Posts Tagged ‘Connectivity’

This article was originally published by the Centre for Landwarfare Studies (CLAWS), a Defense think-tank, on March 16, 2017 here. Republished in the Indian Defense Review on March 20, 2017 here.  

When Narendra Modi took oath as the 14th Indian Prime Minister in May 2014, he made an unprecedented diplomatic outreach to India’s neighbours by inviting their heads of government. The audacious move generated great euphoria and excitement, especially among the observers of South Asian politics and relations. It was the very first initiative of what later came to be known as the ‘neighbourhood first’ policy of the Modi government.

The day after his inauguration, Modi held bilateral meetings with the South Asian leaders and vowed to work towards making SAARC a strong regional block. He soon made his first foreign visit as Prime Minister to Bhutan, the Himalayan neighbour that has been India’s closest and time-tested ally. India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj too, made her first official foreign visit in the neighbourhood, to Bangladesh, where she laid the foundation for Modi’s visit that followed later on.

The diplomatic priority that Modi attached to the neighbourhood is evident from the fact he made a visit to all of India’s neighbours, except Maldives, and the numerous leaders hosted in New Delhi and meetings at other multilateral fora. With Bangladesh, the completion of the historic land boundary agreement, besides fresh initiatives in energy, connectivity and counter-terrorism, have catapulted the relationship to new heights. With Sri Lanka, the relationship has come back to normalcy after increased strain in ties during the Rajapaksa regime. Modi also made visits to the island nations of Mauritius and Seychelles, giving an impetus to India’s role as ‘net security provider’ in the Indian Ocean region.

According to foreign affairs analyst Dhruva Jaishankar, India’s neighbourhood first policy has four aspects. The willingness to give political and diplomatic priority to its immediate neighbours and Indian Ocean island states, providing them with support as needed, greater connectivity and integration, and to promote a model of India-led regionalism with which its neighbours are comfortable. Modi realises that his domestic agenda of development and rapid economic growth cannot be fulfilled without a stable and conducive neighbourhood. He has often emphasised that India cannot grow in isolation and that there is a lot to gain by mutual cooperation and shared prosperity in the region.

Besides the compelling economic logic, Modi is also watchful about growing Chinese penetration into South Asia. While Chinese presence in the region is not entirely avoidable or undesirable by India, there are some pressing strategic concerns that New Delhi has. China has been steadily building infrastructure, especially ports, at strategic locations around India which is often called as the strategy of encirclement or ‘string of pearls’. It has made deep inroads into most of India’s neighbours, besides emerging as an all-weather friend of Pakistan.

The proposed China Pakistan Economic Corridor, where Beijing plans to invest $46 billion in rail, road and gas pipeline projects, has raised concerns in India as it passes through Gilgit-Baltistan, which is part of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, a territory that India considers as its own. This issue also came up in the most recent round of strategic dialogue held in Beijing, where Indian foreign secretary S Jaishankar conveyed that China should respect India’s territorial sovereignty.

Further, the region as a whole ought to be wary of increased Chinese involvement as it could undermine the process of democratization in the delicate and mostly fledgling democracies of South Asia. India has always been at the receiving end of parochial nationalistic politics of some of its neighbours which derive strength from anti-India rhetoric. All countries, including India, would benefit if this is replaced by an atmosphere of mutual trust and cooperation where developmental politics takes the centre-stage. But China has no sympathy either for democracy or developmental politics. As S.D. Muni, an expert of South Asian affairs, opines, China prefers strong, assertive and centralised regimes at its periphery. This is evident from the fact that China never supported or encouraged democratization in any of its neighbours.

While the last two and half years and more have seen a number of ground breaking developments in India’s relations with its neighbouring countries, there have been huge challenges at the same time. Modi’s visit to Nepal, first bilateral visit by an Indian Prime Minister in over two decades, was received with huge fanfare and optimism. India was also the first responder after the Nepal earthquake, providing considerable assistance. Yet, Nepal’s constitutional crisis caused a serious setback in relations with India. Although New Delhi’s stance, that the interests of the Madhesis should be respected in the new Constitution, was in the best interest of both Nepal and India, there was a serious perception problem. India was criticised and accused of causing an economic blockade even though the blockade was actually on the Nepalese side of the border, enforced by the angry Madhesi population. Relations between India and Nepal, however, seem to have gotten back on track with the new government, led by Prime Minister Pushpa KamalDahal or ‘Prachanda’, in Kathmandu.

The biggest roadblock for India’s neighbourhood policy, however, has been Pakistan, a country which is not only serving as an epicentre of terrorism in the region but has also been quite unabashed in holding up regional integration and connectivity. Repeated cross-border terrorist attacks from Pakistan led to the cancellation of the SAARC summit scheduled in Islamabad last year, besides causing a meltdown of Indo-Pakistan relations.

These challenges, however, should not distract New Delhi from pursuing its agenda of greater regional integration and cooperation. The idea of ‘neighbourhood first’ need not include an errant neighbour like Pakistan, which can be dealt with separately. Even though SAARC has hit a roadblock, there are other institutional mechanisms such as the BIMSTEC, Mekong-Ganga cooperation mechanism, etc. where India can engage multilaterally. Even within the SAARC framework, India has been working on a ‘SAARC minus one’ approach. The Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) grouping has been one such example under which connectivity, energy and water management initiatives have been pursued. The common SAARC Satellite, which India has decided to go ahead with despite Pakistan’s objections, is another case in point.

The neighbourhood first policy has been one of India’s key foreign policy goals under the Modi government. It needs to march on, with or without Pakistan. Political engagement with the neighbours must continue to be prioritised in order to accelerate regional cooperation and integration which is the best interest of the region.

This article was originally published in DailyO on December 3, 2016 here.

The holy city of Amritsar is all set to host the sixth Heart of Asia ministerial conference over this weekend, where representatives from over 40 countries are congregating to discuss and deliberate upon issues of peace, prosperity and progress of the nation which lies at the “heart” of Asia – Afghanistan.

Launched in 2011, the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process was established as a platform to address regional issues, encouraging security, political and economic cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbours.

The countries in the grouping include India, Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, and the Central Asian neighbours of Afghanistan. Those playing a supportive role in the initiative include US, Britain, France, Japan, Germany, Egypt, Australia, among others.

The previous ministerial conference was held in 2015 in Islamabad which was attended by India’s external affairs ministerSushma Swaraj. This time around, as Swaraj is not keeping well, India would be represented by finance minister Arun Jaitley, who would also be the co-chair of the conference, along with Afghan foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani.

Prime Minister Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would inaugurate the ministerial conference on Sunday, December 4, a day after the bilateral meeting that is scheduled for Saturday.

The theme of the event, “Addressing challenges and achieving prosperity” is indicative and alludes to the kind of issues that would be at the forefront of the deliberations – terrorism and development.

The long drawn war that the Afghan forces are fighting against the Taliban needs support wherever it can come from. Emanating out of the Pakistani deep state – the military and ISI nexus – and executed on the ground by its subsidiaries such as the Taliban, terrorism continues to derail the Afghan development and rebuilding efforts.

Despite calls from neighbours to mend its ways, Pakistan is unwilling to let go of its “strategic assets” – in the form of various terrorist groups – any time soon, despite all the rhetoric that they support a stable Afghanistan. Violence continues to wreck people’s lives and Afghan blood is spilt every single day.

Terrorism has not only crippled Afghanistan and destabilised the region, but has also consistently displayed disdain for external players. The attack on German Consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif last month and the American University in Kabul in August 2016 are two recent examples.

Speaking a joint press conference with the MEA on Novermber 30, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India, Shaida Mohammad Abdali, said that terrorism is the “greatest threat to this region”. He expressed hope that the Heart of Asia conference will adopt the Regional Counter Terrorism framework, drafted by Afghanistan and circulated among the members. This would be a useful step towards increasing the heat on Pakistan and hold it accountable for state-sponsored terrorism.

India must make full use of the opportunity and expose Pakistan’s terrorist designs. Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s de-facto minister of foreign affairs who will be attending the meet, must be delivered the message loud and clear that Pakistan’s use of terrorism as state policy will only lead to its diplomatic isolation. With the conference taking place just days after the Nagrota terror attack, it is well timed for a diplomatic offensive on Pakistan.

But terrorism is not the only way by which Pakistan is undermining Afghan interests. Economic development of Afghanistan is heavily dependent on connectivity. Here again, Pakistan has been exploiting its location and has left no stone unturned to create hurdles for its neighbour.

Pakistan refuses to allow Afghan trucks, which carry goods from Afghanistan to the Wagah border in Pakistan, to carry back products from India to Afghanistan. Even the goods that the Afghan trucks bring have to be offloaded at Wagah and reloaded again on other vehicles, to be brought into India.

By denying transit, Pakistan is severely hurting the economic interests of ordinary Afghans. Any talk about Afghanistan’s development cannot ignore this tragedy, perpetuated by the Pakistani establishment.

The Chahbahar route, facilitated by the India-Afghanistan-Iran trilateral, thankfully overcomes this land challenge. It is being called the “game-changer” of the fortunes of the region and rightly so. It establishes a permanent alternative to the land route, boosting prospects for greater trade and connectivity between Afghanistan and India.

Afghan Ambassador has further spoken of “offering” this opportunity for well-meaning countries, inviting them to come forward and connect with Afghanistan.

Connectivity, therefore, is going to be a matter of great importance as countries deliberate on economic cooperation with Afghanistan.

The location of the Heart of Asia conference couldn’t have been more pertinent. Amritsar, which has historically been a stop on the old Grand Trunk road that uninterruptedly connected Bengal to Kabul and beyond, is symbolic of the potential of connectivity that exists in this part of the world.

It actually sends out a message to Pakistan, which has been the main roadblock and deal breaker when it comes to regional integration.