China has been gaining significantly in India’s neighbourhood and at India’s cost. Pre-occupied as we are with unprecedented internal schisms, setbacks in our external relations have not caught public attention. That only adds to the gravity of the diplomatic failures. To see how grievous they are, a glance is enough at the way we walked into a mess in Mongolia, alienated the Nepalese people and lost opportunities in Iran, all in the course of about a year.
Considering China’s not-so-friendly moves against India of late, it looked like a smart move when Prime Minister Modi began sending some signals to Beijing. One was his visit to Mongolia in 2015. A bolder step followed last November when the Dalai Lama was encouraged to visit Mongolia.
China went livid with anger. Unlike in the past, China was now a big player asserting its power across the globe and having its way in almost all its strategic moves. It responded to the Mongolia-Dalai Lama-India tactic by virtually blockading Mongolia’s transportation lifelines. Mountainous Mongolia is a landlocked country, sandwiched between Russia and China and dependent almost wholly on truck traffic through Chinese (Inner Mongolia) territory. To block this traffic is like strangling Mongolia.
The hapless country’s first move was to appeal to India for help. No doubt it remembered the promise of $1 billion PM Modi had made during his visit. The pledge had not moved beyond the announcement stage and access to it at this juncture would mean considerable relief to Mongolia. Our foreign ministry responded to the friendly country’s SOS by saying that it was working “to implement the credit line”. Apparently nothing happened. Unable to wait, Mongolia apologised to China and said it would never welcome the Dalai Lama on its soil again. China promptly resumed talks for a $4.2 billion loan to Mongolia.
Now look at what happened when Nepal, another landlocked country, was blockaded from the Indian side in September 2015. India was insensitive to Nepalese sovereignty from Jawaharlal Nehru’s days. The proprietorial attitude with which Indian Embassy officials in Kathmandu conducted themselves is part of foreign service lore. After Kingdom gave way to democracy in Nepal, India should have adjusted its approach. But it did not. It sat back and watched as Indian-origin Madhesis of Nepal’s plains blockaded roads from India to Nepal to back their demand for special status in Nepal’s new constitution. Daily life in Nepal was derailed.
What did China do? Within a month of the blockade, it rushed 1.3 million litres of petrol to Nepal as a grant, the first time in history that fuel from a source other than India reached Nepal. Steps were also taken to establish “regular and long-term trade” in petroleum between the two countries.
Looking far ahead as is its wont, China began work on several projects—Nepal’s access to Chinese ports for exports to third countries, free-trade agreement with duty-free access for Nepalese goods to China, upgrading nine roads from Tibet to Nepal, scheduling a railway line to reach Nepal by 2022. Geography will force Nepal to depend on India for many things, but the little Himalayan country is unlikely to feel helpless in a future crisis.
With Iran, too, India has a long history of unimaginative relations. Manmohan Singh, with his inexplicable closeness to George Bush, implicitly obeyed US-sponsored sanctions against Iran. Even when the US position changed under Barack Obama, Delhi did not get the message. In January last year, Iran’s ambassador to India felt constrained to say: “In my three years as ambassador I have often been advised by Delhi to be patient with big India-Iran projects. Does India want to wait for centuries before capturing the right opportunities?”
Sometime after that unusual reprimand, India formally approved the $150 million Chabahar project to develop the strategic Iranian port, including a transit route to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan. The political-economic importance of such a port cannot be overstated. Yet, there is no report of any significant progress. Meanwhile, 72 km away, China has already set up the Gwadar port in Baluchistan. China has been busy in Iran itself, ignoring the sanctions. It has set up steel mills, constructed Tehran’s metro system and is progressing with a massive elevated expressway. In February last year, the first freight train from China’s eastern province reached Teheran after a 14-day, 10,000-km journey along the old Silk Road route.
There is a saying in China: “It is not enough to succeed; others must fail”. Evidently, others agree.