Modi finds neighbours silent as India-China tensions simmer

Mr Narendra Modi's 'Neighbourhood First' policy has frayed in his second term.
Mr Narendra Modi's 'Neighbourhood First' policy has frayed in his second term.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - 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 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's faced with the task of lowering tensions with China at a time when Beijing has the upper hand in its neighbourhood.

With rising domestic anger that has led to calls for a boycott of Chinese goods and the termination of government contracts with Chinese companies, Mr Modi needs to walk a careful line between the brewing nationalist fervour and seeking a peaceful solution to the crisis with Beijing.

The worsening conflict may push the prime minister, who has relied on his personal equations with world leaders to manage relations, to re-evaluate India's economic and security priorities.

The deadly border clash "illustrates that the personal diplomacy bet has real drawbacks," Ms Alyssa Ayres, Washington-based senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and 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 leaders in the neighbourhood 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, the UK and the European Union. The United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres has urged both the countries to exercise maximum restraint.

Closer ties with Washington may have precipitated differences with Beijing, which has been increasingly assertive across the region - from the South China Sea to Taiwan and Hong Kong. But the current crisis has brought New Delhi's absence of friendly neighbours into focus.

Military officials on both sides are in talks to dial down the temperature and the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers will both be part of a virtual summit that Russia is hosting on June 23.

The Prime Minister's Office didn't respond to an email seeking comment for this story.

 
 
 

LOSING FRIENDS

The seeds of the current border crisis and the unravelling of some regional partnerships were likely sown last November, when India released a new map, months after changing the constitutional status of its portion of Kashmir and carving the Himalayan Ladakh area - a region of strategic importance nestled between western Tibet and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir - as a separate federally administered region.

The map had angered Beijing and elicited protests from Pakistan and Nepal.

In May, as the stand-off with Chinese troops simmered, ties with Nepal took a turn for the worse over India's construction of a border road. The relationship was already under some strain after an economic blockade in 2015 blamed on the Modi administration pushed Kathmandu's communist government under Prime Minister K.P. Oli closer to China.

Since then Nepal's legislature has approved a new map demarcating a mountain pass and areas it says India claimed when it built the road despite repeated objections.

"New Delhi's ongoing refusal to hold substantive talks on the disputed border has not helped either," said Professor Ian Hall, international relations expert at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, and author of 'Modi and the Reinvention of Indian Foreign Policy.'

"There is no doubt that Beijing has worked hard to build a closer party-to-party relationship between Oli's government and the Chinese Communist Party, in parallel to conventional diplomatic links."

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 nationwide unrest following implementation of a new religion-based law that fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

LIMITED OPTIONS

India has been exploring multilateral economic and political ties outside of its neighbourhood - the current tensions with China may hasten that process of rethinking its strategic priorities.

 
 
 

Since March, India has stepped up participation in the US-led Indo-Pacific group of nations, which includes Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Korea and Vietnam. Its also part of the so-called Quad collective of democracies - along with US, Japan and Australia - that are now presenting a united front on regional security issues, a move Beijing has criticised.

The group is also seeking more maritime engagement at a time when China has been asserting its presence more forcefully in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

But even with attempting to win over new alliances against Beijing's regional aspirations, the relationship with China - India's second-largest trading partner with current two-way trade of US$87 billion (S$121.27 billion) - isn't one New Delhi can wish away.

"The optimistic view is that the tragic loss of life will incentivize both governments to energize their efforts to resolve the border dispute," said Associate Professor Vipin Narang, a political science expert at MIT and author of 'Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict.'

"The pessimistic view is that China has no intention of relieving the pressure that it is putting across the entire Line of Actual Control and that this is a long way from being over."