India's neighbours silent amid its tensions with China

NEW DELHI • If Prime Minister Narendra Modi thought he could count on the public support of neighbours as he faced his most significant foreign policy challenge as India's leader, he was mistaken.

Amid a serious escalation of tensions with China following the first fatalities along their contested border in more than four decades, a surging coronavirus epidemic and an economy heading for recession, the silence of India's traditional regional allies and partners like Bangladesh and Nepal has been deafening.

Mr Modi has long built an image of a strongman - taking a bold, military stand when faced with India's other difficult neighbour, Pakistan. In early 2019, just ahead of his sweeping re-election, he ordered air strikes inside Pakistani territory following a terror attack that killed some 40 Indian soldiers.

Now he is faced with the task of lowering tensions with China at a time when Beijing has the upper hand in its neighbourhood.

The deadly border clash "illustrates that the personal diplomacy bet has real drawbacks", said Ms Alyssa Ayres, a former US deputy assistant secretary of state. "I would anticipate that the Indian government starts taking close stock of the economic and multilateral policy options before them."

Mr Modi's "Neighbourhood First" policy, which helped settle border disputes with Bangladesh and smoothed ties with Sri Lanka and Bhutan in his first term, has frayed in his second term. His government's focus on driving a hardline Hindu nationalist agenda has alienated some traditional standbys and has made long-time trade and security partners uncomfortable.

While Mr Modi has been in touch with neighbouring leaders since the latest border crisis with China began on May 5, the only expressions of condolences and concern so far have come from the US, Britain and the European Union.

The unravelling of some regional partnerships was likely sown last November, when India released a new map, months after turning the Himalayan Ladakh area into a separate federally administered region. The map had angered Beijing and elicited protests from Pakistan and Nepal. In May, India's ties with Nepal took a turn for the worse over India's construction of a border road.

Mr Modi also has Bangladesh offside. A scheduled visit by Mr A. K. Abdul Momen, Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, was postponed late last year amid unrest in India following the implementation of a new religion-based law that fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2020, with the headline 'India's neighbours silent amid its tensions with China'. Print Edition | Subscribe