By K Yhome
K Yhome is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, India.
The centrality of India’s neighbourhood in its foreign policy has become ever more critical in the context of the changing geopolitical landscape. As India deals with the long-term strategic implications of China’s advances in its sphere of influence, an element of Delhi’s counter-strategy needs to focus on the growing aspirations of its smaller neighbours.
What India needs to do
As much as China’s southward orientation is driven by its own strategic interests, an undeniable fact that is making Beijing’s entry easier is the growing development need of India’s smaller neighbours and the increasing desire to fulfil them. The simple logic that drives smaller neighbours is how to maximise benefits from the two rising Asian giants. For its own rise, India is aware of the need to take along its neighbours. How much of that convinces its smaller neighbours is not clear. Delhi needs to create a narrative that reassures its smaller neighbours that it wants to contribute to their rise as well. Hence, a neighbourhood policy driven solely by a China-centric approach may partially serve India’s long-term interests as it may overlook the genuine needs of the smaller neighbours.
Relevant international occurrences
A few recent developments indicate how India’s strategic concerns and the yearnings of its smaller neighbours are at odds with each other. The tumultuous victory of the Left alliance in Nepal that fought the elections promising development to the electorates with an underlying message that roads would open up Nepal, and importantly, alternative to India, paid off. On coming to power, the seemingly pro-India government under President Maithripala Sirisena threatened to review Chinese infrastructure projects awarded under the previous administration of Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, it ended up handing over a 99-year lease on Hambantota port to a Chinese company. Despite the cooling of ties, the Maldivian government under President Abdulla Yameen stressed the “India First” policy in its external engagements. This policy did not stop it from signing a free trade agreement with China.
Even as relations were under stress in the reforms period over Chinese extractive and exploitative investments in Myanmar, the quasi-democratic government signed the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, expected to be a vital part of Chinese ambitious ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI). India-Bangladesh ties have witnessed a growing trajectory in recent past under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina government. During the same period, Dhaka’s economic and defence ties with Beijing have also scaled up which included economic deals worth several billions and purchase of two submarines from China. The Doklam crisis further strengthened Bhutan’s relationship with India. Bhutan was also the only neighbour that stayed away from the Chinese Belt and Road initiative (BRI) along with India. The biggest challenge of India’s “neighbourhood first” policy remains in dealing with Pakistan and the growing nexus between Islamabad and Beijing.
Navigating a complex foreign policy challenge
A common factor in all these developments is, even as India’s smaller neighbours have emphasised ‘India First’ policy or a ‘balanced relationship’ with India and China, like a number of nations in other parts of the world, none wants to forego the economic benefits of a rising China. For India, this is a double-edged challenge as it not only constricts its role in the development of its neighbourhood but also gives the smaller neighbours the China-card as a source of assertion while dealing with Delhi. Managing assertiveness of smaller neighbours on the one hand, and dealing with China’s rise, on the other, will be a major foreign policy challenge for India in the coming days and months. China’s growing footprints in India’s immediate neighbourhood has further complicated Delhi’s neighbourhood policy. However, viewing the changing geo-strategic landscape only through the prism of China may narrow the potential areas of reaching out to the smaller neighbours.
Moreover, rather than playing one political player against the other in domestic politics of smaller neighbours with the hope of finding a friendly regime, a prudent strategy would be to respond to the growing aspirations of the smaller neighbours by focusing on leveraging India’s strengths, most visible at the borders where development and security interests are interlinked. Re-integration with the smaller neighbours needs to begin at the borders.
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