Neighbours ditch India, bat for China
Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have been the toast at the high tables from BRICS and ASEAN to G-20 and the East Asia Summit, but nearer home, in the neighbourhood, few are impressed by his 56-inch chest. The stark truth that India does not draw much water in the region was driven home unmistakably during the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu.
The just-concluded SAARC Summit was dominated by India’s futile effort to check China’s influence in SAARC and over its member-nations. In this contest, China and its “all-weather friend” Pakistan not only got the better of India, but also won over others – such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives – to their case.
Modi started off to much applause by inviting the SAARC heads of government for his swearing-in -- to make the point that immediate neighbours would be his priority in foreign policy.
Since then he has journeyed far and wide – to Brazil for the BRICS summit, the US to meet President Barack Obama and attend the UN General Assembly, Myanmar for the ASEAN and East Asia Summit, to Australia for the G-20, and Fiji. In all these places, apart from reportedly stellar performances, he is also said to have clinched a range of bilateral agreements and wowed everyone, especially expatriate Indians, who saw him.
Beginning his forays with Bhutan – again, to impress that neighbours are his top priority -- in six months, he has logged more foreign miles than Manmohan Singh did in a whole year. He has met every major head of government and attended every major regional and international grouping. He also found time to visit Nepal – the first prime ministerial visit since the 1990s.
Thus, six months after assuming office, Prime Minister Modi’s accomplishments on the foreign front are best assessed by looking at how he has handled neighbours and the neighbourhood. A summary report would give him less than five points on a scale of 10.
If his impact on SAARC and SAARC member-states are an accurate pointer of how he has fared in foreign affairs, Modi’s score is poor, even if India-Pakistan ties are left aside.
He has had three interactions with the leadership of Bhutan and Nepal – at his swearing in, during bilateral visits and at the SAARC summit; and, with the others, at least two, besides meeting them on the sidelines at other occasions.
Bhutan is not making any unfriendly noises now because the previous UPA government has ‘intimidated’ Thimphu into compliance and influenced the elections there to ensure an India-friendly regime. On the positive side, one of India’s ablest diplomats, Ambassador Gautam Bambawale is doing a good job to keep relations smooth. So, if the Chinese are active in a ways unacceptable to New Delhi, it is still not visible.
Nepal is coming increasingly under the influence of China. Chinese contribution to Nepal’s development and economy is not a patch on what India has done and is doing. The difference is that China is able to better leverage its financial, developmental and infrastructural assistance for keeping Kathmandu tilted in its favour and stoking anti-India sentiments. The fact that India and Nepal signed 10 agreements during his visit for the SAARC summit did not restrain Kathmandu from supporting China’s case for an “elevated” role in SAARC. In fact, Nepal is all for China being granted full membership of SAARC. Contrary to the spin on his first visit to Nepal, this time public meetings and engagements planned for Modi had to be called off. Whether this was under pressure from Beijing or because the Nepalese did not want to be seen as parading Big Brother around the country is a moot point.
There is nothing ideological about Nepal and its political forces leaning towards China. Even the monarchy has done that in the past. Playing China against India succeeds because New Delhi is not effective in Kathmandu and, at a different level, is unwilling to accept that Nepal’s interests are better served by China-India cooperation and not competition or confrontation.
When it comes to Sri Lanka, Modi has inherited a legacy where President Mahinda Rajapaksa was alienated by the UPA’s Manmohan Singh. New Delhi either ended up supporting US-sponsored resolutions on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka in the UNCHR or dithered when it came to being seen on the side of Colombo, including during the CHOGM summit. The Tamil parties, the US and the UNCHR dictated UPA positions and actions on Sri Lanka.
Rajapaksa, who may have expected Modi to be different, has little reason to be satisfied with the NDA government acting to an agenda dictated by political parties in Tamil Nadu. Modi Sarkar is reduced to petitioning and pleading with Colombo on behalf of Tamil parties, remarked one observer. The more “favours” we seek from Rajapaksa, the less our influence on him, is how this observer put it. This may well have given Sri Lanka also reason to support China’s case for an “elevated role” in SAARC and full membership.
SAARC had never been a particularly vibrant regional forum known for delivering results. Like any forum where India and Pakistan are present, SAARC too is hostage to their rivalries and animosity. China is just one of the observer-countries in SAARC along with others such as the US, the EU, Japan, Australia, Iran and South Korea. While others may or may not be opposed to China playing a larger role in SAARC, the fact is that none of them have stood up to be counted on the side of New Delhi when it sets itself against China.
At the recent SAARC Summit, India was all but isolated in its opposition to China, with the Kathmandu Declaration explicitly committing “to engage SAARC observers into productive, demand-driven and objective project-based cooperation in priority areas identified by member-states”.
India’s reiteration that there is no proposal for expansion of SAARC is of little consequence given the overwhelming trend in favour of China. So much so that it no longer matters what formal role China gains in SAARC. Regardless of whether it is granted “elevated” status or full membership, China – and not only through Pakistan, but also through Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Maldives – would be calling the shots in SAARC.
New Delhi needs to revise its premises, rethink its strategy, win over immediate neighbours and find new ways of engaging China if it wants to stay on top of the situation in South Asia.