The search for regional connectivity | Opinion – analysis
In just six years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made 13 official visits to neighboring countries (excluding China), compared to only five from Manmohan Singh in 10 years. This included the first bilateral state visit to Sri Lanka in almost 40 years, if Rajiv Gandhi’s short trip in 1987 to seal the military intervention is excluded. Such intense political reach reflects the urgency of India’s regional connectivity strategy, also known as Neighborhood First.
Unfortunately, much of the analysis has focused on whether a “pro China” or “anti India” leader has taken power in Kathmandu or Colombo. Such a narrow geostrategic approach loses the many small successes in the field that have silently improved connectivity with neighbors. More than a dozen integrated checkpoints are being built to facilitate trade and mobility along the borders with Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar.
In 2019, India and Nepal inaugurated the first transboundary oil pipeline in South Asia and, for the first time, Bhutan’s cargo arrived in Bangladesh on an Indian river boat. After the update with Indian help, Jaffna Airport in northern Sri Lanka reconnected with a direct flight from southern India after more than four decades. Finally, the launch of the South Asian satellite by the Indian Space Research Organization improved digital connectivity throughout the region.
These are just a few examples that indicate how connectivity has become the new consensus throughout the Indian government and is making unprecedented progress, beyond political summits, declarations and slogans. But maintaining this momentum will not be easy, with a variety of challenges on the horizon.
First, Modi’s political initiative has exposed significant implementation deficiencies and policy coordination challenges among various ministries. With Myanmar, for example, the Trilateral Road and Kaladan projects have been delayed for almost two decades, affecting India’s reputation. Delhi will also have to do a better job to entangle in the border states of India, which are primarily interested in deepening cross-border ties.
Second, China cannot be blamed for doing its own part. Pressing Nepal or Sri Lanka to limit their economic relations with China due to intangible “security concerns” is no longer sustainable. These countries will continue to balance Beijing and Delhi and, as the late strategist K Subrahmanyam pointed out, Delhi must have a “relaxed vision” because “in the long term the imperatives of geography, cultural affinities, international politics … will bring to our home neighbors of the facts of life and realpolitik. ”India can never be loved in neighboring countries, but it can certainly be respected for offering more, better and faster to support development goals.
Third, despite all the investment in physical infrastructure of roads or ports, the region will not be integrated unless India opens its market and embraces the logic of economic interdependence. There are no shortcuts for the slow upward integration process of cross-border sectors such as transport, electricity or water. This also requires short-term sacrifices that harm protectionist pressure groups in the home, especially when it comes to reducing trade barriers. The recent increase in import tariffs has sent a wrong signal to Bangladesh and no progress has been made in the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with Sri Lanka.
Fourth, South Asia is no longer the exclusive backyard of India and there are important new players who can support India in developing Indo-Pacific alternatives to the China Strip and Highway Initiative. Especially with Japan, India adopted an ambitious agenda of trilateral cooperation, of which the Colombo port terminal in Sri Lanka is the best example, but Delhi seems to have bitten more than it can chew. Greater exchange of information and coordination may be more effective than promoting more joint projects in third countries. Similarly, within the region, while the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in the freezer makes sense until relations are normalized with Pakistan, India will have to complement its bilateral path with other neighbors with greater investment in institutions. regional, either the Bengal Bay Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) or the Nepal, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative.
Fifth, cultural and religious values have taken a prominent place in Neighborhood First, which ceaselessly promotes India as a center of civilization. But emphasizing the similarity is often counterproductive with smaller neighbors, where identity policies favor distinctiveness and also feed anxiety about greater ties with India. Furthermore, can India maintain the ideological ground to pressure neighbors on democratization and inclusion? In the past, Delhi assumed the causes of Tamils in Sri Lanka and Madhesis in Nepal, but these have been losing importance in the name of economic and security pragmatism.
Finally, regional connectivity will only succeed if India invests in increasing its knowledge about the region. Studies in South Asia and neighborhoods have been neglected for decades in Indian universities and there is a generation gap of experts, for example, in the rapidly changing political, economic and social dynamics of Nepal or Myanmar.
Constantino Xavier is a member of Brookings India, New Delhi. He leads a research initiative, Sambandh, on regional connectivity in all sectors.
The opinions expressed are personal.