In recent years, smaller countries in the SAARC region, which in the past had deep strains with India, have sought to improve ties with New Delhi. Two clear instances of this are Bangladesh, Sri Lanka (which have clocked high growth rates in recent years) have also managed to build robust economic linkages, and have avoided being part of what was often dubbed as an ‘anti-India’ gang led by Pakistan.
Pak’s Cosies Up to SAARC Neighbours
The latest instance of India and other countries finding common ground was when the SAARC Summit in 2016 was cancelled due to India’s refusal to attend as a protest against the Uri terror attack, which resulted in the deaths of 19 Indian soldiers. Three other SAARC countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan – also backed India’s stance. Both Bangladesh and Bhutan issued very strong statements. A communication from Bangladesh stated:
“The growing interference in the internal affairs of Bangladesh by one country has created an environment, which is not conducive to the successful hosting of the 19th SAARC summit in Islamabad in November 2016”.
Bhutan too issued a strong statement echoing India’s concerns.
In recent months, Pakistan has been trying its utmost not just to gain legitimacy in the SAARC region, but even emerge as a key player in South Asia. To this end, PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi visited Nepal in March 2018, and discussed the progress of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and sought the revival of the SAARC Process. Interestingly, Abbasi also announced the doubling of scholarship quotas for Nepali students wanting to pursue higher studies in Pakistan.
Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Maldives (with which India has had strained relations) in April 2018.
Army Chief Bajwa was the first high-level dignitary from any country to visit Maldives after the emergency imposed in February 2018 was lifted.
During Bajwa’s visit, defence cooperation between Maldives and Pakistan was discussed.
Among the topics discussed were closer linkages between Maldives’ National Counter Terrorism Centre NCTC and its counterparts in Pakistan, and joint patrolling of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (so far, India is the only country which has been jointly patrolling Maldives).
According to a 2016 agreement, between both countries were trying to set up a coastal surveillance radar system for real-time surveillance of the EEZ of Maldives. As during Abbasi’s Nepal visit, Bajwa also sought to strengthen people-to-people links between Maldives and Pakistan.
Challenges to India in South Asia
What would have come as a major surprise however to New Delhi, is the MoU signed between Maldives and Pakistan – Maldives’ (State Electric Company) STELCO and Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) with the objective of assisting with capacity building of STELCO. Some of the key provisions of this MoU are: greater interaction between employees of both organisations, increased visits to learn from each other’s experiences, and participation of STELCO employees in WAPDA training programmes.
This comes on the heels of decisions which have resulted in a downward trend – the cancellation of work permits of Indians, and Maldives government’s decision to ‘return’ two search-and-rescue helicopters gifted by India in 2016.
The current Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen, who tilts towards China, has also known to be pro-Pakistan. While commenting on the recent decision of Maldives, an Indian official made a point:
“Given its precarious financial situation, Pakistan cannot do much to help the Maldives. But President Yameen is trying his best to reduce the Indian footprint and bring in elements hostile to India to undermine Indian influence in the Maldives.”
Every country is free to pursue economic ties the way it wishes too. What India should be clear about is that the China-Pakistan links are no longer limited to CPEC.
Beijing may attempt to create a situation in which Pakistan, with support from China, can create irritants for India within South Asia (to ensure it is bogged down within South Asia). While Maldives and Nepal already have pro-China leadership, the election of pro-China faces in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh will further increase India’s challenges within South Asia.
Steps Which New Delhi Can Take
First, it is important to go back to the drawing board, and do a serious appraisal of the current state of ties with neighbouring countries, rather than linking serious foreign policy issues to domestic politics, and moving from event to event. The current government’s approach towards even complex issues in the neighborhood has been excessively simplistic, and there has been too much focus on optics.
Second, New Delhi needs to focus on delivery of economic projects, and its approach of finding common ground with Japan, in South Asia, especially in countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh is appropriate in this context. Similar attempts should be made in other countries, given the fact that Tokyo has been successful in making inroads in Chinese strongholds in South Asia, as well as South East Asia.
Third, New Delhi should focus on an ‘Indo-Pacific’ narrative, and it should not be averse to cultivating strong ties with Taiwan so as to send a firm message to China.
While summits like Wuhan may be good for optics and the Chinese leadership is never short of platitudes, New Delhi needs to re-calibrate its South Asia policy. Post the July 2019 elections, the China-Pakistan nexus could become even more aggressive given the fact that the possible victor, Imran Khan, is a lackey of the Pakistan Army. New Delhi has its task cut out in the neighborhood, summitry needs to give way to substance.
(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based foreign policy analyst. He can be reached @tridiveshsingh. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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