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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 42 New Delhi October 6, 2018

India and the Neighbourhood: New Delhi’s Faltering Diplomacy

Sunday 7 October 2018

by Purusottam Bhattacharya

New Delhi finds itself on a sticky wicket at the moment so far as its neighbourhood policy is concerned. (Neighbourhood for the purpose of this article denotes India’s immediate and smaller South Asian neighbours excluding Pakistan.) The Nepalese decision to pull out of the first ever joint military drill by members of the BIMSTEC, as agreed by the seven state grouping in its recent Fourth Summit held at Kathmandu, and Kathmandu’s readiness to participate in a 12-day-long military exercise with China is being viewed by many strategic experts in India as a slap on New Delhi’s face so soon after hosting the Indian Prime Minister and other leaders of BIMSTEC in Nepal’s capital at the end of August. Brigadier General Gokul Bhandaree, the Nepal Army spokesperson, told a leading Indian daily that the second such joint exercise with China (the first one was held in April 2017) took place on September 17-28. 2018 in Chengdu. The degree of concern in India over Nepal’s growing security cooperation with Beijing was reflected in the remarks of a former Indian Foreign Secretary when he said: “By taking such inconsiderate steps, they will alienate Indian opinion more and the cost will be felt when Nepal faces a crisis in the future. They have to nurture the India relationship, not create distrust.” (The Times of India, September 11, 2018)

While opinions might vary on Nepal’s right to take an independent stand in its relations with India and China, the fact of the matter is that the Nepalese decision indicates its reluctance to see BIMSTEC take on a significant security role. It might be argued that Kathmandu was a party to the BIMSTEC declaration emphasising the group’s determination to fight terror and the decision to hold a joint military drill in Pune in September though it is reported to have changed its mind following opposition to the participation of the Nepalese Army in the Pune drill from various Nepali quarters. In fact K.P. Sharma Oli, the Nepalese Prime Minister, defended the BIMSTEC decision to hold the joint military exercise among the Armies of the group’s member-countries as a “friendly gesture” in the Nepal House of Representatives on September 4. Facing mounting criticism from the Opposition lawmakers Oli further said BIMSTEC neither has any military motive nor does Nepal believe in a military pact. The question that arises from this development is whether the twist in the Nepalese decision is a quirk of the Himalayan state’s domestic politics indicating a long-standing trend in Kathmandu in its efforts to wriggle itself out of its ‘over-dependence’ on India and widen its options by cozying up to China. It may be recalled in this connection that this is not the first time that Nepal has played the ‘China card’ in its relations with India. King Mahendra did the same in the 1960s, especially after the India-China war of 1962.

However, the wider question is: is it not ‘a straw in the wind’ so far as New Delhi’s neighbourhood diplomacy is concerned? Because of its pre-eminent position in South Asia India’s relationships with all its close neighbours have always been sensitive. India’s unique centrality has spawned a negative image for itself in the perceptions of these countries for which both geo-political asymmetry and the past history of New Delhi’s ham-handed diplomacy is respon-sible. Rightly or wrongly India has largely been perceived as a hegemon bent on imposing its supremacy in the region and is therefore a threat to the identity and independence of these countries. New Delhi has made efforts to counter this Indo-phobia among its smaller neighbours though factors mentioned above have prevented these efforts from being converted into amity. It is necessary to keep this backdrop in mind while viewing the recent developments not just in regard to Nepal but also Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka and even Bangladesh.

The two Himalayan states, Nepal and Bhutan, are geo-strategically of crucial importance to India and they essentially act as buffers between China and India. Even Jawaharlal Nehru had noted, as far back as the late 1940s, that if the security of these two states is breached the security of India will be breached. India-Nepal relations have been relatively free from the kind of dissonance witnessed in the cases of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka though there were hitches between the two countries in the 1960s when, as mentioned earlier, King Mahendra tried to play the ‘China card’ against India with adroitness; the issues of trade and transit treaties (Nepal’s dependence on India for access to the sea for its trade due to its landlocked status) have also played ducks and drakes in bilateral relations especially in the late 1980s. However, after the abolition of the monarchy in 2008 in that country Nepal underwent a profound and prolonged transition to a popular democracy which now appears, on the face of it, complete with the adoption of a new Constitution and the recent election of a popular government. Throughout this period India remained concerned that the political process in Nepal culminates in the establishment of a stable democratic order which would facilitate a more congenial relationship between the two countries.

The relationship with Bhutan has been the only one of its kind which has been relatively tranquil and friction-free. The two countries have enjoyed the most amicable relationship in India’s immediate neighbourhood. Bhutan is dependent on India in many ways and therefore has been under some constraints to maintain a good relationship with New Delhi. India also appreciates the crucial geo-political and geo-strategic significance of Bhutan, recently witnessed during the stand-off between the Indian and Chinese Armies at Doklam during June-August 2017 in the tri-junction of India-China-Bhutan, and has therefore acted with caution and maturity, and not in a ham-handed way with its tiny north-eastern neighbour. (It may however be noted in this context that during the Doklam stand-off between India and China, Bhutan, whose territory the Chinese Army had intruded upon, was less vocal against Beijing than New Delhi.)

India’s concerns, compounded by recent developments, about Nepal’s gradual drift towards China are therefore justified. A notable development in this regard in late August 2018 was the agreement between Nepal and China on the technical details on the Kathmandu-Kerung railway line and the two sides will soon begin the process of preparing a detailed report for what has been touted as one of the most challenging projects even for a country like China which has mastered advanced railway engineering. The detailed project report will take about one-and-a-half years and the duration for the completion of the project has been planned to be around seven-and-a-half years. The line between Kerung and Kathmandu will pass through some of the most forbidding topographical regions in the Himalayas and over 98 per cent of the track will be through tunnels and therefore the railway carriages will have to be oxygenated. Initially the route will be used for carrying freight; subsequently passenger traffic will be introduced.

Besides the proposed railway connection there has also been an agreement between the two countries on Nepal being given access to two Chinese ports. This will reduce Nepal’s depen-dence on the Kolkata and Vishakhapatnam ports substantially. Such dramatic enhancements in connectivity between Nepal and China are sure to have geopolitical implications for the India-Nepal relations (though China denies that such connectivity projects have any ulterior geopolitical motives). All these developments have to be juxtaposed against the Narendra Modi Government’s ‘blow hot, blow cold’ approach to relations with Nepal. The Nepalese have not forgotten India’s response to the 2015 adoption of a new Nepali Constitution with the subsequent Madhesi blockade that was seen to have an Indian hand. Clearly Indian calculations in this regard went wrong and this in turn gave China an opening—despite the very generous Indian helping hand to a Nepal stricken by its worst earthquake in recent memory—to increase its footprint in the Himalayan state. As The Times of India put it, “And with deeper pockets, Beijing can offer big-ticket projects that New Delhi won’t be able to match.” (The Times of India, September 12, 2018)

If Nepal and Bhutan are crucial to Indian security so are the Maldives, currently in the throes of a diplomatic and security pickle for New Delhi. India reacted strongly to the declaration of an Emergency in the Indian Ocean island-state in February 2018 by President Abdulla Yameen’s government which was subsequently extended by one month. Opposition leaders and Supreme Court judges were rounded up and dissent of all kinds was suppressed by Yameen who had adopted an anti-India and pro-China stand for quite some time. Since the Maldives occupy an important position in New Delhi’s Indian Ocean strategy, the island-nation’s swing towards a pro-China posture amounts to a major setback to India’s maritime security. India, along with the European Union, has been engaged in developing the capabilities of the small Indian Ocean states such as the Maldives and Sri Lanka. A pro-active Indian Ocean policy dates back to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Seychelles and Mauritius in March 2015 which signalled that the Indian Ocean littoral states are at the “top of New Delhi’s policy priorities”. As a part of this pro-active Indian Ocean policy, India planned the establishment of ten surveillance radars in the Maldives. India has stationed a small number of security personnel and two helicopters on the island-nation with Male’s prior approval. Post-February Yameen however called for the withdrawal of the helicopters and the Indian security personnel from the Maldives; even before a crisis in bilateral relationship after February, in a clear drive to replace India with China the Yameen regime had invited Beijing to undertake major infrastructural projects on the chain of islands comprising the Maldives. But India did not flinch from its position and called upon Yameen to hold free and fair elections to the island’s Presidency on September 23, 2018.

However, in a dramatic reversal of fortunes Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the combined Opposition candidate, Ibrahim Solih, on September 23 despite neutral observers voicing their fears that the elections may not have been entirely free and fair. (In the event they were; otherwise such a result would have been improbable.) The defeat of Yameen could be a possible game-changer for Indian diplomacy and maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean. Ibrahim Solih is likely to correct the pro-China tilt of the Yameen regime and be more accommodating to India’s security interests. However it would be wishful thinking to believe that China would be eased out of the Maldives altogether as a result of the replacement of the Yameen regime by a government likely to be more friendly towards New Delhi. Maldives’ external debt to China amounts to 70 per cent of its total debt. Taking advantage of Yameen’s pro-China presidency, as noted earlier, Beijing has built infrastructure, resorts and deepened its presence in at least seven of the important islands in the Maldivian archipelago. China will continue to have a big presence in the island-nation. Any contrary vision of an exclusively pro-India Maldives under the new dispensation was dispelled by Duniya Maumoon, a former Foreign Minister and daughter of the former Maldivian strongman, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (who ruled the Maldives for 30 years), when she said that the island-nation was looking to “balance” India and China. Significantly she reminded Indian interlocutors that “India remains a close friend and will continue to be so. But India has to learn to respect a small country like Maldives. We may be tiny, but we don’t care for bullying tactics” though she further added that the new government would be sensitive to India’s security concerns as China had moved much closer to the island-nation. (Times of India, September 26, 2018). This is a perspective New Delhi would do well to keep in mind. What adds to the fluidity of the situation is that the transition will not take place until November 17 this year and the current Opposition is already voicing concerns that, despite conceding defeat, Yameen might still cling to power post-November; they have appealed to the international community for help in a smooth transition of power. It would, however, be unwise to indulge in any speculation in this regard at the moment in view of the size of the verdict against Yameen. All one can say now is that the elections have put India back in the strategic game in the Maldives which was looking quite bleak even sometime ago.

Yet another crucial neighbour for India’s security, especially in the North-East, is Bangladesh with which New Delhi’s relations in the past nine years has been one of the best in recent times. Fulsome praise on the robust nature of the relationship was bestowed by the Bangladesh Foreign Minister, A.H. Mahmud Ali, at a conclave in New Delhi in January 2018; it has been subsequently reiterated by Prime Ministers Modi and Sheikh Hasina several times since then. However the outlook for the continuation of this bonhomie looks uncertain at best. The unsolved issue of the sharing of the waters of the river Teesta between the two countries is a lingering irritant. As is well known, the issue is caught in a logjam of diametrically opposite positions taken by PM Modi and the Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee. (For a detailed analysis on this see Purusottam Bhattacharya: 2017: 273-285) The Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been vigorously campaigning against Sheikh Hasina for a ‘sale-out’ to India on this crucial issue and clearly Hasina is on a back foot; if an understanding between the two countries is not reached before December 2018 when general elections are due in Bangladesh (which seems highly unlikely at the moment) the Bangladesh PM will be on a tough spot. Given the past history any change of guard in Dhaka, triggered by the Teesta issue, will be a major setback for New Delhi.

The second issue surfaced since the August 2017 crackdown on the ethnic Rohingyas in Myanmar by the Burmese Army and the subse-quent flight of nearly 7,00,000 people of the Muslim minority of that country into Bangla-desh which has sheltered them since then. The brutal persecution of the Rohingyas in Myanmar has been well documented and brought to the international public domain by the United Nations, Amnesty International and other human rights groups; though Bangladesh has been receiving reasonably generous Indian and international assistance in looking after these refugees (even as Dhaka complains that this assistance is not in proportion to the magnitude of the task involved) it is mounting pressure on the international community, including India, to arm-twist the Myanmarese Government into taking these refugees back and rehabilitating them in the Rakhine state of Myanmar from where they were evicted in the first place. This issue has now become a source of unease between Dhaka and New Delhi though it is not officially acknowledged to be so. The issue was mentioned by the Bangladesh Foreign Minister in his address to the New Delhi conclave of January 2018 when he urged India and the international community to keep putting pressure on Myanmar to ensure complete and sustainable repatriation of the Rohingya refugees. While India has been assuring Bangladesh that it is doing all it can to persuade the Myanmarese authorities to take the refugees back, Dhaka clearly feels that New Delhi can do more as a major regional actor and a close neighbour of Myanmar. India seems to be in a bind—trying to ride two boats (Myanmar and Bangladesh) at the same time (as it has high stakes in both countries) which, at best, can be a tricky diplomatic tight-rope walking.

India also has a lot at stake in terms of security in its immediate maritime neighbour, Sri Lanka, which too has not been loath in using the ‘China card’ to ‘balance’ India. The maritime rivalry between China and India in the Indian Ocean is a well-known narrative and does not bear repetition here. [For details see Anindya Jyoti Majumdar: 2017: 52-71 in Rajkumar Kothari, (ed.), India Becoming a Global Power in the Twenty-First Century] It is in this context that the signing of a deal worth $ 1.1 billion between China and Sri Lanka in July 2017 for the control and development of the southern deep-sea port of Hambantota assumes strategic significance for India. Under the proposal a state-run Chinese company will have a 99-year lease on the port and about 15,000 acres nearby for an industrial zone. The deal was delayed by several months for concern that the port could be used by the Chinese military though the Sri Lankan Government of President Maithripala Sirisena was quick to assure that China will only run commercial operations from the port on the main shipping route between Asia and Europe. It is worth noting here that China has pumped millions of dollars into Sri Lanka’s infrastructure since the end of the civil war in 2009. Hambantota port, overlooking the Indian Ocean, is expected to play a key role in China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Besides domestic opposition to the project within Sri Lanka, the initiative is being keenly watched by India as well as Japan, China’s trade rivals in Asia. In fact an Opposition MP in the Sri Lankan parliament remarked that India would also “be very uncomfortable with this arrangement”. (BBC News: 2017: 29 July)

Sri Lanka said, in defence of the deal, that the agreement would help Colombo to free itself of the debt trap. Colombo borrowed billions of dollars from China to build roads, ports and airports to revive the economy after the end of the civil war in 2009. The Sri Lankan Government maintains that money from the Hambantota deal will help it repay part of the Chinese debt. Colombo also reiterates that the Sri Lankan Navy will be in charge of the Hambantota port and the deal would have no implications for regional security. India, however, remains wary since China has also established its naval presence in ports in Pakistan and Myanmar, and together with its footprint at Hambantota—as well as its close evolving security relationship with the Maldives—the encirclement of India by Beijing around India’s southern maritime periphery would be complete. The security implications of all these developments for New Delhi are huge.

The greatest challenge that India faces at the moment in its immediate neighbourhood is therefore the long shadow of China which considers itself a South Asian state and therefore feels it has legitimate interests in the region, especially the Indian Ocean which it considers to be its lifeline. For many years China has sought to cultivate, with assiduousness, a good relationship in India’s neighbourhood especially with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. According to many strategic analysts, China has effectively encircled India with its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy by establishing, as already noted, a foothold in the Coco Islands of Myanmar, the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and the Gwadar port in Pakistan; of late it has been reported that China plans to build an ocean station in the Maldives with the concurrence of the Maldivian Government; the new Maldivian Government will have to take a call on this project post-September 23, 2018. The strong partnerships Beijing has built with Nepal and Bangladesh by developing its trade and investment relationships with those countries are well known. That would, on the face of it, complete the Chinese encirclement of India in South Asia in strategic terms. However, India also has strong built-in partnerships with these countries which have been cultivated for many years. The Indian Ocean is currently in the focus of New Delhi’s strategic planners and the Indian Navy is now well on its way to becoming a blue water navy from a coastal force. India has built the Chabahar port in Iran, apparently as a counter to the Chinese presence in Gwadar but more as a conduit for access to Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia for its exports which are blocked by Pakistan geographically. The Indian Navy also operates as a watchdog for India’s security interests in the Indian Ocean.

Establishment of strong and enduring partnerships with the smaller South Asian neighbours is a challenge for India in the 21st century. New Delhi needs friendly neighbours not only to concentrate on socio-economic development for itself and the region but also to project a positive image internationally, for international norms seem to suggest that a country which is not at peace with its immediate neighbours cannot aspire for global leadership. At the same time New Delhi needs to find a sustainable basis for friendship with its neighbours while retaining political primacy in South Asia to counter the Chinese challenge; simultaneously India should ensure that it is not seen as a hegemon in the region by banishing any thoughts of using gunboat diplomacy and sticking to ‘development’ diplomacy as a tool to ward off the Chinese challenge. Indeed a stable and prosperous neighbourhood is in India’s interest. New Delhi needs to convince its neighbours that a strong and prosperous India is an opportunity and not a threat.


Harsh V. Pant, Indian Foreign Policy: An Overview, Orient BlackSwan: New Delhi, 2016.

Raj Kumar Kothari and Eyasin Khan, (eds.), India Becoming a Global Power in the Twenty-First Century, Atlantic Publishers, New Delhi, 2017.

Piu Chatterjee and Dona Ganguly, (eds.), India and Indian Ocean, Mittal Publishers, New Delhi, 2018.

Dr Purusottam Bhattacharya is a former Professor of International Relations and erstwhile Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

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