Book excerpt: Pax Indica

India’s foreign policy is dictated by the neighbourhood it lives in. In his new book Pax Indica, Shashi Tharoor tells us how this can be shaped keeping its Big Brother tag and national interest in mind.

books Updated: Sep 03, 2012 17:36 IST

Pax Indica

Shashi Tharoor

Allen lane

RS 799 pp 456

Gorilla on the beach

In 1410, near the Sri Lankan coastal town of Galle, the Chinese Admiral Zheng He erected a stone tablet with a message to the world. His inscription was in three languages — Chinese, Persian and Tamil — and his message was even more remarkable: according to Robert Kaplan’s 2010 book Monsoon, it “invoked the blessings of the Hindu deities for a peaceful world built on trade”…

The subcontinent has long been at the centre of Asia’s most vital trade routes, and India’s commanding position at the heart of South Asia places it in both an enviable and a much-resented position… No one loves a huge neighbour: one need only ask the Mexicans what they think about the United States, or the Ukrainians their views of Russia. India cannot help the fact that, whether it wants to or not, it accounts for 70% of the population of the eight countries that make up the subcontinent’s premier regional organisation, the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (Saarc). Worse, it accounts for 80% of the region’s collective GDP, and is by far its most militarily powerful member… India is the proverbial 298-pound gorilla on the beach, whose slightest step will immediately be seen by the skinny 98-pounders as proof of insensitivity, bullying or worse.

Nonetheless, there is a widespread perception, which New Delhi would be unwise to ignore, that India’s relations with the countries neighbouring it have been poorly managed. While its recent rise, unlike China’s, is largely seen around the world as benign, India’s neighbours hardly constitute an echo-chamber for global applause. Of the eight nations with which it shares a land or maritime border — Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the Maldives — there has been a history of problems, of varying degrees of difficulty, with six. Adding Afghanistan to the list, India has nine countries in its direct neighbourhood which are all, in varying degrees, vital to its national security. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh remarked during his October 2011 visit to Bangladesh, “India will not be able to realise its own destiny without the partnership of its South Asian neighbours.”

The charge that relations with most of them have been generally unsatisfactory is not untrue. Yet it is partly because of circumstances beyond India’s own control.

The burma flip-flop

As elections in 2011 (and a by-election in 2012) both ratified and subtly altered the consequences of three decades of military rule in Myanmar, formerly (and to many nationalists, still) called Burma, the perspective from India may help explain much about the international survival and continued acceptability of the junta in that country.

Burma was ruled as part of Britain’s Indian Empire until 1935, and the links between the two countries remained strong. An Indian business community thrived in the major Burmese cities, and cultural and political affinities between the two countries were well established. Jawaharlal Nehru, was a friend of the Burmese nationalist hero Bogyoke (General) Aung San, whose daughter Suu Kyi studied in New Delhi.

When the generals in Rangoon (now Yangon) suppressed the popular uprising of 1988, overturned the results of a free election overwhelmingly won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), shot students and arrested the new democratically elected leaders, leaving NLD leaders and party workers a choice of incarceration or exile, the Government of India initially reacted as most Indians would have wanted it to. India gave asylum to fleeing students, allowed them to operate their resistance movement on the Indian side of the border (with some financial help from New Delhi) and supported a newspaper and a radio station that propagated the democratic voice. For many years, India was unambiguously on the side of democracy, freedom and human rights in Burma — and in ways more tangible than the rhetoric of the regime’s Western critics. In 1995 Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, India’s highest honour given to a foreigner.

But then reality intruded. India’s strategic rivals, China and Pakistan, began to cultivate the Burmese generals. Major economic and geopolitical concessions were offered to both suitors. The Chinese even began developing a port on the Burmese coast, far closer to Calcutta than to Canton. And the generals of the Slorc (State Law and Order Restoration Council) junta, well aware of the utility of what comes out of the barrel of a gun, began providing safe havens and arms to a motley assortment of anti-New Delhi rebel movements that would wreak havoc in the north-eastern states of India and retreat to sanctuaries in the newly renamed Myanmar.

This was troubling enough to policy-makers in New Delhi, who were being painfully reminded of their own vulnerabilities to a determined neighbour. The two countries share a 1600-kilometre land border and a longer maritime boundary with overlapping economic zones in the strategically crucial Bay of Bengal. Four of India’s politically sensitive north-eastern states have international borders with Myanmar. These borders are porous and impossible to patrol closely; people, traders, smugglers and militants all cross easily in both directions. The potential threat to India from its own periphery is therefore considerable.

But the clincher came when large deposits of natural gas were found in Burma, which it was clear would not be available to an India deemed hostile to the junta. India realised that its rivals were gaining ground in Delhi’s own backyard while New Delhi was losing out on new economic opportunities. The price of pursuing a moral foreign policy simply became too high.

So New Delhi turned 180 degrees. When Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf travelled to Myanmar in 1999 to celebrate his country’s new relationship with his fellow generals, India’s then foreign minister Jaswant Singh soon followed. The increasingly forlorn resistance operations from Indian soil were shut down in the hope of reciprocation from the Burmese side. And New Delhi sweetened the Burmese generals’ tea for them by providing both military assistance and intelligence support to their regime in their never-ending battles against their own rebels.

India’s journey was complete: from standing up for democracy, New Delhi had gone on to aiding and enabling the objectives of the military regime. When monks were being mowed down on the streets of Yangon in 2006, the Indian government called for negotiations, muttered banalities about national reconciliation and opposed sanctions. New Delhi also sent its oil minister to negotiate an energy deal, making it clear the country’s real priorities lay with its own national economic interests, ahead of its solidarity with Burmese democrats. (At the same time, Indian diplomats intervened discreetly from time to time on behalf of Suu Kyi, though their effectiveness was limited by New Delhi’s unwillingness to alienate Rangoon.)

All this was, in fact, perfectly understandable. Officials in New Delhi were justified in reacting with asperity to Western critics of its policy: India needed no ethical lessons from a Washington or London that has long coddled military dictators in our neighbourhood, notably in Islamabad. Any Indian government’s primary obligation is to its own people, and there is little doubt that the economic opportunities provided by Burmese oil and gas are of real benefit to Indians...

One inescapable fact of geopolitics remains: you can put your ideals on hold, but you cannot change who your neighbours are. The member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), on Burma’s eastern flank, have mad

First Published: Jun 29, 2012 19:17 IST