Engaging India’s Truant Neighbours
SAAG Paper 1322, 05.04.2005
India has always found it frustrating to maintain friendly relations with most of its neighbours. Some analysts attribute this to the failure of Indian diplomacy to deal with its neighbours as equals, implying that India is all too ready to throw her weight around. Others have pointed at complex relations India’s neighbours share with third parties who are strategic competitors of India in the region. In any case, the crisis continuing in Nepal should be a cause for utmost concern to Delhi, and India needs to act now if it does not want to lose the world’s only Hindu kingdom from its list of supposed friends.
India has been facing a dilemma for years- whether to support the King who keeps wriggling out of his promises on establishing democracy in the kingdom, or risk having a Maoist republic next door which could link up with India’s own far left separatists. India has been facing a severe Maoist insurgency in more than a third of all her districts, and the prospects of their brethren controlling the government coffers in Nepal does not spell well for India, given the porous nature of her border with Nepal, leaving open the prospects of arms smuggling wide open.
This dilemma has led India to be very hesitant in its attitude towards the latest crisis in Nepal. Immediately upon the King’s declaration of emergency in Kathmandu, a foreign office spokesperson described the situation being ‘of great concern to India’ and a ‘setback for democracy’. More importantly, India and Britain immediately froze all military aid to Nepal, hitting it where it hurts most. However, this makes the Indian position even more unclear. Unfortunately, while Delhi remains muddled in her self-created dilemma, it is the Maoists who are gaining the upper hand.
But the real concern for India lies elsewhere. While Nepal was cold shouldered by its traditional ally India, Pakistan and China immediately cosied up to the King during the aftermath of the royal coup. On March 11, Pakistan’s Ambassador Zamir Akram said, “We are ready to provide arms if that is required by Nepal.” While Pakistan can only offer military and economic aid on an ad hoc basis given the shambles its own economy is in, that cannot possibly be said of China, Asia’s second largest economy. Beijing’s dispatching of Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing to Kathmandu n amidst all the chaos the country is in because of the royal clampdown on dissent should be of utmost concern to India. Delhi should view this as a concerned effort on behalf of China to bring Nepal in its camp by making it dependent on economic and military aid. While Indo-Nepalese economic relations run deep, China can make a severe dent in this relationship by flexing its own economic muscle.
The worst fear running in Indian diplomatic circles is that of being encircled in the sub-continent with hostile neighbours, and it feels that is precisely what China is sincerely working towards. There are reasons to believe that Beijing is overtly friendly to Pakistan and Bangladesh for a reason- both these countries have been accused by India of harbouring cross border terrorism within its territory. When India supported Aung San Suu Kyi and the democratic movement in Myanmar and China nipped it in the bud by supporting the military junta (which eventually won the struggle), it was viewed in Delhi, perhaps not mistakenly, as another victory for China’s agenda of cornering India into the dustbin of Asia. Incidentally, Foreign Minister Natwar Singh was in Myanmar last week, trying to notch up a gas pipeline deal. He also described Myanmar as a valued neighbour and a friendly nation. But has India been too late yet again?
The composite dialogue with Pakistan was well on track until the recent US announcement to allow the sale of F-16 fighters to the country. Although that might not be enough to derail the process, it might well breed new seeds of suspicion- something that is so easy to do between India and Pakistan. Wen Jiabao, on his next week visit to the sub-continent will be spending an extended period in Pakistan, and is sure to issue statements renewing Beijing’s ‘all weather’ friendship with Islamabad, something which will antagonise India further. India’s relations with Bangladesh are not at their highest point after Delhi cancelled on Dhaka for the recent SAARC meet and is refusing to commit on a Bangladesh-Myanmar gas pipeline due to security concerns. Sri Lanka might soon sign an FTA with China wiping off the slight advantage India held there. India’s Nepal policy is in a mess. Has India landed itself in an unrecoverable position?
Not quite it seems. India still holds more clout than any other power in King Gyanendra’s court. It needs to make it crystal clear to the King that an armed solution to Nepal’s problems is not possible. A constitutional assembly needs to be set up, and India should offer to mediate in such an effort. Such a move would not only increase Indian influence in Nepal, but also might change its perception among the Maoists. As a broader policy for the region, India needs to make a sincere effort in speeding up the South Asian Free Trade Area process. Currently, the countries have made provisional commitments ‘in principle’ to reduce tariffs by 2009–10. Bangladesh and Pakistan are continuously torpedoing the process due to their fears of an Indian take-over of their industries. India needs to alter their mindset, perhaps even by conceding to their demands in the shorter term, with a commitment to complete free trade in the medium term.
It seems India has options, but does it have the will?