India has done well with its neighbours by not giving up on them in their own hour of crisis. Even while the nation was faced with exigencies of every kind, New Delhi has repeatedly despatched COVID19-related medical assistance individual nations and their governments had sought from India.
Even as the whole world is reeling under the COVID19 crisis, for India it is an opportunity and a challenge for the nation’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. With neighbours that are small and economically weak, it is an occasion for New Delhi to demonstrate its big heartedness and immediacy of purpose, if it were to make an impact in the long term.
There is no denying that India is equally hard-hit by the pandemic, more in economic than in terms of human toll — comprising deaths, infected and suspected. If anything, India has done creditably well in the latter department compared to the developed west, the US and Europe included. If India is able to continue with the present scale of COVID19 management, there is every possibility that New Delhi will emerge stronger on the international arena. COVID19 crisis could become a political opportunity for India to ‘arrive’ on the international stage afresh and assert itself as a global power in its own right.
The world will hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi from a different perspective at the UNGA later this year, if COVID19 does not interfere with the annual schedule, and he too chooses to present the Indian view. One can be sure that the pandemic and pandemic-related global cooperation and post-COVID19 global order are all going to be the focus of the next UNGA session, whenever and wherever held.
A lot will however depend on the ‘humanitarian crisis’ that impinges on the post-COVID19 Indian recovery. While the nation’s economy was already in bad shape, the COVID19 crisis has only worsened it. It may take a few months to a few years for the economy to revive to its full potential. However, in the coming months, the Indian efforts at rehabilitating the 200-250 million migrant labour force in the unorganised sector will be keenly watched the world over.
It is in this overall context that India’s ‘Neighbourhood Policy’ demands greater attention than at this post-Covid19 scenario. India has done well with its neighbours by not giving up on them in their own hour of crisis. Even while the nation was faced with exigencies of every kind, New Delhi has repeatedly despatched COVID19-related medical assistance individual nations and their governments had sought from India.
In the case of smaller nations like Maldives, India sent the first medical team when the Indian Ocean archipelago began reporting South Asia’s early ‘COVID19 finds’, in the first fortnight of March 2020. To despatch medicines and other items required to test or control COVID19 spread in Maldives and elsewhere, New Delhi had deployed Indian Air Force aircraft, for the purpose — which is not always the norm.
Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary initiatives and solutions. It is also what India’s neighbours (possibly including adversarial Pakistan) will continue to expect from New Delhi in the months and even years to come. Many of these nations, including Maldives and Sri Lanka, Nepal and Burma, not to leave out Bangladesh, Myanmar and Afghanistan, will all need funds and investments to revive their economies, provide jobs — and at times to preclude possible political and social unrest.
Needless to point out, over the past decade and more, India seemed to have voluntarily surrendered its once-acknowledged influence in South Asia. Time was when South Asia and the immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood used to be called ‘India’s traditional sphere of influence’. However, with the advent of economic reforms in the post-Cold War era, India let that designation slip by, and had also let ‘extra-regional nations’ — both friends and foes — to dominate the scene.
Nowhere else was it seen better than in the increased Chinese presence and dominance in the Indian neighbourhood, especially on the economic front. With economic clout came hidden political and diplomatic clout. While China may not have found the occasion to press and demonstrate its economic clout, it goes without saying that at a time of its choosing, Beijing will do precisely that.
China will also decide the issue, occasion and venue for demonstrating the nation’s political clout, across continents and regions. The chances are that it may not want to choose an issue that could embarrass India’s immediate neighbours, but an issue on which New Delhi may not be the affected/targeted party. Such targeting will be independent of continuing perceptions of the geostrategic ‘pound of flesh’ that India and the west are concerned about.
Even as it purportedly recovered from the COVID19 crisis, which was its own contribution to the world at large, China has started pumping in big-time aid to nations of the world, especially smaller nations in India’s immediate neighbourhood. This goes beyond medicines and testing kits which China is mass-manufacturing to meet the global demand. China is actually pumping in money into some of these nations already. It has helped Sri Lanka, for instance, with $500 million in March to ramp up its forex reserves. It has promised a further $700 million in May. Should the nation require more of developments or funds, one can expect China will only be too happy to provide it, a la Hambantota. It may not be different in the case of other smaller neighbours of India, once the COVID19 crisis gives way to an impending economic crisis.
There is a catch, however. All affected nations want investments to revive the local economy and restore, if not create, jobs. The Chinese model of development funding entails deployment of Chinese labour, and not deployment of local labour. Hence, nations seeking Chinese funding are going to face an unprecedented domestic crisis, if they do not change the funding pattern. Most of China’s past funding to aid-seeking nations comprise mega-projects like ports, airports and express way, or what is euphemistically called ‘physical infrastructure’. In the changed scenario, the need will be for these nations to generate usage for the existing physical infrastructure before creating more. Their own focus will be on strengthening the ‘social infrastructure’.
Where does India fit into the emerging scene and scheme? The nation is already hard-pressed with economic problems of its own. With a booming middle-class and a burgeoning unorganised sector, the job market looks bleaker than ever. But, the emerging realities are centred on India being poised to be an accepted global power, without an economy and military prowess required for such recognition, as yet. Be it as it may, India cannot be seen as leaving its smaller neighbours in the lurch. It is more so when the alternative is to leave them at the ‘economic mercy’ of an emerging super-power in China, which is considered as an ‘adversary’ in every sense of the term.
A second alternative is for those nations to approach international funding agencies like IMF and World Bank, or other friendly nations in the west. The former is going to be under greater pressure for finding funds to feed the global poor and rich alike, post-COVID19. The latter is going to be even more hard-pressed to revive their own economies. Either way, India is going to be in the middle of it all. Given the nation’s very own stressed economy, New Delhi can begin by identifying Indian investors and facilitate their project-funding in neighbourhood nations. In doing so, the government will have to ensure that neither is the investors’ interest sacrificed at the altar of domestic political play out there, nor are the host-nations’ inherent interests compromised by what is perceived locally as a less-than-fair deal — as was the case with the forgettable GMR-Maldives deal in the previous decade.
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N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.Read More +