Why India’s neighbourhood is witnessing political turbulence and economic dislocations
Given the geopolitical transformations occurring today and the need to come to terms with the economic consequences of the pandemic, India should think about an innovative roadmap to vitalise its relations with the neighbours
The entire world economy has been badly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic for over two years now and that is valid for even major industrial nations, what to speak of the developing economies.
But the situation is rather dire in some of the developing countries including the smaller neighbours of India. The current economic crisis in Sri Lanka, for instance, has led to the collapse of the government, the declaration of emergency and mass protests despite the imposition of a curfew. The entire cabinet in the Sri Lankan government had to resign to make a way for the formation of a new council of ministers. Whether changing the portfolios of the former ministers can help resolve the economic problems is anybody’s guess. But the indications are clear that President Gotabaya Rajapaksha is unwilling to cede power to a newly elected government.
Pakistani economic conditions are similarly in a deep pit. But the politics over there is even worse. Prime Minister Imran Khan fought tooth and nail to stay in power despite his differences with the Pakistani Army, America and Islamic fundamentalists who seek power by misusing the name of Allah. The three AAAs (Army, America and Allah) running the Pakistani administration for decades is a well-known refrain.
The economy of Afghanistan is even in a deeper crater. The government in Afghanistan also faces the issue of legitimacy, as it has not been recognised by any country in the world after the US and NATO troops withdrew from Afghanistan, the Ghani government collapsed and the Taliban captured power with the use of brute force. The Taliban government has been desperately trying to acquire foreign assistance for dealing with the economic crisis in the country.
The volatile Nepalese politics has in recent years drawn the attention of the international community, particularly after rising Chinese influence paddling in Kathmandu. Currently, Nepal has political stability but an economy that requires enormous amounts of foreign assistance for growth and development.
Bangladesh, which had achieved remarkable economic growth in recent years and had begun to aspire for a middle-income country status, is reeling under inflation and other pandemic-induced economic problems and has apparently witnessed more than 30 million of its people pushed under the poverty line.
In all these neighbouring countries of India, the most significant security concern for India has been the role of China which has aimed at establishing a neo-imperial control over South Asia in recent decades, by implication, threatening India from along the closest points of its border.
Recently, China hosted the Taliban leaders for a discussion. There is little doubt that China aspires to maintain a robust presence in Afghanistan that has dealt heavy blows to many empires in history and the latest being the inability of the United States and NATO to maintain order and stability even after two decades of their military presence. Chinese political and economic presence in Afghanistan is certainly going to cause concern for India.
Bangladesh has no doubt improved relations with India, especially since the resolution of the long-pending border and territorial issues. But it continues to be the second-largest buyer of Chinese weapons after Pakistan. More recently, there are reports about China constructing a maintenance facility in Bangladesh for surface-to-air missiles.
The current economic crisis in Sri Lanka owes its origin to strategic collaborations between China and Sri Lanka. While China offered billions of dollars of loans for developing ports, roads and other infrastructure, Colombo was caught unaware of its long-term implications. The Hambantota Port, built by the Chinese, had to be given on lease to China for 99 years as Sri Lanka was unable to service its debt!
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When India along with some Western countries drew attention to the Chinese “debt trap”, it fell on deaf ears of most South Asian neighbours of India. The so-called Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) of China has been based on predatory economic practices and the clear goal is to construct a hegemonic order by Beijing.
Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, Pakistan and even Nepal focused on the Chinese offer of capital and remained oblivious of its consequences. Of course, China very cleverly and cunningly cultivated the ruling dispensations of these countries by hook and by crook. The result was the ruling regimes perceived India as a jealous partner that was not capable of offering what China could for developmental activities in their respective countries.
The anti-India perceptions in South Asian countries were created, sustained and promoted by China in a systematic way. Even now the slogan “India Out” in the Maldives has roots in Chinese diplomacy backed by unaccounted use of money power.
There is no doubt that Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and to some extent Bangladesh have realised the cost of doing business with China. In fact, Chinese BRI projects have run into difficulties in all those countries both due to the rise of nationalism and the economic consequences of the Chinese investment. Nepal’s parliament, through hard political bargains and negotiations among various political parties, has approved the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Grant of the US for infrastructure development. Beijing simply is furious, as its interference in domestic politics in Nepal miserably failed.
India’s generous economic help to Sri Lanka and Nepal during difficult times, India’s offer of vaccines during the pandemic and New Delhi acting as a first responder during natural disasters in South Asia have won people’s hearts in the neighbouring countries. But the Chinese economic presence and influence-peddling in these countries have made it difficult to deal with anti-India propaganda at crucial times.
Given the geopolitical transformations occurring today and the need to come to terms with the economic consequences of the pandemic, should India not think about an innovative roadmap to vitalise its relations with the neighbours?
The writer is a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal.
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