The quest for regional connectivity | Opinion
India has made progress in deepening integration in South Asia. But several challenges persist
In just six years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made 13 official visits to neighbouring countries (excluding China), compared to just five by Manmohan Singh in 10 years. This included the first bilateral State visit to Sri Lanka in almost 40 years, if one excludes Rajiv Gandhi’s 1987 short trip to seal the military intervention. Such intense political outreach reflects the urgency of India’s regional connectivity strategy, also known as Neighbourhood First.
Unfortunately, much of the analysis has focused on whether a “pro-China” or “anti-India” leader has taken over power in Kathmandu or Colombo. Such a narrow geostrategic focus misses the many small successes on the ground that have silently enhanced connectivity with the neighbours. Over a dozen Integrated Check Posts are being built to facilitate trade and mobility along the borders with Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar.
In 2019, India and Nepal inaugurated South Asia’s first cross-border oil pipeline and, for the first time, Bhutanese cargo reached Bangladesh on an Indian river vessel. Following upgradation with Indian aid, the airport at Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka, was reconnected with a direct flight from South India after more than four decades. Finally, the launch of the South Asian Satellite by the Indian Space Research Organisation enhanced digital connectivity across the region.
These are just a few examples indicating how connectivity has become the new consensus across the Indian government, and is making unprecedented progress, beyond just political summits, statements and slogans. But keeping this momentum will not be easy, with a variety of challenges on the horizon.
First, Modi’s political initiative has exposed significant implementation deficiencies and policy coordination challenges between various ministries. With Myanmar, for example, the Trilateral Highway and Kaladan projects have been delayed for almost two decades, affecting India’s reputation. Delhi will also have to do a better job at roping in India’s border states, which are the main stakeholders in deepening cross-border linkages.
Second, China cannot be blamed for doing its own part. Pressuring Nepal or Sri Lanka to limit their economic relations with China because of intangible “security concerns” is no longer sustainable. These countries will continue to balance Beijing and Delhi and, as the late strategist K Subrahmanyam noted, Delhi must thus take a “relaxed view” because “in the longer run the imperatives of geography, cultural affinities, international politics … will bring home to our neighbours the facts of life and of realpolitik.” India may never be loved in neighbouring countries, but it can certainly be respected for delivering more, better and faster to support developmental objectives.
Third, for all the investment in physical infrastructure of roads or ports, the region will not integrate unless India opens up its market and embraces the logic of economic interdependence. There are no short-cuts to the slow process of bottom-up integration of cross-border sectors such as transportation, electricity or water. This also requires short-term sacrifices that will hurt protectionist lobbies at home, especially when it comes to reducing trade barriers. The recent hike in import tariffs has sent the wrong signal to Bangladesh and there has also been no progress on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with Sri Lanka.
Fourth, South Asia is no longer India’s exclusive backyard and there are important new players that can support India in developing Indo-Pacific alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Especially with Japan, India embraced an ambitious agenda of trilateral cooperation, of which Sri Lanka’s Colombo port terminal is the best example, but Delhi seems to have bitten off more than it can chew. Greater exchange of information and coordination may be more effective than pushing for more joint projects in third countries. Similarly, within the region, while keeping the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in the freezer makes sense until relations normalise with Pakistan, India will have to complement its bilateral track with other neighbours with greater investment in regional institutions, whether the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) or the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal Initiative (BBIN).
Fifth, cultural and religious values have taken a front seat in Neighbourhood First, which incessantly promotes India as a civilisational hub. But emphasising alikeness is often counterproductive with smaller neighbours, where identity politics favour distinctiveness and also fuel anxiety about greater linkages with India. In addition, will India be able to keep the ideological high ground to pressure neighbours on democratisation and inclusiveness? In the past, Delhi took up the causes of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Madhesis in Nepal, but these have been losing salience in the name of economic and security pragmatism.
Finally, regional connectivity will only succeed if India invests in increasing its knowledge about the region. South Asian and neighbourhood studies have been neglected for decades at Indian universities and there is a generational gap of experts, for example on the rapidly changing political, economic and social dynamics of Nepal or Myanmar.