New Delhi: Political instability in Pakistan, an unprecedented economic crisis in Sri Lanka, an anti-India campaign in Maldives, a hardening Taliban in Afghanistan and China’s growing footprint in these countries, as well as in Nepal — India’s neighbourhood has suddenly exploded into a series of headaches for New Delhi, posing new diplomatic challenges when it’s already preoccupied with the Russia-Ukraine war.
The worries from the neighbourhood include a possible refugee influx from Sri Lanka, delays in the implementation of critical India-backed projects in the island nation, a rise in terrorism emanating from Pakistan, and China fanning anti-Indian sentiments in some of these countries, diplomatic and security sources told ThePrint.
According to the sources, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is being apprised of developments in the neighbourhood almost daily, by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.
The evolving crises in the neighbourhood have become India’s “biggest foreign policy challenge” at the moment, with most of the focus now shifted to its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, even as the world is rattled by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, said a source.
Sources said that while the Modi government is fully aware of the fact that it has to step into the crises with a cautious approach and a helping hand, it is not planning to play “any other role” for fear of being “accused of interfering in internal matters” — something that Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal have often highlighted.
Possible refugee crisis
The unprecedented economic crisis in Sri Lanka does not augur well for India’s maritime security domain, as the island nation sits strategically amid one of the world’s crowded sea-routes.
Sources said that New Delhi is also “cautiously watching” the situation there, and while it has gone all out to assist Sri Lanka in tiding over the crisis, it’s also aware of the potential issues arising from there that can threaten India’s maritime security apparatus.
Besides, New Delhi is also dreading a possible refugee crisis, if the economic meltdown in Sri Lanka continues, sources added.
India, according to the sources, is also concerned that the crisis in Sri Lanka can lead to delays in the implementation of projects underway across that country, which are of key importance for their development. A number of infrastructure projects are either ongoing or in the pipeline across Sri Lanka.
According to the Ministry of External Affairs, India has so far given assistance of over $2.5 billion to Sri Lanka, while more aid is being planned to help ordinary Sri Lankans with essential items such as rice and fuel.
Last month, five sailing vessels of the Indian Navy visited Sri Lanka to emphasise not only close defence cooperation between the two countries, but also to signal how critical the island nation is for the security of India’s maritime domain.
“Instability in any neighbouring country has a direct impact on India. That said, Sri Lanka was considered to be a rising star after it quelled the LTTE. It was both in competition (with India) and was making progress in its own way, which was healthy,” said Sarabjeet Singh Parmar, senior fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank.
Parmar added, “The current crisis is due to their internal political and governance issues. We need to have a friendly regime there, and in this crisis, if any other political party comes (to power) in the place, then there could be more challenges for us. Any kind of instability there will have an adverse effect on the maritime route; there will be issues of maritime crime and lack of maritime governance. And with a porous maritime border, if such instability goes unchecked, then we may also face a refugee crisis.”
He also said that such conditions in Sri Lanka also threaten to derail security frameworks such as the India-Maldives-Sri Lanka trilateral security dialogue, and halt all other initiatives taken by India under the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Indo-Pacific strategic construct.
While protests have swelled across the country against the Rajapaksa government, leading to the resignation of the cabinet en masse amid growing accusations of misgovernance by the family, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has remained in office, giving rise to more tensions
Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has said that it is “very closely” watching the situation in Sri Lanka.
Veteran diplomat Sharat Sabharwal told ThePrint, “While China remains the biggest threat, instability in our neighbourhood will naturally worry us. Sri Lanka is a critically-located island country, sea-lanes criss-cross there, and any kind of instability there will have impact (on India). The threat of an impending refugee crisis looms large, which is not good for India from the security point of view.”
He added: “While we need to be watchful of the situation there and keep helping them, we cannot obviously step into the situation.”
According to Derek J. Grossman, senior defence analyst at the California-based think tank RAND Corporation, India is certainly watching the ongoing political chaos in Sri Lanka and Pakistan “closely”.
“On Sri Lanka, my sense is India is once again in the driver’s seat, after a prolonged period of Chinese engagement of the corrupt Rajapaksa family via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). BRI deals have certainly been a heavy contributing international factor to the ongoing unrest, and now India can come in and try to clean up the mess and look like the hero…As its long-standing friend, I expect New Delhi to help Colombo straighten out its financials and to provide additional support as needed.”
Risk of rise in cross-border terrorism
While the days of the Sri Lankan government ruled by the Rajapaksa family seem to be numbered, yet another neighbour of India, on the western flank, is witnessing a rapid meltdown of democracy. Pakistan has once again fallen into the vortex of a civil-military power tussle.
According to sources, while India is not openly talking to Pakistan and diplomatic ties between the two remain downgraded, it is monitoring the developments there. New Delhi also believes that with the Taliban in power in Afghanistan, the issue of terrorism breeding again in that region poses a serious threat to India, especially at a time when the country’s eastern borders are live with an ongoing military standoff with China since April-May 2020.
Discussions are also on in South Block about whether India should reopen its embassy in Kabul with a junior-level officer, even as diplomatic ties with Pakistan continue to deteriorate.
However, sources also said that the Pakistan Army is not willing to take many risks with India, at a time when the country is reeling under domestic turmoil.
Last week, Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa said at the Islamabad Security Dialogue that disputes with India should be settled peacefully.
“Pakistan continues to believe in using dialogue and diplomacy to resolve all outstanding issues, including the Kashmir dispute, and is ready to move forward on this front if India agrees to do so,” he said.
However, Pakistan’s military is now facing growing tensions with the Taliban in Afghanistan, over crackdowns on extremist groups, as well as issues around fencing the Durand Line — the border between the two countries.
“It’ll be important for New Delhi to determine whether Bajwa’s recent stated interest in re-engaging the US military is credible or just part of the domestic political swirl against PM Khan. If a new Bajwa-aligned PM is elected, then India will get a better sense of this. New Delhi certainly won’t miss Khan, but also wouldn’t be pleased with any American receptivity to Islamabad’s overtures,” said Grossman.
He added, “For the record, I don’t think the Biden admin will be receptive, but changes in leadership always present new opportunities, so you never know. If Khan remains, then that will also be interesting, because he has said some pretty cordial things about India lately and the Pakistani side of Kashmir continues to be quiet. Might there be a diplomatic opening with him remaining in power? Khan’s support of the Taliban is likely to get in the way, as I believe Pakistan will be the first nation to officially recognise them as the official government, assuming Khan remains in power, or even if he doesn’t.”
According to Sabharwal, Pakistan is facing its own internal issues among the political parties and their Army.
“It’s a play between them and that continues to give rise to a constitutional crisis. Obviously, instability there will not leave us untouched. As the largest country, it is our responsibility to deal with them to the extent possible,” he said.
“But of course, there are hotspots to watch out for…We will need to be watchful…Bajwa wants, as a tactical move, to lower the temperature further beyond the ceasefire,” Sabharwal said, referring to the Pakistan Army chief’s recent comments at the security dialogue.
“The Pakistan Army wants to cool things down. But Imran Khan does not have that political space, as he boxed himself into the corner post the abrogation of Article 370. So there is a lack of coherent view on Kashmir in the Pakistani setup at the moment,” Sabharwal added.
‘India Out’ campaign in Maldives, junta in Myanmar
Meanwhile, Maldives is suddenly witnessing a surge in the ‘India Out’ campaign promoted by ex-President Abdulla Yameen as he plans to make a comeback in politics.
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, while on a visit there last month, highlighted and also approved some India-funded projects, in an effort to spread the message that unlike China, India is there for the country’s development.
The ‘India Out’ campaign gained momentum in 2021 after Maldives and India signed a military pact in February that year.
“Identity politics plays out in Sri Lanka, Nepal, and even Maldives. And this, by definition, has an element of anti-India. We must, however, remain at nurturing ties by focussing on our development projects, stay the course, do what we can, keep up the ties and just carry on doing what we have to, no matter their internal politics,” said Manjeev Singh Puri, former Indian envoy to Nepal and the European Union.
The US, apart from pushing India to call out Russia on the Ukraine war, was also upset with New Delhi for engaging with the junta in Myanmar, and even jointly participating with it during the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Summit, hosted by Sri Lanka last month, added sources.
Meanwhile, the China standoff continues to add more pressure to India’s already stressed ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. The recent visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to India did not help much in breaking the ice between New Delhi and Beijing, with India making it clear to him that unless the border issue is resolved, bilateral ties between the two will continue to plummet.
According to Grossman, from India’s security perspective, the ongoing border standoff with China has also added to the pressure on New Delhi. However, he said, “India has already been dealing with China at the border for decades, and since May 2020 under intense pressure. So I think New Delhi believes it generally has the situation under control. That said, the late spring and summer fighting season is around the corner, and so their threat perception could change — and rapidly.”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)