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Pivot to the Indo-Pacific (.hindu)

Cooperation with like-minded countries gives India more space to emerge as a key regional interlocutor

At a time when India finds itself consumed once again by its obsession with Pakistan in light of the death sentence pronounced on Kulbhushan Jadhav by a Pakistani military court, two recent visits to India by foreign dignitaries underscore the gradually evolving foreign policy priorities of Indian diplomacy. The visits of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to India this week exemplify not only the country’s rising global profile but also its growing stakes in the larger Indo-Pacific.

Positive trajectory

There are now new demands being made on India. And New Delhi seems ready to play ball. Its role as a security provider is visible in the Delhi-Dhaka joint statement which has stressed the need for greater military-to-military training and exchanges, and complimented the armed forces for their professional conduct during joint search and rescue operations in the Bay of Bengal leading to the rescue of a large number of fishermen from both sides. The defence relationship was the highlight of Ms. Hasina’s visit to Delhi this time as it included a memorandum of understanding on a defence framework, and a $500 million line of credit (LoC) for defence procurement by the Bangladesh military forces, the largest such LoC India has extended to any country so far. What makes this line of credit more significant is that Bangladesh will not be bound to use it to source its supplies only from Indian companies. This is India’s way to reposing confidence in the Hasina government that it will not challenge New Delhi’s vital interests.

India is also ready to demonstrate it keenness to share its economic growth with its regional partners. It is also extending a $4.5 billion line of credit to Bangladesh, over and above the existing $2.8 billion line, to fund around 17 infrastructure projects which includes port upgradation work at the Mongla, Chittagong and Payra ports. Given the critical need for enhancing connectivity in South Asia, India is pushing for early implementation of the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicles Agreement, aimed at facilitating seamless transport of goods over land customs stations. Bus and train services between Kolkata and Khulna have been started, and there are plans to revive inland waterway channels.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Ms. Hasina have both been instrumental in shaping the positive trajectory of this important bilateral relationship. Mr. Modi used his political capital to push through the land boundary agreement (LBA), to swap enclaves India and Bangladesh held in each other’s territory, in 2015 and is working towards mitigating differences on the critical Teesta water sharing pact. Ms. Hasina has been equally responsive to Indian concerns. Bangladesh is taking serious steps to deal a decisive blow to separatist Indian insurgent organisations such as ULFA and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland. There is now greater convergence between India and Bangladesh on dealing with fundamentalist forces such as the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh and Harkat-ul-Ansar.

For her commitment to strong Delhi-Dhaka ties, Ms. Hasina has faced a lot of opposition at home. Soon after New Delhi and Dhaka signed 22 pacts in key sectors, Bangladesh’s Opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, accused Ms. Hasina of “selling out” the country to India to translate into reality her “dream of staying in power for life”. Given the size and scale of India, it inevitably becomes part of the domestic political milieu in its neighbouring states. So it will always have to trudge cautiously in South Asia where suspicions about New Delhi’s intentions run high. But the more India is seen to be reciprocating its neighbours grievances, the better chances it will have of mitigating these tensions.

For a larger Indian role

The other way out for India is to enhance its engagements in the larger Indo-Pacific, thereby getting out of the straitjacket of being a “mere” South Asian power. New Delhi’s success in engaging countries such as Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia in recent years is testament to the growing demand in the region for a larger Indian role and presence. Mr. Turnbull’s visit to Delhi this week once again showed that India is now widely perceived to be a strong and credible regional force. The two countries pledged to enhance maritime cooperation as they underlined “the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded lawful commerce, as well as resolving maritime disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea)”.

Defence cooperation once again is at the centre of this relationship with the decision to hold a bilateral maritime exercise named AUSINDEX in 2018. A bilateral exercise of the Special Forces will be held later this year, while the first bilateral army-to-army exercise will also take place in 2018. The two countries should now prioritise the conclusion of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) at the earliest to give economic heft to their growing security interactions.

Despite the hype about the possibility of India emerging as the guarantor of the liberal economic and security order in Asia, there are now new possibilities for reimagining New Delhi’s regional and global role. Greater cooperation with like-minded countries in the region and beyond will give it greater space to emerge as a credible regional interlocutor at a time when Washington’s policies remain far from clear and Beijing is challenging the foundations of the extant order.

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