In recent years, political discussions have focused on whether India is an Internet security provider in South Asia. At the outset, it should be categorically stated that at least one country in the region – India’s longtime adversary, Pakistan – would quickly challenge the proposal.
From Islamabad’s perspective, New Delhi is not only its main external threat, but also a nefarious force in the region. Regardless of the wars it started and waged with India over Kashmir, Pakistan still has not accepted its role in the Bangladesh genocide of 1971. Instead, Pakistani apologists remain fixated on it. India’s intervention in the crisis. In addition, the current Taliban regime in Afghanistan, as far as its views can be inferred, likely also shares some of Pakistan’s concerns about India’s security role in the region. Worse yet, India’s carefully targeted and highly effective aid package is now under threat. Despite the country’s dire and acute humanitarian needs, India’s ability and willingness to resume its previous role under the current regime remains questionable. Nonetheless, it should be noted that despite the agitated cooperation from Islamabad, New Delhi attempted to send much-needed supplies of wheat to the hapless country.
India has been seeking, in varying and intermittent ways, to play the role of Internet security provider in the region for some time. For example, in November 1988 he deftly mounted Operation Cactus which prevented an attempted coup against the government of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the Maldives.
Around the same time, in an attempt to protect the rights of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka and to negotiate an agreement between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government, he sent the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) at home. This effort, as we know, despite the best of intentions, turned into a total military and political debacle. Even today, significant segments of the Sri Lankan political establishment doubt India’s role as a security provider to the region.
If one takes a broader view of what constitutes security, then India’s role in the region has many merits. For example, in 2005, when a massive tsunami swept across significant parts of South and Southeast Asia, even as it faced its aftermath at home, India mobilized its armed forces, in particular its navy, to provide significant and rapid humanitarian aid to the victims. from Indonesia to Sri Lanka. Sadly, more recently, India’s informal blockade of Nepal in 2015 under Narendra Modi’s first government, resulted in the dissipation of much, if not all, of the goodwill it rightly had. gathered thanks to its very quick and efficient disaster assistance in the wake of the terrible earthquake just a year earlier.
Despite New Delhi’s efforts to limit the damage caused by the blockade, there is little doubt that its stock has taken a hit. Worse yet, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which had long sought to diminish Indian influence in Nepal, quickly threw itself into the breach.
New Delhi’s record has also been marred in the very recent past due to its highly uneven performance in providing much needed vaccines to its neighbors during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite an initial desire to bail out her less fortunate neighbors, faced with her own domestic needs, she hesitated in her efforts. Once again, despite the questionable efficacy of the Sinopharm vaccine, the PRC quickly exploited India’s slip of the tongue. Despite this uneven record, there is little doubt that, given its growing military capabilities and diplomatic influence, India can help secure much of the neighborhood. Indeed, it can be argued that its own security interests dictate that it plays such a role. Aside from Pakistan’s irredentist claim to Kashmir and the continuing bickering over its security establishment in the region, India has a compelling reason to assume such a mantle. Clearly, this stems from the concerted efforts of the PRC to expand its footprint in the region.
The PRC, of course, would like South Asian states to believe India is an untrustworthy and even malicious force in the region. At the same time, it seeks to project itself as a possible benefactor, in particular with its Belt and Road initiative (BRI) as well as the China-Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC). Pakistan, understandable given its long-standing ties with the PRC, embraced the project. Specifically, he had no qualms about allowing part of this massive infrastructure project to cross disputed territory into part of Kashmir under his control. India protested about this, but to no avail.
Sri Lanka, which had easily accommodated massive investments in its roads, airports and ports in the PRC on the basis of colossal loans, is now not only struggling with huge debts, but also forced to lease the Port of Hambantota to the PRC for 99 years to ease its financial burden. Since then, he has been very concerned about the PRC’s largesse but seems unable to escape its grip. Bangladesh too, perhaps in an attempt to limit India’s excessive presence, has flirted with closer ties with the PRC, signing a series of major development agreements in the recent past. However, if Sri Lanka’s unfortunate experience is any indicator, he may well discover that the apparent generosity of the PRC can prove to be quite costly in the long run.
Under these circumstances India can, despite the lack of very substantial financial resources from the PRC, nonetheless help protect the region from a range of threats, both military and otherwise.
With its increased military prowess, it can protect its coastal regions from piracy, illegal exploitation of maritime resources and above all secure regional maritime trade routes. In addition, as it has demonstrated in the past, it can quickly mobilize resources to deal with a range of humanitarian crises in the region.
These, unfortunately, at least in the short term, are likely to become more frequent due to the inevitable vagaries of climate change. It is true that New Delhi has not always been a benign actor in the region. Overall, however, there is little doubt that his actions have, for the most part, been beneficial. As this troubled region enters the new year, India can once again demonstrate that it remains ready and willing to protect its smaller neighbors from the vicissitudes of human and natural threats.
(The author is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, USA. His forthcoming book, edited with Dinshaw Mistry, is Enduring and Emerging Issues in South Asian Security (Brookings Institution Press and Orient Black Swan , 2022)
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