Reimagining India’s bilateralismThe mild propagation of sub-regionalism is now a realistic springboard to move away from failing strategies.
Mahendra P Lama
India has been essentially an avowed practitioner of bilateralism in its foreign policy operations vis-à-vis its immediate neighbourhood. Bilateral negotiations and practices have been its natural forte. The peculiarity of border construction and dispersion is one of the key attributes in this one-to-one diplomacy. India has a common border with all the neighbouring countries. However, except for the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, no country in South Asia has a common border with other countries. This has been deftly used by India to practice varieties of bilateralism including ‘beneficial bilateralism’, ‘unilateralism’, ‘non-reciprocal gestures’, ‘defensive positionalism’ and ‘hostile bilateralism’.
A distinct advantage of bilateralism is the unlimited depth and scale of engagement, regime based involvement, institutional interlocking, the multiplicity of stake-holding and also leadership driven. The pitfalls and misunderstanding are localised within the two countries, conflicts and tensions are managed bilaterally and the scope for realisation, repentance and amendments remain within the purview of two systems.
India’s colonial legacy, geographical size, the scale of economic matrices, prolific natural resource endowments, rich social capital, huge institutional infrastructure, technological lead and military might have provided it with unparallel manoeuvrability. On the other hand, the very national character, personality factor and progressive political thinking have earned it a high degree of influence. Despite the complex interplay of global powers like the USA, USSR, the UK in the past and now Japan and China in the South Asia region, India has been a dominant factor in determining the orientation and contents of politico-economic courses and discourses in its neighbourhood.
However, there are strong limits to bilateralism, as situations in South Asia have steadily moved from absolute to relative bilateralism and cooperative to competitive bilateralism mainly because of changing aspirations and emerging complexities in the domestic constituencies of neighbours. Besides the emergence of new sets of decision-making elites, the conspicuous diminution and absence of Indian constituencies in these countries and sharp erosion in institutional memories have adversely affected India’s strategy. This is solidly aggravated by the entry of a relatively new extra-regional force like China and its potent wherewithal. This demands a fresh orientation in thinking, constant monitoring, huge resource pouring and a newer variety of institutions. The essentiality of innovative diplomacy, technologically-driven instruments of negotiations and actions, and a new set of binomial distribution of successes and trials are so very ingrained in this level playing field.
Unlike India, for China bilateralism is aimed at deeper involvement in the regionalism and sub-regionalism process as displayed in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Programme, Greater Mekong Sub-region and even in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The idea is to enter the game of realpolitik like a needle and come out with an acquired shape of an elephant. This fits accurately with a saying in Nepali, ‘siyo bhaera pasnu ani hatti bhaera niskanu’. The outcome must be to lead the process and generate a situation of a leadership-followership model like the Samurais of the Tokugawa period in Japan. Till it reaches this position, it shows no hesitation with any types of adjustments and accommodation including with multilateral institutions, regional bullies, political dispensations and also anti-China regimes.
China quietly penetrates and confabulates in a well-prioritised order with the appropriate cores of politics, bureaucracy, army, business, civil society and ideological bastions. At the heart of it, the real act lies in manipulating and changing the key macro policies in such a way that it favours only China in all possible permutations and combinations. A classic example is legislation by the Majlis of the Maldives in 2015 where only a country that would invest at least $1 billion and undertake 70 percent land reclamation from the Indian Ocean would get ownership. In the Maldives, where land is the scarcest factor of production, this policy move thwarted participation of all the traditional investors including India. The Chinese never announce the mutation process and hesitate to declare achievements. A final announcement is invariably a non-reversible act like the 116 metres high Zangmu dam in Brahmaputra river built in 2014 and 343 km modern asphalt highway from Shigatse in Tibet to the northern Mt Everest base camp.
Whereas in the case of India, the expressions of hesitation, reservations and condemnations are blatant. This is broadly attributed to its proven vehemence against the colonial rulers, long-standing leadership of the third world and the non-aligned nations, imbibed democratic ethos, strong-headed bureaucracy, diverse federal structures and institutions and compulsive domestic constituents. It is very clearly shown in its reservation to be a part of the BCIM, at least transitional withdrawal from the RCEP negotiations and several imbroglios leading to punitive retaliations vis-à-vis the neighbouring countries.
Another distractingly assertive argument by detractors has been India’s poor follow up and a plethora of unfulfilled promises. A huge range of projects, programmes and pledges that figure in the bilateral agreements signed with high-decibel fanfare remains incomplete; in some cases, they are a non-starter. This has cost India institutional credibility. Here, the hard-earned goodwill becomes a victim of vindictive propaganda in the neighbourhood and for long reels under the vicious discourse of reneging fed by other rival constituents.
So, the mild propagation of sub-regionalism by India is now a realistic springboard to climb up the ladders from orthodox bilateralism to a new regionalism-based regime of engagement. The message is clear from the India-led BBIN initiative on Motor Vehicle Agreement and Cross Border Power Trading arrangements. In both cases, India will be the crucial transit point and an entrepot—a role unthinkable in the bilateralism vocabulary.
India has played a crucial role in the formation of the SAARC, Indian Ocean Association for Regional Cooperation (IOARC) and BIMSTEC. However, even after decades of existence most of these regional groupings have failed to make any dent into regionalism based development, cooperation and integration. From the very inception, the law of diminishing returns remarkably pervaded these organisations. India, being a pivot, has been invariably blamed for this halting progress and sometimes even for undermining the process of regionalism.
In contrast to this shallow regionalism, there are examples galore about how dominant nations, such as the UK, Germany and France in the European Union, Malaysia and Singapore in ASEAN, China in CAREC, the US in the North American Free Trade Agreement and South Africa in the Southern African Development Community, have all steered these institutions into robust and deeper regionalism. The choice is clear for India now—either to launch a time-bound targeted venture to revive and consolidate existing regional organisations or continue to be targets of lost political credence and eroded institutional credibility.
So, the sub-regionalism route in a way provides India with leeway and space for diplomatic one-up-manship. This will facilitate it to lessen its pivot role from the unmanageable regional groupings based on dispersed geographies, hugely varied political systems, contrasting level of development, tangible and continued asymmetry in their threat perception and bilateral antagonism.
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