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India’s ‘Neighbourhood- First’ Approach

India’s ‘Neighbourhood- First’ Approach

By Abhinav Srivastava

Edited by Madhavi Roy

I recollect that during the summers, elections in India were in full swing. I recollect BJP releasing its manifesto only a few days before the polls.  Its Prime Ministerial candidate did not believe in making promises either before or after the polls, as his forbidding presence preludes the BJP from doing so. Quoting his various speeches, he envisions India becoming ‘An Economic Superpower’. He is taking a gradual shift from traditional non-alignment towards neoliberalism.  This newly elected government is putting in a high diplomacy dosage with India’s neighbouring states, such that India becomes a strategically strong and influential player in the South-East Asian region. His doctrine is an amalgamation of Indira Gandhi’s ‘South-Asia centric vision’, Vajpayee’s ‘extended neighbourhood’, Narasimha Rao’s ‘Look-East’, and the ideologies of ‘Manmohan’, ‘Gujral’ and ‘Rajiv’ in some ways.  A series of foreign policy initiatives have taken place within his first 200 days in office. Sushma Swaraj, who happens to be the first female Foreign Minister, pitches for a proactive, strong and sensitive ‘Fast Track Diplomacy’. She has made official visits to Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Singapore, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and the United States, while Narendra Modi has made visits to Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar, in the immediate neighbourhood, along with some important international states such as the United States, Australia, and Japan etc. Today, landlocked nations Nepal and Bhutan are made to feel like ‘special friends’ with all the due preferential treatment and priority, positive determination has also been observed on the land-boundary agreements with Bangladesh. The government has projected a firm objection against any international investigation into the internal affairs of Sri Lanka, and a joint venture to secure surveillance on the sea lanes with Myanmar.  All this happens in the backdrop of China’s growing presence in the South-East Asian region. Chinese companies are battling strongly to grab lucrative projects in this region and are extending timely support that obstructs India’s influence. In 2000, China’s GDP was 13 percent of the ASEAN’s GDP, however, by 2012 this changed drastically to 38 percent of ASEAN’s GDP. Putting an end to the stalemate, this new government plans to bring a new aggressive shift that tries to salvage its lost legacy in the region.

Tracing history, Indian forces have invested heavily in defending Kashmir against Pakistan and in regaining its territorial rights in the Kashmir region, succeeded in the liberation of Bangladesh, received a mixed-bag of responses to its intervention in Sri Lanka and a failed attempt in the Maldives liberation in 1998. The trends under Indian diplomacy signify a low. The question rages over Bhutan’s sovereignty and the Assam anti-India insurgency operations, the economic blockade against Nepal in 1990 or the long list of issues with Bangladesh that  include the land boundary agreements, Farraka Barrage and sharing of the Teesta waters. In the backdrop, China has been providing assistance in developing infrastructure projects in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, building ports in Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Pakistan (Gwador) and Bangladesh (Chittagong), weaponry imports to the Nepalese and Chinese camps, which are a few miles away from the Siliguri corridor. Not only is it strengthening itself Geo-Economically, but also Geo-Strategically, covering India from all extremes.  Recollecting important facts, China in 1972 exercised its veto to block the entry of Bangladesh in the United Nations, but now considers it to be an ally with special favours. While Beijing exercised its influence against India on the full-membership at Shanghai cooperation, they succeeded in obtaining observer status under SAARC, to the displeasure of the Indian government.

To its defence, in 1992, India cautiously launched its naval exercise in a bilateral arrangement with the United States’ coded ‘Malabar’, and expanded the invitees to Australia and Japan later in 2007. The grouping of four such giant nation states was categorized as the ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’. However, later, Australia apparently disconnected itself from it due to Beijing’s displeasure. China remains Australia’s biggest trading partner and Australia makes a special effort to not offend China at any cost. China battles with the United States on economic issues, and while the United States is the world’s largest economy, China is second on the list, followed by India and Japan. This strategic battle against China brings the three nations together. The US responded to the ‘Aksai Chin’ Chinese invasion of 1960’s with a joint naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal region. However, they remained non-committal during the war against Pakistan. The 1998, the Pokhran operation initially separated ties, only to bring forward the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2005. This could be attributed to its impeccable non-proliferation record, support given to the United States’ mission to combat terrorism in the Middle East and most importantly, the growing presence of China. Although all three nations have denied it officially, they remain wary of China’s growing presence.

Assuming charge on the 27th of May, Modi showed ideas for reforming and fast foreign policy initiatives. He held bilateral talks with several SAARC leaders, including Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif, wherein Modi urged for speedy trials of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack perpetrators. However, at the backdrop of the Pakistani High Commissioner holding talks with Kashmir separatist leaders, the Modi government reacted bitterly and abolished the August-scheduled foreign-secretary level talk at Islamabad. Similarly, the government gave a strong message for its willingness to stand against the rich and powerful nations by vetoing the recent WTO talks in Geneva. His government attempts to synchronize a balance between foreign policy with issues of domestic importance. Setting former Army Chief V.K. Singh on the state rank in both North-East and External affairs, he tries to blend the development of the north-east region with the ASEAN’s market build-up. ‘Vision 2020’ points out, for meeting the appropriate infrastructure requirements in a manner such that commodities are efficiently produced and marketed all across the ASEAN region.

Further digging for viewpoints on all his foreign talks, the picture seems a bit dismal compared to the glorying ever-enriching holistic picture described before.  The attempt made with Pakistan does not suffice for any positive developments and there have been endless ceasefire violations across the line of control. This similarly is true also along the China border. Pakistan keeps spiting poison, and in an attempt to bring Kashmir under international spotlight, ISI tried to fund and slip in a large number of militants across the border and increased cross-border firing. All such attempts were made for a low-voter turnout in Kashmir, hence Pakistan challenges India’s stance in the region. The state received a good-voter turnout regardless, as India remained headstrong in the face of such actions. Both the North and the South block need to be alerted on Pakistan’s growing closeness with China. This is evident in their agreement for an ‘Economic Corridor’ that connects Kashgar in China with the Gwador port in Pakistan, and speculative talks about a lease transferring Pakistan occupied Kashmir’s Baltistan and Gilgit regions  to China. All such negative developments demands an action, however, neither has the government reached for it, nor is it adamant to show its cards (if any).

Inferring with respect to Sri Lanka, an absolute majority for this government dissolves Tamil Nadu’s long dictating dominance over India’s approach towards Lanka. Rajapaksa was provided a warm reception in Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, unmoved by the Tamil parties which protesting. Both Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen use the Palk Bay area as per the maritime agreement signed in 1974. The Indian side of Palk Bay is reported to be stuck in a maritime resource deficit. Neither do fishermen have efficient resources to fish under deep-sea waters, nor can they migrate towards the continental shelf or offshore areas.  Water-boundary disputes have led to the arrest of Indian fishermen. Rajapaksha released fishermen on two different occasions as a sign of solidarity towards Modi’s government, but did not return their boats.  A permanent solution is yet to be figured out. The government should encourage measures to promote deep-sea fishing and awareness towards the maritime boundary agreements. China again seems to be taking a diplomatic advantage over trade, military and China-sponsored multilateral organizations (the Maritime Silk Route). The ‘Strategic Cooperation Partnership’ between the two nations brings concern for India.  Nonetheless, business houses express reservations with India due to high tariff and quotas. The government needs to effectively develop strong bilateral relations and open up free-market zones.

The region extending from the Suez Canal towards the South China Sea is conceptualized as India’s ‘Extended neighbourhood’. These include the Gulf, West Asia, Central Asia, Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean region. Political commentators describe it as India’s places of opportunity outside the South-Asian region. ‘Look-East’ was termed in this regard, and Swaraj during the ASEAN forum redefined it as ‘Act-East’. Japan, which is regarded as a trusted ally, falls under the category of ‘Extended Neighbourhood’. Modi does not fall short in providing an extended arm of friendship. XI Jinping was the first among the international leaders to congratulate Modi on his electoral success, and although he expressed desire for China-India bilateral talks, he had to wait until the Indo-Japan dialogue. Modi’s five day Japan visit brought investments worth 34 billion dollars, majorly in the sectors influenced by Chinese competition today. A replacement to Chinese investment argues for a better economic structure and the essential stimulus for growth revival. All such diplomatic advancements made a Chinese daily quote, “Modi-Abe intimacy brings scant comfort”.  China has a land boundary disputes with both India and Japan, besides Vietnam, and any developments towards the India-Japan relationship brings discontentment.  Although India firmly recognizes Tibet as an absolute territory of China, it obstructs Chinese invasion in Vietnam. Vietnam, which shares conflicting issues with China, enjoys good relations with India.  Modi received Jinping in Ahmedabad instead of the national capital, making this traditional break to portray the developments in Gujarat with large Chinese investments. The talks later moved to Delhi, however, nothing worthy was derived, neither were there any big bang announcements nor any joint statements. Even as the two leaders discussed, some 1000 Chinese troops intruded into the Ladakh region. Both leaders at the press-conference looked cold and unenergetic. Even temporary settlements on boundary disputes did not sail through.

As the honeymoon period fades, the question of aspirations against delivery broadens. Could Modi deliver on a SAARC satellite? Could he edge over, resolve, and attain peace with a state (Pakistan) that fights the legitimacy battle? Could ‘Make-in India’ be a program that fights strength-to-strength against China?  SAARC nations downplay India by playing the Chinese card, and numerous instances can be quoted, however, the actual fight is elsewhere. Napoleon famously said,” When China awakes, it will shake the world”. Much is anticipated from Modi, he has the necessary strength and determination, and what lies ahead is the willingness to outperform.

Abhinav Srivastava is an independent freelancer. He writes on Sports, Politics and International Affairs.

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