Constantino Xavier holds a Phd in South Asian studies from Johns Hopkins University. Currently a Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings India, Xavier is writing a book on India’s crisis response and involvement in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. He is also researching the challenges of connectivity and security across the South Asian and Indian Ocean regions. A close observer of South Asian geopolitics, Xavier sat down with Biswas Baral and Kamal Dev Bhattarai to discuss growing Indo-Pak tensions, the Asia Pacific Strategy and India’s relationship with Nepal.
How do you view the recent terrorist attacks in Kashmir and developments in Indo-Pak relations since?
No doubt it is going to escalate. We do not know how India will retaliate. War is a big word, and there are many ways in which these two countries can go about it.
Is there a possibility of a repetition of the 2016 ‘surgical strikes’?
Surgical strikes, cross-border strikes, sanctions, mobilizations—there are all kinds of options before India.
What would be the regional implications of this conflict?
It is certainly not good for SAARC as the regional body has not moved ahead in the past four years because of tensions between India and Pakistan. With the tensions flaring up again, the process of reactivating SAARC will be further delayed. Nepal has been pushing for the SAARC Summit, and other member countries have become increasingly impatient because it is an important regional organization, in fact the most important in South Asia. And regionalism cannot be made hostage to bilateral relations. That has happened with SAARC. With other organizations like BIMSTEC, it has not.
Despite the tensions over Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh and Myanmar have continued to cooperate in BIMSTEC. I know India often faces criticism vis-à-vis SAARC. There are three or four instances when India tried to push regional cooperation through SAARC, including the SAARC motor vehicle agreement, a SAARC satellite and a transit corridor though India and Afghanistan. On all three issues, Pakistan consistently blocked the way.
That is Pakistan’s right, but the way Pakistan has bilateralized issues has affected the SAARC process. At some point, India said enough is enough, we cannot let regional cooperation be hostage to these issues and we will have to look for alternatives. Regional cooperation is not a monopoly of SAARC. There is BIMSTEC, BBIN, the India-Nepal framework on hydropower and transportation, and some triangular mechanisms. So recent developments have not been good but they don’t also spell the end of regional cooperation.
Beyond SAARC, how does the tension between India and Pakistan affect this region geo-strategically?
To cooperate, you need to be connected. SAARC has been unsuccessful for so many years because it is not connected properly. Earlier, India was defensive and a closed economy. And Nepal could not connect with China. Now, you have those options. You can also help bring China into South Asia. Now, there is a new world of connectivity. This is very different to the security-centered conflict between India and Pakistan. I do not see the possibility of war between India and Pakistan; and I do not see military escalation affecting the connectivity corridor between Nepal and China, or between Nepal and the Bay of Bengal, or between Bhutan and Bangladesh.
India and Pakistan want other countries in the region to take their side, which makes people nervous. In 1962 when India and China fought a war, Sri Lanka said it would be neutral and mediate the dispute. China agreed but India was very upset. India said to Sri Lanka that since it is an immediate neighbor, it couldn’t be neutral, and that it should not try to be a mediator. India said it was a bilateral issue. As a result, relations between India and Sri Lanka suffered. So there will obviously be pressure. In 2016 when India pulled out of the SAARC summit, it expected support from other countries. Several countries in the region supported India. Since then, many countries including Nepal have been impatient and saying that SAARC must be reactivated.
In case of a conflict, while there will be pressure from Delhi to take sides, no one is under any illusion that Nepal will give in. Sometimes, India also faces pressure from China and America to choose sides. It’s the same with Nepal. As an immediate neighbor, Nepal will have special consideration for India’s position, but it also has good relations with Pakistan, which it doesn’t want to spoil. Frankly, no one will really care. Smaller countries have learned to hedge their bets.
In your view will the national elections in India this year change its Nepal policy?
I hear in Kathmandu that the BJP, the Congress and various Indian communist parties have different policies on Nepal. Fundamentally, I do not think it matters much which party is in power in New Delhi. The broad lines of India’s Nepal policy are clear. Its main objectives like connectivity, interdependence, support for Nepal’s development will not change. You now have a strong and stable government in Nepal after 20 years of instability. I think New Delhi is clear that it has to engage with the government led by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli. There is a good relationship between the two prime ministers, and between the two states and bureaucracies. So whoever is the prime minister in New Delhi, there would be continuation in Indian foreign policy.
Do you think there has been a change in India’s Madhes policy after the blockade?
I do not have evidence to prove that the Indian state was complicit in the blockade. As a scholar, I can speak only on the basis of evidence and facts. What I can say is that the Indian government could have done more to help Nepal overcome the pain of the blockade.
Let’s assume India had no hand in the blockade. In that case, India could have supported Nepal. It could have airlifted essentials like food and fuel into Kathmandu. It did not. That hurt bilateral relations.
Let’s now assume that India had a role in the blockade, whatever the motive: support for the Madhesis, an inclusive constitution, etc. What instrument you use to pursue your interest is important. Do you use a blockade or diplomacy? Do you use pressure and what form of pressure? I think whatever happened, it left a bad aftertaste in bilateral relations. India learned that it has to respond to its neighbors’ demands and it cannot let neighboring countries develop anti-Indian feelings. So even if India had no role in the blockade, it could have done more to help Nepal during the humanitarian crisis.
How do you assess India’s current relationship with Madhesi parties?
The salience of the Madhes issue in bilateral relations has gone down. You see general statements about inclusiveness and diversity, but there are not prescriptive statements India used in 2015/2016 about what Nepal should be doing in terms of its constitutional and political arrangements. I think there is now a focus on delivering development assistance, implementing connectivity projects and diversifying outreach in Nepal beyond the usual groups of people who are friendly to India. No minority issue is permanently resolved. Every country has to continually work on diversity, bring in new people, redistribute. Even in post-war Sri Lanka, there is a continuous process of reassuring minority groups. Various minority groups in Nepal including the Madhesis want more rights. Generally speaking, India thinks nation-states need to be more inclusive.
Looking from New Delhi, how do you see the relationship between the communist government in Kathmandu and China?
China has always been around but its financial clout and emphasis on public diplomacy are relatively new, with a short history of just five to 10 years. All countries have to adjust to this new reality. I think India has gone through it. Now, India does not have a monopoly in this region. China is an immediate neighbor of Nepal. Often Beijing is portrayed as being far-away. But China is just across the border and is developing huge infrastructures on the border. Tibet is going to witness tremendous growth and infrastructure development. I think India is now focused on delivering because that is the only way it can pursue its interest. It does not have a special prerogative anymore. The best product is the cheapest, whatever Nepal gets it from. Nepal should pursue its national interest based on that. India’s clear focus now is on delivering more.
Is that because of pressure from China?
If you are a fan of connectivity in South Asia and believe Nepal and India should be more integrated and interdependent—in terms of infrastructure, roads, rails, inland waterways, airplane connectivity, data connectivity, educational exchanges, defense diplomacy—you have to ask why that didn’t happen in the past 70 years? Therefore ‘Thank you China!’ By coming into Nepal and developing that connectivity, China made India wake up to the importance of regional integration. India as the largest country in South Asia has a special responsibility in promoting connectivity. If Nepal wants connectivity with Bangladesh, it should have permission from India for the movement of trucks and data. It is in India’s interest to promote that, but it took China’s greater presence in South Asia for India to realize and speed up its investment in connectivity.
You have maintained that Nepal-India relations are still special, even though the idea of a special relationship is increasingly contested in Nepal.
On paper and in theory, every relationship is special and unique. Nepal-France relationship is special and unique. So is Nepal-Australia relationship. But I will speak to you realistically. As of today, geography, history and culture connect Nepal more to India than to China. Now, Nepal is saying it must change this and reconstitute linkages with China because it also has a long tradition of connectivity with China. Naturally, Nepal wants to diversify its options in order to reduce its dependence on India. At the same time, there still are elements that make Nepal-India relationship more unique and special. Even today, Nepali citizens are allowed to join the Indian civil service and armed forces based on the 1950 treaty.
Nepal could consider abrogating the treaty. But you have Nepali citizens serving as officers in the Indian air force. You cannot have Nepali citizens serving in the Chinese air force. In many ways, this is a vestige of the colonial era. The special treaty was signed on the behalf of British colonial players with the Kingdom of Nepal.
The open border is yet another aspect of the special relationship between Nepal and India. Again, it is up to Nepal to decide whether it wants to do away with this.
How does India see the greater engagement of western powers in South Asian countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka?
The US opened its embassy in Kathmandu in 1959. It then started providing development aid. It is still a big provider of development assistance to Nepal. The long history of US-Nepal relationship is independent of US-India, US-China or China-India relationship. In fact, India was opposed to the US entering Nepal because it thought that would create tensions with the Chinese. India advised the US not to open an embassy in Kathmandu as that would encourage the Chinese to follow suit. There was cold war rivalry. But now the world has changed. Nepal is one of the dynamic economies in South Asia, and it has a young population. Up to the 1970s, Nepali students used to go to Calcutta or Delhi to study. Today they are also going to China, Singapore, Australia and Korea to work, study and teach. This is a different world that India has to adjust to. Now, India and China are working together in third countries. For example, India and China are jointly training diplomats in Afghanistan.
US interest has always been there in Nepal. The way the US looks at Nepal aligns more closely with the way India or Japan looks at Nepal than with how China looks at Nepal. That naturally creates coordination in policies. India, the US and Japan agree that Nepal needs open and free democratic institutions to develop sustainably.
Could you very briefly define the so-called Indo-Pacific Strategy?
The Indo-Pacific Strategy is a US document, one I doubt many people have read. It is a small security and strategic document, part of a larger approach called Indo-Pacific. Indo-Pacific is an alignment of worldviews and interests about how to manage security, growth, connectivity and development in larger Asia. You cannot separate these. People ask if it is all about security; yes it is also about security. This are similarities of views on the best ways to manage Asia, in particular as a response to the Chinese view. Again, ‘Thank you, China!’ I have to say because by developing the Belt and Road Initiative and thanks to its larger outreach across Asia and Euro Asia, it has also highlighted the need to develop alternatives.
You will be surprised. The biggest Indo-Pacific proponents often are not in the US, Japan or India. They are rather in countries like Sri Lanka and Malaysia that are now flooded with Chinese investment. They want India-Japan and other coordination mechanisms as alternatives. You do not want to depend on one country. There is an interest in balancing China. Many South Asian countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as well as South East Asian countries want more of India. You have to deliver. The Indo-Pacific Strategy is not a security alliance, it is not about containing China, it is not about defense. It is about having alternatives.
Alternatives give you freedom and autonomy. If I depend on a single partner, whether it is India, China or the US, I am hostage to that partner. By having more partners, I gain greater bargaining power. That is why India still maintains a very good relationship with Russia, and the US is upset with it. The current impulse in Nepal is to focus on China, its next-door neighbor and the second strongest power in this world. Similarly, China here is taken as a reliable partner that has delivered in the past decade and it is ready to do more. While there is this inclination in Nepal, there is a case to be made to diversify. You should always keep your options open.
While our Foreign Minister was in Washington, the US State Department issued a statement that put Nepal at the ‘center’ of the Indo-Pacific. How do we understand this?
It means that when the United States talks about the Indo-Pacific and India, it is talking not only about maritime countries. It is talking about countries which have an interest in a free and open Pacific. This means bilateral relations based on transparency, mutually agreed-upon rules and sovereignty.