Tasawar Jalali is the co-founder and CEO of Securenode & Co-founder of Smashon Inc, an online health and wellness portal based in silicon valley. He is also the Chairman of the Ibaadatkhana Foundation. The views expressed are his own.
The uninterrupted and misleading information emanating from Indian media houses has washed out the intellect of the most brilliant minds and policymakers in India. Round-the-clock Pakistan rhetoric has seduced Indian media and political leadership in a race to capitalize on voter gullibility and ignorance. The incessant triumphalism by Indian media about Pakistan’s isolation is fallacious and far-fetched from reality. On the contrary, today India remains isolated in the south Asian region, which has mainly been fueled by its lingering bitterness and hostility with Pakistan and its shift in foreign policy.
The Indian coastline is seven times that of Pakistan, has four times the land area and three times irrigated land compared to Pakistan. The GDP of India is nine times bigger and its exports are ten times more than that of Pakistan. One can go on with a long list of natural and attained strengths India has over Pakistan. The only strength Pakistan boasted is religious extremism and her capability to produce terrorist organizations – the country remains isolated in the region and the world for a long period. However, recently political ideology and foreign policy in India has demonstrated unintended consequences and isolated India in the south Asian region.
The shift in Indian foreign policy from non-alignment to aligning with the western block and completely abandoning old ally, Russia (former USSR), has been a mindless and imprudent move. Although India joined Non-Aligned Movement in 1961 but has been quite closely aligned with Russia. During the Cold War era, barring China and Pakistan, India has had pretty good relations with its neighboring countries such as Myanmar (Burma), Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka but that is changing.
It is imperative to understand that intra-regional trade has been at the heart of driving economic success in countries such as China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. India’s goods export with south Asian countries stood at 6.7% back in 2003-2004 and has increased by a mere 0.3% in 17 years to 7% ($21.87 billion)in 2020. India’s trade with the South Asian countries has remained roughly between 1.7% and 3.8% of its global trade. In contrast, trade between China and South Asia reached $106.02 billion in 2014, up 10.1% year on year. China has consistently increased its exports to the region from US$8 billion in 2005 to US$52 billion in 2018, a growth of 546%.
The ongoing antagonism with Pakistan has hampered the regional trade and damaged the Indian economy beyond what is attributed by economic analysts to the deteriorating relationship of the two countries. India today is losing the diplomatic battle with her neighbors and for sure with Pakistan.
Pakistan has secured its ties with Afghanistan by mediating a peace deal between the Taliban and the USA. This is even though India spent billions of dollars in Afghanistan over the last two decades. Afghanistan holds strategic importance for India because it is a gateway to energy-rich Central Asian states such as Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan and is a neighbor to its arch-nemesis, Pakistan. After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, India assisted the anti-Taliban resistance, the Northern Alliance, comprised mostly of Tajik and other non-Pashtun ethnic groups. India has provided $1.2 billion in aid for Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development over the past two decades and bilateral trade between India and Afghanistan was on the rise, reaching $358 million in 2008.
Pakistan played a vital role in bringing the US and the Taliban to the negotiation table. Pakistan has successfully used the Taliban as a strategic asset to win the proxy war against India in Afghanistan. The deal has not only placed Pakistan’s close ally, the Taliban in power but also has put Islamabad back in the “good books” of Washington. In another major diplomatic blunder, India backed out from investing more in the trilateral transport infrastructure project in Chabahar, Iran because Ashraf Ghani (President Afghanistan) refused India’s role in the sphere of internal security.
The groundbreaking $400 billion deal between China and Iran not only demonstrates China’s unrelenting ambition to succeed globally but also shows the failure of the Indian foreign policy to capitalize on decades of bilateral and cultural ties with Iran. The China-Iran deal endangers India’s Chabahar port deal, which would have opened a transit route to Afghanistan and Central Asia for Indian goods. Also, the heightened India-China tensions, the proposed China-Iran deal gives China more leverage with Iran, impacting India’s long-term strategic economic relations with Iran.
Nepal, a close ally and neighbor of India, which does not even require a passport to travel has aligned with China and disputed Kalapani territory, which they claim to be under Indian administration as part of the Uttarakhand state. It’s important to understand that Nepal’s proximity to Bangladesh and the vital states of Sikkim and Bhutan and the province of Assam with its Naga and Mizo freedom fighters is strategical and of paramount importance to India’s foreign policy.
Sri Lanka sits at the heart of the Indian Ocean, adjacent to major shipping routes, within the world’s most dynamic region—the Indo-Pacific. Long described as the ‘pearl of the Indian Ocean,’ Sri Lanka is now seen as part of China’s string of pearls.’ The recent visit of Imran Khan to Sri Lanka bring India’s close ally even closer to Pakistan.
The recent improvement in bilateral ties between Islamabad and Dhaka, which has been frozen since 1971 when Bangladesh broke away from what was then West Pakistan to form a new country. Pakistan’s move to lift visa restrictions for Bangladeshi citizens is significant. Pakistan and Bangladesh are making a push to build diplomatic, economic, and cultural ties that could upend decades of historic rivalries between the two nations. In a rare move, Imran Khan invited his Bangladeshi counterpart, Sheikh Hasina, to visit Islamabad last year is a move to smooth over the decades-old strained bilateral ties between the two nations.
The strait of Malacca is the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, linking major Asian economies such as India, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. The strait, the world’s busiest shipping route, saw a record 84,000 vessels sail through it in 2016. However, the strait of Malacca is a major bottleneck in China’s global ambition to dominate sea routes as 80% of China’s oil supplies and trade to the Middle East and Europe pass through this shipping channel. The Strait offers India a strategic and military advantage since it can easily block the western side of the Strait of Malacca. US, Australia, and India have been trying to convince Thailand to build the proposed Thai (Kra) canal, which will provide an alternative to transit through the Straits of Malacca. The Kra canal is strategically important for Chinas as well since it will shorten transit for shipments of oil to China by 1,200 km and would compete directly with ports in the Strait of Malacca area. The Thai Canal will significantly improve China’s naval presence and encircle India militarily.
However, China may have found a much better alternative to Kra Canal – Myanmar. The recent coup by Myanmar’s military is a big strategic win for China. The new Myanmar State Administration Council, established by Min Aung Hlaing, on the behest of China gives China a major strategic and military advantage against India. China is now in the backyard of India, less than 500nm away. This is an important step for China to improve its military presence, and develop a series of Chinese alliances and naval bases that surround India, including deepwater Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, Gwadar Port in Pakistan, and Chabhar in Iran.
It is never a good idea for foreign governments to get involved in the political affairs of other countries, for sure never with local American politics. The repercussions of the Howdy Modi event might be felt over the next four years of the Biden administration. In recent statements by the new US administration, New Delhi might be falling under America’s liberal scanner for issues such as farmer protests, Kashmir, freedom of the Press, and minority rights. India is only getting isolated in the world, which is not good for the economic development of the country. It seems India is losing the diplomatic battle on all fronts, regional and international. Before it’s too late, India must revisit its foreign policy in South Asia, especially with its old allies and the west.