None of the region’s smaller countries has the capacity to ward off extra-territorial military interventions

India’s neighbours often cite the ‘Bangladesh War’ and the IPKF involvement in Sri Lanka to justify their apprehensions about Indian strategic interests and military reach in the region.

In this, they do not acknowledge that it was not Indian plotting that caused the Bangladesh War, but Pakistan’s own failings; and that the IPKF went to Sri Lanka at the request of President J.R. Jayewardene, to be withdrawn equally fast, again at the express wish of his successor President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

But India’s smaller neighbours are not as concerned about the reach, if any, of outside powers in the region. In this sense, the neighbourhood’s concerns about India are distinct from India’s own concerns.

For India, the disputes with China — and Pakistan, too — are real, and not just theoretical. In this context, there is some substance in the demand by the Indian strategic community that smaller neighbours should share their security arrangement details with it, particularly if these involved powers from outside the region.

Ultimately, it is India that has to face these arrangements, if it came to that. Indian concerns on this score, at the official level in particular, are clearly independent of New Delhi’s recognition of the sovereign right of individual nations in the neighbourhood to do business of their choosing with partners of their choosing.

None of India’s smaller neighbours has the capacity to ward off extra-territorial security/military intervention. India alone is capable of this.

Hence, the expectation that smaller neighbours should keep India informed and updated about their concerns and arrangements on the geo-strategic front. The ideal, of course, would be for these countries to resist the temptation of inviting extra-territorial players into the region and providing them with political and strategic space.

Be it the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka or the GMR issue in Maldives, or Chinese-funded civilian projects in either of these countries or other South-Asian neighbours of India, the strategic community in India is often over-heated with the perception that they have all done business with China behind the New Delhi’s back.

The perception is that these countries may have been working — or operating a strategic partnership — with China, to the eternal detriment of India’s security interests and strategic concerns. It is more so in the case of Sri Lanka and Maldives, whose strategic location on the Indian Ocean sea-lines provides for multi-dimensional security concerns for India emanating from China and based in either or both of these nations.

Having said that, however, there is little acknowledgement of the geo-strategic concerns of smaller neighbours on the part of New Delhi, either by the government or by the Indian strategic community. Seldom do they ask why India has never taken them into confidence while signing strategic partnership agreements with extra-territorial powers. All said and done, they only have their sovereignty to claim equality with the larger and bigger neighbour.

This gap in perceptions and reality can be closed by building a South Asian security architecture, where Indian strategic needs and historical security concerns are taken on board along with the concerns of India’s smaller neighbours. At the end of the day, the smaller neighbours are the first line of defence for India. But the initiative for creating a regional security architecture rests with India, which is the largest military power in the region and would be called upon to shoulder much of the responsibilities, including budgetary support, and would have to evaluate them at every turn.

India has a demonstrated track record of its ability and willingness to give military lead to the region where required. Thus, India was proactive in helping Sri Lanka at the height of the ‘first JVP insurgency’ in 1971, followed by the ‘Bangladesh war’ the same year. That the Sri Lankan government’s invitation to the IPKF in 1987 would be used to criticise India as a hegemon caught New Delhi off guard.

The Indian military intervention to Maldives during the November 3 coup bid in 1988 and the more recent assistance to both nations in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami showed that India was both willing to walk that extra mile in war and peace, to reach out to its neighbours.

Of course, Pakistan may have a problem with joining an Indian initiative of this kind — New Delhi too would have reservations in the matter. Each country’s relations with Pakistan could also come in the way of some nations joining a security pact with India. But it would be up to the Indian leadership, as also political and military diplomacy, to do the job. Whether it involves State adversaries or non-State actors, post-World-War global concerns have been moving increasingly closer to South Asia.These need to be addressed, and the initiative has to come from India.

(The writer is Director and Senior Fellow at the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, ORF, a multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)

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