India’s Unchecked Neighbourhood Aggression and the Role of SAARC

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term in office in 2014, the Government of India has been set on track to achieve South Asian ‘dominance’ at the expense of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of neighbourhood countries, particularly those along India’s mainland.

India-Nepal Standoff

On 2nd November 2019, the Government of India issued a new map which declared the disputed territory of Kalapani as part of the Indian union. This was not an unprecedented provocation, since the Survey of India has been including Nepal’s Kalapani and Navidhang area since 1905.

In addition, Article 1 of the 1960 Nepal-China treaty also supports Nepal’s claim to the territory in the following words:

“The Nepalese-Chinese boundary line starts from the point where the watershed between the Kali River and the Tinkar River meets the watershed between the tributaries of the Karnali (Mapchu) River on the one hand and the Tinkar River on the other hand, thence it runs south eastwards along the watershed between the tributaries of the Karnali (Mapchu) River on the one hand the Tinkar River and the Seti River on the other hand, passing through Lipudhura (Niumachisa) snowy mountain ridge and Lipudhura (Tinkarlipu) Pass to Urai (Phelin) Pass.”

In 2015, Indian and Chinese authorities agreed to setup a trading post in Lipu-Lekh Pass which had raised severe objections from Nepal.

On 8th March 2020, the Government of India inaugurated an 80-km road linking the northern state of Uttarakhand with Lipu-Lekh Pass bordering Tibet. The Government of Nepal reiterated to India that the claimed territory is part of the 1816 Sagauli Treaty with the then British East India Company which demarcated the land to the east of Kali River as part of present-day Nepal.

Historically, India has stationed its security post in Kalapani area since the 1962 Indo-China war. In 2015, Indian and Chinese authorities agreed to setup a trading post in Lipu-Lekh Pass which had raised severe objections from Nepal.

In response to New Delhi’s provocation, the Oli regime in Kathmandu issued a new map which shows Kalapani and Lipu-Lekh Pass as territories with the addition of  Limpiyadhura, thereby adding 335 additional square kilometres of land to Nepal (totalling 147,516 square kilometres).

The response from New Delhi has been predictable, yet ironic. Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava described the Nepalese government’s move as an “unjustified cartographic assertion.”

India-China Tensions

While this cartographic conflict rages on, India is already handling two tense situations with China; one near Pangong Tso in eastern Ladakh and the other at Naku La in north Sikkim.

Alice Wells, outgoing US State Department lead for South and Central Asia, jumped into this bilateral issue by supporting India against “provocations and disturbing behaviour by China.” She equated the border standoffs with perceived Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, in a visible bid to consolidate the Indo-Pacific perspective.

In August 2019, the Government of India unilaterally and illegally converted Indian-Occupied Jammu & Kashmir into Union Territories in stark violation of United Nations Security Council while exhibiting a fantastic show of aggression against Pakistan.

While issues of China do not necessarily come under the South Asian context, the issue of Lipu-Lekh Pass directly creates a tripartite issue involving China, India and Nepal as stakeholders. Thus, while India-Nepal bilateral skirmishes can be discussed under the fold of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), China cannot be included since it is merely an observer and not yet a full member of the forum.

Indian Belligerence against Pakistan

In August 2019, the Government of India unilaterally and illegally converted Indian-Occupied Jammu & Kashmir into Union Territories in stark violation of United Nations Security Council while exhibiting a fantastic show of aggression against Pakistan.

Recently in May, the Indian Meteorological Department began broadcasting weather updates from Azad Jammu & Kashmir region and Gilgit-Baltistan on the directives of India’s infamous National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. The objective was clearly to publicise India’s intent to regain these territories. Earlier in 2017, police and security agencies in Pakistan had busted a covert network of subversive elements associated with the Balawaristan National Front tasked by India’s external intelligence agency R&AW (Research & Analysis Wing) to sabotage the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project and foment unrest within the local populace.

Moreover, there is sufficient evidence of an Indian-hand behind the Baloch insurgency.

China and SAARC

The SAARC Charter necessitates approval of all existing member states to induct a new one. The Indian government would, expectedly, prove a strong challenger if such a decision props up. New Delhi perceives China as irrelevant to the South Asian paradigm since it would automatically challenge its exclusive hegemony in this sub-region.

Ironically, while India wants to ensure no outside actor interferes in South Asian affairs, it has no objections to persistent and troubling US involvement. Moreover, India cannot ignore China’s growing involvement in South Asia through strategic economic and security investments; continued denial is, in the words of one experienced foreign policy analyst, counterproductive.

Further exclusion would rightfully be construed as Sino-phobia, not sub-regional autonomy. In fact, one Indian academic argued that China’s inclusion SAARC is inevitable; hence India should take the lead by extending an invitation provided that Japan is included in the forum for the necessary strategic counter-balance.

Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh have been supporting greater Chinese participation in SAARC activities since 2005. The inauguration of Belt & Road Initiative directly links economic and security prospects of several South Asian countries together, thus making China a critical member-in-waiting.

Conclusion

SAARC has been left at the mercy of India’s whims for too long. It is exploited for its vested interests as and when deemed necessary, such as the emergency meeting on COVID-19 (for publicity), else kept dormant.

It is imperative that existing member states such as Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka (current chair) collaborate to uphold SAARC’s relevancy. Concurrently, intensive lobbying should be initiated for China’s inclusion as a full member state so that India’s monopoly can be curtailed.

Unless SAARC is restored to its original active and impartial status, there are few chances of holding India accountable for its hegemonic manoeuvrings in South Asia. New Delhi should be pressured to choose between unilateralism and multilateralism.

Zaki Khalid

Zaki Khalid

is a freelance national security and strategic affairs commentator whose writings have appeared in South Asia Journal, The Nation, Russian International Affairs Council, The Frontier Post and Pakistan Observer, to name a few. He can be reached on Twitter @misterzedpk

Leave a Comment

Login

Welcome! Login in to your account

Remember me Lost your password?

Lost Password