India lies in a fortunate geography. Cradled between two arms of the Indian Ocean and naturally barricaded by the Himalayas, a scorching desert and lightly travelled tropical forests, we are not easily vulnerable. Yet we`ve faced invasions through the Hindukush, through Burma and from across the oceans. This dynamic continues today, manifested in Poonch sector last week when Pakistanis crossed the LoC and shot five Indian soldiers dead.
Our political sovereignty has been best assured when relationships with our neighbours have been fortified through strategic ties. These regional allies are the mandalas or interconnecting circles that Kautilya’s Arthashastra describes as vital to our security.
Sadly, our geographical blessings have been more than offset by our historical blunders. Particularly recently, when inconsistent, ill-conceived and immature foreign policy has caused the near-dismantling of Kautilya’s rajamandala.
Beginning with Bhutan, which loves us, or did, until UPA mandarins interfered in its elections, cutting off fuel subsidies and reducing it to begging terms. Our gain? Bluntly pointing out that it can’t deal with China independently. Now, Bhutan is witnessing widespread anti-India demonstrations. Instead of hegemonic displays, we need to nurture the relationship through increased investment in Bhutan’s power and tourism sectors which will also stimulate industrialisation in our northeast.
Despite being birthed through Indian midwifery, Bangladesh’s growing anti-India Islamic tilt and illegal migration to our northeast remain irritants. With a pro-India government coming to power, we squandered an opportunity to improve relations. Instead of operationalising the Land Boundary Protocol, dating back to the 1974 Mujib-Indira Land Boundary Agreement which resolves 6.4 km of undemarcated border, and building trust, we resorted to legal hokum. We need to ink the Teesta water-sharing treaty which gives Bangladesh 25% of its waters despite 40% of the river flowing through it, as well as finalise a strategic transit pact regulating access to our northeast.
In Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa has offered the Hambantota port to the Chinese whilst expropriating IOC’s oil bunkers in Trincomalee. Our reaction to protests against training Sri Lankan officers was to expel them — probably all the way to China or Pakistan. Voting against Sri Lanka in international fora does little for our remaining influence with the establishment. More investments in energy and infrastructure, particularly in northeast and southern Sri Lanka, could help balance its pro-China proclivity.
A new Maldives government invalidated its airport agreement with GMR. We froze our aid, delayed infrastructural commitments and interfered in its upcoming elections. It is now taking $500 million Chinese loans for its housing and telecom sectors. Seychelles too is offering long-term naval and air bases to China for resupplying its fleets.
Even Mauritius, an India-focussed tax haven, has a $700 million Chinese SEZ whilst our negotiations with it on double taxation have run aground. Our blue water naval expansion requires the refuelling and strategic support of these island nations. Offering meaningful tax concessions and reducing political interference would be a small price to pay.
Despite Iran’s willingness to accept rupees instead of dollars, the UPA has yielded to American pressure to drastically reduce our annual $10 billion oil purchase from Iran, making us dangerously reliant on the political volatility of Nigerian crude.
Our contradictory voting in the UN, the proposed divergence of the IPI pipeline to China and rumours of Chinese investments in Iran’s Chabahar port, all point to our dithering approach. Given our current account deficit, we need to grab Iran’s offer to ONGC to collaborate in the Middle Furat oilfields and Farzad B gas fields. This would cement a strategic relationship, gain us access to a land route to Central Asia and a buffer against the Taliban.
The NDA government tried thrice to mend relations with Pakistan and, despite Kargil, almost came to agreements on Siachen and Sir Creek. But this last decade has been a muddle of meetings, stunted confidence building measures and a muted removal of FDI restrictions. We need to defreeze relations with the Pakistani military and build political influence with the deep state.
With China exerting itself in the Indian Ocean, building road/rail links down to Myanmar and Pakistan, and gaining “port” facilities in Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Myanmar, this is no time to return to the delusional days of Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai. China has opportunistically grabbed energy concessions in Africa and iron and copper ore in Afghanistan, branding its efforts as peaceful anti-piracy initiatives. We need to leverage our soft power to do the same, whilst preparing for a long haul of border negotiations. Reviving the Quad Initiative between Japan, US and Australia should give us some heft.
The defence infrastructure to bolster our foreign policy has petrified. Arihant, Vikramaditya and our ICBM programmes are plagued with delays, impacting our nuclear deterrence capability. Only five of the 14 submarines in our aging fleet are likely to work in 2020. The army faces a glaring howitzer shortfall. Stepping up military ties with Oman and Myanmar can start generating the increased funding we need for asymmetric capabilities such as drones, diesel submarines and mountain battalions.
Undoing the rajamandala destabilises national security. We cannot be internally strong unless we are externally secure. We need a sound foreign policy with a realpolitik sense of our national interest and the ability to protect it. Above all, we need friends. And the closer they are to us geographically, the closer we need them to be to us economically, culturally and politically.