Don’t lose sight of the neighourhood
Neighbourhood First” has been a cardinal component of India’s foreign policy. Unless India manages its periphery well in the subcontinent, its pursuit of a more significant role in the Asian region and the world will remain suboptimal. Recurrent political or economic crises in neighbouring countries draw India back into the subcontinent and constrain its ability to deal with larger regional and global issues. Moreover, our adversaries, such as China, seek to keep India tethered in the subcontinent.
The Indian subcontinent is a single geopolitical unit with strong economic complementarities among its constituent parts. It is also a shared cultural space with deep and abiding affinities among the people of the countries located in the subcontinent because of a long and shared history. Yet, despite this overarching unity, the subcontinent is divided into several independent and sovereign States, each with its challenges and aspirations.
Being the largest and most powerful country in this space, India’s security perimeter cannot be confined to its national borders. The challenge for Indian foreign and security policy lies in making certain that its neighbourhood remains peaceful, stable, and benign, and no hostile presence can entrench itself anywhere in the subcontinent and threaten India’s security. Since this is no longer the age of imperialist intent — as the Russians in Ukraine are discovering — the challenge for Indian foreign policy lies in creating effective and enduring incentives for our neighbours to remain sensitive to India’s security interests, use India’s more powerful economy to become an engine of growth for them and, if possible, regard India as a net security provider for the region.
It is a given that anxious about being dominated by a more powerful India, our smaller neighbours will seek to balance India’s influence through closer relations with external powers. In the past, this may have been the United States. Today it is China. One should not become overly concerned and prickly about this. One can no longer treat the subcontinent as India’s backyard. The answers lie in doing what any good businessman does — tot up our assets and liabilities in each of our neighbouring countries, and go about leveraging our assets and minimising our liabilities. We should work on our strengths rather than seek to catch up with what a rival power like China may be doing.
What are our strengths?
One, proximity is a significant asset, enabling low-cost and timely flow of goods, services, and people across borders. But this requires efficient cross-border connectivity both in terms of infrastructure and procedures to allow the smooth and seamless transit of goods and peoples.
Two, the asymmetry of economic and technological power which India enjoys is an asset, not a liability, in transforming the economy of the entire sub-region. It is a vast and expanding market, and even if it were opened up fully to whatever our neighbours can produce and sell, this would constitute only a small fraction of our market. This will mean a great deal for our neighbours, but with little reciprocal cost to India. This reality has not quite registered with our decision-makers. Sometimes local business lobbies hinder progress in this regard.
India is the biggest transit country for the subcontinent and has land borders with Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh and maritime borders with Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Given its much more developed land and maritime transport system, India should develop its role as the partner of choice for transit trade and transportation. This will also create strong inter-dependencies with our neighbours. These inter-dependencies, more than anything else, will make our neighbours more sensitive to our security concerns. As a result, their interests will become enmeshed with our own.
There are significant shifts taking place in our neighbourhood. There is a leadership change in Pakistan, which offers the prospect of reviving the India-Pakistan engagement. Our objectives should be modest. These include the resumption of bilateral dialogue in a format similar to the earlier comprehensive dialogue template. We could agree to Pakistan convening the much-delayed South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit, which our objections have held up. I believe that it is in India’s interest to promote regional economic integration, and Saarc is the only available platform for that purpose. We should not look at the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) as an alternative, but pursue it on its own merits.
Both Sri Lanka and Nepal are facing severe economic setbacks, partly due to disruptions in the wake of Covid-19 and the loss of tourist earnings. India has extended a helping hand to both. The $400-million currency swap facility extended to Sri Lanka has been renewed. During the recent visit to India by the Nepali prime minister, a number of economic assistance programmes have been revived and some new ones have been announced. These will ease Nepal’s economic troubles significantly.
India’s relations with the Maldives and Bhutan continue to be in positive territory, but must not be taken for granted. They need to be nurtured on a continuing basis. There is some worry about Bangladesh because domestic political rhetoric in India about illegal Bangladeshi migrants and their alleged involvement in communal riots may once again have a negative resonance in that country and cast a shadow on our relations. It is essential to ensure that the compulsions of domestic politics do not affect India’s foreign policy adversely.
India has a fresh opportunity to energise its “Neighbourhood First” policy. It must grab it with both hands.
Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and a senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research The views expressed are personal