The author is former foreign secretary of India
Yashwant Sinha has signalled a pertinent diversification of India’s foreign policy focus since assuming charge as the minister for external affairs. Jaswant Singh’s tenure in the foreign office, from end-1998 till this year, was characterized by India’s concentration on relations with the United States of America and other important power centres of the world allied to the US. This was necessary because India had to deal with the fallout of its nuclear weaponization due to its heightened adversarial relationship with Pakistan, and due to the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. The Indian Parliament and Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly being targeted by international terrorist groups was an additional impulse for a closer interaction with the major powers.
Sinha took charge when the critical factors affecting India’s external relations had become rather static. It was time to attend to India’s longer term interests, and to restore the content and credibility in India’s relations with its immediate neighbours as well as with the Arab countries, relations with whom suffered some neglect. Sinha completed a round of visits to practically all the countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation early in August. He has visited Afghanistan, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh. The only country left out of the itinerary was Pakistan for obvious reasons.
The post-September 11 global context in which Sinha’s south Asian tour took place must be noted. All the countries in the SAARC region are part of the US campaign against international terrorism in one form or the other. Senior political and official figures from the US have visited south Asian countries except the Maldives and Bhutan. Pakistan and Bangladesh now have agreements regarding the stationing of forces with the US. The consequence, though not openly acknowledged, is a greater de facto involvement of the US in the SAARC region.
While all the countries in the SAARC region, including India, welcomed this US involvement as a positive development in the campaign against international terrorism and as a phenomenon which might increase US economic cooperation with all the countries of the area, India’s other neighbours welcomed this development for additional reasons, namely, that the US’s activist posture in south Asia would balance off the political apprehensions and economic or military threats they perceive from India. The US presence is also considered by these neighbours as a tempering factor controlling the implications of the nuclear weaponization of India and Pakistan.
Leaving aside the macro-level global context, aspects of the regional context are of specific relevance to the diplomatic initiative taken by Sinha. There is reticence and resentment against India shared by practically all its neighbours which can be summed up as follows. Because of its territorial size, demographic, technological, military and economic strengths, compared to its neighbours, India has an overweaning and assertive stance with respect to all its neighbours. India has a series of disputes — territorial, economic and political — with all its neighbours. India is not willing to grant concessions or come to compromises on these disputes.
India has a favourable balance of trade with all its neighbours but is not willing to take any steps in terms of granting tariff and non-tariff concessions to remedy this imbalance in favour of the small neighbours. Despite being a regional economic power, it seems to have the additional ambition of being a completely domineering economic power. It takes its neighbours for granted and does not take any special measures to nurture relations with its neighbours in a manner responsive to their needs and sensitivities. India is obsessive in its apprehensions about the smaller neighbours developing extra-regional equations which in India’s opinion may affect its security.
The escalating stand-off between India and Pakistan poses a serious threat to regional stability and security. These conceptual threat perceptions of India’s neighbours find expression on specifics in India’s bilateral relations with them. Dispute on Jammu and Kashmir with Pakistan falls in a category by itself. Even otherwise, India has territorial disputes with Nepal (Kalapani issue), and with Bhutan by implication.
India wants Bhutan to settle its border disputes with China in tandem with the Sino-Indian boundary settlement, with Bangladesh (border enclaves still have to be exchanged and finally settled between the two countries, settlement of the rival claims on New Moor islands still hangs fire), with Sri Lanka (about free access for Indian fisherman at Kachchativu Island). India has not settled its maritime boundary with Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Then there are political and economic issues. Bhutan and Nepal desire India to take active interest in resolving their bilateral disputes about the Nepalese expelled from Bhutan and about terrorist activities inside their territories originating from Indian dissident groups. Bangladesh being a base for anti-Indian terrorist activities, the issue of illegal migration of Bangladeshis, the treatment of Hindu minority in Bangladesh remain issues on which there is a difference of opinion between India and Bangladesh. The Sri Lankan government continues to seek India’s endorsement of the ongoing peace initiative with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, but more important, Sri Lanka wishes India to curb support for the LTTE’s separatist activities from Tamil Nadu.
In the economic sphere, India’s neighbours wish India to give more trade concessions to their exports to redress the imbalance in trade which they have with India. But at the same time, theirs seems to be a one-sided approach in that they wish India to give concessions but they are not willing to take initiative on their own which will help solve the problem. A case in point is Bangladesh’s reluctance to export natural gas to India purely on political grounds despite the proposition being logical and feasible from the economic and technical points of view.
Then there are comprehensions on the part of India about its neighbours having too close a relationship with Pakistan or China in the context of the undercurrents of India’s relations with China and Pakistan. The relationships of its neighbours with Pakistan are a matter of particular concern because Pakistan’s motives are not just to improve relations with these countries but to utilize these relations to generate negative pressures on India. Pervez Musharraf’s visits to Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka which preceded Sinha’s visit are assessed by India through the prism of this perception.
Given this critical background, Sinha’s visits to neighbouring countries in July and August were timely initiatives to mend fences, to remove misunderstandings and apprehensions and to bring back India’s bilateral relations with these countries back on track, to the extent feasible. Sinha assured the Nepalese authorities about India’s continuing help to overcome the violence and destabilization generated by Maoist dissidents in that country.
He indicated that India would be willing to discuss all other issues on which there is a difference of opinion with an open mind and with a practical problem-solving approach. Sinha also sought the assistance of Nepal in controlling Pakistan-sponsored terrorism originating in Nepalese territory and permeating the Indo-Nepalese border.
In Bangladesh, while giving similar assurances, he made it clear that India has no wish to impose on Bangladesh about export of natural gas from that country. He gave the categorical assurance that it is for Bangladesh to decide on the issue. While India would welcome the supply of natural gas from Bangladesh, if Bangladesh has reservations, then India would resort to other options respecting Bangladesh’s sensitivities. Sinha also promised further relaxation of import duties on Bangladesh exports to India. Most significantly, he did not press the demands which are of interest to India regarding transit facilities or on the issue of illegal migration and so forth.
His extending an invitation to the prime minister of Bangladesh to visit India partially cleared the impression that India has reservations about the government of Begum Khaleda Zia. Here again, he expressed India’s willingness to have substantive discussions on pending issues with Bangladesh. The visits to Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Maldives did not involve dealing with any major controversial issues. Here Sinha’s line with these countries was that India would be supportive in meeting the political and economic concerns of these countries to the maximum extent, trying to transcend previous technical and narrower perceptions of the Indian government.
With his background of economic diplomacy during his civil service days, and his political experience as the finance minister, Sinha seems to be animated by a certain approach towards regional relations. This appears to be that in his view trained manpower resources, the competitive labour force, the availability of raw materials, natural resources and the large market of the south Asian region should attract other countries of the world to this region. An environment of political stability and a proven capacity for coordinated economic performance within the region are pre-requisites to achieve this. The emergence of democratic political systems, the restructuring of national economics — in conformity with global trends, and the shared attitude of the people of south Asia to move beyond conflict and mutual antagonisms provide the necessary basis for a concerted effort by south Asian countries to meet the above objective.
India has a more complex and difficult role to play in this process, compared to the other countries in the region. It has to reassure its neighbours — while being firm about, and safeguarding its substantial political — security and economic interests. India’s predicament is difficult because some of its neighbours judge its bona fides towards them on the sole criterion of whether it accepts their suggestions in toto for resolving problems affecting its relations with them.
The chemistry of emotions and inherited attitudes and the compulsion of realplolitik combine to create a volatile atmosphere in which all nations are seeking to fashion reasonable institutional mechanisms for meeting their more fundamental aspirations. India, being the largest polity in the region, has to take a lead in forging stable regional equations. It is not unreasonable to speculate that Sinha has initiated a process of reviving both multilateral and bilateral cooperation in south Asia.