South Asian small states like Nepal and Bhutan do not engage in bandwagoning with Beijing and New Delhi. They have discarded attempts of Beijing and New Delhi to drag them into their military perimeter
Most international relations theories view the world and the politics that surrounds it through materialistic Eurocentric lens. They measure the politics and foreign policy of global south in the standard set by the Euro-centric discipline and keep politics, foreign policy choices and the worldview of smaller states under the shadowed corner of global political calculations. Realistic school of International Relations led by Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer and Randall Schwedler argues that small nations like Nepal would either bandwagon or balance against the powerful neighboring states. But the history and politics of South Asian countries show a different trajectory.
In this article, I examine why the policy of south Asian smaller states (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka) prevents themselves from falling in this Eurocentric norms of balance and bandwagon (‘balance’ and ‘bandwagon’ considered in this article is all-inclusive to the military/state security point of view).
Many south Asian states have evolved through common cultural and linguistic affinity, which made them historically closer in terms of worldview, political literacy, food, language, and religion. India has been selling this soft power along with the hard economic power to attract smaller south Asian states closer to its eco-strategic frame. Construction of the oil pipeline to Nepal, which India considered as a significant success, the BBIN initiative, border agreement with Bangladesh, and the investment in the hydropower in Bhutan are some successful initiatives.
On the other hand, the Chinese interest in Indian Ocean and its security interest in the southern Himalayan states like Nepal and Bhutan made use both of its hard economic and soft power to provide the option to these smaller nations who occasionally suffer from India’s inconsideration. Construction of the roads and airports in Nepal, Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, Gwadar port in Pakistan, and economic connectivity through Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are projects that China is bringing forward. Even though liberals and realist debate about the future strategic outcomes of such projects, smaller countries in the global south have nothing to do with the significant discussions of whether such projects were intended for power projection or the mutual economic growth. To be more precise, the view of smaller states does not hold much significance in international power politics.
Despite the presence of the economic and soft incentive offered by the two neighboring powers of the region, only Pakistan has joined a hard balancing against India. Other South Asian countries have engaged in complex bargaining to gain economic assistance from both India and China.
Here is why.
First, the development deficit that most South Asian countries are facing needs multilateral support for the rapid physical and economic growth. In this context, if the states concentrate their attention toward high politics, they would risk losing the track and the aspiration of the people for rapid and horizontal development. This developmental pressure prevents smaller South Asian countries from pursuing a balancing strategy. The fear of being left out from the regional and bilateral economic growth also plays as a push factor for such states to engage in the regional or bilateral economic negotiation and initiatives even though the power imbalances remain high.
Second, South Asian states have been successful in exploiting the fear of both India and China, which are concerned about smaller South Asian countries joining a coalition with their opponent in the future.The exploitation of this fear has been developed as a strategy for the extraction of economic resources from them but not to balance against these powerful neighbors, which is helping South Asian countries muster considerable economic support from both India and China without forming a military alliance with them. We should not forget that during the Cold War, similar smaller states wishing to receive economic incentives from the big power had to compromise their sovereignty by allowing the military base for the superpower. Pakistan, Israel and South Korea are examples of this.
Third, balancing itself is a delicate and a dangerous job for the smaller states. According to the realists, many smaller states with less economic and military resources find balancing more difficult as it might drain the country’s national resources. Nor the political rivalry between India and China is so intense for South Asian countries to make the hard balance against them. The surprising thing is that smaller states of South Asia do not engage in bandwagoning with Beijing and New Delhi. Smaller countries have discarded many attempts of Beijing and New Delhi to drag them into their military and security perimeter. Nepal’s rejection of the BIMSTEC military drill offered by India, Sri Lanka’s denial of China’s request to dock its submarine on its port, and Maldives’ cancellation of GMR airport projects are some examples.
Fourth, geographical factor also prevents countries like Nepal and Bhutan from going against the traditional strategic partner India. The massive trade and transit dependence on India prevents Himalayan countries like Nepal from acting against Indian interests. Geopolitics does not allow Nepal to play this high game, whereas India’s strong influence on the defense and foreign policy of Bhutan does not provide space for Bhutan to think twice.
Thus, the principle of balance and bandwagon does not apply in politics of South Asian states. South Asian countries are instead drawing a substantial amount of economic investment by exploiting the limited competition between China and India in the economic globalization. The autonomy and various factors affecting the decision-making process in South Asian smaller states result in these states making a rational choice that suits the geographical space they occupy in the world.
Smaller countries are gaining special asymmetrical opportunities in the Indo-Chinese economic race in economic globalization without being engaged in the military balancing against either of the big powers.
The author is Doctoral Candidate at Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi