Khamoi Village, Myanmar. Photo: Kuku Christina.
By Khriezo Yhome
By virtue of its geographical location, India’s Northeast forms part of three strategic subregions–––the Himalayan subregion, the Bay of Bengal subregion and the Mekong subregion. The three subregions form India’s key strategic spaces in safeguarding its primacy and in its strategic outreach in the wider region.
Each subregion has its unique characteristics in terms of opportunities and challenges it presents with many commonalities and overlapping issues and interests. Even though the subregions form part of the wider Indo-Pacific region, there are specific reasons why they require attention and it is these factors that increases the significance of the Northeast in Delhi’s strategic calculus.
For many years, subregional initiatives in India’s neighbourhood have existed without realising the goals set for themselves due to lack of political will in the capitals of member states. This has been changing in recent years.
A few factors explain why subregional initiatives in India’s neighbourhood have found relevance in recent years. First, the limitations of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) mechanism in addressing regional governance issues has pushed India and its smaller neighbours to explore alternative arrangements.
Second, China’s strategic penetration into the subregions has prompted New Delhi to protect its interests in the neighbourhood, while this has pushed the smaller nations to hedge against the growing rivalry between India and China. Beijing’s growing influence has become a common feature in all these subregions. A countervailing strategy of India has been to strengthen bilateral and multilateral security engagements with nations in the subregions and beyond.
Third, as a response to the emerging strategic scenario, New Delhi launched the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and the ‘Act East’ policy that have received positive responses from the smaller neighbours in the subregions.
Closer economic engagement with Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region has been one of the key elements in India’s eastward drive. India’s engagements are also seen from within the framework of “balancing Asia.”
India’s strategic interests in other parts of the Indo-Pacific region are shaped by geopolitical concerns to maintain a strategic equilibrium in the emerging regional order through its participation in ASEAN-led forums, such as the East Asia Forum or the ASEAN Regional Forum and entering into various mini- and pluri-laterals such as the four-nation Quad forum involving the US, Japan, India and Australia.
In the subregions too, economic cooperation is emphasised, given the huge complementarity that exists among nations in the subregions, whether in cross-border trade and connectivity. From a strategic perspective, it is also about protecting India’s strategic interests in the neighbourhood.
India’s ties with nations in the subregions are different from the relations with other nations in the wider Indo-Pacific region. India has and continues to have difficult relations with several nations in the three subregions owing to the discomforts of proximity and the difficulties of asymmetrical relationships.
Subregional initiatives neutralise the asymmetric relationship between India and its smaller neighbours and allow for going beyond bilateralism, which is often mired in political difficulties. Moreover, assessing strategic challenges from the bilateral prism narrow one’s view, while the subregional approach allows for taking a holistic view of issues and help frame a more effective response.
An important feature of the three subregions is that they are all connected geographically, except Sri Lanka, which is an island nation. There is, thus, overlapping of nations in these subregions that blurs defining the boundaries of a subregion as their interlinked security, development, and ecological issues are interlinked.
Development and opening up of India’s Northeast fit in well in the operationalisation of the Act East policy and the Neighbourhood First policy as it is surrounded by the Mekong subregion to the east, the Bay of Bengal subregion to the south, and the Himalayan subregion to the north-west.
For a long time, a host of factors including political, security, and infrastructure issues have greatly impeded New Delhi’s ability to leverage the potential of the Northeast region in regional diplomacy. India’s frontier policy must consider its wider subregions as they provide both land and maritime options to access the East and have emerged as key spaces in India’s connectivity efforts.
Active participation of the frontier states in subregional initiatives is critical. In the backdrop of the prolonged suspicion harboured by the local population towards policies emanating from New Delhi, the practice of working together with a shared vision is a work in progress. In subregionalism, the role of provinces in regional diplomacy is emphasised.
Cooperative federalism could be an effective instrument in pushing forward cooperative subregionalism. The principle of cooperative federalism stresses the role and significance of provincial governments and taking along states in regional diplomacy. This also helps create relations between the bordering provinces of neighbouring countries to enter in initiatives for mutual benefits.
New Delhi’s strategy of involving its partners in the subregional development and security is a departure from the past policy of keeping external actors out of its neighbourhood. The growing convergence of strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region has opened new areas for Japan and India to coordinate closely in these subregions, particularly in the development of infrastructure in India’s Northeast and cross-border transportation projects to boost connectivity between India and its neighbours.
As India pushes its subregional approach further, it is imperative for the development of frontier regions such as the Northeast as it forms an integral part of India’s subregional strategy and plays a critical role in the effective implementation of cross-border initiatives.
The author is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a New Delhi-based public policy think tank.