Connectivity Issues in India’s Neighbourhood
Bhavna Singh ·       

Neighbourhood connectivity is fast emerging as a prime strategy in the Asian political sphere. In addition to the traditional function of transportation, trade and tourism; cultural exchanges are also being widened by projecting “connectivity as a network of goodwill and influence” (p. i). In this context, the present compendium of essays endeavours to build an overview of India’s approach towards its peripheries and its neighbours. It encompasses a wide range of themes from the historical significance of India’s ties with its neighbours to maritime security and the implications of Sino-Indian infrastructure connectivity. The essays call for a change in the insular mindsets of India’s political echelons to endorse a proactive response to changing geopolitical and economic scenarios.

The main triggers for reengagement have emerged from unilateral trade liberalization, participation in the multilateral trading system and decline in transport and communication costs. Engagement has also been conceptually initiated by a gradual shift in economic power from the West to the East. In the opening essay by Mani Shankar Aiyar, a case is made for Looking East not from Delhi, Chennai or Bangalore to Singapore, Hong Kong, or Osaka but from the Northeast region (NER) itself, which holds the potential to act as the gateway and land bridge to Southeast Asia, Tibet/China, Bangladesh and the seas east of China. India needs to keep paranoia at bay and act sensibly keeping in mind the bigger picture despite the conditionalities put forward by its neighbours (pp. 2-7).

In the “Imperatives of Connectivity,” BG Verghese argues for the need to historicize claims to natural resources just as Pakistan did for the Indus Waters (p. 13) and thereby legitimize India’s rights on various issues under consideration. He highlights the severe loss of opportunities through informal trade which operates at substantial levels and the unwillingness of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to cooperate because of India’s past behavior (p. 17). Verghese asserts the need for ‘growth triangles’ with Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, and India’s shedding its spirit of bad neighbourliness to learn from ASEAN’s initiatives and cooperation in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (p. 20).

Manoj Pant and Mahendra Lama consider economic development of the NER as one of the major determinants of India’s relations with its neighbours and delve into the bearings of these relations on the country’s security concerns. The formation of a mini-golden quadrilateral for the NER and substantive developments in the road, railway, water, air and telecommunications networks, besides increased linkages to New Delhi would allay fears stemming from the geographic disadvantage of the ‘chicken’s neck’ (p. 70).

The authors suggest that development in the form of a regional economic entity would enhance opportunities for engagement and provide solutions to problems of insurgency and illegal migration. People-to-people contacts for enhancing ethnic and cultural associations with neighbouring countries and border trade via Moreh in Manipur, Nathu La in Sikkim, Assam and Tripura could prove beneficial to the region. Private sector partnerships, institutional intervention through the North Eastern Council as well as infrastructure initiatives like the Asian Highway Link, Asian Railway network, a Natural Gas Pipeline Grid and projects under the consideration of BIMSTEC can also help in alleviating the communication isolation of the NER (p. 89).

China’s ‘forward policy’ (p. 93) towards Southeast Asia is an indication of how economic interests between India and China coincide deeply in this region. Thus, both countries should cooperate to gain from comparative advantages of a ‘new Asianism’ (p. 97). Internal restructuring in terms of allowing sub-regional entities to emerge and the NER taking policy decisions using trans-local actors for quick transaction of trade would facilitate connectivity augmentation. It would also help reduce harassment by the authorities of the locals who trade under the camouflage of tourists and provide them with legitimate means to trade (p. 110).

VP Malik, meanwhile, suggests that economic cooperation need not necessarily wait for settlement of political issues. Strengthening of regional organizations like SAARC could provide the venue for encouraging intra-regional trade and commerce. With reference to China, the author observes that since India does not have either the military capability or road communications to project itself better, the asymmetry of power calls for “flexibility in functional national interests” (p.30). He further suggests that India’s grand strategy should be “to cooperate and insure,” that is, to seek cooperative peace while ensuring a credible politico-military capability (p. 35).  

Vijay Sakhuja looks at the strategic considerations emerging from maritime threats to Indian sovereignty and the need for capacity-building – a better shipbuilding industry and inland waterway transport (IWT), for example – to counter China’s encirclement of India through its ‘string of pearls’ policy (p. 50). The author believes maritime infrastructure is the most difficult security challenge that exists for any nation; hence, India should take preemptive measures to ward off challenges emanating from its weaker naval assets. The author also suggests that maritime strength is a “unique instrument viable for radiating soft-power” (p. 64). Non-adherence to established mechanisms for countering maritime-vectored terrorism such as the Container Security Initiative, International Ship and Port Security Code, Customs and Trade Partnership against Terrorism, could severely affect safety and security of supply chains. In his view, the naval choke points at the Straits of Malacca, Strait of Hormuz, Suez Canal, and Panama Canal need immediate attention if India has to safeguard its national interests (pp. 60-65).

Stretching the canvas further, Rajiv Sikri exposes India’s lackadaisical approach to Central Asian connectivity which is often regarded as a “negative security space” (p. 126). While India has lost most of its historical connectivity with the region, China has pursued an aggressive revival of the Silk Route and pipeline construction. It is even ready to step into the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project in place of or even in addition to India. He suggests there is an added need for caution given China’s transport corridors into Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam which can suck these countries into its economic whirlpool (p. 130). India’s boxing up in South Asia can prove harmful in the long term. To overcome these lacunae, the author suggests several possible projects to augment India’s infrastructure.

In the final analysis, a new perspective on Sino-Indian relations to overcome the deep-rooted distrust between the two countries is suggested by TCA Rangachari. Since the two countries are very likely to shape the future of Asia, the author beckons India to address its resource constraints and endure with more perseverance and will in implementing its stated objectives.

The volume provides useful insights into the pros and cons of India’s evolving and much needed policy towards the NER and towards East Asia. It also provides an exhaustive survey of connectivity projects operating as well as those feasible in the future in India’s peripheries. However, the emphasis on detail sometimes overshadows the analyses of perceptions and of the various plans of action. It also lacks a balance between political didacticism on policy initiatives and suggestions for actual implementation of institutional frameworks. In sum, while the volume is valuable for its introductory examination of the subject and draws attention to the need for more research in the area, it lacks the perspicacity of a well-researched work.