“You can change friends, but not neighbours.”
– Atal Bihari Vajpayee
With the changing dynamics of international politics and global equations metamorphosing from bi-polar (post the collapse of Soviet Union) to a multi-polar world, India has been playing a vital role in the region. India’s foreign policy was always non-muscular, non-interventionalist and un-exploitative. But in the altered scenario, India is facing stiff competition from China over the superiority in the region and growing Islamic fundamentalism affecting the entire South Asian nations. The genuine questions that arise are what should be India’s foreign policy towards her immediate neighbours and how to tame the Pakistan-China axis?
National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s commitment towards India’s immediate neighbourhood was visible when the leaders of all SAARC nations were invited for the swearing ceremony of Narendra Modi as India’s Prime Minister in 2014. Immediately after assuming the office, PM Modi visited Bhutan in his maiden foreign visit and had also travelled to Nepal on multiple occasions.
He even stopped at Pakistan and met the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as a goodwill gesture to enhance peace and cooperation in the region. The government had also committed itself to various projects in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Iran and Maldives. Friendly summits were also organised along with China to strengthen diplomatic relations between the hostile neighbours.
India’s interest in the region traces back to the Nehruvian days. In the days of the cold war, India’s position of non-alignment was aimed at stopping any form of colonisation. Foreseeing a possible conflict with China even a ‘Panchsheel’ doctrine was mutually agreed upon, but the expansionist tendencies of China had cost India the 1962 war and the Aksai-Chin territory.
India had fought four wars with Pakistan in the years 1948, 1965, 1971 and 1998, even though India could defeat Pakistan in all successive wars, these constant conflicts reflect the unstable relationship between both nations. India’s involvement in the 1971 war eventually resulted in the formation of Bangladesh, but the rising Islamic fundamentalism has created anti-India sentiments among the common people.
For a greater economic and cultural cooperation, South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was founded in 1985 comprising of India’s immediate neighbours. But the organization failed to achieve its target since the two major powers within SAARC, i.e., India and Pakistan, couldn’t agree on almost all occasions. This jeopardizing of dialogue process has pushed India to strengthen further another initiative called Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectorial Economic and Technical Cooperation (BIMSTEC) virtually excluding Pakistan. The advantage of India in the region is the historical and cultural ties between India and these nations.
China had always been a threat to India’s geopolitical interest in the region. With a booming economy, China is able to roll out financial assistance and ambitious projects to smaller economies. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) envisioned by China aims at connecting all the nations of the region by road. The peripheries of this project, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, poses a challenge to India since it passes through the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). China also invested heavily in Nepal, India’s longest-standing ally. It needs to be noted that the agenda behind issuing large scale grants to poorer counties seems to be a ‘debt trap’, a neo-colonising strategy of China to which these counties fall prey to.
China is also posing a security challenge to India by forming a strategy called ‘String of Pearls’ in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) extending from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan in the Horn of Africa. India enjoys a special benefit due to its 7,500 km long coastline. Now, the Chinese want to encircle India with its naval bases and ports operated by them in friendly countries, examples being the Gwadar port in Pakistan and Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. The recent Chinese standoffs with the Indian army at Doklam and their unwillingness to recognise Arunachal Pradesh as a part of India are bone of contention between India and China.
The rise of radical Islam and the anti-India rhetoric associated with it is yet another major worry for India. With the possibility of Afghanistan falling into the hands of the Taliban, the fear looms large. Pakistan has been using Jihad as a proxy weapon against India. The rise of Wahabbian ideas is even evident in Bangladesh; as a result, even several of the army men are radicalised. The killing of an Indian army man by Bangladeshi border security force proves this argument. Infusing of a large amount of money and speedy commissioning of projects are also in China’s advantage.
Multiple domestic factors influence any governments’ international policy. Some of those factors are political stability, economic growth, technological advancement and the global political scenario. With the NDA getting a simple majority of its own in 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, India’s global positioning has been constant and unaltered. The government also appointed S Jaishankar, a veteran diplomat, as the External Affairs Minister to professionalise India’s foreign approach further.
Presently, India’s foreign policy is crafted by the establishment keeping in mind the presence of hostile neighbours, Pakistan and China. It is therefore important to establish a strong relationship with the extended neighbours, excluding the two. India adopted new strategies to resist the looming threat from China in the region. Modi government’s doctrine of SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region) is to counter the Chinese strategy of dominating IOR with ‘String of Pearls’. India is also releasing financial assistance to its neighbours for development projects such as Line of Credit (LoC) through Export-Import (EXIM) Bank, which facilitates India’s export and import activities.
Terrorism and religious extremism have been key challenges in the South Asian region. Afghanistan is worst hit with these crises. Due to its geographical location as a gateway to Central Asia, India has both strategic and economic interest in the nation. India financed and built a new parliament building for Afghanistan which was inaugurated by PM Modi in 2015. In 2016, he also inaugurated Afghanistan–India Friendship dam in the Herat province underlying India’s commitment to rebuild the war-torn nation.
For the other projects, India has provided financial assistance of $3 billion over the years. India had also partnered with Iran to counter China’s access to Gwadar port of Pakistan. India pledged $85 million for the development of Chabahar port, and a three-way Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between India-Afghanistan-Iran worth $21 billion Chabahar-Hajigak corridor.
Myanmar has a key part in NDA government’s ‘Act East’ policy since the nation is India’s ‘land bridge’ to south-east nations. During the five-year tenure of NDA 1, a sum of Rs 1,300 crore was allotted for Myanmar for various projects. India is also wary of the proposed China-Myanmar Economic Corridor as part of the BRI. NDA 1 extended two LoCs worth $6.5 billion to Bangladesh which goes into community-level development projects, construction of educational institutions and so on.
China has been trying to woo Nepal with multiple infrastructural projects away from India. Being an inevitable partner, India spends on an average 230 crore annually for various projects in Nepal. The government was quick to grand $1 billion LoC following the earthquake in 2015. India also highlights the cultural similarities between Nepal and India. Bhutan is a key partner of India and as a buffer state to China has its strategic importance.
India has been developing hydropower plants in Bhutan and had also donated $4.7 billion from 2000-2017 as an aid to Bhutan. With the change of government in Maldives and declaration of their ‘India First Policy’, the relationship is projected to improve substantially. NDA 1 had also given financial assistance of $1.4 in its tenure. India’s relationship with Sri Lanka had been in shady lines due to the latter’s pro-China tilt. But the geographical location of Sri Lanka is significant for India’s security and economic interests.
India had always been projected as a soft power in the global political discourse. But post 2014 ere marks a transition of India to a hard power determined to position itself as an alternative to China. India is a key strategic partner of the United States and its allies in the Asia-pacific region. It is also important from the part of India that the neighbourhood soil is not used for anti-India activities. To prevent any such adventurism, India has carried out cross-border military actions in both Pakistan and Myanmar to target terror camps. To counter China’s influence, India should boost its own economy and strengthen its military might.
China has been trying to appropriate the Buddhist legacy through propaganda. Buddha, Bollywood and Cricket can be effectively used for people to people connection in South Asia, which eventually fosters diplomatic relations. With the government’s target of making India a $5 trillion economy and reconstructing institutions to make it more competitive, India has the potential to ouster Chinese influence in the region.