India-China stand-off watched by neighbourhood:
- The stand-off at Doklam between the Indian and Chinese militaries has entered its third month.
- The potential fallout is being watched by the entire neighbourhood.
- There is obvious interest in how the situation plays out and the consequent change in the balance of power between India and China in South Asia.
The outcome may impact other “tri-junctions”:
- India’s other neighbours are likely to take away their own lessons about dealing with their respective “tri-junctions” both real and imagined, on land and in the sea.
- For example, the Kalapani area in Uttarakhand along an undefined India-Nepal boundary has an India-Nepal-China tri-junction. Even Kashmir has a notional India-China-Pakistan trijunction.
- China has subtly threatened to enter these tri-junctions.
- It is for this reason that governments in the region have refused to take a stand in the Doklam conflict.
- Neighbours moving away from India:
- Our closest neighbours maintaining a policy of ‘equidistance’ reflects a fall from India’s primacy in the region in the past.
- Yet, it is a slow path each of the neighbours (except Bhutan which remained close to India) has taken in the past few years.
- Since Maldives kicked Indian company GMR out of its contract to develop Male airport in 2012, Chinese companies have bagged contracts to most infrastructure projects.
- This includes development of a key new island and its link to the capital Male and a 50-year lease to another island for a tourism project.
- Nepal signed a transit trade treaty and agreement on infrastructure linkages with China in late 2015-2016.
- Today, China is building a railway to Nepal, opening up Lhasa-Kathmandu road links, and has approved a soft loan of over $200 million to construct an airport at Pokhara.
- Chinese investors made heavy foreign direct investment in Nepal.
- Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port construction project went to the Chinese in 2007 only after India rejected it.
- Today, China doesn’t just own 80% of the port; it has also won practically every infrastructure contract from Hambantota to Colombo.
- China, in 2016, committed $24 billion in infrastructure and energy projects.
- Earlier this year, Chinese consortium won a bid for three gas fields in Bangladesh which together account for more than half of the country’s total gas output.
- All these neighbours of India are also a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
- Also, as more and more investment flows in from China into these countries, it will be that much harder for them to hold off a more strategic presence of China (as clearly seen in the case of Sri Lanka).
- India’s action in Doklam is seen as one to save Bhutan from China’s strategic presence in that country.
What can India now do to bring its other neighbours also back on its side:
1. Rebooting SAARC:
- To begin with, India must regain its role as a prime mover of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
- SAARC has survived three decades in spite of its biggest challenge, India-Pakistan tensions.
- India and other countries dropped out of last year’s SAARC summit in Pakistan leading to its cancellation.
- But even a year later, no steps have been taken to restore the SAARC process.
- This will hurt the South Asian construct and further loosen the bonds that tie all the countries together, thereby making it easier for China to make inroads.
- It should be remembered that despite China’s repeated requests, SAARC was one club it never gained admittance to.
- Despite Government of India’s promotion of alternate groupings such as South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC), BIMSTEC, the BBIN and SAGAR Initiatives, none will come close to SAARC’s comprehensive cogency.
2. Not picking side in other country’s politics:
- India must recognise that picking sides in the politics of its neighbours makes little difference to China’s success there.
- In the recent past, India picked sides in politics in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh and Nepal and yet, when the favoured party came to power, it did nothing to cut down China’s presence or to favour India.
- In Bhutan’s election, also next year, it is necessary that India picks no side, as it would be a terrible position if the Doklam stand-off becomes an India-versus-China China election issue.
3. A policy of respect:
- It is about following a policy of mutual interests and of respect. India is more culturally attuned to pursuing this policy than China is.
- Each of India’s neighbours shares more than a geographical context with India. They share history, language, tradition and even cuisine.
- With the exception of Pakistan, none of them sees itself as a rival to India, or India as unfriendly to its sovereignty.
- When dealing with Beijing bilaterally, New Delhi must match China’s aggression, and counter its moves with its own.
- When dealing with China in South Asia, however, India must do exactly the opposite, and not allow itself to be outpaced by China in relationship with countries in the neighbourhood. If that means regional cooperation, a policy of respect and non-aggression (unlike China), India must follow it.
- Above all, India must recognise that doing better with its neighbours is not about investing more or undue favours.