The unfolding realities underlying the Sino-Indian standoff over the border in Doklam are clearly bringing out serious flaws in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Neighborhood First” policy.
The “Neighborhood First’ policy enunciated in 2014 as India’s new foreign policy “mantra” has not achieved what it was meant to achieve.
Instead of generating friendly feelings towards India, with the small neighbors looking up to it for motherly affection, it has created apprehensions, if not fear of domination by a boastful and chest thumping hegemonic Big Brother.
Offers of billions of dollars of aid and lobbying for big ticket project contracts are either rejected or reluctantly consented to out of an ingrained fear of domination.
With a tradition of thinly veiled meddling in the politics of its neighbors, any push by India for greater economic ties is suspected to be a political Trojan Horse. One of the techniques resorted to by the weaker neighbors is delaying the implementation of projects or putting spokes in the wheel to bring them to a grinding halt.
India has conflicts with its powerful neighbors too. The conflict with Pakistan is endemic. The one with China is also endemic but the difference is that Sino-India flare ups have occurred only once in a while.
But the on-going Sino-Indian conflict over the border in Doklam seems to be as serious as the one in 1962. It could lead to a destructive war, which will leave India’s economy badly bruised.
As a result of the Doklam standoff, Bhutan may want to hive off from India’s orbit and get into China’s, or it could try to be equidistant, which will be disadvantageous to India rather than China.
Old Policy Under New Name
Although the reference here is to “Modi’s Neighborhood First policy” it will be unfair to single Modi out for blame. India’s policy towards its smaller neighbors (other than Pakistan) has been patronizing and domineering right from the time of independence in 1947. Narendra Modi only articulated it clearly, and gave it a name.
However, Modi promises to take the policy to the farthest extent as he is the fountainhead of a resurgent, fired up, and jingoistic India.
As predicted by some commentators when he took office in 2014, the Modi-led government has exacerbated tension with Pakistan and China, regardless of the fact that these are the only countries in the neighborhood which could stand up to India.
Pakistan has had a huge share in creating trouble with India by unleashing cross border terrorism. But New Delhi has been showing its wrath against Islamabad by unleashing unbridled violence against its own Muslim citizens in Kashmir on the charge that Kashmiri youth are throwing stones at Indian Security Forces at the behest of Pakistan.
Deaths and blinding of hundreds of Kashmiri youth have alienated Kashmiris from India. Tension in Kashmir is also manifested in Indo-Pak cross border firing on a daily basis.
Conflict with China
As regards, China, Modi has been challenging the emerging Asian and world power abandoning the previous governments’ policy of managing the relationship, especially the sensitive and unsettled border dispute.
In contrast to the approach of Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao, A.B. Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, Modi began challenging China over issues which do not directly impinge on India’s immediate interest.
He opposed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s prestigious flagship project, the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, merely because one of the roads in the project traverses an area which has been in Pakistan’s “illegal occupation” since 1948. It makes no sense to rake up this issue when there is no earthly chance of India’s ever getting back the said area from Pakistan.
In 1966 China had built the Karakoram highway in the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan area of Pakistan-held Kashmir. But at that time India wisely chose not to waste its breath over that.
The Modi regime opposed the OBOR project on political grounds disregarding China’s plea that the OBOR is an economic project to benefit the area and region as a whole, and is completely unrelated to the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, which, it said, should be settled by India and Pakistan bilaterally.
New Delhi went further and badmouthed the OBOR, propagated its alleged ill effects and boycotted the OBOR summit in Beijing, knowing full well that President Xi was using it to boost his image ahead of the up-coming and all-important Communist Party Congress.
Earlier, Modi allowed the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, and American Ambassador Richard Verma to make high profile visits to Arunachal Pradesh which China claims as being part of Tibet. And most recently, India held the Malabar naval exercise with China’s arch rivals, US and Japan.
However, what irked China and made it extremely belligerent, was the Indian incursion into Doklam on the border between Bhutan and Tibet/China, to thwart the construction of a road by China.
India said that Doklam is disputed territory and that it had deployed troops as per the 2007 agreement with Bhutan which requires collaboration to protect each others’ national interests.
But China said that the area belongs to it as per the 1890 treaty between British India on the one hand, and Tibet/China on the other.
At any rate, the area adjoins Bhutan and not India, and therefore, India has no locus standi there, China argued.
China charged that India had forced itself upon Bhutan which had been in the process of settling the border dispute with it through talks since 1985. China also pointed out that Bhutan had only recently claimed Doklam and that this was done on India’s prodding. India has made Doklam an issue to safeguard its security and not Bhutan’s, China pointed out.
While the two Asian giants are involved in a tense standoff, with India refusing to withdraw its troops from Doklam, and China threatening to wage war to eject them, Bhutan finds itself in a cleft stick.
Bhutan has problems with China as well as India. But its immediate problem is with India. It is economically extremely dependent on India. India can annex it, as it annexed neighboring Sikkim in 1975.
Bhutan cannot antagonize China either, because China can annex it, as it annexed Tibet in 1951.
Need for Independent Foreign Policy
The Sino-Indian standoff over Doklam has put Bhutan at the cross roads. Given the likelihood of tension in Sino-Indian relations increasing, Bhutan will soon have to take charge of its foreign policy fully.
Given the alienation of the Bhutanese people from India because of its economic domination and its continued bid to control its foreign policy, Bhutan is likely to move closer to China, if only to keep India under check.
As a first step Bhutan may establish diplomatic relations with China, which it has not done so far in deference to India, although by the revised 2007 treaty, it can pursue an independent foreign policy.
But the most difficult part for Bhutan will be disentangling itself from India’s economical stranglehold. According to the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses of New Delhi, 95% of Bhutan’s exports go to India, and India accounts for 75% of its imports. Heavy investments in India-funded hydel projects further tie Bhutan to India. Indian traders indulge in malpractices.
It is said that most of the money India pumps into Bhutan flows back to India. Imports from India have virtually killed Bhutan’s agriculture not to speak of industries.
Bhutan has shown its wish to have friends beyond India by establishing 53 missions abroad. It has defied India on the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal motor vehicle agreement and on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It has already established unofficial contacts with China and might agree to China’s “package deal” on the border dispute.
China has said that it will give up claims in certain sections of the border if Bhutan gives up the Doklam plateau, which gives it a strategic advantage over India. One sign of the possibility of a deal over Doklam is that Bhutan has yielded to China’s demands at several places in past negotiations.
Sourabh Gupta, a senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington, suggests an honorable exit for India from the mess it is in.
In an article in South China Morning Post on Sunday, Gupta says: “New Delhi must push Thimpu to take the lead in engaging Beijing and devise a mutually acceptable boundary protocol that acknowledges China’s effective jurisdiction of the area, pending final settlement, in exchange of the restoration of the status quo ante as of June 16, 2017.”
“In parallel, New Delhi must commit to unilaterally vacating the Doklam area while privately holding out for Beijing’s reiteration of the 2012 understanding that the tri-junction boundary points will be finalized in consultation with all three parties concerned.”
Will Modi listen and save India from a military and economic disaster?