By Dhananjay Tripathi
South Asia is standing at a crossroads – challenges and potentials. There is a severe economic crisis in Sri Lanka, the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan and a midway change of government in Pakistan. Even in countries like Nepal and the Maldives, there is political turbulence, as both countries will face elections soon. In Nepal, general elections are likely to be conducted by the end of this year; in the Maldives, it is in 2023. In both these countries, there are political confrontations on interesting lines.
In the Maldives, it is about India, where opposition leader Abdulla Yameen is spearheading an ‘India out’ campaign. Notably, India-Maldives relations have matured over the years under the leadership of present Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. As a matter of fact, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally invested in this relationship and visited the Maldives immediately after returning to power for the second time in 2019. This is why Yameen is critical of India, but experts believe that this is also at the behest of China. Like Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, Yameen also maintained a close relationship with China during his presidential tenure (2013-2018). Whatever is the political motive of Yameen, the truth is that India firmly supported the Maldives which included unconditional help during the time of the pandemic.
Similarly, in Nepal, some communist leaders are expressing political discontent against the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant of $500 million given by the United States of America (USA). For a few communist leaders of Nepal, the MCC is a way to bring their country into the Indo-Pacific framework – a centre of competition between India and China where the former has the support of the West.
Interestingly, no Western country has mentioned China as a competitor in its Indo-Pacific strategy. Still, China unhesitantly keeps blaming the West for aligning against its interest in the Indo-Pacific. Thus, leaders of Nepal, opposed to the MCC, are implicitly taking the political position that corroborates the Chinese allegation. In Nepal, the India-China debate has dominated in the last few years, but it is now about the USA.
The region has also suffered immensely during the pandemic equally in terms of human casualties and economic downsides. Some of the economies dependent on tourism have fared poorly due to the slump in this sector as the world has mostly remained under travel restrictions in the last few years. We know how it impacted Sri Lanka economically, where other bad economic decisions of the Rajapaksa government only aggravated the situation.
South Asia, except for India, consists of small states that have done well economically in the last few decades; nevertheless, their economic bases are quite limited. Barring India, none of these countries is in the position to sustain a significant economic shock.
While regional integration is the most preferred solution to overcome the economic crisis for the small states, they hardly show a keen interest in regionalism. The answer is their apprehension about India as a regional superpower and the belief that South Asian regionalism may benefit India the most. This is not an ungrounded reason; India will surely reap maximum advantages from an integrated regional economy, but so will the others. Due to its economic size, India may get a larger share, but regional integration will not be a zero-sum for others. It will help all the economies of the region, albeit a serious brainstorming is required as to how to proceed.
The internal political tussle in different South Asian countries, and the involvement of external powers for their calculated motives, is not the solution for South Asia. As discussed in the case of both Nepal and Maldives, how a non-regional Asian power is intervening in domestic politics, eyeing its interest and countering India.
It is naive to believe that New Delhi will not respond to such a challenge coming from China in its neighbourhood. Thus, what small states believe as balancing between India and China is tacitly becoming a battleground of Asian superpower rivalry where the West too will be interested. This will have a long-term political impact. The small states will unnecessarily get tangled into a cycle of competition that they will not be able to control beyond a point. Regional unity and economic interdependence are ways to check some of the potential adverse effects of what is presumably inevitable if political faultlines continue to exist in South Asia.
For India, too, strengthening the regional forum will be better than putting too much focus on bilateralism. The excellent point is that India has been concentrating on neighbourhoods in the last few months, reaching out to the countries that require immediate help, like Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Still, a regional approach may ease the apprehension of Indian domination and counter China’s political interference in some countries.
South Asian countries have not met officially under the SAARC umbrella as there has been no summit in the last few years. The 18th SAARC Summit was held in 2014 in Kathmandu, and the 19th SAARC summit was scheduled in Islamabad. After the Uri terrorist attack, India refused to attend this regional summit as a Pakistan-based terror group was responsible for the Uri attack.
Not only India but Afghanistan and Bangladesh too supported India’s position and pulled out of the summit. Thus, the 19th SAARC summit is still awaited, and the Indian initiative can make it possible. Pakistan, over the years, is realising that its terror-based foreign policy has not earned it any good. Organising the SAARC summit in Islamabad will improve Pakistan’s image, which over the years cornered itself in the region by becoming overdependent on China.
The SAARC summit will set a creative, non-controversial regional agenda that will help every country of the region. In this changing world order, a strong united South Asia can make a difference and give weight to developing countries’ voices.