Nurturing the neighbours

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India is trying to build sustainable relationships in it periphery, writes NOEL G DESOUZA

Standard & Poor is at its old game again. This time it has latched onto vague ideas that India faces a financial slowdown, and the agency has threatened to downgrade India’s rating. This is the same rating agency which took years before reluctantly giving India a medium rating. Meanwhile, it had consistently given European countries high ratings when many of them were nearly insolvent.

Around the same time, TIME magazine, quoting the IMF (International Monetary Fund) told a different story. It said that the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) had a GDP growth of 8% in 2010 which had slowed to 6% in 2012, whereas for the USA the figures were 3% to 2% and for the Eurozone it was 2% to –0.3%.

What is intriguing about Standard & Poor is that this threat was published just when India’s Finance Minister Pranab Mukerjee was being touted as its next President. There have been attacks on the Standard & Poor threat by Indian commentators. At last, one would say! At that time a few Indian politicians like Mamata Banerjee were proposing that the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should be the next President.

Manmohan Singh has dedicated himself to strengthening India’s relationship with its periphery, which firstly encompasses its neighbours with whom it has common boundaries (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma and China). But there exist others some distance away with which it has had historical and cultural relationships, such as Afghanistan, the Gulf States and Iran on the one side, and Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia on the other side.

The U.S. Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta has been having talks with Manmohan Singh concerning regional security and defence. India is important with regards to the Indian Ocean, as it is the largest navy in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. There is a shift of US naval forces from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, where Panetta has signalled that six aircraft carriers will be based. These events should be viewed in the backdrop of the South China Sea which China claims as its own, against the other claimants which include Vietnam, the Phillipines and Taiwan.

The USA is calling India a global power. Captain John Kirby of the US Department of Defence says, “India is a global power, and they are meeting their responsibilities and we welcome that …”

India has been building its naval resources in recent years. This has received much media attention particularly after the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai which were launched from the sea. Dasgupta and Cohen’s book Arming without Aiming (published in 2010), lauded India’s successful naval modernisation, but it was critical that this success was not underpinned by any stated aims. India’s official stance is that its navy is being used for peaceful purposes such as fighting piracy and to bring stability to the region. Dasgupta and Cohen’s book was published two years ago. India’s stand is now becoming clear.

This does not mean that India is a military alliance with the USA against anybody. In March this year India hosted the meeting of the BRICS leaders: Presidents Dilma Rousseff, Dmitry Medvedev, Manmohan Singh, Hu Jintao and Jacob Zuna. These include some of the world’s most populous countries.

Manmohan Singh met Myanmar’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi after a meeting in Yangon, and invited her to deliver the next  Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture in India. Suu Kyi has accepted the invitation, hoping to visit India before long. Singh announced that India has opened a $500 million line of credit from which Myanmar can draw; India is interested in getting energy resources from Burma.

The Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith, calls India a “natural maritime partner” of Australia, while pointing out that Indonesia is emerging as not just a regional, but a global influence. India, Indonesia and Australia have maritime co-operation agreements. Indonesia shares a common maritime boundary with India north of the island of Sumatra and the Andaman-Nicobar Archipelago. Significantly, Indonesia refers to the Indian Ocean as Samudra Hindia.

India’s relationship with the Middle East goes back centuries. The Middle East is the gateway to Europe. Maritime trade, based on the current reversals in the Arabian Sea, existed since the times of King Solomon. Today the Gulf States are hosts to thousands of Indians and other subcontinentals who make valuable financial contributions to their mother countries. India has no military presence, unlike Pakistan, in those countries, but its navy patrols the Arabian Sea to prevent piracy.

India’s periphery thus stretches over a a considerable swath between Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and Manmohan Singh has been busy building up relationships within its confines.