South Asia Balancing Between Strategic Importance And Economic Boom
The time tested maxim that history as a harsh narrator tells us repeatedly that maintaining friendly relations, peace and development cooperation between neighbouring countries is much harder than fighting wars, stands quite relevant of India’s relations with its immediate neighbours especially in the Himalayan ranges. This can be better understood when one takes a closer look at the External Affairs Minister SM Krishna’s statement that the history of 60 years relations between India and countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar or for that matter even China cannot be simply brushed aside. Therefore, there are merits in New Delhi continuing to pursue a relationship of cooperative partnership with these countries. However, the foreign policy engine room, the powerful PMO in particular, also needs to be assertive and categorical in safe guarding both the nation’s prestige and borders.
The External Affairs Minister Krishna had made a rather weak defence of the government’s China policy in Lok Sabha when the opposition members raised the bogey of border incursions and objections by Chinese on a road construction in Demchok, Ladakh. The government of the day would do well to keep in mind that both in theory and practice, the national interests always determine any country’s foreign as well as trade policies. So the same yardstick should apply to India’s understanding and undertaking of strategic and trade ties with its neighbours.
Ideologies do not really matter in a world where the mantra is a better living condition for the common people, improving the general quality of life and infrastructures. The trade and commerce and other economic front ties of India with all its neighbouring countries should be therefore seen in that context.
True to its ideological commitment, India has been always striving to be a ‘reliable companion’ to smaller neighbours like Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar in their march towards peace, progress and prosperity. To start with; in the context of Myanmar, New Delhi has already announced a series of cross-border development projects aimed at better connectivity and boosting the regional economies of the two countries.
There have been opening of trade centres like Pangsha and Pungro in the north-eastern state of Nagaland and similar steps have been taken to boost business ties between Myanmar and Indian states like Manipur and Mizoram. In the words of the Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, India is involved in a variety of projects with Myanmar in diverse fields such as roads, railways, telecommunications, IT, science and technology, and power. In fact, the Look East policy of New Delhi was originally initiated during the time of the then Prime Minister PV
Narasimha Rao and it got further boost by all successive governments after him. IK Gujral regime launched a highly innovative ‘Gujral doctrine’ for Bangladesh while Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Southeast Asian tour during his tenure to participate in the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) summit in Bali, Indonesia gave a definite fast forward movement in giving concrete shape to India’s ties with its ASEAN and smaller neighbours.
These moves have helped to liberalise the economy and participate in the new trend of globalisation and have been continuously winning new business partners and friends for New Delhi. Having said these, we must mention about huge potentials of hydel power generations from Nepal and Bhutan and how the tie up can be mutually beneficial. India’s cooperation in developing Bhutan’s hydro-power is well beyond the scope of development cooperation. True in more ways than one, hydel water is to Bhutan and Nepal; what oil is to Arabs. In 2008, India’s export to Bhutan was worth Rs 1,734 crore and import was Rs 2,148 crore. With regard to Nepal, it has an installed capacity of 630 Mega Watt power though the country is said to have an estimated potential of 83,000 Mega Watt of hydropower. Kathmandu is, no wonder today, already a favourite destination for several Indian hydroelectric power generation companies.
There is further talk about enhanced trading actions between India and countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and also Indonesia. With regard to Nepal, the Government of India has committed a wholesome Rs 5600 crore in Nepali currency under ‘development cooperation’ programmes for a number of projects ranging from railways to roads and bridges and health care. It is also worth taking note here about the untapped potentials of economic and trading ties between India and Pakistan. If directed through Attari-Wagah border, observers say the volume of Indian imports into Pakistan could grow up at some estimated 2-3 billion US dollars a year.
However, there are several roadblocks in the overall economic development scenario. The influential elements in countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and definitely Pakistan harbour strong anti-India feelings. Lately, there have been good movements from strategic angles. The Vajpayee government had succeeded in ensuring Bhutan army’s involvement in a joint crackdown against ULFA in early 2004. The Hasina government in Bangladesh is cooperating well with Manmohan Singh regime. But these are just too little.
The trouble in Jammu and Kashmir and occasional terror strike in cities like Mumbai and Pune only dampen the business. In Nepal, there is a strong opinion among the political class that New Delhi should stop interfering in Nepal’s internal power struggle. What made New Delhi uncomfortable with a government headed by Maoist leader Prachanda is still a mystery to many. Upendra Yadav, former foreign minister of Nepal in Prachanda government, says there is “(ardh satya—half-truth”) on alleged Indian involvement in Nepal politics. All these, in the ultimate analysis, call for introspection at all levels and taking of urgent corrective step. Vision, ambition and necessity are the three basic elements those shape international policies bordering the twin fronts of strategic and economic interests – and they have to be taken up in that order to ensure long-lasting productive relations between Delhi and all its neighbours.
The real issue as regard New Delhi’s relations in the Himalayan region is not how the government looks the overall scenario of bilateral and some time multilateral ties and the changing global scenario vis-à-vis India’s emergence as a regional power. But the real issue is how, whether and when the government want to handle all the issues seriously including the scar of presence of terror elements and their networks in the Himalayan ranges.
For New Delhi a long lasting pending agenda in modern diplomacy is the need for its own assessment of its role as a regional power.