Their presence at the G-7 summit at Ise-Shima, Japan, last week was hardly noticed in India. But among the six leaders of the developing world present in the outreach session were Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh, and Maithripala Sirisena, president of Sri Lanka.
The Japanese invitation to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka underlines the remarkable rise in Tokyo’s strategic interest in the Subcontinent. It also highlights the growing salience of South Asian nations on the international stage.
Japan is a late entrant to this game; China has already begun to integrate India’s neighbours into its larger international and regional strategies. The $ 46 billion China-Pakistan economic corridor is only one example. In another, Beijing has given Colombo and Kathmandu the status of a “dialogue partner” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
As other powers begin to devote quality time to engaging South Asian nations, big and small, Delhi must lend additional depth and energy to its current “neighbourhood first” strategy. Above all, it must come to terms with the unfolding globalisation of the Subcontinent.
Much of the international discourse on South Asia often gets reduced to the India-Pakistan relations; this only helps mask the significance of the other nations in the region. And the reference to them as “smaller nations” of the region is largely inaccurate.
In terms of population size, Bangladesh is the eighth largest in the world with its numbers standing at more than 160 million. Afghanistan (33mn) Nepal (29mn) and Sri Lanka (21mn) are at 40th, 46th and 57th positions respectively. Only Bhutan and Maldives, with their populations below 1 mn, may be termed as mini states.
Since independence, India has been compelled to pay special attention to a Pakistan that punched way above its weight in the world. An Islamic identity, critical geopolitical location, association with Western military alliances and the possession of nuclear weapons have given Pakistan much weight in regional affairs.
India has also devoted considerable energy towards Afghanistan that has been at the centre of the Great Game for more than two centuries. It has become a vital part of India’s strategy towards Pakistan and the battle against violent religious extremism. With its focus on the Af-Pak region, however, Delhi has tended to miss the growing strategic significance of the other nations in the neighbourhood.
Bangladesh is today one of the fastest growing economies of the world and is open to massive investments in the infrastructure sector. No wonder, China and Japan are competing vigorously for project contracts in Bangladesh. Both Beijing and Tokyo also see the country as the fulcrum of the eastern subcontinent and a bridge between South Asia, China and South East Asia.
Long viewed as India’s buffers to the north, Bhutan and Nepal have now become theatres of contestation with China. To the South, Sri Lanka is rediscovering its central location in the Indian Ocean, as all major powers like China, US and Japan pay unprecedented attention to Colombo.
Maldives, which straddles the vital sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean, has now become a highly coveted piece of maritime real estate as China turns its gaze upon the Indian Ocean.
The new geopolitical dynamism animating all corners of South Asia poses a number of important challenges for India. One, Delhi no longer has the luxury of viewing the region as India’s “backyard”. It must begin to recognise the growing gulf between its claims of primacy in the region and the growing economic, political and military influence of China in the Subcontinent.
Two, the new international opportunities have allowed the ruling elites in our neighbourhood to pursue greater “strategic autonomy” from India. This means Delhi will have to work harder than ever before to retain its historic leverages in the neighbourhood.
Three, the economic geography of the Subcontinent was inherently in India’s favour. Partition, the inward economic orientation of socialist India, and the neglect of connectivity and commerce at and across the frontiers has seen Delhi squander many of the inherited advantages. Modi’s India is trying hard to compensate but the scale and scope of its initiatives are no match to the Chinese efforts to reconfigure the economic geography of the Subcontinent.
Four, India’s “neighbourhood first” strategy is complicated by its deep involvement in the internal politics of the South Asian nations. Unlike in the past, those who resent India’s intervention don’t have to merely lump it. They have countered it by seeking intervention of other powers. Delhi, therefore, will have to rethink the nature of its intervention in the internal affairs of its neighbours.
Last but not the least, India must stop seeing itself as the “lone ranger” in South Asia. While it must necessarily compete with rival powers when they threaten its interests, it must also learn to collaborate with friendly powers, wherever possible, in shaping the regional environment. This requires a new mindset in Delhi that focuses on strategic regional outcomes rather than the right to unilateral means.