Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | India’s neighbourhood outreach | What lies ahead for South Asia in 2023?

India’s neighbourhood outreach | What lies ahead for South Asia in 2023?

In this episode of Worldview we discuss New Delhi’s newly powered push in the neighbourhood and what lies ahead for South Asia in 2023

Updated - January 27, 2023 10:02 pm IST

Published - January 27, 2023 09:55 pm IST

India begins the year with an outreach in the neighbourhood- with visits to Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bhutan, and even an invitation to Pakistan- what lies ahead for 2023 in South Asia?

This is going to be a particularly interesting year for India as President of G20 and it is significant that the year began with a newly powered push in the neighbourhood.

1. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar travelled to Maldives last week- his visit was about India’s assistance to Maldives for a number of infrastructure projects- there are in total 46 projects across Maldivian atolls and islands, of which 23 have been completed. Of these the Greater Male Connectivity project is the biggest, but Jaishankar also visited other projects in the north including the Hanimadhoo international airport redevelopment project stone laying, inaugurating a community centre in Foakhaidoo and announcing a new sports complex in Gaaf Dhaloo Gaddhoo. In total India has already committed well over $2 bn during the Solih government’s tenure

2. He then travelled to Sri Lanka, where India has provided a total package of about $3.9 Bn including credit lines, currency swaps and loan repayment relaxation, allowing the island which is in a severe economic crisis and negotiating a bailout from the IMF, to get through the worst. In addition just ahead of the visit, India sent a letter to the IMF committing to restructure Sri Lanka’s debt, where India, China, Japan are amongst the biggest creditors. EAM also invited PM Ranil Wickremesinghe to Delhi, expected in March.

3. Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra visited Bhutan and held talks with the fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck and called on Prime Minister Lyonchhen (Dr) Lotay Tshering- discussions on development cooperation between India and Bhutan during the 12th 5 year plan, Indian assistance on digital infrastructure and educational infrastructure was highlighted- the visit also came just days after Bhutan announced progress in its boundary talks with China.

4. Mr. Kwatra is expected to visit Nepal in the next few days, to invite the new Prime Minister Prachanda to visit Delhi perhaps as early as next month to Delhi.

5. And there was even an invitation for Pakistan- as New Delhi sent a letter to Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto to attend the SCO Foreign Minister’s meeting in May in Goa. If he does come, it will be the first FM visit from Islamabad since July 2011. The SCO summit, where PM Shehbaz Sharif will be invited will be held

6. PM Modi addressed an online “Voice of Global South” summit where all India’s neighbours except Pakistan and Afghanistan were present- notably Myanmar was included. During the leader’s session, Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina also took part. The conference was seen as a “feeder” conference for ideas ahead of the G20 summit this year- and a way of bringing 125 countries into the conversation, including the neighbourhood.

So what is driving this concerted push at this time?

1. India’s high profile event- the G20 this year requires regional stability, and no nasty surprises in relations with the neighbours

2. Elections are due in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Pakistan... In Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina is seeking an unprecedented 4th term, and has been seen as pro-India, In Maldives, the opposition PPM is leading an India Out campaign, and New Delhi is keen to show shore up ties with the incumbents, and also with the people of the neighbourhood, just in case there are new governments elected.

3. Covid has hampered China’s forays in the region- in terms of economic support, tourism, inviting students etc...and India has an opportunity to reclaim its place in the region, and push back the Chinese challenge, even as India faces its 4th year of the LAC standoff with Chinese soldiers

4. The Russia-Ukraine war, which will complete a year soon and western sanctions have had an impact on Indian foreign policy- we are already seeing a reversion to non-alignment, also to becoming a voice for the global south, engaging groupings like G77 – and it would seem New Delhi is also going back to regionalism, ensuring strong ties with all the countries that it can.

5. While external events may not hamper India’s domestic politics, India’s domestic politics, the government’s policy towards minorities in particular does impact its image in neighbouring countries, especially those like Bangladesh, Maldives and Pakistan which are Muslim majority nations, and the Modi government has to go the extra mile to reassure friends in neighbouring capitals of India’s continued commitment to pluralism

But there’s are other more important reasons that the government must build on this foray- and that is that all India’s future problems require an all of region solution-

- Air and water pollution

- Climate change

- Energy security- including the need for a renewable energy grid

- Health security and the control of pandemics

- Scarcity of resources

I have written on the illogical rejection of the idea of South Asia in The Hindu-

Eventually India’s position at the high table of the world stage is an impossibility if its region is in crisis, or its neighbours are inimical, making India vulnerable. India’s neighbourhood- or South Asia is a geographical, cultural and historical reality, and it is only by accepting the importance of working with the neighbourhood.

Reading Recommendations

1. Coping with China-India Rivalry: South Asian Dilemmas- Edited by C Rajamohan and Hernaikh Shaikh, the book includes a chapter on Bhutan I have written

2. Politics of Hate : Religious Majoritarianism in South Asia: Essays edited by Farahanaz Ispahani

Two new papers: you can buy a bound report or download as a PDF

3. Striking Asymmetries: Nuclear Transitions in Southern Asia by Ashley Tellis of Carnegie Endowment

4. Striving for Clean Air: Air Pollution and Public Health in South Asia by the World Bank

5. Monsoon by Robert D. Kaplan- who is the author of the Revenge of Geography and Asia’s Cauldron

6. The Power of Geography: Ten Maps that Reveal the Future of Our World – the sequel to Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

7. Modern South Asia: History, Culture and Political Economy by Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal- the 4th edition

8. Subcontinental Drift: Domestic Politics and India’s Foreign Policy by Rajesh Basrur- which will be out this year- looks at how domestic constraints hamper India’s foreign policy and its potential as a superpower

9. Climate Change in South Asia: Politics, Policies and the SAARC by Bania teilang Majaw published by Routledge

10. Never Give an Inch: Fighting for the America I Love by Mike Pompeo- this contains some new and very contested bits on dealing with India and Pakistan, out on Kindle

Script and Presentation: Suhasini Haidar

Production: Gayathri Menon and Reenu Cyriac

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