Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli (left) chats with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 21, 2018. Photo: AFP  / Pool / Greg Baker
Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli (left) chats with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 21, 2018. Photo: AFP / Pool / Greg Baker

Despite one “muscular diplomatic” debacle after another, India has been unrelenting in its bullying attitude toward its small and weak neighbors. India is imposing another economic blockade on a third South Asian country, Maldives.

In 1981, India and Maldives mutually agreed on the quantity of supplies of essential commodities to the republic. However, the office of India’s Foreign Trade Directorate General issued a notice on June 20 this year that curtailed 50-94% of the supply of food items. The unilateral curtailment of food supplies runs counter to the spirit of articles VIII and IX of the 1981 agreement. It is yet another economic sanction imposed by India on Maldives in reaction to latter’s growing engagement with China in recent years.

After assuming office in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited all of India’s neighbors in South Asian except Maldives. Although his visit to the island republic was scheduled for March 2015, he canceled it unilaterally, and Indian media quoted sources in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) that his visit was canceled because of Maldivian political turmoil. However, the real reason was Maldives’ increasing rendezvous with China.

A free-trade agreement (FTA) was signed between Maldives and China on December 8, 2017, during Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen’s four-day state visit to China. It was Maldives’ first FTA with any country and China’s second with a South Asian country, after Pakistan. Last December, the Maldivian parliament endorsed the FTA with China, and the pro-Indian opposition boycotted the vote.

In return for China’s backing, Yameen assured China of full support for its ambitious Maritime Silk Road, which is an integral part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

It seems that the power struggle within the domestic political spectrum of Maldives is to some degree between India and China. After the full backing of China, the Maldivian president removed the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Maldives, and suspended three local councilors who had called on the Indian ambassador. Some Indians believe that Maldives would not have dared rebuff India in a manner they never imagined without China’s full backing.

It is important to note why Maldives took these steps. In reality, Maldives was losing patience with Indian snooping in minor domestic politics and Indian ambassadors’ behavior toward its political leaders.

Nepal’s experience

Three years back, Nepal’s Constituent Assembly drafted and finalized a constitution in mid-September 2015, and the date was fixed to promulgate it. The constitution was approved by more than 85% of the assembly members.

Three days before the constitution was proclaimed, India sent its foreign secretary at the time, Subramanya Jaishanker, as the Indian prime minister’s special envoy to Kathmandu to seek postponement of the decree. The foreign minister of Nepal at that time, Narayan Kaji Shrestha, and other leaders disclosed that Jaishanker behaved undiplomatically and insolently and his tone of voice was threatening and obnoxious. However, Nepal’s political leadership politely rejected his proposal, and the constitution was declared on September 20, 2015.

Then India imposed an economic blockade on Nepal that lasted for five months. Some 2,500 people, among them the elderly and children, lost their lives because of pneumonia and asthma triggered by the shortage of fuel. India sent a seven-point agenda to amend the constitution of Nepal and also leaked it to the press. The text of Nepali Madhesis’ demands and India’s officially sent demand had exactly the same wording.

On December 8, 2015, United Nations agencies and their donors issued a joint statement in which they expressed their “deepest concern” over the severity of the shortage of lifesaving drugs, food and other essential supplies throughout Nepal. However, India did not lift the sanction despite the looming humanitarian crisis.

In response to the Indian blockade, Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli made plans to visit Beijing to sign a trade and transit treaty with China in March 2016 that would eventually end the Indian monopoly of Nepal’s access to maritime routes. Then India invited Oli to visit Delhi quickly, and before his visit, it lifted the economic blockade. Indian media and foreign-policy experts accused Nepal of a tilt toward China, but they overlooked the fact that India had long been pushing Nepal toward China. After Nepal signed the trade and transit treaty with China, India started innocuous diplomatic dealings with Nepal.

Bhutan’s experience

This is not the whole story of Indian muscular diplomacy. India curtailed a subsidy for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) between the first and second rounds of Bhutanese general elections in 2013. As a result, the ruling party of Jigme Thinley lost the general election, as India wanted. India resumed the LPG subsidy with little explanation later on. It had removed the LPG subsidy in reaction to Thinley’s meeting with the Chinese leadership without prior consultation with India and wanted his electoral defeat.

Similarly, the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, relinquished the throne in 2006 voluntarily to his eldest son after ruling for 34 years. However, some analysts believe that India forced him to abdicate as he wanted to develop independent foreign relations with neighboring countries.

Now, many Bhutanese think that India’s actions were undue meddling in their country’s internal affairs. As a result, during the Doklam standoff between India and China last year, many Bhutanese became anti-India because of the overbearing behavior of New Delhi.

Indian political leaders, its foreign-policy regime, and media should change their mindsets and stop treating neighboring countries as administrative units of New Delhi. India needs to be mindful that these countries are sovereign and the people of these countries are masters of their wishes.

India is losing its traditional allies one after another in its neighborhood because of a myopic policy of “muscular diplomacy.” India always underestimates the sovereignty of its neighbors and overlooks the principles of peaceful coexistence.

India’s neighbors want to develop a warm and hospitable relationship with China, as it is a rule-maker in current global governance and the second-largest economy in the world. India is an unsuccessful South Asian regional player. Therefore, India needs to introspect past blunders and learn lessons from them.

The practical and productive way to conduct diplomacy is gentle persuasion and making offers, keeping the use of force and threats at a bay. “Muscular diplomacy” is obsolete, and continuing its use has instead been pushing India’s neighbors further toward China.

Bhim Bhurtel teaches Development Economics and Global Political Economy in the Master's program at Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at

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