Power asymmetry has been disrupting cooperationUnless the region resolves its internal disputes, the idea of regionalism will always be a failure in South Asia.
South Asia has always been full of contradictions. It is intensely convoluted within its geopolitical and sociopolitical complexities. The process of 'nation-building' since the postcolonial period is still evolving, and it often pushes the region in an anomaly. The growing power asymmetry between India and the secondary states in the region has led India to act as a custodian leader. Meanwhile, the secondary states are pursuing a 'power balancing strategy,' meant to mitigate the unknown assertiveness of India’s foreign policy. Since the inauguration of the ‘Gujral Doctrine’, which emphasised the importance of neighbourhood-first policy, Prime Minister Modi accentuated that the new Indian foreign policy will be oriented towards strengthening its policies in the vicinity. The statement comes at the time when the region is experiencing the wrath of the international actors, particularly the US and China.
India and Pakistan too are not at the best of terms. Rather than opting for cooperative security, both countries practised deterrence by escalating conventional and non-conventional military to counterbalance each other. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1978, the US-supported Pakistan and showered the country with arms in exchange for military base facilities. The military growth of Pakistan eventually forced India to become reliant on the Soviet Union and increase its arms imports. Nehru's non-alignment policy was a nuisance to the US, which failed after several attempts to gain India's support in its war against the Soviet Union.
Concurrently, India’s relations with China was fraught after the conflict in 1962, in the high mountains of Akshai Chin. The warming relationship between India and the Soviet Union and the US-Pakistan-China axis had left both South Asian countries swinging their policies in line with the international actors. This complements political scientist Glenn Snyder’s argument that when tension exists between the two great powers, the demand for axis or alliance is high. Unfortunately, South Asia breeds the best opportunity for such alliances, given the dominant regional and domestic complexities.
The tension between the elements of the state and the governments’ failure to find a consolidated approach to negotiating has exaggerated the ethnoreligious political problems in the region at par. Although the India-Pakistan conflict steals the show in the region, the skirmishes between India and the rest of the secondary states should not go unnoticed. Moreover, there are other complementing issues overriding the relationship between the secondary countries too. Amidst many, the wide existence of border, resource, migration, secessionist, terrorism and communal matters display weak cooperative interstate norms. This regional discord has attracted outside influence and interference, and leveraged inter-regional tensions into a global scale.
At present, the international system is experiencing a new wave of power distribution. The US and China are at loggerheads over trade, and the domino effect of this is widespread in South Asia. India and the rest of the secondary states are gradually slipping into this new geopolitics, confused and misguided. The secondary states are revising their economic and military policies in line with the extra-regional power, China. In contrast, for India, greater alliance with the US allows it to monitor China's growing engagement. Simultaneously, the Modi’s government can refocus its foreign policy beyond regional concerns to the global level, and seek to secure its interest in the global economic world.
These internal security dilemmas amongst the weak states in South Asia offer fertile grounds for external powers, especially the major powers, to approach as a coalition partner, or as partisans to hostile internal groups. This shows that whenever mutual interest converges, it promotes cooperation between the states. In the case of secondary states, the interest lies in collaborating with an extra-regional power, either equal or greater than India, and where exists some level of managed competition between the two. Driven by their insecurity towards India, these states conceive the global race between the great powers as an opportunity to secure their political, economic and military interest.
Although India has sought to play the role of protector by exerting a significant amount of energy to prevent external intrusion of external powers into regional affairs, it has not been entirely effective. The great external powers have been efficaciously filling the security and economic vacuum questioning the legitimacy of the Indian hegemony in the region. Further, this argument can be supported with the government of each country in South Asia labelled as a pro or anti-India, China or the US. Hence, the challenge to prevent the region from becoming the playground of the great powers is great.
The power asymmetry naturally positions India as the leader of the region. Hence, its domestic and foreign policies become of profound interest to the secondary states in the area. Will India’s new neighbourhood policy prioritise mitigating the security dilemma among the secondary states and seeking multilateral engagements to strengthen the bargaining power of the region as a whole? It is evident from the argument that unless the region resolves its internal disputes and conflicts, the idea of regionalism will always be a failure in South Asia.
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