India’s Role in Regional Cooperation Efforts in South Asia | Daily News

India’s Role in Regional Cooperation Efforts in South Asia

A consignment of Indian COVID-19 aid being unloaded in Colombo
A consignment of Indian COVID-19 aid being unloaded in Colombo

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate South Asia, one country is clearly winning. With India vacating its leadership role in the region, China has stepped up.

Even as countries around the world – and in its own neighbourhood – depended on India for vaccine supplies, New Delhi was forced to suspend its AstraZeneca/Covishield vaccine exports in mid-April 2021. The decision was the culmination of a series of policy missteps that led to a crippling shortage of vaccines (manufactured by the Serum Institute of India), starting from delayed orders, a dearth of funds to step up production capacity, and an overall lack of planning for India’s own vaccine needs.

As New Delhi left the regional stage, in came Beijing. Late in April, China held a meeting with various South Asian Foreign Ministers. India was conspicuously absent. Then the (Chinese-made) vaccines began to flow: By the end of May, China had supplied over one million of its Sinopharm vaccines to Sri Lanka alone free of charge. Bangladesh had received half a million in its first shipment and Nepal is due to get a further one million free shots soon.

China has also scored a few strategic wins beyond the realm of the COVID pandemic. Last month, the Sri Lankan Parliament cleared a controversial Bill that gives China near-complete control over the Colombo Port City – Sri Lanka’s attempt to create a hassle-free zone for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). But just as significantly, Sri Lanka had scrapped a strategically important port deal for a container terminal with India and Japan in February. Analysts have shown the glaring contradiction between those two decisions – more a sign of China’s rising influence in Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa Government.

The longer India’s pandemic lasts, the greater will be the space for Chinese influence in South Asia. But India’s total abdication of power to China is not in its neighbours’ interests either. Most South Asian countries would like a balance of power between Beijing and New Delhi in the region, giving them greater autonomy and leverage in foreign policy. That challenge became more real last month, after Beijing threatened Bangladesh over the latter’s speculated interest in the Quad Alliance of US, Australia, Japan and India. So, in recent times, Bhutan and Bangladesh have come to India’s aid, sending it vital oxygen supplies, drugs and protective equipment, to tide over the second wave of COVID-19 more quickly.

China has also been helped by a total absence of region-wide cooperation mechanisms in South Asia. The whole purpose of regional cooperation would have been to deal precisely with crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. But early efforts by New Delhi petered out very quickly. Last year, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) set up a COVID-19 Fund. But of the paltry US$ 20 million that it held, US$ 10 million came from India alone, and New Delhi decided to reserve the full rights on how it would be spent.

The COVID-19 Fund was a reflection of India’s biggest problem in South Asia. As the largest and most powerful country in the South Asian region by some distance, New Delhi has traditionally dominated and hegemonized regional cooperation efforts. That has led to widespread mistrust and resentment amongst its smaller neighbours – all of whom are naturally suspicious of India’s intentions, given its massive size and significance in the region.

This is where COVID-19 has now thrown up some unexpected opportunities. Many in New Delhi see aid from Bhutan and Bangladesh as an affront to India’s standing in the region. But to the contrary, the rise of its smaller neighbours during a crisis should greatly please New Delhi. Regional cooperation in South Asia is more likely to succeed if India’s neighbours step up and take the lead.

In recent days, Bangladesh has managed to break from India-centrality in South Asia more decisively, by offering an unprecedented US$ 200 million (subsequently increased to US$ 250 million) currency swap arrangement to Sri Lanka amid that country’s depleting foreign reserves. Most significantly, this agreement comes after Sri Lanka failed to get a response from New Delhi late last year on a similar request (for a US$ 1 billion swap). And it marks the first time that Sri Lanka is borrowing from a South Asian country other than India.

On its part, India should facilitate and institutionalize such cooperation between its neighbours with less hubris and more gratitude – setting up region-wide platforms and mechanisms and allowing its neighbours to set the agenda. If New Delhi wants to keep Beijing out of its backyard, it has to step up regional cooperation in South Asia. The best actors to lead that effort are probably India’s neighbours. (The Diplomat)

(Mohamed Zeeshan is Editor-in-Chief of Freedom Gazette and author of “Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership”.)