incident, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is in a complete standstill. As an alternative to SAARC, India has prioritized Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) trying to isolate Pakistan in South Asia.
Besides some degree of military conflicts, the region is also vulnerable to many non-military issues like climate change, poverty and inequality, food and water security, energy security, sustainable use of scarce resources, migrations and pandemics among others. These issues are transboundary in nature and South Asian countries cannot handle it alone. It requires nation-to-nation or regional cooperation.

India’s Prime minister sudden surprise proposal for the creation of COVID-19 Emergency Fund for SAARC during the video conference with country leaders on 15 March 2020 was a very hopeful drive for the revival of SAARC. However, until now, no significant steps has been taken towards this initiative.

While India is envisioning to become a major global power, it must first realize its position in the region and work towards becoming a regional power. For this, it is extremely necessary for India to build confidence in the region by gaining the trust from its immediate neighbors. India will need not only a new comprehensive neighborhood policy, but also, human, diplomatic and financial capital to secure warm relations with her neighbors at different levels.

India’s Immediate neighborhood policy is its reflections of most urgent international aspirations. Aspiration is dynamic, evolving and contextual to the changing geopolitical situation of its neighbors. The delivery mechanisms must be corrected if it must earn the respect and confidence of its neighbors. Only by tapping the proactive neighborhood policies, it can secure its rise as the regional powerhouse.

Certainly, the South Asian region comprises India’s immediate neighborhood and it is vital for India to keep friendly relations for its own security and prosperity. India has a strong socio-cultural and historical affinity with its South Asian neighbors, which China lacks. It just needs to review its foreign policy instruments concerning its immediate neighbors and seriously take step to correct the prevailing impressions as an assertive, interfering and hegemonic neighbor.

Mr. Rajib Neupane is a Research Trainee at The Asian Institute of Diplomacy and International Affairs (AIDIA) with MSc in Globalization, Transnationalism and Culture. He can be reached at [email protected]


Rajib Neupane