India, located in South Asia, is surrounded by Pakistan to the west, China, Nepal and Bhutan to the north east, and Myanmar and Bangladesh to the east. The region is not only complex and volatile, but also one of the most socially and politically divided regions of the world. The South Asian countries-individually as well as collectively represent a world of historical links, shared legacies, commonalities as well as diversities which are elaborately reflected in their ethnic, linguistic, religious and political fabric.

The South Asian region is also full of contradictions, disparities and paradoxes. In the post-colonial period, the South Asia has been a theatre of inter-state as well as civil wars; it has witnessed liberation movements, nuclear rivalry, military dictatorships and continues to suffer from insurgencies, religious fundamentalism and terrorism, besides serious problems associated with drugs and human trafficking.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has remained in existence for over 33 years; yet South Asia is considered as the least integrated of the global regions; this is despite the stipulation in its Charter that “bilateral and contentious issues shall be excluded” from its deliberations. Characteristics of India’s neighbourhood/South Asia:

  • It is home to 1.89 billion people, more than 20 percent of the world population.
  • It is a region that lies between the sea routes of the Indian Ocean (Persian Gulf and the Asia-Pacific) and the land routes of Central Asia connecting Europe to the East.
  • It is a large reservoir of natural and human resources, making it a prime destination for finance capital, a lucrative market for trade, and a source of cheap raw material.
  • It also sits at the confluence of the richest sources of oil, gas, rubber, manganese, copper, gold, tea, cotton, rice and jute, and is the transit point for most of the resources and manufactures that cris-cross the world.
  • Moreover, it is the most heavily militarized and bureaucratized zone in the world and it has a variety of complex and violent primordial ethnic groups.
  • The region has been registering a healthy growth (average of more than 6% per annum) during the past several years.
  • Democratic forms of governance (howsoever flawed and feeble) are beginning to gain some ground in most parts of the region.

The political, economic and social landscape in India’s immediate neighbourhood has changed significantly since the end of the Cold War. The centre of gravity of power is shifting towards the Asia- Pacific. The simultaneous rise of India and China is a development of great significance. The traditional concept of national security is being broadened gradually to include human non-military issues like climate change, energy security, competition for scarce resources, food and water security, pandemics, migrations, etc.

India’s position in South Asia is unique as it shares borders with all other South Asian nations, whereas no other South Asian nation (except Afghanistan and Pakistan) shares borders with any other South Asian nation. Democracy and rule of law as instruments of political governance are well entrenched in India. Transfer of power has been more or less peaceful and transparent. In relative terms, India can be arguably considered as the most stable country in the region, moving ahead on the fast tracks of development.

Approach towards Neighbours

India has consistently endeavoured for a stable and peaceful neigbourhood. Basic approaches followed by India are:

  • India advocates the policy of constructive engagement, despite such serious provocations as have been in the past (attack on Parliament, Mumbai terrorist attacks, etc). It believes that violent retaliation and confrontation can only complicate the matters. This applies in particular to Pakistan, the origin of State-sponsored terrorism targeted at India.
  • India adheres to its benign and noble policy of non-interference into internal affairs of other countries in the region.
  • India does not believe in exporting democracy, rather helps in promoting democracy wherever potential exists; this is done by proactively providing assistance in capacity building and strengthening the institutions of democracy. Example: Nepal
  • India has skilfully used its policy of non-prescriptive development assistance as its soft power since early 1950s. In return, India has sought “good will” and “friendship with India”.

Significance of South Asia to India

  • This region sits above a vital sea line of communication along which significant amounts of world trade, including energy, travels from Southwest Asia, via the Malacca Strait, to industrial Northeast Asia.
  • South Asia abuts both China and Central Asia, with both locations able to access the Indian Ocean via Afghanistan, Iran or Pakistan. China also seeks access to the Indian Ocean through its projects like OBOR, Irrawady Corridor.
  • South Asia is developing economically, hence, the developed nations want to reap the benefit of huge number of consumers and market.
  • South Asia is considered by some to be a ‘nuclear flashpoint’ where an incident could escalate militarily to the point of nuclear weapons being used in a conflict.
  • Indian Ocean as a major trade route is lifeline not only to India, but also to other littoral countries. Hence, peace and stability of the region is vital.
  • String of Pearls (China) and Pivot to Asia (USA) have made Indian Ocean a theatre of conflict and differences.
  • Political and socio-economic development of India is largely dependent on a stable, secure and peaceful neighbourhood.
  • To achieve its objective of becoming one of the principal powers in Asia, India needs to maintain cordial relations with its neighbours.
  • India can reap huge economic gains from the neighbours which are rich in variety of resources that are unearthed and unexplored till date.

In this context, it is necessary to have a brief look on the salient features of India’s neighbourhood first policy.

Neighbourhood First Policy

  • Under its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, India is committed to developing friendly and mutually beneficial relations with all its neighbours.
  • It is aimed at pursuing vigorous regional diplomacy by engaging with neighbouring Nations and building political connectivity through dialogue.
  • Deepening and strengthening the bilateral relations with the neighbours is an important feature of India’s neighbourhood first policy. For example, an unprecedented diplomatic outreach was made by the Prime Minister of India in the swearing in ceremony, when he invited the heads of government of the neighbours, including Pakistan. The day after swearing in ceremony, the PM held bilateral meetings with the leaders of the neighbouring countries, and vowed to work towards making a strong regional block.
  • India’s neighbourhood first policy has four aspects:
    • Willingness to give political and diplomatic priority to its immediate neighbours and Indian ocean Island States.
    • Providing them assistance and support in any and every form when required. This is evident when India became the first responder after Nepal earthquake and provided considerable assistance both in term of monetary help, and physical assistance through National Disaster Response Force (NDRF).
    • Develop greater connectivity and deepening integration with neighbours.
    • Promote a model of India-led regionalism with which its neighbours are comfortable.

Purpose:

  • Connectivity:
    • India has entered into MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) with members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
      • These agreements ensure a free flow of resources, energy, goods, labour, and information across borders.
  • Improving Relations with Neighbours:
    • Priority is to improve the relations with immediate neighbours as peace and tranquillity in South Asia is essential for realising development agenda.
  • Dialogue:
    • It focuses on vigorous regional diplomacy by engaging with neighbouring nations and building political connectivity through dialogue.
  • Economic Cooperation:
    • It focuses on enhancing trade ties with neighbours.
      • India has participated and invested in SAARC as a vehicle for development in the region.
    • One such example is the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) grouping for energy development i.e. motor vehicles, waterpower management and inter-grid connectivity.
  • Disaster Management:
    • The policy also focuses on cooperating on disaster response, resource management, weather forecasting and communication and also capabilities and expertise in disaster management for all South Asian citizens.
  • Military and Defence Cooperation:
    • India is also focusing on deepening security in the region through military cooperation by conducting as well as participating in various defence exercises.

Challenges to Neighbourhood First Policy

  • The biggest roadblock to India’s neighbourhood policy has been Pakistan. It is a major impediment for India and its role for deepening Regional integration and connectivity. For example, Repeated cross border terrorism from Pakistan led to the cancellation of the SAARC Summit.
  • India’s deeper engagement with US becomes a matter of great concern for neighbours particularly Pakistan and they look for an alternative power in the region.
  • There has also been criticism levied against India for using hard muscular policy, legitimizing certain political forces and ignoring others, and interfering in their internal affairs. This was witnessed in the relations with Nepal (Madhesi issue) and Maldives (cancellation of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Maldives in 2015).
  • The capacities of India towards its neighbours remain weak. For example, the ministry of external affairs simply does not have enough people to look after the complex dimensions that define each of our neighbours. India has limited understanding of the internal political dynamics of these countries.
  • The neighbourhood first strategy will continue to be buffeted by periodic derailment in the relationships if the capacity and infrastructure dynamics are not improved. For example, scholarships on these countries is sparse and till date we do not have a dedicated think tank or centre of excellence to provide well informed and well considered inputs to decision makers.
  • Growing Chinese Pressure: It failed to take a meaningful direction and growing Chinese pressure has prevented the country from winning allies in the region.
    • On the maritime front, China is extending its influence across the Indo-Pacific region.
  • Impact of India’s Tilt towards West: India draws closer to the West, particularly through the Quad and other multilateral and mini-lateral initiatives.
    • But Sri Lanka’s connections with the West are not moving in a good direction as the country’s current government faces increasing criticism from Western capitals on human rights issues and freedoms.

However, India has reached out to the countries in the region to overcome these challenges. This was seen in improving relations with Nepal, absence of any public political statements that could be construed as interference in Bhutan and Bangladesh where elections have taken place, reviewing the posture of refusing to engage with the Taliban (Afghanistan), government’s support for Kartarpur corridor (Pakistan) and Wuhan summit (China).

Way Forward

  • India’s involvement in the internal affairs of its neighbours shall be avoided to the extent it does not harm India’s interest.
  • The idea of neighbourhood first policy need not include any irritant like Pakistan which can be dealt separately. There are other institutional mechanisms such as BIMSTEC, Mekong Ganga cooperation, etc. where India can engage with its neighbours multilaterally. Even within SAARC, India must work on a SAARC minus one approach.
  • Engage in deeper investment initiatives like Bangladesh Bhutan India Nepal (BBIN) initiative to reap the benefit of connectivity, energy, security and water management.
  • India’ neighbourhood policy should be based on the principles of Gujral Doctrine. This would ensure India’s stature and strength cannot be isolated from the quality of its relations with its neighbours and there can be regional growth as well.
  • Integrating India’s regional economic and foreign policy remains a major challenge. Therefore, India should resist compromising bilateral relationships with neighbours for short economic interests.
  • Regional connectivity must be pursued with greater vigour while security concerns are addressed through cost-effective, efficient and reliable technological measures which are in use in other parts of the world.

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