ISSN 2330-717X

India’s Neighbourhood Policy – OpEd

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Nichiren Daishonin, a 13th century Japanese monk practising Lotus Sutra, said: “If you care anything about your personal security, you should first of all pray for order and tranquillity throughout the four quarters of the land . . .”

Like every country, India has undergone through transitional phases—from a monarchical nation to a colonial one to an independent country. Foreign policy is a difficult phenomenon to be handled by any country because of the constant change the world undergoes. Everything is in constant flux including the relations amongst countries. To be able to maintain ‘so-called’ working relationships or work upon preventive diplomacy with one’s adversaries is commendable.

India is a medium sized country with the second largest population and with a vibrant economy. Maintaining relations with its immediate, near, extended and far off countries is a huge task. India has been able to maintain cooperative, collaborative and so-called peaceful relations with its neighbours, though there also have been occasional hiccups. New Delhi’s priority has been to maintain a value-creating relationship in its neighbourhood. However, with complications of globalization, extreme form of national interests and increase in the ambitions of every country to be equal has led to complications. It is because relationships amongst countries are becoming fragile and insincere. India is no exception to this rising complexity.

India since the 20th century has undergone a transition in its policies where economic liberalization was given precedence that helped the country to reach the international standards of global economy. This is evident from the various countries such as the US, Europe, Russia, Japan and China etc to strengthen the economic ties with India. India has gained its respect in the international community as a responsible country (to a large extent though there are areas where the country needs to work upon to be really reckoned as a truly powerful and responsible country).

India though is trying its best not to give much importance to its big neighbour China and Beijing’s ‘all-weather’ friend Pakistan but invariably New Delhi’s policies get influenced by these two countries moves and strategies, covertly and overtly. The ‘One Belt One Road’ and the ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ are some economic projects with strategic agendas hidden which are making India uncomfortable given the attitude of both the countries towards New Delhi. More so with Russia and Iran, who shares strong relationship with India, supporting these two projects and Tehran inviting China and Pakistan to invest in the development of Chabahar will be a test to Indian diplomacy.

India is walking on a tightrope balancing all the countries from all sides and at the same time protecting itself too from being pulled into alliances. New Delhi maintains that the country will not be a part of any alliance, be it anti-West or any third country, including China. India’s actions are being read contrary to its policies. For instance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi giving the acronym to Japan, US and India’s collaboration in Indo-Pacific as ‘JAI’ did not go down with Russia and China. However, India is clear on its position in the region being a continental as well as a maritime power. It will protect its sovereignty as well as its national interests, if needed militarily from any threat, including from America or Tokyo or Australia (members of QUAD). This should douse off any kind of apprehensions in Russia or China. At the same time, New Delhi also makes it clear, which is being evident in Track 1.5 and Track 2 dialogues that India will never be party to any organisation or take side with any country which is anti-West. The growing relationship with US and Europe speaks volumes about India’s policies.

In its neighbourhood, India in the post-Cold War era tasted new heights of success as it focused on forging economic and commercial ties with countries along with strategic and security cooperation. It started emphasising on historic and cultural ties. The increase in defence and strategic cooperation with its neighbours such as Vietnam, Singapore, Philippines, and Cambodia etc. who felt a threat from China’s imperialistic strategies helped India (indirectly) to strengthen its influence. At the same time, India is also facing problems from its once strong neighbours especially Nepal and Sri Lanka. India has been able to douse off the discomfort with Bangladesh and Bhutan but New Delhi needs to be careful regarding a U-turn of these countries policies. More because, the coming generation in these countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal were not part of their nation building. With advancement in information and technologies and new vistas of opportunities, the new generation is more interested in the avenues and exposure then the past.

India’s participation in multilateral organisations such as BRICS, BIMSTEC, SAARC, SCO and R-I-C are sound foreign policy decisions. Its ongoing negotiation with EaEU will also help in the initiatives of INSTC and Chabahar project along with the other members of it. However, India has to be prudent and strong to make its voice heard especially in the initiatives such as SCO and EaEU.

Under the new government, India is a seeing a more assertive foreign policy whose base was already been set up by the previous governments. For example, the Act East Policy is an extension and more practical application of the ‘Look East Policy’. India has undertaken the ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’ initiative under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is not that India did not maintain a good immediate neighbourhood policy. It is just a wakeup call for the Indian administration to concentrate in its immediate neighbours as China’s influence was growing but with carefulness. India needs to come out of the ‘big brother’ attitude otherwise it will backfire.

Apart from these, Modi government’s ‘para diplomacy’ is a positive undertaking because it will remove the grievances the states have towards the Centre. The cooperation between the states and the Centre will help to have a sound domestic policy which will have its influence in the foreign policy, including in strengthening people to people contact. The P2P will help in building up on cultural and inter-dialogue faith which is the need of the hour given the growing extremism and religious fundamentalism putting security of any country in danger.

With the perennial problem of terrorism and religious extremism, India’s policies with its neighbours as well as other countries including the major powers need to be that of prudent as well as transparent. For example, Iran has expressed its desire to be a part of the CPEC as well as invited China to also invest in Chabahar. It will be important for India to chart its course to see its security and economic development to be protected and not compromised by any of these countries.

On the front of terrorism, India since 2016 has been assertive on a South Asian country’s role in sponsoring terrorism and another powerful country’s support that send a strong signal to the world community of an assertive India. With the major powers as well as regional players coming out in open about their contacts with the Taliban, India has to build its capabilities and capacities to protect its national security. Dialogue and preventive diplomacy will be important for India.

Another aspect which India needs to be careful about is of not ignoring the countries which might not be beneficial for India in the immediate terms. Indian bureaucracy has a mentality of giving importance mostly to those countries from where India can benefit. However, it cannot afford to ignore countries which seem apparently not important or small. India should take initiatives and become trailblazer rather than waiting to follow others. For example, India should give equal attention to smaller countries like Chile or any other seemingly unimportant countries. It is because every country is unique and has something to contribute.

India has all the ingredients to become a great power however; it also needs to bring the house in order because domestic policies do impact the foreign policies. Challenges apart from traditional threats, including terrorism, will be non-traditional security issues such as water crisis, high rate of population, unemployment, poverty, food security, communalism and global climate change etc. which will become obstacles to India’s ambitions to become a great power.

*Dr. Indrani Talukdar is a Research Fellow at ICWA, New Delhi. Disclaimer: The views are that of the author’s and not of the Council.