At almost every international or regional conference, seminar or workshop one attends, the recurring refrain from foreign delegates is that even as India is historically poised to play a major role in Southeast Asia, it seems reluctant to seize the moment. These are the assessments of not only our immediate neighbours but also of those who come from countries further away and who have long-term ties and interests with India. It becomes imperative, therefore, for us to examine if their analyses of India’s policies towards its neighbours and regional counterparts are correct.
While it is true that in recent times India has developed greater influence in Southeast Asia, it is also true that India’s support is sought by major global players to fashion future geo-strategic balances in the region and further. Not only has the US declared India as its “strategic partner” to counter the rising power and influence of China but the two nations have also projected their allied interests in the rebalancing of power in the region. There are many intricate issues that underline India’s foreign policy. Besides countries which do not have favourable ties with India, even the ones that have a favourable disposition often turn critical about India’s stand on issues and policies toward them.
Sri Lankan politics and policies during the turbulent years of ethnic conflict and the present phase of rebuilding itself have greatly concerned India. During the conflict years Sri Lanka turned to India, as its immediate and influential neighbour, for all forms of co-operation. After the conflict came to an end with the defeat of the LTTE, while the mainstream establishment continued to view India as a friend, there were rumblings from other elements within the establishment. Flushed with their victory in the war and the destruction of the Eelam dream permanently, many in Sri Lanka changed their earlier view about India and strident voices have been rising about India’s role in Sri Lanka. With due reverence to the principle of sovereignty, India has reiterated throughout the ethnic conflict and subsequently, too, that it was never in favour of creation of a new independent state in the island but completely acquiesced with the principle of devolution of power to the Tamils. The Sri Lankan establishment, on the other hand, has spoken in different voices regarding the extent to which it will permit India to be involved. That is to say, while India’s aid for infrastructure development in the fractured North is accepted, Sri Lanka has different thoughts about the 13th Amendment and prefers India to be a passive bystander. India merely desires that Sri Lanka adhere to its commitment to provide limited autonomy to Tamil-dominated North and Eastern provinces and find an acceptable long-term solution to the imbalances of power-sharing between the ethnic groups. However, India is seen by many in the Sri Lankan majority as “interfering” and by many of the Tamils as “betraying”. Both these emotional judgements are based on their personal frustrations and aspirations stemming from events that have happened solely on their soil.
Bangladesh’s history books will find it hard to expunge India’s role in the creation of the nation in 1971. Yet it seems somewhere in the course of history Bangladesh has developed dissatisfaction with India. One of the many major concerns for Bangladesh has been the sharing of the waters of the Ganges. A subject matter that has for 35 years been extremely emotional in Bangladesh and has affected the eastern states in India, even after several bilateral agreements and rounds of talks it has not been resolved in a manner that has appeased Bangladesh. The result is a deficit of trust where the indication has been that India being a larger nation has staked a larger claim. Despite a comprehensive bilateral treaty signed in 1996 that has established a 30-year water-sharing arrangement, one often hears in Bangladesh voices about the “unfairness” of the arrangement. There are several other issues where Bangladesh prefers that India stay away but it also expects India “to do something” and support Bangladesh in matters that affect it directly. One of these issues is the Chinese proposal and graded execution of diversion of water to the water-starved regions of northern China which would result in irreparable damage to the lower riparian states and chiefly Bangladesh.
Nepal, which has very close ties with India, is currently caught in the vortex of uncertainty and inquietude. During the bloody transition from the monarchy to its present form of desired democracy, the Royalists on the one hand and the Maoists and other political parties on the other have been dissatisfied by India’s responses to the events. India’s slow and measured responses during the period of turmoil were confused with unwillingness to take a definite stand. Keen to see proper governance return to Nepal, India has encouraged resolution of the issues of ethnic federalism. Analysts and the establishments in Nepal, however, have misconstrued this as attempts by India to impose its will.
India is the largest regional provider for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. India has invested more than $2 billion in Afghan infrastructure and is helping rebuild police forces, judiciary and diplomatic services. Pakistan and China have been crying foul about India’s intention alleging it seeks to establish its influence in Afghanistan and benefit post-withdrawal of US troops. Strategists and academics in Afghanistan, however, often express hope of an India-Iran-Afghanistan co-operation that would benefit the trio and keep Chinese and Russian influences at bay.
It is obvious that India’s size, geographical and economic, causes concerns among our neighbours. The fear is amplified with China’s allegations that India treats Bhutan as a “protectorate” and has been interfering with its elections. China also perpetuates the myth that India behaves as a hegemonic power to spread its influence in the region. However, while addressing many regional issues, India has been displaying sensitivity to the national interests of its neighbours. Whether it is called upon to deal with the internal dynamics of Maldives or continue bilateral ties with the progressively evolving military junta of Myanmar, India has shown its ability to follow the accepted principles of statecraft. It is necessary for those that consider careful assessment or action as a mark of reluctance to be a regional power to understand how seriously India takes its responsibility to maintain regional peace and stability.
(The writer is an expert in international law and founding member of Centre for Security Analysis, Chennai. Email:email@example.com)