India’s neighborhood is in the midst of significant change. In Sri Lanka, an unlikely coalition with former Minister of Health Maithripala Sirisena defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa in the country’s presidential election in January. In the Maldives, former president Mohamed Nasheed, having been systematically harassed since a de facto coup in 2012, has been sentenced to 13 years in prison and found guilty of terrorism. Afghanistan’s future looks precarious as a unity government led by President Ashraf Ghani attempts to make peace with the Afghan Taliban.
Islamist forces in Bangladesh continue to challenge the secular fabric of the state, resulting in upswing in attacks against Hindu and Buddhist minorities. Those who champion the cause of freedom and tolerance are being silenced, the heinous murder of blogger Avijit Roy earlier this month being but the most recent example.
These transformative events coincide with India having witnessed a gradual but definite attrition of its influence in the region over the last several years. In Sri Lanka, as in the Maldives, years of neglect left a vacuum that was readily filled by China. In Afghanistan, the dithering of past governments resulted in India failing to capitalize on opportunities to further strengthen security cooperation between the two countries, and in the process, bolster Afghanistan’s conventional military and counter-insurgency capabilities. A historic opportunity to move past contentious land and water-sharing issues with Bangladesh was left unrealized as a result of domestic political wrangling with the West Bengal government.
However, there are encouraging signs that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), elected to power last May, understands these challenges and intends to address them. In a significant first step, the NDA demonstrated that it took India’s neighborhood seriously by inviting the leaders of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Mauritius to attend the inauguration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2014.
India’s pressing need is to regain lost credibility, leadership and influence in its immediate neighborhood. To that end, India’s foreign secretary S Jaishankar embarked on visit to India’s “continental” neighborhood, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as Sri Lanka, while Prime Minister Modi paid official visits to India’s littoral neighbors – Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka (he had visited Nepal in August 2014). That Modi’s visit was the first for an Indian Prime Minister to Nepal since 1997, Mauritius since 1987, Seyschelles since 1981 is a reflection of the extent to which India has ignored its own neighborhood.
C Raja Mohan and SD Muni have argued that India’s aspirations of “achieving the objective of becoming one of the principal powers of Asia will depend entirely on India’s ability to manage its own immediate neighborhood.” There are economic and strategic considerations at play that make India reestablishing its leadership and influence in its immediate neighborhood an imperative.
Economically, there are shared benefits to closer economic integration between India and its immediate neighbors. India already accounts for about 80 per cent of the overall economy of the Indian subcontinent and Indian Ocean Region (IOR) littoral. Rapid and sustained economic growth in India can act as a catalyst for further economic development for its neighbors. To that end, India must encourage its smaller neighbors to participate in its economy and provide asymmetric benefits where appropriate to incentivize bilateral trade and market access. India must move forward with a bold agenda for regional economic integration, with or without the participation of Pakistan.
On the security front, many of India’s neighbors benefit from India’s role as the dominant net security provider in the region. Its armed forces have provided non-military and military assistance to its neighbors at critical junctures. The Indian Navy’s humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the Indian Army’s role in repelling an attempted coup in the Maldives in 1988 and the Indian Navy’s response to a planned coup in Seychelles in 1986 come to mind.
However, given India’s large and disproportionate military power relative to its smaller neighbors, concerns of Indian “hegemonic designs” are but understandable, and a bridging of the trust deficit is essential. Today, India and its neighbors are confronted with common threats and challenges in the Indian subcontinent, from terrorism, piracy and an interest in ensuring the integrity and security of the sea lines of communication that transport much of the world’s energy supplies.
India’s capacity to address these common threats and safeguard regional interests can be enhanced by actively cooperating with its neighbors, while working to assuage their fears. In this regard, Sathiya Moorthy rightly calls for a regional security architecture where “Indian strategic needs and historical security concerns are taken on board along with the concerns of India’s smaller neighbors.” India’s recent agreements with Mauritius and Seychelles to develop infrastructure in the Agalega and Assumption islands will augment capabilities in addressing areas of mutual concern.
It is also in India’s interests to promote a pluralistic, representative and democratic Afghanistan. While it continues to provide much-needed economic aid and investment to that country, the notion that it should relegate its activities exclusively outside the security domain must be actively challenged. India’s own security has been directly impacted in the past as a consequence of instability in Afghanistan and New Delhi cannot accept terms from other countries on how it should be engaging with Kabul.
Lastly, all too often, commentary on India’s engagement with its neighbors is held hostage to a narrative of Sino-Indian rivalry. But this is a false proposition because relations between India’s smaller neighbors with either India or China is not zero sum. It is only natural for countries in the region to leverage China against India (or vice versa), but India is already the dominant strategic and military partner for many of its neighbors and enjoys close historical, economic and cultural ties with them. Therefore, fears of it being supplanted by China are somewhat exaggerated. Indeed, as events of the past many years have unfortunately shown, the greatest threat to India’s preeminent position in the region comes from itself, rather than from a foreign power.