On December 19th, 2023, Red Lantern Analytica conducted a lecture titled ‘India’s Neighbourhood: The Road Ahead’. Dr. Happymon Jacob, an Associate Professor and the founder of the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, was the expert speaker of the lecture.
“India has over 15,000 kilometres of land border out of which it shares 7,000 kilometres with Pakistan & China, blocking India’s access to the rest of the world on these two fronts; it is completely inaccessible,” said Dr. Happymon Jacob. India has a complex ties with the South Asian countries owing to the engagement of non-resident China in the region and India is attempting to fix it soon, he added.
He elaborated on the five primary drivers of India’s relations with the South Asian region, the first being the British colonial legacy in the region. Much of the South Asian region was under the control of the British Empire. Dr. Happymon Jacob said that British rules, norms, traditions and worldview survived even after the independence. Post-independence, India’s policy towards the rest of the world changed but it remained the same as far as the South Asian region is concerned as both India & Pakistan continued to engage with South Asia based on previously established treaties, practices & arrangements, he added.
Second is the regional primacy gained by India. “India naturally acquired Regional Primacy post-independence even when it did not seek for it. India remained intolerant towards taking any sides during the Cold War and this non-alignment policy strengthened the cause of regional primacy,” said Dr. Happymon Jacob.
The third aspect is India’s desire to become a leading power in the international system. Dr. Happymon Jacob said that in the decade of change, the 1990s, India moved towards the prosperity on the economic front. India being high on the moral compass further strengthened the trust of international system in us.
The fourth driver is the certain sense of insecurity when it comes to South Asia. India has and is having issues with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Pakistan has always been at the forefront of state sponsored terrorism in India and insurgency in different parts of the country be it Sikh Militancy in Punjab, terrorism in Kashmir or the insurgency in North East Region of India.
The fifth driver is the rise of People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its growing interest in the South Asian region. PRC views the South Asian region as its sphere of influence now and attempts to cater to the region’s military & material needs. Belt & Road Initiatives offered infrastructure support and cheap loans, is letting for few countries in the region to align more towards China. PRC’s perceived desire to increasingly appear as a peacemaker and pretending to resolve its border disputes with the South Asian neighbours is alarming since it is the same country which has border disputes with all its neighbours. The other major concern is PRC’s expansionist agenda in the Himalayas. It illegally lays claims on parts of Indian state, Arunachal Pradesh and has gone to the extent of changing the names of many places of the state. China allegedly calls Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet.
Dr. Happymon Jacob said, “The problem for South Asian countries has come down to choosing between an authoritarian China and a democratic India. PRC lures them with cheap loans & resources but that’s unsustainable! India is more focused on safe multilateral trade.” He also pointed out that the South Asian region is the least integrated region in the world. India goes slow on multi-lateral arrangements but on the bilateral front, it is very enthusiastic, he added.
He listed strategic dilemmas that India faces in the region. There are three broad sets of causes behind the dilemmas India faces in the neighbourhood. The first is the regional geopolitical architecture characterised by overlapping elements. Contemporary South Asia is characterised by a diminishing presence of the United States in the region. The second is PRC’s rise in the region which has come as a ‘geopolitical buffer’ in the region. Many countries are using the PRC card against India in their foreign policy assertions. The third is the PRC is providing capital to economies of the region to fulfill its expansionist policies. Fourth, India, for the most part, has had a normative and political approach towards the region. The PRC, on the other hand, offers itself as the no-frills non-normative alternative. Lastly, India thinks cultural connections with the region help us better deal with the countries. However, the reality is that Culture connect, soft power or religion is not appealing to South Asia anymore. Nevertheless, India is successful in trading off this mindset and forming real connections! The second cause behind India’s regional dilemma is India’s inability to deal with multiple power centres in the neighbourhood. We should have the ability to deal with multiple power centres in the country.
Dr. Happymon Jacob concluded by stating that India is taking steps in the right direction by increasing its manpower, number of diplomats and envisioning an all-encompassing strategy to take over as the major driver of South Asian development.
Following the guest speaker’s address, there was an in-depth Q&A session. Ms. Kritika Rajput, a Research Associate at RLA, moderated the session. Ms. Karneet Kaur, Research Associate at Red Lantern Analytica delivered the vote of Thanks. The session closed after the vote of thanks was delivered.