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FEATURE: C Raja Mohan: South Asia is more concerned with ideology than practicality

According to Raja Mohan, India’s foreign policy has been largely about four broad concerns – the neighbourhood, the expanded neighbourhood, the international system that is changing fundamentally, and the great power relations.

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Updated: February 10, 2020

C Raja Mohan is a practical man. As a foreign policy and geopolitical analyst, he believes that states should be driven by pragmatism, but South Asia, the region that he has long observed as a foreign policy analyst, has long been driven by ideology. And that has been its misfortune.

Raja Mohan is in Kathmandu for the Kantipur Conclave and we sit down for tea and coffee at Hyatt, where he is staying. As Raja Mohan is director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, we decide to focus more on South Asian geopolitics, admittedly at his insistence.

“There’s no shortage of domestic issues in the region so there’s no point going there,” he says. “I’d rather focus on the region.”

I figure it is best to begin with the biggest geopolitical actor in the region—India, and more specifically, its relations with its neighbours. After pursuing a ‘neighbourhood first’ policy in his first term, Narendra Modi’s relations with his neighbours have become much more fraught. Besides perpetual foe Pakistan, many Bangladeshis, despite Dhaka’s assurances, have taken issue with the Indian government’s Citizenship Amendment Act while Nepal has protested India’s inclusion of Kalapani, a territory that Nepal claims, inside Indian borders in its new map issued after the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.

“I don’t see much of a change in the first and second terms in the foreign policy of the Modi government,” says Raja Mohan. “Foreign policy has a logic of its own that doesn’t change with governments. The broad directions were set right when he [Modi] came in, which is a continuation of the previous foreign policies but with a bolder touch and a greater freedom to maneuver domestically.”

According to Raja Mohan, India’s foreign policy has been largely about four broad concerns—the neighbourhood, the expanded neighbourhood, the international system that is changing fundamentally, and the great power relations. These four concerns all coalesce around one particularly significant state—China.

As a rising great power, China is making inroads into South Asia and its actions are largely changing the international status quo. When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Nepal in October, there was much hand-wringing in the Indian press. After all, India has long been considered the most influential foreign actor in Nepal.

“China is making inroads everywhere, from New Zealand to Latin America, so it’s not a shocking thing that it is making advances in South Asia,” says Raja Mohan. “As the second largest economy and a country with a purposeful state, the Chinese advance is a part of our life that everyone has to deal with, for good or bad.”

But can a small country like Nepal afford to get caught up in a tug-of-war between two giant neighbours, I attempt to ask. But Raja Mohan stops me.

“What is your definition of small?” he asks me instead. “In terms of population, you are a reasonably sized country. The world is full of small states but Nepal is not one of them. Smallness is in the mind.”

I am at once reminded of Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s seminal essay, ‘Ke Nepal sano chha?’, although I doubt Raja Mohan is making a purposeful reference. He’s not wrong. With a population of 30 million, Nepal is certainly not small, but in comparison to the billions to the north and the billions to the south, it can certainly feel a little tiny.

China, despite being a large neighbour to the north, has long refrained from actively engaging with Nepal. But now, China is funding multiple projects across the country; Chinese tourists are arriving in droves; and Chinese aid is growing larger every year. Nepal has also signed up to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, under which, it hopes to get a railway line that will connect Lhasa to Kathmandu.

China’s push to build infrastructure across South Asia reflects this region’s glaring shortcoming—it is one of the least connected regions in the world. Raja Mohan has acknowledged this but the more important question to ask is why, he says.

The obvious answer, of course, is Partition. But Raja Mohan provides a subtle critique of the region’s failure to integrate.

“The economic choices we made have led to South Asia becoming less integrated than other regions,” he says. “Political partition need not have been followed by economic partition.”

The nation-states of this region all chose socialism as their economic policy, and socialism in ward looking, which reduced the value of connection, says Raja Mohan.

“Socialism means you choose to develop on your own, disconnected from everybody else,” he says. “India chose the socialist path of import substitution, discounting the importance of exports. Pakistan under Bhutto became socialist, Sri Lanka was socialist, Mujib was a socialist. The choice of economic strategy led to disconnection.”

And this disconnection is evident in the functioning of the regional body—the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which hasn’t held its summit since 2016. India appears to have given up on SAARC and is now pursuing smaller sub-regional groupings, including the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) group.

“We have to go with what we have, unless you want to argue that either everything goes together or nothing does,” says Raja Mohan. “If India-Bangladesh can advance bilaterally, we shouldn’t stop it because we are married to SAARC. Pakistan made a choice that they would rather integrate with China and not with India. That’s a sovereign political choice and we have to respect it. But we cannot say we are not going to do anything without Pakistan.”

According to Raja Moham, South Asia is too focused on the form when it should be focussed on the function. This assessment is in play right now in Nepal, with the debate over the US’ Millennium Challenge Corporation Nepal Compact, where politicians and analysts all seem to focus on the form, without really understanding the content.

“The Americans are not going to die if you don’t take money from them,” says Raja Mohan. “It’s Nepal’s sovereign right to decide. But the trick is to ask, does it benefit me? Or are you just going to ask, how does it affect the US-China relationship?”

In this context, the Chinese are eminently pragmatic, he says. They haven’t let ideology get in the way of doing business. The world’s biggest trade relationship is between the US and China.

“When Deng Xiaoping opened up China, they had no objections to taking money from the Americans. So why should Nepal?” says Raja Mohan. “Saying that money from the Americans is bad and money from the Chinese is good is an ideological argument, not a practical argument. Money is fungible.”

Raja Mohan is talking realpolitik but I am afraid that thinking solely in terms of self-interest could be dangerous. Is there no line to be drawn when it comes to money? For all its ills, Nepal is steadfastly democratic. Can Nepal afford to compromise on its values in the face of ready cash?

“It is not up to an outsider like me to lecture Nepal on what it should or shouldn’t do,” says Raja Mohan. “But it’s not about democracy; it’s about sovereignty. The US might think that Tibetans need to be offered some protection but Nepal might think otherwise. That’s a choice you make and deal with the consequences.”

This is a calculation that all states must make, outweighing the risks against the benefits. Even America, which claims to stand for democracy across the world, has to make adjustments when it comes to a country like Saudi Arabia, says Raja Mohan. What he is effectively saying is that Nepal needs to learn to make compromises and that perhaps practicality should take precedence over ideology.

“If there is one big difference between East Asia and South Asia, it is that East Asians are pragmatic,” he says. “They are focused on outcomes, not on ideology. China and Vietnam are supposed to be communist but they have both dealt with the world on a practical basis.”

Despite all that South Asia shares between its eight countries, it has remained a deeply divided region, much more so than any other region in the world. While other regions have been successful, to varying degrees, in creating a pan-African, European, or Latin American identity, South Asia remains largely compartmentalised. The magazine Himal Southasian has long argued in favour of a ‘Southasian’ identity. Does such a thing even exist?

“If you go from Kathmandu to Anuradhapura, or from Peshawar to Chittagong, you can see so much commonality,” says Raja Mohan. “There is a common civilisational heritage, but we need to recognise that the region has also evolved. There’s expansion and contraction. There was a time when Burma was part of undivided India, the Mughal empire stretched to Central Asia, and the links between Iran and India were deep.”

South Asia can have a common identity but we shouldn’t be bound by geography. Borders, despite all efforts, remain porous. Cultures cannot be contained and identities are always expanding.

“We shouldn’t be fixated on the eight countries,” says Raja Mohan. “BIMSTEC is five South Asian countries plus Myanmar and Thailand. The China-supported BCIM corridor brings southwestern Yunnan into the region. Tibet is close to Nepal; Xinjiang has a lot of commonalities with Afghanistan and Pakistan; Pakistan wants to work with Turkey and Iran. South Asia as defined by SAARC is just one identity. The region must look both inside and outside to flexible forms of cooperation.”


Pranaya SJB Rana is Features Editor for The Kathmandu Post.

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The Kathmandu Post
About the Author: The Kathmandu Post was Nepal’s first privately owned English broadsheet daily and is currently the country's leading English-language newspaper.

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