The neighbourhood deficit

Vivek Mishra

In the recently delivered speech at the 4th Ramnath Goenka Lecture, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar summed up India’s foreign policy achievement in the following words, “The balance sheet for India’s foreign policy after seven decades presents a mixed picture.”

With this assessment, which included a broad spectrum of post-Independence years in India’s engagements with the world, he underscored the need for India to assert itself on the world stage and to untether itself from seemingly intractable dogmas. The minister’s speech had sparse self-criticism, it largely gave India a certificate of decent performance. However, as his assessment is mostly in the context of India’s holistic global relationship, there is a need to assess India’s neighborhood relations in the present times separately for a few reasons. First, his overall foreign policy report card might not sit well with India’s current state of relations with its neighbours.

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Second, his speech only peripherally touched on India’s neighbourhood report card. Third, a neighbourhood assessment becomes imperative in India’s inside-out approach to foreign policy.

India’s performance in the midst of all the dramatic examples of change like “American nationalism, the rise of China, the saga of Brexit and the rebalancing of the global economy” appraises its global performance. While India has made new marks in its relationship with the US, France, Russia and Japan, its neighbourhood relations remain in flux. It is where a single identifiable achievement in India’s foreign policy stride, which could be called a major improvement from the past, is missing.

Regional flux

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s rise to power in Sri Lanka threatens to set the clock back to the end of his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, which was characterized by Colombo’s pro-China tilt at the cost of New Delhi’s interests. As the Rajapaksa brothers return to the helm, New Delhi’s realism will be put to test, especially in the light of Sri Lanka’s ever-growing reliance on China. However, what complicates India’s stakes in Sri Lanka is the intensely fraught nature of ethnic divisiveness that Sri Lankan society faces in the aftermath of the Easter bombings in April 2019. The Easter attacks and its use as a political plank by Gotabaya to win the recent election have further complicated India’s position vis-a-vis the Tamil question in bilateral ties, by adding a third angle to the existing conflict between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and Tamil separatists. It was not a surprise then that Jaishankar rushed to Colombo to secure early diplomatic ground with a new and not-so-friendly dispensation.

The Kalapani issue arising out of India’s new cartographic representation of its territories, after its internal decision to change the provincial status of Jammu and Kashmir, has ushered apprehensive rhetoric from Kathmandu. Nepal Prime Minister KP Oli’s statement that dialogue with India will follow after “India withdraws its army from our land” threatens to put India-Nepal relations on a collision course.

To add to that, China’s sustained political engagement with Nepalese political parties across the spectrum, but more so the investments and support by China, led by the recent visit to Nepal by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who announced support of 3.5 billion RMB over a two-year period on infrastructure and development programs, have created more lateral space for Kathmandu vis-à-vis Delhi. Moreover, Nepal’s disapproval of the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy, which finds support in India’s regional calculus, and its embrace of the Chinese BRI have created a strategic diversion in the regional outlook between India and Nepal. This is likely to further increase, even as Chinese assistance to Nepal in various projects are increasing.

Some of these include the Arniko Highway linking Kathmandu with Tatopani transit point and the trans-Himalayan railway, on which the feasibility study will start soon.

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Most recently, the innocuous and stable India-Bhutan relations has also faced an unusual bump. In the just-concluded visit of Bhutanese Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji’s to India between November 17-23, its new draft tourism policy came up for discussion as Bhutan is planning to levy charges on tourists travelling from India, besides on tourists from Maldives and Bangladesh.

Even though the proposed charges could just be a minor issue, there are other challenges in India-Bhutan relations. Bhutan remains out of the proposed BCIM corridor. But more importantly, ever since the Doklam incident, Chinese pressure on Bhutan for opening consular access to Beijing remains a perpetual challenge for New Delhi.

Pakistan remains the intractable spot in India’s neighbourhood matrix and, given their persistently conflicted nature, an ineffective yardstick to measure progress in India’s neighbourhood relations. The enhanced consistency of conflict across the border and stalled bilateral talks between India and Pakistan have heightened the threshold for confidence-building measures. As such, even the opening of Kartarpur Corridor, which would otherwise have been an initiative that helped resurrect ties, has faded in its accomplishments and impact on the overall ties between Delhi and Islamabad.

Pakistan’s vicious attempt at negative international publicity of India over Kashmir has increased New Delhi’s belief in a policy of neglect of Islamabad. How effective would neglect be as opposed to engagement is difficult to guess, especially given the existing economic power asymmetries between the two nations. The test for India-Bangladesh relations is Bangladesh’s ability to balance its ties with India with its ties with China. Beijing’s help to Bangladesh in constructing ports, its first submarine base, access to its largest seaports and to build Bangladesh’s first smart city has given unprecedented access to China in Bangladesh which is both long-term and investment-based.

If India indeed is to emerge as a ‘southwest power’, it needs to consolidate on its neighbourhood relations. India needs an investment-based strategy in its neighbourhood to couple its advantage of cultural connect with the region. Otherwise, China’s growing connectivity and linkages in India’s neighbourhood would soon tie Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet in a single strand of Himalayan real estate connectivity, as it has done with the littoral countries around India with the BRI.

Jaishankar’s quest for the “greater realism in policy” begs the larger question: what kind of realism is India looking to follow in its neighbourhood? One that constricts the manoeuvreing space for its smaller neighbours vis-a-vis China or one that allows them to freely engage with other powers, including China, while
creating grounds for its own engagement? Both strategies have their pros and cons.

(The writer is Deputy Director, Kalinga Institute for Indo-Pacific Studies)

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