Needed: a proactive policy on S Asia

The neighbourhood has always been important in India’s foreign policy. Despite this, India’s relationship with its neighbours is less than comfortable. In fact, given how the strategic space is shrinking for India in South Asia, it’s time for India to take a relook at its neighbourhood policy.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he talked about a ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. He raised expectations that the most powerful nation in South Asia was set to chart a vigorous new path in its neighbourhood. Modi’s invitation to all heads of states in the region to his swearing in ceremony even gave a glimpse of such a path.

Subsequently, Modi visited most of the neighbouring countries, barring the Maldives which was in political turmoil. Some of his visits created enthusiasm initially but, unfortunately, so far his government has not been able to qualitatively change India’s relations with our neighbours, nor has it been able to check Chinese ingress into South Asia. This situation only highlights the complex neighbourhood India has to deal with.

Modi’s visit to Nepal in 2015 was the first visit by an Indian prime minister to that country in 17 years. It created bonhomie between the two countries and it was hoped that the face of India-Nepal bilateral relations would change with the NDA in power in Delhi. Soon, though, the internal dynamics of Nepali politics asserted itself and Nepal’s political elite made attempts to marginalise its large Madhesi population, resulting in a deterioration of bilateral relations.

This was a surprising development, especially when the Nepalese themselves say that all their politicians are under the influence of India. Obviously, this is not the whole truth. There are other powers that have in recent times become either equally or somewhat more influential than India.

In Sri Lanka, the coming to power of the Sirisena government was seen as some kind of an advantage for India. This perception was created because of the ever-increasing closeness of the previous Rajapaksa regime to China. Ultimately, though, the Chinese have not only managed to secure their interests, but have even extended it further. By converting Sri Lanka’s debt to China into equity in the Hambantota port, the Chinese have made their presence almost permanent. Besides, the Chinese also have a strong presence in the Colombo port city project. This is happening at a time when two-thirds of the trans-shipment business of the Colombo port is dependent on India. Clearly, India is not using this leverage to its advantage.

It is said that India is at present enjoying its best-ever relationship with Bangladesh. But the Chinese have tried to create disruption in this relationship, too, by various means. When Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh sometime back, he went there with a massive cheque book.

The Chinese government offered to invest $24 billion, and the Chinese private sector chip­ped in with investment offers of $13 billion. What’s noteworthy is that China–Bangladesh military cooperation was not included in the deals that were made public during Xi’s visit. That remains separate, and big. Bangladesh’s purchase of two submarines from China is likely to affect the maritime security environment in the Bay of Bengal.

Relations in limbo

Nobody expected any major breakthrough in the bilateral relationship with Pakistan despite the many overtures that Modi made to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The latter’s unceremonious removal from power has only further complicated India-Pakistan ties. With the worsening of the relationship with China, most recently over the Doklam issue, India is likely to see a greater security challenge emerging from Pakistan.

The Chinese are also testing India’s long-term friendship with Bhutan through the Doklam crisis. The political environment in Bhutan has been changing since the introduction of democracy in that country, and China is possibly trying to capitalise on it.

India’s neighbours call New Delhi ‘big brother’. Their anti-India domestic narratives are often woven around a so-called ‘India doctrine’, a convenient concept that is used to vilify it by accusing it of harbouring hegemonic aspirations. In fact, this has been used to justify greater Chinese presence in South Asia, which has undermined the role of India as a net security provider not only in South Asia but also in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Clearly, there is an urgent need to take a relook at India’s neighbourhood policy. The changing political and security environment in South Asia now requires greater pro-activeness on the part of New Delhi. It’s possibly the lack of a proactive approach that has resulted in the present political chaos in the Maldives and in Sri Lanka finding itself unable to get out of a Chinese stranglehold even if it desires to. A similar fate may befall Nepal.

India has tried policies such as the Gujral Doctrine earlier, only to be mistaken as a mark of New Delhi’s weakness. Our policies and engagements with our South Asian neighbours must send out the message that they should desist from doing anything that endangers the South Asian security environment.

(The writer is Associate Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi)

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