India faces a major challenge in South Asia
FPRC Journal, Vol. 9
January 2012
Do you agree with the view that it is the region of South Asia which is set to be the biggest challenge for India’s foreign policy? On the one hand, India’s emergence as a major power appears to evoke little concern amongst the existing great powers; on the other hand, within South Asia—where India has long been the dominant player—India is regarded by its neighbors with resentment and wariness, if not hostility and fear.

Yes I agree with this view. For almost all the attributes of its national power—geography, demography, economy, military, and culture—give India an irrevocable edge over the rest of the countries in South Asia. India's economic rise in the past two decades has particularly added to its international profile as a major South Asian power that is increasingly making its presence felt at the world stage. It is, therefore, quite paradoxical to observe growing recognition of India’s regional prowess by the existing great powers, particularly the United States and its Western allies, alongside a simultaneously continuing perception or misperception among India’s South Asian neighbours about its traditionally domineering approach in the region. Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and especially Pakistan are four of India’s neighbours that have continuingly, or at some point in recent history, maintained a “hegemonic India” outlook. The prevalence of such outlook is understandable, given the enormous disparity between India’s national power and that of its neighbours, particularly the historical instances of India’s intrusive conduct vis-à-vis Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh and mostly hostile relations with Pakistan. How to gain confidence of its smaller South Asian neighbors has been and will, therefore, remain the principal foreign policy for India.

Has India become irrelevant in South Asia due to US-China rivalry?

Not necessarily! It may be wrong to presume that a full-blown rivalry exists presently between the United States and China. There are areas of mutual dependence between the two great powers revolving around trade and commerce. Even in the security sphere, such as countering international terrorism, the Sino-US interests are mostly compatible. In the post-Cold War American foreign policy, China has mostly been considered a challenge rather than a threat—and, therefore, the Sino-US relationship can at best be described as one of competition between an established and an emerging great power. However, as clear from the recently unveiled US defense strategy for the next decade by the Obama Administration, Washington perceives Beijing as constituting the key challenge to US global military superiority. China’s consistent economic growth in the last over three decades has enabled it to emerge as the second biggest defense spender after the US. Seen in this backdrop, India will remain relevant in South Asia both in the short term, as both China and the US woo it as part of their competitive strategy for Asia; and the long run, when India will have the choice to align with either the US or China during their rivalry, or be relatively neutral, as it did during the US-Soviet Cold War. Even in contemporary literature on the subject, America using India as a counterpoise to contain China in future is a notion that is widely embraced by proponents of emerging Sino-US rivalry.

How should the nations of the region cope up with ‘extra-regional’ influences?

Ever since the end of British colonialism, South Asia has consistently been a victim of ‘extra-regional influences.’ During the Cold War, the US-Soviet competition was extended to the region—with the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan creating source of instability that continue to haunt it until present. The War on Terror in Afghanistan and the region in the last over a decade has likewise made South Asia susceptible to the squabbling of international powers, with its ripple effect being felt in Pakistan and beyond. Given that, it is in the individual and collective interest of all the South Asian states, meaning the eight members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), to act together to minimize the inherently or potentially destabilizing role and influence of outside powers. Only a viable normalization process aimed at harmonizing the hitherto sordid relations among the South Asian states can help them realize this pragmatic goal.

India holds a particular responsibility for, as well as, a vital interest in promoting regional peace and prosperity. Do India’s poor relations with neighbors hobble its global ambitions?

As already mentioned, India’s extraordinary prowess in the region empowers it with this particular responsibility and vital interest. That a few of India’s smaller neighbours continue to suspect its regional ambitions remains the most important challenge for its foreign policy establishment. The gap between how rising India is globally viewed in a positive fashion and how it is regionally perceived in a negative manner has to narrow down—as without winning over the countries of the region, India’s global acknowledgement of being a major South Asian power will continue to be marred by a major aberration. New Delhi is, thus, left with no choice but to proactively foster closer links with all the countries of the region, and do whatever it can to overcome their respective insecurities and suspicions having rational historical roots or legitimate current causes. It has done well to help Sri Lanka tackle Tamil insurgency, and also attempted to considerably overcome tensions over trade and water issues with Nepal and Bangladesh. India’s decision to resume dialogue with Pakistan at the start of 2011, which has made significant progress in the trade sector, is almost a good omen. India has to build upon the peace momentum generated by such credible bilateral overtures on its part.

“Non-reciprocity” is an important aspect of India’s policy for neighbors. Should India give up this approach?

India should not give up this unique principal of its foreign policy for the simple reason that all of its neighbors are far smaller than it in almost every way. Would expecting reciprocity from Nepal or Bangladesh, for instance, make sense? Since becoming nuclear powers in 1998, India and Pakistan may have been able to achieve strategic parity, yet Pakistan is several times behind India in the remaining, essentially non-military elements of national power. Following the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, New Delhi made progress in the peace process conditional to Pakistani reciprocity over counter-terrorism issues. An approach that did not work, and eventually since the start of 2011, the two countries have resumed the dialogue without letting their differences over terrorism becoming a stumbling bloc. Broadly speaking, India’s claim as a major regional power with global ambition must correspond with a due sense of responsibility for regional stability and peace, which necessitates continued adherence to “non-reciprocity” principle in its external relations in the region.

Do you agree with the view that India’s neighbours are not “sensitive” to its security concerns?

Yes, but only partly. First, a major reason why South Asia’s smaller states such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Nepal may be insensitive to India’s security concerns is their respective sense of insecurity from India. Second, there have, indeed, been a couple of instances in the last over a decade where India’s civilian or military leadership has unnecessarily attempted to create public hype over the security threat to the country from China. If this threat ever became real in future, the degree of sensitivity towards it among India’s neighbours would depend on its ability or the lack of it to tackle their respective India-centric sources of insecurity.

Has SAARC exhausted its potential as inter-governmental movement as nothing significant has come out of SAARC for decades? Despite attempts to bring countries together through the process of economic integration – neither peace nor the process of economic integration itself has been fully realized in South Asia due mainly to inter and intrastate conflicts.

An organization that has been in existence in South Asia since 1985 but has not moved ahead in fostering credible regional integration constitutes a legitimate critique on SAARC. But, then, is there any other alternative available for bringing the South Asians together on a single regional platform? At least SAARC must be credited with whatever meaningful initiatives it has undertaken and positive accomplishments it has been able to make, especially in the fields of commerce, trade and culture. It is true that the existence of bilateral conflicts such as Kashmir is the main factor that has prevented due progress in SAARC. However, there are a couple of examples of successful regionalism in South Asia’s vicinity, including the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in South-East Asia and the Shanghai Cooperation organization (SCO) in Central Asia, in which the respective member-states deemed it important to resolve bilateral conflicts at the start and subsequently move ahead to foster a viable regional cooperation in crucial economic, political, security, social, cultural and environmental areas. There is no reason why SAARC member-states cannot emulate the path adopted by countries in the region’s neighbourhood.

How to strengthen cooperative initiatives throughout the South Asian region? Could Human contact and people–to-people interaction and media help in bringing these nations closer?

For a viable integrative process in South Asia, what is required is simultaneous progress in a top-down approach that aims to settle lingering political disputes among the South Asian countries and a bottom-up approach which strives to deepen their economic and cultural links. The Information Age offers enormous opportunity for cross-border public connectivity, and, if combined with enhanced people-to-people interaction under the auspices of SAARC, it can make a big difference in overcoming the sources of insecurity, suspicion and hatred engrained in the public mindset of the South Asian states with bilateral conflicts. Of course, the quest for peace and progress in South Asia is easier said that done, but it remains an option not worth abandoning.

The interview can be accessed at