In South Asia, be the Un-China

People's Review - - OP-ED - BY SUHASINI HAIDAR (suhasini.h@the­hindu.co.in)

As the stand-off be­tween the Indian and Chi­nese mil­i­taries en­ters its third month at Dok­lam, it is not just Bhutan that is keenly an­tic­i­pat­ing the po­ten­tial fall­out. The en­tire neigh­bour­hood is watch­ing. There is ob­vi­ous in­ter­est in how the sit­u­a­tion plays out and the con­se­quent change in the bal­ance of power be­tween India and China in South Asia. India's other neigh­bours are likely to take away their own lessons about deal­ing with their re­spec­tive “tri-junc­tions” both real and imag­ined, on land and in the sea. A Chi­nese de­fence of­fi­cial was hop­ing to press that nerve with India's neigh­bours when he told a vis­it­ing del­e­ga­tion of Indian jour­nal­ists this week that China could well “en­ter Kala­pani” — an area near Pithor­a­garh in Ut­tarak­hand that lies along an un­de­fined India-Nepal bound­ary and a tri-junc­tion with China — or “even Kash­mir” with a no­tional India-China-Pak­istan tri­junc­tion.

Buzz­word is equidis­tance

Per­haps, it is for this rea­son that gov­ern­ments in the re­gion have re­fused to show their hand in the Dok­lam con­flict. “Nepal will not get dragged into this or that side in the bor­der dis­pute,” Nepal's Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Kr­ishna Ba­hadur Ma­hara said ahead of a meet­ing with Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs Min­is­ter Sushma Swaraj, who had trav­elled to Kath­mandu for the Bay of Ben­gal Ini­tia­tive for Multi-Sec­toral Tech­ni­cal and Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion (BIMSTEC) re­gional sum­mit. Chi­nese Vice Pre­mier Wang Yang will be in Kath­mandu next week, and Nepal's Prime Min­is­ter Sher Ba­hadur Deuba in Delhi the week af­ter. Mak­ing a sim­i­lar point while speak­ing at a con­fer­ence on pub­lic re­la­tions this week, a Sri Lankan Min­is­ter in Colombo con­tended that India and China are “both im­por­tant” to Sri Lanka. Bhutan's For­eign Min­istry has stuck to its line, blam­ing China for vi­o­lat­ing agree­ments at Dok­lam, but not men­tion­ing India. Colum­nists in the coun­try too are in­creas­ingly ad­vo­cat­ing that Bhutan dis­tance it­self from both Indian and Chi­nese po­si­tions. A pol­icy of ‘equidis­tance' for our clos­est neigh­bours is a far cry from India's past pri­macy in the re­gion and some­thing South Block can hardly be san­guine about. Yet, it is a slow path each of the neigh­bours (mi­nus Bhutan) has taken in the past few years. When the Mal­dives first turfed pri­vate in­fra­struc­ture group GMR out of its con­tract to de­velop Male air­port in 2012, few could have imag­ined the sit­u­a­tion today with Chi­nese com­pa­nies hav­ing bagged con­tracts to most in­fra­struc­ture projects. This in­cludes de­vel­op­ment of a key new is­land and its link to the cap­i­tal Male and a 50-year lease to an­other is­land for a tourism project. Sim­i­larly, when the then Prime Min­is­ter of Nepal K.P. Sharma Oli signed a tran­sit trade treaty and agree­ment on in­fra­struc­ture link­ages with China in late 20152016, Min­istry of Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs man­darins had brushed it off as a “bluff”. Today, China is build­ing a rail­way to Nepal, open­ing up Lhasa-Kath­mandu road links, and has ap­proved a soft loan of over $200 mil­lion to con­struct an air­port at Pokhara. Ac­cord­ing to the In­vest­ment Board Nepal, at a two-day in­vest­ment sum­mit in March this year, Chi­nese in­vestors con­trib­uted $8.2 bil­lion, more than 60 of the for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment com­mit­ments made by the seven coun­tries present. Sri Lanka's Ham­ban­tota port con­struc­tion project went to the Chi­nese in 2007 only af­ter India re­jected it. Today, China doesn't just own 80 of the port; it has also won prac­ti­cally ev­ery in­fra­struc­ture con­tract from Ham­ban­tota to Colombo. Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping's visit to Bangladesh last Oc­to­ber was an­other such over­ture, with $24 bil­lion com­mit­ted in in­fra­struc­ture and en­ergy projects. Ear­lier this year, the largely state-owned Chi­nese con­sor­tium, Hi­malaya En­ergy, won a bid for three gas fields in Bangladesh's north-east shoul­der from the Amer­i­can com­pany Chevron, which to­gether ac­count for more than half of the coun­try's to­tal gas out­put. Even if Pak­istan is not counted in this list, it is not hard to see which way India's im­me­di­ate neigh­bours, which are each a part of China's Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive (BRI), are headed in the next few years. More point­edly, once the in­vest­ment flows in, it will be that much harder for them to stave off a more strate­gic pres­ence which China is now more un­abashed about. If one of the aims of the ac­tion in Dok­lam is to save Bhutan from the same fate, then what else must India do to en­sure that China doesn't suc­ceed in cre­at­ing sim­i­lar space for it­self in a coun­try that stood by India in its ob­jec­tions to BRI, and bring its other neigh­bours back?

Re­boot­ing SAARC

To be­gin with, India must re­gain its role as a prime mover of the South Asian As­so­ci­a­tion for Re­gional Co­op­er­a­tion (SAARC), the or­gan­i­sa­tion it aban­doned a year ago over its prob­lems with Pak­istan. De­spite sneers all around, SAARC has sur­vived three decades in spite of its big­gest chal­lenge, India-Pak­istan ten­sions. That New Delhi would can­cel its at­ten­dance at the sum­mit to be held in Pak­istan in the wake of the Uri at­tack, win­ning sup­port from other coun­tries sim­i­larly af­fected by ter­ror­ism such as Bangladesh and Afghanistan, is un­der­stand­able. But a year later, the fact that there have been no steps taken to re­store the SAARC process is un­for­tu­nate. This will hurt the South Asian con­struct and fur­ther loosen the bonds that tie all the coun­tries to­gether, thereby mak­ing it eas­ier for China to make in­roads. It should be re­mem­bered that de­spite China's re­peated re­quests, SAARC was one club it never gained ad­mit­tance to. For all the Naren­dra Modi gov­ern­ment's pro­mo­tion of al­ter­nate group­ings such as South Asia Subre­gional Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion (SASEC), BIMSTEC, the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Ini­tia­tive and Se­cu­rity and Growth for All in the Re­gion (SA­GAR), none will come close to SAARC's com­pre­hen­sive co­gency. Sec­ond, India must recog­nise that pick­ing sides in the pol­i­tics of its neigh­bours makes little dif­fer­ence to China's suc­cess there. In Sri Lanka, the Sirisena gov­ern­ment hasn't changed course when it comes to China, and de­spite its protes­ta­tions that it was sad­dled with debt by the Ra­japaksa regime, it has made no moves to clear that debt while sign­ing up for more. The United Pro­gres­sive Al­liance gov­ern­ment made a sim­i­lar mis­take when Pres­i­dent Mo­hamed Nasheed was ousted in the Mal­dives, only to find that sub­se­quent gov­ern­ments did little to veer away from Chi­nese in­flu­ence. India made its con­cerns about the then Prime Min­is­ter Oli very clear, and was even ac­cused of help­ing Pushpa Ka­mal Da­hal ‘Prachanda' to re­place him in 2016, yet Nepal's ea­ger em­brace of Chi­nese in­fra­struc­ture and trade to de­velop its dif­fi­cult ter­rain has not eased. In Bangladesh too, Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina, who has over­seen the clos­est ties with New Delhi over the past decade, has also forged ahead on ties with China. Should her Awami League lose next year's elec­tion, the Bangladesh Na­tion­al­ist Party will most cer­tainly strengthen the shift to­wards China. In Bhutan's elec­tion, also next year, it is nec­es­sary that India picks no side, for noth­ing could be worse than if the Dok­lam stand-off be­comes an India-ver­sus-China elec­tion is­sue.

A pol­icy of re­spect

Above all, India must recog­nise that do­ing bet­ter with its neigh­bours is not about in­vest­ing more or un­due favours. It is about fol­low­ing a pol­icy of mu­tual in­ter­ests and of re­spect, which India is more cul­tur­ally at­tuned to than its large ri­val is. Each of India's neigh­bours shares more than a ge­o­graph­i­cal con­text with India. They share his­tory, lan­guage, tra­di­tion and even cui­sine. With the ex­cep­tion of Pak­istan, none of them sees it­self as a ri­val to India, or India as in­im­i­cal to its sovereignty. As an Indian di­plo­mat put it, when deal­ing with Beijing bi­lat­er­ally, New Delhi must match China's ag­gres­sion, and counter its moves with its own. When deal­ing with China in South Asia, how­ever, India must do ex­actly the op­po­site, and not al­low it­self to be out­paced. In short, India must “be the Un-China”.

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