The dilemma of smaller South Asian states

India is pursuing a hegemonic policy as per the Doctrine of Regional Security

India treats all other South Asian smaller states as its backyard and wants that other countries should seek its prior approval before taking any foreign policy initiative. In reality, with deference to its South Asian smaller neighbours, India is pursuing a hegemonic policy as per Indian Doctrine of Regional Security. Bahabani Sen Gupta has explained this doctrine in his article, published in India Today in July 2013, in following words:

“India will not tolerate external intervention in a conflict situation in any South Asian country if the intervention has any implicit or explicit anti-Indian implication. If a South Asian country genuinely needs external help to deal with a serious internal conflict situation, it should ask help from neighbouring countries, and the exclusion of India from such a contingency will be considered to be an anti-Indian move on the part of the Government concerned.”

According to the above-mentioned Indian doctrine, it is evident India considers that all the smaller neighbours around fall within her security orbit and they must serve the Indian interest. Although, theoretically, the Indian doctrine appears to be covering mainly the security issues, practically, what India has been doing is that as and when any smaller South Asian country endeavoured to upgrade its relations with any major power in whatever field, it had to face Indian objections. This means that India does not want its smaller neighbours to take independent decisions, which is nothing less than seeking hegemony over these states.

To implement the above doctrine, the Indian government functionaries have continuously monitored their South Asian neighbours’ policies, and India intervened when required, using incentives as well as coercion. By doing so, India has quite often tightened its grip on landlocked Nepal and Bhutan and also on strategic Islands of Sri Lanka and the Maldives, using trade blockades and military interventions. Similarly, India has gained a grip over Bangladesh and Afghanistan, temporarily, by courting the governments of Sheikh Hasina Wajid and Abdul Ghani, although against the sentiment of their people. Therefore, it is only Pakistan which, being a competing nuclear power, has contested India’s hegemony in the region; although Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives also continue to resist India’s hegemonic policies.

Out of all the South Asian smaller states, Maldives, being a much smaller Island state, remains under maximum Indian pressure while going after its policies with other major powers, particularly China. In this context, India has been endeavouring to keep the Maldives under check. According to the Global Times, India views Maldives closeness to China with strategic anxieties. To get out of India’s clutches, Maldives continues to defy Indian pressures and engage China in the construction of various economic oriented infrastructure projects.

For example, in 2014, India felt much annoyed when during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Maldives, President Yameen handed over the construction of an airport project to a state-run Chinese company. India also detested when both the Presidents signed a string of infrastructure related deals to be completed with China’s investment.

Besides, as stated in an article titled ‘India-Maldives relations at a glance’ published in the Hindu dated 11 April 2016, Maldives’ announcement of becoming an enthusiastic participant in the Maritime Belt of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an economic-oriented project, has not gone down well in New Delhi.

Ms Sudha Ramachandran, an Indian writer, in her article titled ‘India and the Maldives Emergency, published in the Diplomat, dated, 08 February 2018, wrote, “in December 2017, Maldives and China signed a Free Trade Agreement, much to India’s concern. Delhi is worried about Beijing’s mounting influence over the Maldives and the strategic implications for India.”

Out of all these states, Maldives remains under maximum Indian pressure while going after its policies with other major powers, particularly China

According to Ramachandran, it is currently being perceived in India that, as was done earlier in 1988, the Indian Government might again go for military intervention in Maldives in view of its current domestic political unrest, as C Raja Mohan, the noted strategic analyst and director, Carnegie India, Delhi, has written in an Op-Ed piece in Indian Express, ‘the time may indeed be ripe for a decisive Indian intervention in the Maldives’.

In view of the above discussion, it becomes quite clear that India’s concerns about Maldives’ economic and trade relations with China are not genuine and its pressures in this regard only amounts to treating the Maldives as India’s client state, and it boosts the South Asian smaller countries’ perception of India as a ‘big brother’ and a ‘bully’ in the region.All this also proves that under coercive Indian domination, it is extremely difficult for the Maldives to make and implement sovereign policy decisions, even to fulfil its economic interests; what to talk about protecting its strategic interests. Similarly, all other smaller states in South Asia are facing this dilemma.

The writer is a former Research Fellow of Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI), Islamabad

Published in Daily Times, May 6th 2018.