Friends in the neighbourhood - Hindustan Times
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Friends in the neighbourhood

ByHT Editorial
Jun 23, 2024 10:33 PM IST

Maritime security cooperation and greater integration with regional economies will help India counter Chinese overtures in South Asia

The first two major bilateral engagements of the new government in New Delhi – hosting Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for the first incoming bilateral visit and sending external affairs minister S Jaishankar to Sri Lanka – were a signal that the Neighbourhood First policy remains a priority for India at a time contestation with China across the region is on the rise. Both engagements were also meant to signal a theme of continuity following the formation of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.

This handout photograph taken and released on June 22, 2024 by the Indian Press Information Bureau (PIB) shows India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi shaking hands with Bangladesh's counterpart Sheikh Hasina (L) after receiving her at the Presidential Palace Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on June 22, 2024. (Photo by PIB / AFP) (AFP) PREMIUM
This handout photograph taken and released on June 22, 2024 by the Indian Press Information Bureau (PIB) shows India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi shaking hands with Bangladesh's counterpart Sheikh Hasina (L) after receiving her at the Presidential Palace Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on June 22, 2024. (Photo by PIB / AFP) (AFP)

Bangladesh remains India’s most significant partner in the neighbourhood and a raft of initiatives to bolster physical, energy and financial connectivity have laid the foundation for closer integration of the economies of the two countries. Hasina’s visit led to further steps in this direction, including the launch of new rail and bus services and an e-visa facility for Bangladeshi nationals coming to India for medical treatment. However, the most important development was India’s decision to formally signal its interest in the $1-billion project to restore and develop the Teesta basin in Bangladesh. China has had its eye on this mammoth project for years and the Indian initiative will allow Hasina to deflect the pressure she is likely to face from Beijing when she visits China in the near future.

In Sri Lanka, Jaishankar and President Ranil Wickremesinghe jointly launched a Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) that was established for the Sri Lankan Navy in Colombo with an Indian grant. This will strengthen maritime security cooperation between the two sides months after Sri Lanka acknowledged the concerns of India and the US and blocked visits by Chinese surveillance vessels through a year-long moratorium on port calls by foreign research ships.

The relationship between India and China remains fraught and Beijing has signalled through several steps that it is in no hurry to resolve the military standoff on the Line of Actual Control, which is into its fifth year. China’s aggressive behaviour across the region, especially in the context of several border disputes, makes it imperative for India to speed up efforts to build closer relations within its neighbourhood and beyond, especially through steps that enhance maritime security cooperation and foster greater integration with regional economies. Such measures, as the leaders of the Quad nations have pointed out more than once, will increase the range of options available to democratic countries and greatly reduce the possibility of coercion being used as a tool of statecraft.

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