By Ashok Malik
With the crippling of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (Saarc), India's quest for a new architecture for its neighbourhood policy has taken on a certain urgency. Other than expanding political, trading and connectivity arrangements with immediate neighbours independent of the Pakistan veto within the Saarc, two other factors have also played a role:
1.The logical and geographical extension of neighbourhood policy into broader regional arrangements
2.The arrival of China as a factor in almost every country in South Asia – a product of the past decade and of China’s rapid, post-2008 aggressiveness – that is causing New Delhi to rethink and reimagine its neighbourhood approach
To India's east, this new policy has been more obvious. As the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit begins in Goa, India has spun off its invitation to outreach countries into a conference of the BIMSTEC. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, to use the full form, is made up of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal, besides India. Five of the BIMSTEC’s seven members are also founders of the Saarc. Four of them comprise the BBIN: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal.
Promoted by India as the fast track within the Saarc, the BBIN is the embryo of a more vigorous Indian bolstering of the BIMSTEC. Meaningful outcomes within the BIMSTEC will also strengthen India in its negotiations within the China-incubated BCIM (Bangladesh-China–India–Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation). The BCIM is the one segment of President Xi Jinping’s "One Belt, One Road" programme where India and China have scope for cooperation and intersection, provided political suspicions are sorted out.
The elements of the new architecture to the east are becoming apparent. But what of the west? Afghanistan is a Saarc country and an important friend and ally for India. Yet, the country in between – the massive land mass of Pakistan – is unavailable for mutually beneficial projects and has to be in a sense leapfrogged. There is also the issue of China’s presence in Pakistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Project (CPEC), which India sees as a strategic threat.
The CPEC promises Pakistan a Chinese investment amounting to $46 billion. Of this, a third, about $14 billion, has already been put into projects, including those for energy and road construction. Prima facie there is nothing wrong with Pakistan receiving economic support and an infrastructure increment, but the fact is that many of the projects listed under CPEC are simply not commercially viable.
At two points, in Gilgit-Baltistan – part of the former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir and territory on which India has legal claim – and in Gwadar, the port town on Balochistan’s Makran coast, New Delhi is alarmed by the nature of the CPEC. In Gilgit-Baltistan, infrastructure and roads that cannot reasonably have anything but a military purpose – and could serve to unify Chinese and Pakistani troops on a common front – is becoming visible. In Gwadar, a Chinese naval base in the Arabian Sea, at India’s doorstep, could trigger a tectonic reshaping of India’s strategic geography.
How is India responding to regional angularities to its west? Before attempting to answer that, it is important to understand the context in which Pakistan is operating and the gaps it is both covering and leaving vacant, for these offer a clue to what India can realistically achieve and what it cannot. Having moved away from the United States, Pakistan now sees China as its major benefactor on the international stage. India’s proximity to the US and Russia’s increasing dependence on China is also allowing Islamabad opportunities – but limited opportunities – to reach out to Moscow.
Simultaneously, as it moves away from its South Asian moorings, Pakistan finds itself trapped between a conservative society that is looking to West Asia as an anchor of identity, and a military and strategic elite that sees benefit in becoming an understudy to China – even if the process holds the longer term risk of a Finlandisation of Pakistan.
The spaces Pakistan is leaving open to its west offer some opportunities for India. Like in the Indo-Pacific, where India is juggling relationships with a variety of competing powers – and managing some of those relationships with dexterity but others with discomfort – India has room for manoeuvre with major Sunni kingdoms (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar), the major Shia power (Iran) and smaller powers as well.
It needs to be understood that this room for manoeuvre is far from limitless. There is little chance of a collective grouping or call to action. There are too many contradictions between the countries themselves and not one of them would want to directly confront China. Nobody is going to oppose the CPEC directly, not for India’s sake.
Yet, to what degree can the CPEC and to what degree can Pakistan’s monopolistic denial of Indian physical access to Afghanistan be overridden, contested, bypassed, made problematic (even controversial) and rendered that much harder to defend, implement and persist with? These remain imponderables. For example, Indian diplomatic endeavour in highlighting Pakistan's human-rights violations against its Baloch minorities will need to be sustained over several years and several governments – and will probably need to be complemented by other instrumentalities and mechanisms within Balochistan – for there to be tangible impact.
The Chabahar port (on the Gulf of Oman, in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province) is not quite an alternative or a rival to Gwadar but offers the hope of allowing India easier access to and opportunities in Afghanistan and the region. It is pertinent that the Iranian authorities have urged India to invite Oman as a partner in the project and thereby add to the strategic weight and viability of Chabahar.
The prospect of a Chinese-run facility in Gwadar also concerns the UAE. If India worries about the port’s military implications, the Emirates realises that given Chabahar’s maritime location, a full-fledged commercial port could cannibalise Dubai port’s market share. As for the wider consequences of the CPEC, how the Iranians will ultimately take to the arrival and settling of a new imperial power – the Chinese – in their neighbourhood cannot be thought through just yet.
Across the Gulf region, there are fears about Pakistani terror infrastructure and religious radicalisation capacities. There are questions of direct linkages with terrorist groups and of propaganda spreading among or through expatriate worker communities that can be traced back to Pakistan. In parallel, there is interest in infrastructure, energy, military production and other such investment avenues in India where sovereign wealth funds from the Arab countries can be deployed. Over two years, the Modi government has leveraged this assiduously to enhance India’s visibility in Gulf region capitals.
One of the milestones in this effort is the invitation to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi – and the next ruler of the UAE – to be the chief guest on the Republic Day next year. Given that the Modi government's first two Republic Day invitations went out to President Barack Obama (2015) and President Francois Hollande (2016), the symbolic message will not be missed. It would be fair to suggest that the UAE and Abu Dhabi in particular have become the centrepiece of India’s "Think West" policy just as Singapore was the cockpit for the "Look East" policy 25 years ago.
Gradually then, the structural design of a post-Saarc neighbourhood-regional strategy is emerging. There is no doubt though that those being targeted will respond, as will their "iron friends". The coming three months, from the moment President Xi leaves Goa to the moment the Crown Prince lands in Delhi, will inevitably challenge Modi and India with "surprises".
This article first appeared on ORF and is being reproduced with permission