By Austin Fernando
Former High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in India
It is ‘Neighbourhood Policy, ‘Look East,’ ‘Act East.’ All deal with the Indian neighbours. A recent article motivated me to revisit this issue. The author has conveyed happenings between India, Nepal, and Bangladesh and proposed amending Indian policies and actions towards neighbours. For the sake of inclusivity, I wish to supplement some attributes on the subject.
India and Nepal
The friendly relationship between India and Nepal was affected due to an issue regarding the Kalapani District boundary. A new map produced by India after Article 370 caused it. Nepal objected to this map. The Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) responded that the Indian map accurately depicted the sovereign territory of India, and it had not revised the Indian boundary with Nepal. Nepal disagreed.
In May 2020, Nepalese PM said that Nepal would “bring back” the Kalapani-Limpiyadhura-Lipulekh area “at any cost.” However, India responded calmly. Minister MEA Dr. Jaishankar was reported saying that the “sharp positioning” by the leadership would have been “magnified by the media.” (Hindu-20-8-2020).
Recently, the Nepal Cabinet released a political map, which showed the questioned tri-junction as a part of Nepal. Nepal has two tri-junctions with India. The currently disputed is the Lipulekh Pass, at the border of Uttarakhand with Nepal. Nepal contends that the Lipulekh Pass belongs to them, as per the Sugauli Treaty signed between the British East India Company and Nepal in 1816. Nevertheless, India wishes to hold on due to strategic security reasons.
For India, this could be minor. But, the principle of Indian action may be a concern for any neighbour. For us, it arises from the potentiality of possible Indian behaviour on the Palk Bay, which could arise from the operations purportedly discussed by PM Mahinda Rajapaksa on the fishery issue lately. The fishery issue is very sensitive in India. On the pressures from the politically powerful South Indan fishermen lobby, India can demand operational adjustments to the international maritime boundary between Sri Lanka and India to ease the Indian fisherfolk. If it happens, hardly anything could be done. Our experience at the aerial food drop in June 1987, blatantly violating our air-space, showed how other powerful countries avoid responding negatively against India.
India -Nepal issue has escalated with Nepal seeking identity cards from visitors from India. Nepal relates this decision to COVID-19. Will Nepal make the identity card requirement permanent? The Nepalese PM Sharma Oli has blamed India for the spread of COVID-19 in Nepal. The ID-cards requirement for Indians is a step to tighten the cross-border movement. It affects the benefits for traders of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Some constructs that Chinese influence and domestic political problems for PM Oli are relevant for the Nepalese attitude. Therefore, there is business, politics, and hence the response from India also could affect economics, business, and politics of landlocked Nepal. Accordingly, Chinese intrusions cannot be discounted. We have seen these issues play around in Sri Lanka and the Maldives
Nepal (Sri Lanka is not exempted!) can learn a lesson regarding Indian wrath if past experiences are perused on how India responded to Bhutan in 2012, when then Bhutanese PM Jigme Thinley met the Chinese PM, Wen Jiabao, at the Rio+20 Summit. India has retaliated by withdrawing fuel subsidies to Bhutan. From that point on, ‘possessiveness and domination began to outweigh respect and trust in public perceptions of the Bhutan-India friendship.’
India and Bangladesh
Take the Bangladesh issues with India. The events usually quoted are the continuations of others arisen between India and Bangladesh. Of course, China would have executed its strategies to move Bangladesh willingly. China becoming the biggest trading partner of Bangladesh or large-scale infrastructure projects cannot be overnight developments.
Last October, Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina signed seven bilateral treaties with India. This act disappointed and infuriated Bangladeshis that “they could not expect their leadership to look out for country’s interest and well-being.” (https://asiatimes.com/2020/01/how-indias-caa-nrc-affect-bangladesh/). This was almost concurrently timed with the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India. So much so, when anti-India sentiments were expressed in Bangladesh, India assured that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) would not affect Bangladeshis.
Developments in India overtook these assurances. This created concerns for Bangladeshis, as stated by Sabria Chowdhury Balland, as follows (https://asiatimes.com/2020/01/how-indias-caa-nrc-affect-bangladesh/)
(i) Though Indians state that there will not be any adverse effects from CAA and NRC, Bangladeshis have genuine concerns and apprehensions that they might unleash an exodus of Bengali-speaking people from Assam and the Muslims attempting to escape persecution in India.
(ii) The Bangladeshis are worried whether an issue like Rohingya refugees would repeat.
(iii) They are concerned that denial of Indian citizenship to Muslims anywhere in India will trigger strong reactions from Islamist parties in Bangladesh and even within the Awami League.
(iv) Bangladesh considers the criticism that Hindus in Bangladesh are persecuted and tortured is wrong, baseless, and unwarranted.
(v) India’s attempts to equate Bangladesh to fundamentally theocratic Muslim nations (e.g., Pakistan and Afghanistan) are unacceptable to Bangladeshis.
(vi) The Bangladeshi government has declared that it will allow people to enter from India only upon proof of Bangladeshi citizenship, which is problematic.
(vii) Hence Bangladesh cannot be used as a dumping ground for ‘bigoted regimes’ such as those in Myanmar and India.
These show the neighborhood issues between the two countries are deeprooted and somewhat ugly. Though Pakistan openly criticized the Kashmir issue, Bangladesh was comparatively toned-down. When we ambassadors met Vijay Ghokle, Secretary MEA, to hear the Indian government’s version on Kashmir, the Bangladesh diplomat would have been hiding his country’s natural stance, and bogusly showing that the issue is an “internal affair of India.”
However, the CAA legislation was different from Article 370 on Kashmir and created a bizarre situation in the case of Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abdul Momen and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan called off their visits to India over the situation arising out of the CAA, giving scheduling problems as the reason. But, he cancelled it a day after Home Minister Amit Shah told Parliament that Bangladesh was persecuting its minorities, especially Hindu women, adding that “uncertainty in India is likely to affect its neighbours.” It could even be conceived as a threat. Separately, Momen was a bit harsh, telling the BBC’s Bengali Service, praising communal harmony standards in Bangladesh and adding “If he (Amit Shah) stayed in Bangladesh for a few months, he would see exemplary communal harmony.”
Next was the Bangladesh Deputy Foreign Minister Shahriar Alam, who canceled his participation in high profile Raisina Dialogue. The Bangladesh Foreign Office, however, said that Alam was accompanying PM Sheikh Hasina to the UAE, and his absence had nothing to do with Dhaka’s unhappiness over the CAA.
Money as a game-changer
India has shared financial assistance to boost its neighbourhood policy. To wit, I may mention that when the new Bhutanese PM paid the first State Visit to India, PM Modi assured to play an important role in Bhutan’s economic development and announced INR 4,500 crore for Bhutan’s 12th Five-Year Plan. When the new Maldivian President made his first State Visit, PM Modi pledged the Maldives $ 1.4. Billions of financial assistance to relieve the debt with China. We have the same problem, but are unfortunate!
Additionally, Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena had made their first State Visits to India earlier, and they were nicely treated by India “with sweet talk,” not in the same fashion with those quoted above. For President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, this attitude changed.
However, I do not discount the strategic value of those countries to India, especially in the northern and north-eastern boundaries and in the Indian Ocean Region. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka is of no lesser strategic value for India.
Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman earmarked INR 8,415 crore for neighbourhood countries: INR 1,050 crore to Nepal, INR 2,802 crores to Bhutan, INR 1,100 crore for Mauritius, INR 576 crore to the Maldives, but, to Sri Lanka INR 250 crore. Compare the population statistics of Bhutan (800,000), Maldives (436,000), Mauritius (1.2 million), and Sri Lanka (22 million). If considered on population, the logic of distribution by Madam Sitharaman is unexplainable. Of course, there are “extraneous reasons” for such “favouritism.”
During the last decade, Bhutan has received INR 32,280 crore, Afghanistan 4,855 crore, Nepal 4,166 crore, Mauritius 2,520 crore, Sri Lanka 2,317 crore and Maldives INR 1,787 crore. What Bhutan receives for one year from this Budget is more than what we have received over a decade! This distribution was skewed against us.
India has shown extraordinary empathy to the Maldives, which endorses that Indian neighbourliness depended on their wishes. I may quote a few recent decisions to prove. PM Modi’s good gesture was expanded with a package for the Maldives on August 13th, 2020. It was a $100 million grant and $400 million new line of credit, for the Greater Malé Connectivity Project (GMCP). The request President Gotabaya Rajapaksa purportedly made for $1 billion reported in the media, does not seem to be forthcoming. If China assists us, there will be negative comments, though. The MEA Minister Dr. S Jaishankar also announced the creation of an air bubble with the Maldives to facilitate peoples’ movement from both sides for employment, tourism, and medical emergencies. Further, Minister Jaishankar announced the commencement of the regular cargo ferry service between the two countries.
When we compare with neighbouring Sri Lanka, these happen when we haggle over the Eastern Container Terminal, Trinco Oil Tanks, Mattala, etc., and seeing LTTE threats over resuming of the ferry service and when competitor Maldives is accommodative. Hence, this assistance makes sense for India because the recipient of benefits will be India while turning away China from the Maldives. Anyway, if competitive financing is kept open, it may be another like-minded country organization that may evolve, and power play in the region also may adjust accordingly, as the Indian author insinuates.
As the writer has said, the size of China’s economy gives it a significant advantage over countries. I mention Adarsh Varma, who says that China’s foreign direct investments outside China exceeded 220 billion dollars in 2016, surging 246 percent from 2015. He pointed out that Chinese loans to many IOR littorals in Asia and Africa far outstrip the loans that these countries receive from IMF or other developed countries, and FDIs tend to monopolize resources and favor the investor while supplanting domestic enterprises and creating a balance of payment problem for recipient countries. Political and diplomatic dependence follow shortly if the countries are unable to pay the loans. We faced this.
The challenge for India with the neighbourhood is to counter this status. The Chinese not only intrude into development but strategically deal with politics (e.g., Sheik Hasina and Imran Khan reference). For Sri Lanka, China has throughout stood with us at the UN interventions. She assisted the war effort through. These are registered in our minds. Therefore, anyone posing to compete will have to muster resources and consistently back the assisting countries. This is why China has a foothold even in the BIMSTEC countries, irrespective of the organization being an Indian product.
I am reminded of what Avathar Singh Bhasin wrote about Indian expectations from neighbours. He said that they should not seek to invite outside power(s), and if any assistance is needed, they should look to India. “India’s attitude and relationship with her immediate neighbors depended on their appreciation of India’s regional security concerns; they would serve as buffer states in the event of an extra-regional threat and not proxies of the outside powers…”
China does not show Indo-phobia or Americ-phobia or Jap-phobia when extending support under BRI. They go on a ruthless path. They develop maritime, railway connectivity, not being limited to String of Pearls or the Silk Route. Therefore, the challenges for India are to match this vast machination and to rid of phobias. As the writer emphasized, policies and actions to foster upgraded neighborhood relationships will be a must.