India must take the lead in the South Asian region by accelerating economic activities and involving other nations in integration projects. This can serve as a deterrent to China
Ever since independence, India’s stated objective in the South Asian region has been to pursue friendly relations with its immediate neighbours. An official foreign policy planning document published by the Congress regime in early 1992 states that India respects the territorial integrity of its neighbours and intends to work for mutual cooperation on a bilateral basis. Our attempts to build a solid and constructive relationship with neighbouring nations have been successful. India shares land and maritime boundaries with nine countries: Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and Afghanistan from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). In particular, Pakistan and China have come to challenge India’s sovereignty on a regular basis. The traditional friction between India and Pakistan in my estimation is the principal threat to regional stability in South Asia. Mutual distrust and lingering hostility have provoked four wars between the two countries since 1947. However, India holds superiority in military strength in the foreseeable future. A major stumbling block to long-term improvement in relations with Pakistan is its infiltration into Kashmir and regular proxy wars here in cohorts with various terrorist organisations.
On the other hand, for India, China, too, has been a long-term threat. Our security concerns with it begins at the Himalayas and our forces have steadfastly resisted all attempts of invasion by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In recent times, China appears to be less interested in resolving boundary issues and has instead become more assertive about claiming various regions of Ladakh and the North-east. First came an attempted inroad into Doklam and more recently the face-off at the Galwan Valley. All such skirmishes have necessitated a relook at India’s Tibet policy. In particular, two unilateral concessions have been made: First, we supported the One-China policy. And second, we accepted China’s sovereignty over Tibet. However, during the British era, Tibet was an independent nation and the British Government was the guarantor of its independence from China. The rights India retained in Tibet under the Simla Convention of 1914 were adequate for us to insist upon the maintenance of its autonomy. Britain preserved all these rights in Tibet as an autonomous region was vital for British India’s safety and security. However, in 1954, Nehru conceded Tibet to China to “maintain regional stability.”
The Indo-Bhutan Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1949 and the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship were signed in continuation with similar pacts issued by British India. The 1816 Treaty of Sugauli with Nepal, the Treaty of Punakha in 1910 with Bhutan and the Simla pact of 1914 with Tibet continued after India’s independence and it was former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s duty to uphold the listed treaties. Thus, Nehru’s decision to forego Tibet’s sovereignty and boost China’s imperialistic mindset was illegal.
On multiple accounts, India followed the “Panchsheel” principles, an agreement solely responsible for bringing instability to South Asia and the growth of China’s imperialistic mindset. The two mistakes Nehru committed in violation of the Panchsheel Agreement were: First, in 1954, he supported China’s claim to Tibet and the Aksai Chin to “maintain regional stability.” Second, in 1955, in an attempt to befriend the USSR, Nehru supported its claim over Hungary at the UN.
These two decisions have had drastic effects on India’s foreign policy, its relations with other countries and its ability to maintain sovereignty. When China attacked India in 1962, the USSR did not come to India’s aid as Nehru had expected. This because China was a communist state. The rest of the world did not help India since it had supported the USSR at the UN against NATO and its allies.
China followed a three-pronged approach to destabilise the region in the early 1950s.
Economically: China is the biggest trading partner for a number of neighbouring countries. This helps it gain political leadership in the South-Asian region. This is evident from the way it deals with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal and Afghanistan. All these nations have been provided with funds worth billions of dollars for the completion of key projects, to settle border disputes and use their sovereign land for China’s military outreach.
Militaristically: China invaded Tibet in the 1950s and has unsuccessfully attempted a similar approach with India and Bhutan during the past half-century or so. It has mocked the maritime sovereignty of other countries by expanding its borders in the South China Sea and restricting the ability of countries like Japan, Taiwan, Philippines and Vietnam to conduct trade.
Intimidation: China attempts to resolve border issues only when it feels insecure. The demarcation of the border between Russia and China started after an agreement in 2004 and the projects were completed in 2009 after war-like threats. Likewise, China and Vietnam completed demarcation of their border in 2009 in a similar fashion.
It is time that India supports Tibet’s claim of being an independent nation. Since China has not been acting in accordance with the international treaties signed by it (the Chinese agreed to grant Hong Kong autonomy till 2047), why should India act in accordance with any bilateral agreement it has with China? India can propose a Himalayan economic zone comprising Tibet, Xinjiang, Nepal, Bhutan and the Indian Himalayan regions. Common Buddhist heritage should be a factor in the creation of this economic zone. India can encourage tourism to Buddhist sites in India and build closer defence relations with Japan, Myanmar and Vietnam. Our planners should increase defence operations in Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Sikkim and the joint Andaman and Nicobar as a deterrent to the Chinese moves in the Himalayas and Bay of Bengal in retaliation to India’s noble efforts.
The pace of socio-economic activities in South Asia will accelerate if India becomes a key factor of this change. The other problem in the region is uncontrolled population growth. The population of South Asia is set to increase from about 1.8 billion to over 2.5 billion by 2050. This will cause tremendous stress on the already stretched resources and create highly concentrated areas, incapable of sustaining human populations. This will also undoubtedly lead to mass starvation and inhuman living conditions. We should accelerate the process of economic cooperation and involve other nations in regional integration projects. In the light of these changes, India’s foreign policy would face several challenges and would require a broader approach.
Domestic factors will increasingly influence foreign policy and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is aware of this. He is attempting to protect the interests of the people in India’s bordering nations. He has not only been hearing and understanding people’s issues but has also addressed them. Terrorism, organised crime, human trafficking, cybersecurity and Weapons of Mass Destruction proliferation continue to pose challenges to Indian security. Dealing with such challenges requires an effective counter-terrorism policy. A forward-looking approach on cooperation with neighbours to manage the borders, cybersecurity, science and technology, agriculture, education, culture and capacity-building is needed. This will meet the challenges of terrorism and of non-traditional security.
On various fora, India has created committees dedicated to resolving issues regarding national security and regional peace. South Asia cannot remain immune to the developments in the extended neighbourhood and the world in general. Thus, our neighbourhood policy is bound to be affected by developments elsewhere. It is vital that India connects with the Gulf, Central Asia, South-East Asia, and the Indian Ocean islands to ensure that its neighbourhood policy remains unaffected.
If India is able to create regional stability in the region and raise the demand of Tibet’s independence in accordance with the Simla Pact, especially when resentment against China has increased owing to the COVID-19, it will be able to muster the support of Western and South-East Asian powers alike in its attempt to abolish China’s imperialist mindset. In the coming years, China will also find itself in the midst of an economic crisis due to numerous businesses shifting to either India or other South Asian nations. A two-pronged approach will force China to resolve border disputes with India. In the game of cricket, there is a saying, offence is the best defence. India should initiate the offensive against China for its territorial defence and for stability in South Asia.
(Writer: Nishikant Dubey; Courtesy: The Pioneer)