The South Asia cooperation conundrum

The South Asia cooperation conundrum

While, historically, India's bilateral relations with other South Asian countries have been unsteady, the past year has seen some tangible improvement.


  • Developments on waterways and energy between India and its neighbours demonstrate that regional engagement is both feasible and mutually beneficial.

  • India's relationship with the core BBIN group is finally shifting to a position in which it acts multilaterally.

  • The 2019 Modi government's domestic focus have raised concerns within South Asia.

  • Enhancing regional trade would serve to stimulate the health of South Asia's economy.

When first elected in 2014, PM Narendra Modi made a point of inviting leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to his inauguration. India's foreign policy has long shifted between a view that its global standing stems from its own significance, or because of its regional - and potentially-beneficial - hegemony. 2014 gave hopes that the latter view might prevail. While tension with Pakistan rapidly ended hopes that this cooperation may be facilitated through SAARC itself, functional engagement within a sub-region of South Asia has been significantly improved. Two areas stand out. India now trades electricity with Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal. In addition, the creation of a truly regional grid is under discussion, with 2019 witnessing the start of conversations between India, Nepal and Bangladesh about exporting Nepalese power to Bangladesh through the Indian grid.

The second issue on which progress is being made is on waterways. Historically, South Asia's rivers were a key conduit of goods across the region. Most of this trade stopped, however, after partition. The benefits of reviving links are manifold, not least reducing the number of trucks on India's roads. The benefits for North East India, in particular, of accessing India via Bangladesh will be substantial. Again, India, Nepal and Bangladesh are developing protocols, along with inland ports, to enable an expansion in inland shipping both within and between countries.

In many respects, hopes that regional cooperation could be at a “South Asian” level were always aspirational given the relationship between India and Pakistan. But put another way, if India couldn't demonstrate some benefits of working with Nepal and Bangladesh - its less contentious neighbours - hopes for some future cooperation with Pakistan, were the political environment to improve, would be minute. But by 2019, two important areas of engagement - waterways and energy - are in different stages of development and demonstrating that regional engagement is both feasible and mutually beneficial.

By the time of the 2019 election - won in part by India bombing Pakistan - self-evidently SAARC is, at best, in abeyance. This year, Modi invited leaders from the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). This excludes Pakistan, along with Afghanistan from the SAARC grouping, but adds in Myanmar and Thailand.

BIMSTEC's limitations are manifest, most notably its remit is too wide, and its resources too few. But India continues to signal the virtue of regional organisations, and its relationship with the core BBIN group (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) is finally shifting to a position in which it acts multilaterally rather than, as was historically the case, bilaterally. Given its size vis-à-vis its neighbours, its motivations in bilateral discussions were frequently questioned outside of India. This shift remains positive.

But the 2019 Modi government has undoubtedly been domestically focussed, and many of its domestic moves have raised concerns within South Asia. While Bangladesh's official comments regarding India's citizenship bill have been relatively low key, there is increasing alarm at the potential implications of the bill, given that many of those who would potentially lose their citizenship will presumably be assumed to be from that country.

These political events could potentially undermine India's stated aspirations for BIMSTEC. Myanmar's crackdown on the Rohingya has resulted in almost one million moving to make-shift camps in Bangladesh with obvious political ramifications.

The role of China in South Asia is also evolving. The Maldives and Sri Lanka have rotated between (relatively) pro-Indian and pro-Chinese leaders. The Maldives is currently pro-Indian, while Sri Lanka's new leadership was, when earlier in government, pro-Chinese. Nepal and Bangladesh are both relatively balanced, but all have signed up to China's Belt and Road Initiative.

While at times India has sought to limit Chinese influence in its region, it would seem fairer for India to view its neighbours' engagement with China as completely understandable. It is in each of its neighbour's interests to ensure that Chinese projects are economically viable, and that they do not lead to unsustainable debts. But with that caveat, China's ability to construct infrastructure is unquestioned. India's continued construction of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, which commenced in 2001, merely highlights its difficulties in doing so.

So how does India's scorecard read Politically, many of its bilateral relations face difficulties. The 2015 “blockade” remains a recent memory in Nepal; the citizenship bill troubles Bangladesh and the Chinese-liking Rajapaksa family are back in power in Colombo. And yet, at other times when the “politics” has been more positive, little tangible progress has been made to enhance regional or even bilateral cooperation. In recent years, and at times despite the politics, tangible cooperation has started to emerge. South Asia remains one of the least integrated parts of the world, but the trend is upwards. Of course, the trend could reverse, but the longer electricity, for instance, flows between India and Nepal, the greater the trust generated. Better integrated regions are, generally speaking, wealthier than those that are not.

Given South Asia's economic slowdown, enhancing regional trade would serve to stimulate the health of the region's economy. While it seems that domestic concerns are likely to dominate, were India's government to divert its focus from defining India's citizenry to improving the well-being of its people, expediting regional integration would be one route to follow.

Dr Gareth Price is Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme at Chatham House.

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