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‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy: More Despair Than Hope – Analysis

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In last 30 years the People’s Republic of China has made tremendous growth in its strength and capability in each and every field of diplomacy-economic, defence, science and technology, infrastructure, communication, industries-hard and soft and as a result narrowed down its status gap with the US from 20 times in 1990 to the present 1.5.

In comparison, another rival power of China in South Asia, India has, although developed in every respect, in the relative power of China in South Asia and beyond, it is lagging behind. In Indian context it is good to say that the country has gained self-dependency in several fields, in resources and Chinese geostrategic blueprints, it has reached at the point of saturation in bilateral relationship with neighbours or say with member-countries of SAARC. In addition, viewing Beijing’ growing powers at regional and global levels, India’s neighbours have began responding in China’s favour and against Indian interests and objectives in the region. 

Relations with Bhutan and Nepal

To say frankly, in the whole region South Asia Bhutan is the single country who has not signed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and with whom New Delhi has a security agreement. In pursuance India sent there its troops in 2017 to defend its interests and road construction in the Doklam area was stopped by the interference of Indian army and deadlock remained for 73- long days between India and China. Although, there too, China sent a high-level delegation in 2018 to convince Bhutan that the construction of ongoing road in the Doklam region is in the interest of Thimpu. All other countries of South Asia are well aware of this fact and as a result smaller countries-Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Bangladesh have decided to remain silent about the conflict of India and China, or more precisely tilted towards Beijing. Thus, the situation for India is not only difficult but an alarming as well.

India and Nepal have centuries-old social, political, cultural, religious and historical relations which contributed a lot to maintain their good relations and India’s heavy investment in various sectors to boost Nepal’s over all development, even prior to the coming of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With the resumption of new regime again India showed generosity and Indian Prime Minister himself has visited four times in last six years.

In 2015 when Nepal faced a devastating earthquake but soon its effects evaporated when India imposed an informal economic blockade and gave China an opportunity to come forward for help. Despite frequent visits of top dignitaries from both sides and developments on trade and transit, understanding between the two on several bilateral issues remained poles apart. In a fresh, the Nepali parliament has approved a map in 2020 that include Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura, the Indian territory on Nepalese side. It’s a potential issue between the two, however, the two concluded the sixth meeting of Nepal-India Joint Commission in New Delhi on 15 January 2021 and discussed the issues of mutual benefit including the prevailing situation on pandemic Covid-19.

Relations with Sri Lanka and Maldives

Apart from geographical proximity with Sri Lanka the two have also century-old historical, ethnic and religious ties. Before coming of Modi in 2014, when the issue of Indian-origin Tamils was a hot national and global focus, the People’s Republic of China multiplied its economic and strategic investments in Sri Lanka. The improved situation in Sri Lanka and farsighted Chinese investments drew attention of New Delhi and both nations appeared determined to improve their relations. In February 2015, country’s newly elected President Sirisena undertook his first official visit to New Delhi and a return visit was paid by Indian Prime Minister after 28 years in March 2015, who also went to the northern province Jaffna.

Earlier the Opposition Parties of Sri Lanka had blamed the previous government for promoting and protecting Chinese interests, the Sirisena regime tried to maintain a balance between India and China by denying a submarine to dock on the occasion of China’s Belt and Road Initiative summit in 2017. The Indian Prime Minister during his second visit to Sri Lanka apart from reinforcing the traditional ties with Colombo planned to invest in Mattala airport in Hambantota district which will help New Delhi monitor Beijing’s growing activities in Sri Lanka.

One major plus point for India -Sri Lanka relations despite traditional issues and challenges, still New Delhi remained the single biggest trading partner of Sri Lanka with Free Trade Agreement (FTA), signed earlier and it is the right time for India to push for the early passage of the Economic and Technology Co-operation Agreement (ETCA) to help India to secure a place in Sri Lankan market. In addition, the deadly Easter suicide bombings in Colombo in April 2019 in which more than 250 people had lost their life and over 500 injured, India and Colombo can help each other on containing terrorism and Modi government can deepen India’s investments in Sri Lankan security sector. But Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election in 2019 as the President of Sri Lanka signalled again a good day for Chinese in the country.

Of all the South Asian countries, Maldives, is strategically more important for India because it is located in the Indian Ocean region. The first scheduled visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March 2015 was postponed due to internal disturbances in the country, however, later in April 2016 the Abdullah Yameen, the former President of Maldives visited New Delhi and exchanged agreements between the two countries on defence, taxation, tourism, conservation of masques, and space research.

Earlier to this a major breakthrough came in relations between Maldives and China when Chinese President Xi Jinping paid an official visit in 2014 and Maldives came in support of Chinese ambitious Belt and Road Initiative and, in return, Maldives got found several developmental projects. In December 2016 the Government of Maldives also gave an uninhibited island to Chinese firm on lease for 50 years. The then government of Maldives went clearly in favour of China till it was defeated in general election held in September 2018 and underlying Indian government’s priority, Modi visited Male in June 2019 after taking office in his 2nd inning. In this visit India failed to focus its interests to confront China but reminded the country about India’s geographical proximity and promotion of regional connectivity. 

Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh

With Afghanistan, except the brief regime of Pakistan-supported Taliban, relations between the two countries remained co-operative, based on mutual understanding. In the context needless to add here that both Pakistan and Bangladesh were parts of united India before 15 August 1947 and division of Indian Sub-continent separated them. In the division Pakistan comprised two wings-East Pakistan and West Pakistan with a territorial distance of 1800 kilometers. As a result of the general elections held in 1970 that followed a civil war there and ultimately dividing the nation in December 1971 which gave birth to a new nation called Bangladesh. In the whole process India played an active role and relations between the two started on a positive note. Relations with Pakistan almost all the time remained suspended due to negative developments and actions from both sides.

In Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani became President in September 2014 and came to India in April 2015. Return visits were also paid by the Indian Prime Minister in December 2015 and June 2016 Kabul enjoyed the fruits of good relationship with India because Afghanistan, during his regime wanted to reduce country’s dependence on Pakistan, it moved seriously towards New Delhi. But later India was sidelined in the peace process held between Afghan Government and Taliban brokered by Pakistan. After becoming Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bangladesh in June 2015 and concluded Border agreement with his Bangladeshi counterpart and in return Sheikh Hasina paid an official visit to New Delhi in April 2017 and registered several developments on matters of trade and security, but many other issues including the migration of Bangladeshi and Rohingya refugees and effective tool to combat terrorism remained unresolved.

In relation to Pakistan despite Nawaz Sharif’s attending in-swearing ceremony of Narendra Modi in May 2014 and the sudden visit of Indian Prime Minister to Islamabad in the last week of December 2015, the terror attack by Pakistan on Pathankot in January 2016, retaliatory surgical strike by India in September 2016, Pakistan’ Pulwama terror attack in February 2019 which took costly life of 40 CRPF personnel, India’s airstrikes at largest terror camps in Balakot in Pakistan provided an environment not conducive for bilateral relations between India and Pakistan.

In addition, relations with all the three countries- Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan reflected a negative trend and perception due to the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, the dismemberment of Jammu and Kashmir, the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and threat to implement a nation-wide National Register of Citizens (NRC). In particular, relations with Pakistan remained the most hit and with two others partially affected. Although, the eruption of pandemic Covid-19 provided, once again, all countries of the region to come together and help each other in controlling and eliminating this life-threatening disease. 

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Dr. Rajkumar Singh

Dr. Rajkumar Singh is a University Professor for the last 20 years and presently Head of the P.G. Department of Political Science, B.N. Mandal University, West Campus, P.G. Centre,Saharsa (Bihar), India. In addition to 17 books published so far there are over 250 articles to his credit out of which above 100 are from 30 foreign countries. His recent published books include Transformation of modern Pak Society-Foundation, Militarisation, Islamisation and Terrorism (Germany, 2017),and New Surroundings of Pak Nuclear Bomb (Mauritius, 2018). He is an authority on Indian Politics and its relations with foreign countries.

One thought on “‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy: More Despair Than Hope – Analysis

  • May 24, 2021 at 6:07 pm
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    The artile gives a good idea of India’s relations with the neighborhood but ends up without showing up the emerging pattern of relationship in the region.The main point is whether India needs them more than they need India or vice versa.This is the focal point of the nature and pattern of relationship.Thanks

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