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Modi loses his way in the neighborhood

TOP NEWS-ENG-06-06-2020
Narendra Modi

There is trouble for India in the Himalayas. A tense military face-off with China high up in the cold, wind-swept mountains of the federally administered Ladakh region has the potential to spiral towards a major conflict. Grappling with a spike in the number of coronavirus cases at home, India is facing border problems with two of its northern neighbors, China and Nepal.

The Narendra Modi-led nationalist Indian government, showing a lack of sensitivity to smaller sovereign nations in the neighborhood by flexing its muscles, has not helped matters. India’s hitherto “friendly” but smaller neighbors, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sir Lanka, all want an “understanding India” and not a “muscles-flexing and bullying India.”

The Ladakh standoff between the world's two most populous nations, India and China, is cause for concern, but the spat may not lead to an armed conflict, but to disruptive stalemate opines Dr Binoda Kumar Mishra, a strategic analyst, who closely follows China and Nepal.

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“Beyond a point, fighting a war will set us back. India should instead shift the conflict to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean,” Mishra, Director of Calcutta-based Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development (CSIRD) told South Asian Monitor. ‘If China becomes more aggressive militarily, India should hurt China in other ways, economically, and by redrawing the global alignment,” Mishra added.

India should make it obvious that it is capable of swaying the highly strategic maritime balance in East Asia where China faces the combined naval forces of the US, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam and at times Malaysia and the Philippines, he said adding that India will have to stonewall China’s ambition of becoming the undisputed power in Asia-Pacific region. He advocated the activation of the US-led QUAD.

Even as tension mounts in Ladakh, a border row with Nepal has been escalating. Standing up to India, Nepal, led by Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, on May 31 tabled a constitutional amendment for adopting a new map of the country that includes the strategic northwestern tri-junction with India and China-Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh claimed by India. 

The flashpoint of the renewed border row was the inauguration by India of a link road to the Kailash Mansarovar shrine in Tibet, and the controversial remark of the Indian army chief Gen. M.M. Naravane. 

“This is a suicidal and counterproductive strategy for India”, says Geja Sharma Wagle, an international affairs and strategic and security analyst.

The amendment is likely to sail through the Nepalese Parliament as Oli wants Nepal to bargain with India from a position of strength. Despite warm, multidimensional and special relations with Nepal for centuries, India time and again, has been hurting Nepal, encroaching on Nepali territory and meddling in its internal affairs, Wagle said.

“India made a blunder by imposing the blockade on Nepal in 2015, although only unofficially. And now, India is indulging in another gamble by unnecessarily and excessively pushing Nepal towards the northern neighbor, China. As a result, India has been quite unpopular and the anti-Indian sentiment has been intensifying in Nepal,” Wagle pointed out.

“If Indian pressure increases, there is a strong possibility that Oli’s nationalistic position will trump all intra-and-inter-party differences, eroding all nuances. Nepal could yet again be pushed towards China,” said Akhilesh Upadhyay, former editor of The Kathmandu Post and a senior fellow at the Institute for Integrated Development Studies (IIDS), a Kathmandu-based think-tank. 

Delhi and Kathmandu need to immediately engage with each other through public diplomacy to bring down the temperature, Upadhyay said. “It could mean establishing communication—between the prime ministers,” he suggested.

As both sides dig their heels over cartographic interpretations, a political solution is the only way out, the strategic expert said citing the example of the recent border agreement between India and Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s grouse

Hostility against India is palpable in neighboring Bangladesh too. In the last decade, India’s failure to deliver on the Teesta water-sharing treaty has left trusted ally Bangladesh and its Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in an embarrassing position. India is hardly popular in Bangladesh despite its help to gain independence from Pakistan in 1971, says Ranjan Sen, chief news editor of Dhaka-based Ekusey TV, the first privately-owned satellite television channel in Bangladesh.

India’s motor-mouth Home Minister Amit Shah’s referring to Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, as “termites” which the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, will “pick up one by one and throw into the Bay of Bengal,” sparked a widespread backlash in Bangladesh.

“The sentiment of people across Bangladesh was hurt. Shah’s unwarranted, inappropriate statements not only created a new dispute but vitiated the friendly atmosphere and relations between Bangladesh and India,” Sen told South Asian Monitor

By describing Bangladeshis as ‘termites’, Amit Shah upset millions in Bangladesh who see India as a friend for its 1971 role in their liberation from Pakistan, said a Dhaka-based political and strategic analyst, who did not wish to be named. “Amit Shah’s “termites and infiltrator” comments have even evoked vocal response from people who have no love for Pakistan but have now become bitter with the Indian political leadership,” the analyst said.

The Sino-Indian “rivalry” in South Asia is seen as a battle between ‘equals’, said Binod Mishra, with both trying to achieve economic supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region. However, though the coronavirus pandemic is perceived to have created an anti-China wave in the sub-continent the anti-China rhetoric has not gained a footing in Nepalor Bangladesh nor has it triggered a pro-India wave, says China watcher Binoda Mishra.

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But he believes that a protracted eye-ball-eye-ball situation will not benefit China in the long run.“China’s focus is more economic now than ever before. India can hurt China economically. China must remember that India and China are no longer in 1962, when the Chinese forces launched an attack on Indian borders while the rest of the world was busy with the Cuban missile crisis,” Mishra pointed out. 

China, Mishra said, thought that with the world busy fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, it could engage India in deliberate incursions on the Himalayan boundaries “for a better bargaining power”. China and India have strategic rivalry to extend their influence in Nepal and the rest of the sub-continent. But China has been prevailing gradually and India has been losing in Nepal, Wagle said. 

China shares a good rapport with the right-wing political parties in Bangladesh, including the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the Jaamat. Now it has developed the same rapport with the ruling Awami League led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the Dhaka-based strategic analyst pointed out.