A country’s first international point of contact lies at its frontier, with its neighbors. Thus, having a “neighborhood first” policy is as basic as the pursuit of national interest in a country’s foreign policy orientation. Desiring good relations with neighbors cannot be faulted. In fact, not to express such a sentiment would almost be a diplomatic faux pas for any government. However, the challenge is to translate this otherwise benign sentiment and almost primordial foreign policy imperative into effective policymaking. Given India’s geographical centrality in South Asia and the capability gap between India and other smaller countries around it, there has been a perceived fear of Indian “hegemony”. This largely explains the propensity of India’s neighbors to find ways of balancing between India and China. Even friendly Bhutan does not seem to be immune to Beijing’s influence. As such, China’s increasing presence in India’s vicinity and the nature of its relations with India’s South Asian neighbors have lately become critical parameters to gauge the effectiveness of India’s neighborhood policy. In this scenario, India’s answer lies in constructing feasible regional and trans-regional alternatives, which include as partners not only its immediate neighbors in South Asia but countries in its extended neighborhood and the larger Indo-Pacific region.
India’s regional and global aspirations have often been predicated on its ability to manage its immediate neighborhood. However, given the dynamics in South Asia, New Delhi has to engineer its rise in a difficult neighborhood with elements that are antithetical to its interests, either in the form of major power intervention, adversarial relationships, or violent extremist organizations incubated in the region aimed at hurting India. This concern was quite explicitly put forth by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his first foreign visit to Bhutan, when he said, “In the guarantee of happiness, it is important what kind of a neighbor you get. Sometimes you get such a neighbor that in spite of having all the happiness and prosperity, you cannot live in peace.”
China’s “all-weather” friendship with Pakistan has been seen as targeted at curtailing India’s rise. Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s military capability as well as new politico-economic developments such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Gwadar port have been of much concern to India. Moreover, China’s development and infrastructure assistance in South Asian countries, particularly port development projects in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and road and railways projects in Nepal have been New Delhi’s Achilles heel. These developments present a policy conundrum for New Delhi, whereby it cannot match the level at which Beijing can project its economic power but also has no right, in principle, to nudge any of the South Asian countries to refuse Chinese largesse. On the contrary, many South Asian countries seem to find strategic rationale in hedging between India and China, to offset New Delhi’s influence. India’s former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao contended that India’s “neighborhood will remain tough as long as our neighbors harbor tendencies and foster elements that see the targeting of India as adding incrementally to their (false) sense of security and well-being.”
The Belt and Road Forum held in China earlier this year, which India boycotted, was attended by all of India’s South Asian neighbors except Bhutan. India’s search for alternatives has meant reaching out to its extended neighborhood, particularly Southeast Asia, through projects like the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project, the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). The scale of China’s economic linkages with Southeast Asian nations remains a challenge for India’s interest maximization in the region. But Southeast Asian countries also intend to balance China’s rising security profile in the region through partnerships with countries like India. Closer home, the India-Iran-Afghanistan understanding over the Chabahar port, which has often been viewed as a counter to Gwadar, saw some renewed focus recently with the first shipment of wheat from India to Afghanistan. New Delhi is also intent on crafting new visions of transregional connectivity such as the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor in partnership with like-minded countries such as Japan in the Indo-Pacific region.
Lately, the Indian Ocean waters have seen the regular entry of Chinese submarines and warships. The rise of the Indo-Pacific region as a geopolitical theater for major powers has led to a number of initiatives such as the quadrilateral dialogue among India, the United States, Japan, and Australia recently, aimed at counteracting the rise of an aggressive China. India, the United States, and Japan have already been engaging in a major interoperability exercise like the Malabar with a similar strategic purpose. Moreover, India has been increasing its military cooperation with Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Singapore. In recent times, New Delhi has also augmented initiatives for greater understanding among Indian Ocean littorals and extended India’s assistance to smaller Indian Ocean countries through the new “Naval Diplomacy Fund”. To what extent such permutations and combinations would help India leverage its position amidst China’s lateral expansion into India’s neighborhood remains to be seen. However, India’s drive to increase its foreign policy options through bilateral and multilateral initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region reflects its intent to operationalize its potential to rise as a regional and global power of reckoning.
As India projects both the intention and capability to emerge as a leading power in the international system, how it maneuvers its relationships with its immediate neighbors, which range from hostile to friendly, will be imperative. India will have to engineer its rise in a difficult neighborhood, and that calls for diagnosing the inherent constraints accruing out of intra-subcontinental dynamics, as well as the involvement of extra-regional players. India will always encounter the challenge of managing its image of a “big brother” in its immediate neighborhood, which means facing a policy dilemma of projecting a principle of non-interference in other’s internal affairs while maintaining the ability to shape its policy preferences in the neighborhood. India’s ability to do so has been constrained by China’s increasing foray into South Asia recently, through economic incentives with strategic denouement. In response, India’s strategy should be to build security partnerships with countries in the Indo-Pacific region that are equally concerned by China’s aggression with an aim to increase the cost for China to engage in activities that harm India’s interest. Additionally, India can help facilitate alternative paths of growth for its immediate neighbors, by leveraging its links with its extended neighborhood, in ways that are transparent and mutually beneficial as compared to Chinese projects that are seen as debt-traps and one-way roads to Beijing’s domination. This will help reimagine a joint destiny of growth for India and its immediate neighbors, which will build more sustainable relationships and make them partners in India’s rise.
Image 1: Mahinda Rajapaksa via Flickr
Image 2: BIMSTEC website