Time to Accelerate our Soft Power with our neighbours

In our immediate neighbourhood, the China card has been persistent and remains as challenging as ever! There is no visible reason that we can expect this to scale down, in fact, only expect them to escalate. It is the big power game, that we have seen in history and around geographies; the chemistry is the same too, tends to get physical without provocation. Within the Indian Ocean, across the Himalayas, the narrative is the same. We have more of a shared history and sense of community with our neighbours than any other country can lay claim to. Our soft power around films, sports and tourism must remain open, promoted for greater goodwill and people to people connect, which will matter most.

Our South Asian neighbours are best targets to begin with, as India remains the big thorn in the Chinese grand plans and encircling India has been one of the priorities. The string of pearls has been around as strategy that we in India have tended to either overlook or dismiss. Smaller countries cannot offend one or the other, though the new dispensation in Maldives is proving an exception.

In the larger context, we could have continued with proxy wars in the region, but with the open hostility on our northern border, where China came out as an aggressor once again in 2020, with its continued build up on their side of the border, which is in fact in Tibet, there has been no looking back. A counter narrative has become the highlight within the region.

Ambassador Vivek Katju, in an editorial in The Indian Express, has outlined some of the issues and recent developments between our two countries.

He has stressed that red lines in neighbourhood on Maldives’ ties with China, India must send out a clear message. “These problems with neighbouring countries are not new but they have been exacerbated because of China’s persistent assertiveness in the region.

He writes that “the neighbours are clearly finding it impossible to overlook Chinese overtures even while emphasising their links with India. The neighbourhood situation does not present a comforting picture for India, including in the security sector. India needs a cogent and enduring framework of engagement with its neighbours which harmonises its interests and those of its neighbours”.

President Muizzu on his return from his China trip has said, “We may be a small country, but that does not give you a licence to bully us”. It does not require any great imagination to comprehend who “you” refers to in this context, says Katju. So emboldened has he become, assured of whatever assistance and cooperation that he has been given.

The message is clear from Ambassador Katju’s observations. That India respects Maldives sovereignty (and that of other countries just as much) and its (their) choices. That we need to together tread the future as “reliable development partners”. However, what India will not be able to accept is for a neighbour like Maldives to become a base from where its security comes under threat. It is natural for a country like India to draw such a red line not only in the context of Maldives but also in respect of other neighbours.

China’s assertiveness within the region has been strong across countries. In Pakistan, in Nepal and Bangladesh, and more recently in Bhutan as well. Efforts with varying successes have been ongoing, the pressure has been relentless. To encircle India through her neighbours has been a major foreign policy initiative of the Chinese.

Ambassador Katju writes
“For over three decades, India’s other neighbours have witnessed this country being unable to take decisive action to successfully combat Pakistani terrorism. That did not send a message of Indian strength. Again, during these decades, the Indian economy grew substantially but China outstripped India by a factor of six. That too sent out a message to the neighbourhood. These have to be countered.
Modi’s Balakot action of 2019 displayed a determination to use coercive elements of national power to counter terror. A red line was drawn. What is needed is that, quietly and subtly, a series of Indian security red lines have to be enunciated for the region while emphasising the Modi doctrine of “sabka saath, sabka vikas” and of non-interference in the neighbours’ internal affairs. And if the red lines are breached, forceful action will necessarily have to be undertaken.”

President Muizzu has gone to great lengths in keeping his election promises pertaining to the stationing of some 80 personnel from India. But to his credit it must be mentioned he sacked his three deputy ministers for stepping out of turn with their disparaging remarks on India and our prime minister! Calls for boycott of Maldives were unwarranted and out of place. Inspired as they were by a sense of outrage and expression of nationalism. But tourism has no connection with closure of borders, in fact it must always remain a power to connect people and peace and prosperity. Politically drawing a firm red line that here the buck stops, no treading beyond as it hurts our security, is one thing. Stopping tourism flows in both directions must remain an open channel of people to people connect.

A carefully drawn narrative is the crying need of the hour, one that spells equal status of brotherhood, with promotion of soft power that India enjoys immensely in the region. Unlike any other country. Like sports, tourism and Bollywood. Encouraging industry to promote film festivals, sports events and intensively promoting two-way tourism, encouraging Indians to lead as tourists into the neighbourhood and making it easier for their nationals to visit us. Promoting religious tourism to destinations in India like to the Buddha circuit and to pilgrimages such as Hazrat Nizamuddin and Ajmer Dargah. Incentives available to domestic tourists can extend to regional destinations just as much.

Bollywood is a huge magnet for the region. Purely for entertainment, you should witness the craze for Hindi songs even when the language is scarcely understood by so many in Sri Lanka and in the Maldives. It might be mentioned here that a very large percentage of the workforce in the Maldives’ resorts is from India. Whatever one can say, culturally and ethnically, we have more in common with our South Asian neighbours and they with us, in what we eat, drink and wear. Our celebrations are similar, so are our moods. We are more sentiment, wear our likes and dislikes on our sleeve, and react impulsively, not often on design. There is a way forward to forge this common and shared identity.

This may be equally true of much of Pakistan, as well. Should we engage on a more direct people to people contact? This is a larger issue that only our political bosses can deliberate upon. But a shared history is just as much with them and with Bangladesh and Nepal. The corridors for our soft power must remain open, ideally, and best with a 24/7 and a 360° engagement.

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