A prerequisite for India’s leadership of Global South.
The year-long tenure of the G20 Presidency and the hosting of the summit in New Delhi last September undeniably elevated India’s standing on the global stage in geopolitics, economic affairs, as well as with the multilateral aid and development entities. Its success in securing full-fledged membership for the African Union in the deliberative body, and consistently championing the cause of developing nations at various international fora, including last year’s COP27 in Glasgow, has positioned India at the forefront among the hundred-plus countries classified as developing.
With India intensifying its engagements with the United States and other Western nations, without hurting its longstanding friendship with Russia, the diverse groups of less developed nations seem open to India assuming the role of their spokesperson. To fortify and sustain this growing acceptance, India must work systematically and assiduously, albeit discreetly. The process of establishing India as a valuable and impartial intermediary for the developing nations, collectively referred to as the Global South, would undoubtedly gain momentum if India receives similar treatment from its neighbouring nations. However, the continuation of open confrontational stances by at least two of these neighbours against India, coupled with lukewarm support from others at significant global gatherings, could impede the strengthening and expansion of India’s emerging role.
Universally recognized is the idea that neighbours, across all tiers of settlements, are essentially “given” and not easily interchangeable. As a pragmatic rule of living, everyone must learn to coexist with one’s neighbours, regardless of how antagonistic or discordant the relationships may become. The ongoing effort to mend and enhance mutual relationships must be ongoing, requiring an acceptance of each other’s uniqueness and, perhaps, even idiosyncrasies. This necessity becomes even more apparent for immediate neighbours sharing common land borders, as they have necessarily to acknowledge the inevitability of the situation.
It is in this light that India has to formulate and follow its foreign affairs. “Neighbours First” has to become a mainstay of its strategy, and potentially accorded precedence over other priorities. Undoubtedly, mutual accommodation with them has to be effected without giving up or compromising on our long term interests. Furthermore, aligning economic and financial perspectives, especially with smaller neighbours, must remain both affordable and sensitive to the well-being of Indian citizens. This is crucial, considering a significant number of its citizens still face relative impoverishment.
A significant operational constraint hindering India’s efforts to improve its neighbourhood relationships has been the persistent and inflexible stances of Pakistan, its western neighbour, and China, its eastern neighbour. Border disputes with both countries have endured for decades, with little tangible progress in resolution despite prolonged negotiations. Notably, three major wars were fought between India and Pakistan from 1947 to 1971, and a three-week long armed conflict occurred between China and India in 1962. More recently, Chinese troops have occupied Indian border posts in Depsang in Ladakh, the Galwan River valley, and the Doklam pass near the trijunction with Bhutan. China also continues to occupy the entire Aksai Chin in Kashmir, which was ceded to it by Pakistan. With India being a common adversary, these two neighbours have strengthened their mutual cooperation and bonding, forming a formidable alliance that is particularly significant given their status as nuclear powers.
At the same time, over the past four decades, China has emerged as a global military and economic power, boasting deep pockets to wield considerable geo-political influence. In certain areas and aspects. it has reached unparalleled levels in comparison to India. Without doubt, China is leveraging its military and economic superiority to fulfill its ambition of geographical expansion. Over the years, it has built perhaps the largest and most potent naval force, utilizing it to patrol and pose threats to vessels, both military and merchant, entering or passing through sea passages and even the entire seas.
China continues to construct new islands over existing reefs and atolls in deep seas and then occupies them to create anchor points for its naval ships. More significantly, upon calling these as its own, it is able to extend its territorial waters and the economic zones. Thereafter, it blocks the passage of ships, both naval and merchant, of all others. In such a fashion or some variation of it, China has made a staggering claim of assertion of ownership over the entire 1.3 mn square miles of the South China Sea. That includes the Spratly and Paracel Islands belonging to Philippines. Despite the International Court of Justice’s ruling in 2016, which substantiated the Filipino position, China has not relented, causing concern among several South Asian countries, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
More importantly, China’s ambitions extend beyond its immediate borders—it has established significant bases in Djibouti, near the Cape of Horn in Africa, and at Gwadar in Pakistan on the Arabian Sea. If China succeeds in establishing a base south of the Indian Andaman and Nicobar Islands, its sphere of control could become extensive, potentially encompassing the entire trade route from East and South Asia to Europe and beyond.
China is strategically extending its influence globally through initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), offering substantial financial support for major infrastructural projects in developing countries. This also provides it the additional unfair advantage to take a call to convert the debt, when defaulted by the recipient nation, into equity and thereby becoming an owner of the asset located on foreign land. China also rarely intervenes overseas for restoring peace though it freely extends support for wars and skirmishes. The driver of the decision is self-interest, be it immediate or long-term. Particularly disheartening for India has been China’s success in extending its sphere of influence in our neighbourhood. China has made a visible mark in this respect in Pakistan and Myanmar, with limited success in Nepal, Maldives, and Sri Lanka. Only Bangladesh and Bhutan have resisted China’s overtures so far.
Acknowledging the might and skillfulness of the Chinese dragon and the challenges in realising quick dividends from a “Neighbours First” doctrine, India must exhibit adroitness and discretion in its interactions with its six smaller neighbours. It has been repeatedly emphasised that despite their smaller size in terms of geography, demography, and economy, it is crucial for India to avoid adopting a Big Brother attitude, a trait which almost subconsciously comes to the fore in the dealings of every aid giver, especially the larger ones. Considering that these neighbours have alternative options for support and material assistance from China and elsewhere, respecting the sensitivities of each neighbour, whether in international matters or their political and economic issues, becomes imperative.
In particular, interference or influencing the electoral and government-formation processes should never be an instrument of foreign policy, especially concerning the neighbouring nations. In the long term, such actions lead to more complex and consequential problems than the immediate transient rewards. A recent example of typical overreaction even to the suspicions thereof, is the newly elected pro-Chinese Presidential candidate’s call in the Maldives for the immediate withdrawal of a handful of Indian airmen assisting with the maintenance of helicopters provided by India as aid. Even the long time Indian residents in the neighbouring countries must not be encouraged to get involved in local politics since it gives a handle for alleging interference in the internal affairs of that country by India. This was witnessed a few years ago in Nepal and had damaged India’s long-standing friendship with this land-locked country enjoying several facilities from India for decades. Maintaining strict political aloofness and neutrality must remain the hallmarks of our policy towards the neighbours.
While India may not be able to match the Chinese material aid in volume or value, through extending a host of “soft measures”, it can achieve the desired physical and psychological impact. Developing goodwill for India in neighbouring countries has to be the foremost objective. Streamlining the entry process for their citizens into India is easily possible. So is according full protocol to visiting VIPs of all the neighbours regardless of the frequency of their visits. Arranging meetings for them with influential Indians and of their diaspora, especially the businessmen of interest to them can be a part of that process. So can be ensuring due press coverage in India and back home for their deliberations and the outcomes. Facilitating increased admissions, with support from the Indian government including the reduced fees, in both public and private Indian educational institutions for students from the neighbourhood would meaningfully contribute to fostering greater mutual understanding. Demonstrating a sense of fraternity and a genuine interest in promoting stability and progress in the neighbourhood is bound to be appreciated by the citizens of these nations.
A more material attraction for neighbouring nations would emerge when the neighbours are allowed to integrate into the larger Indian market. Achieving this involves prioritizing the development of connectivity-related infrastructure and facilitating the physical flow of goods and services across borders. Alongside, incorporating their producers into the supply chains for both domestically consumed goods and those destined for exports should be endeavoured. In course of time, the concept of a common regional market comprising the seven or eight neighbouring countries could be conceived. Once in place, the economic interests of each nation would take precedence over other considerations. It would be the largest trading bloc in terms of population. This, in turn, could secure meaningful concessions and facilities from the developed world in terms of trade and capital flows, benefiting all member countries of the new grouping.
Dr Ajay Dua is an ex Union secretary in the Ministry of Commerce & Industry.
The next two articles will focus on specific measures and efforts India needs to make to improve its relationship with each neighbouring nation.