In an online webinar hosted by a Danish think tank, experts highlighted how the rise of China across South Asia has left an unpleasant impact on India’s relations with its smaller neighbours.
India’s 'neighbourhood first policy' was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature foreign policy initiative that sought to develop better relations with the country’s neighbours.
But experts, who last week spoke at an online conference organised by the Nordic Institute of Stability Studies (NISS), a Copenhagen-based think-tank, believe that the policy has failed to take a meaningful direction as Modi’s aggressive posture and growing Chinese pressure has prevented the country from winning allies in the region.
The conference’s title was “Failure of India’s Neighborhood First Policy under BJP Government: Implications for Regional Cooperation”.
Speaking at the conference, Scott Lucas, a professor emeritus of political science and international studies at the University of Birmingham, said that “Modi’s confrontational rather than collective approach in the region” has hurt India’s political prospects across South Asia.
The Modi government’s “focus on military measures rather than social elements” has also helped increase tensions across the region, increasing anti-India sentiment, according to Lucas.
Many experts in the conference echoed a common view that China appears to have benefited from increasing anti-India sentiment in the region, helping Beijing solidify its connections with other South Asian nations.
In the first few years of Modi's rule, regional organisations like SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) were given utmost importance, but the 'neighbourhood first policy' failed to produce any positive outcome and instead, the country found itself competing with a far more belligerent China.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government's domestic policies, which many criticise for being exclusionary against non-Hindu minorities, and attacks on press freedom have also made matters worse and further alienated India from its neighbouring countries, the experts said.
Muhammad Athar Javed, director-general of the NISS, who moderated the conference, also viewed that due to India’s patronising attitude towards smaller neighbours such as Nepal, Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, New Delhi is “now grappling with multilayered diplomatic challenges with SAARC member states.” The SAARC, which was established in 1985, includes states of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Lucas also drew attention to the fact that when it comes to Pakistan, India’s regional policy sees a sudden shift “due to the factors such as Kashmir or Afghanistan”, making New Delhi’s foreign policy confrontational in nature.
The erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir has been a disputed region between India and Pakistan since 1947. India has always accused Pakistan of supporting an armed guerrilla movement that either seeks independence from both India and Pakistan or wants the complete merger of the disputed territory with Pakistan.
Another conflict that pits India against its neighbour Pakistan is Afghanistan. Islamabad has long been one of the patrons of the Taliban, a group which has recently come to power in Kabul after a long insurgency against the US-backed Afghan government. Pakistan has also raised concerns over growing hate crimes against India's Muslim minority.
“India-Pakistan Economic relationship will be damaged if they don’t come to understand Afghanistan and they don’t make some good favorable decisions,” said Samuel Ramani, a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, during the conference.
Both countries need to work together for projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which is also known as Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline, Ramani said. The TAPI project aims to transport natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan and finally to India.
Projects like TAPI will test Modi’s mood on whether he is ready for such projects, which will empower India’s neighbourhood first policy, or “it's just in papers”, Ramani said.
Ramani found similarities between the post-Arab Spring political environment in the Middle East and current South Asia. Relations among neighbouring countries in South Asia have not improved or gotten worse to some extent and it's parallel could be found in deteriorating ties between the Middle Eastern states following the Arab Spring uprisings, according to Ramani.
While India’s 'neighbourhood first policy' is something New Delhi was keen on pursuing in the beginning, it now appears to be going nowhere, Ramani observed.
“India is interfering in the domestic affairs of neighbouring countries especially in Nepal in the violation of their sovereignty. India is also creating hurdles in free transit and free trade within and beyond Nepal and keeps suppressing its people and government,” the academic said.
A lot of things are “going wrong” in India’s foreign policy, Ramani added.
Anil Sigdel, founder of Nepal Matters for America, a Washington DC-based think-tank agreed with Ramani's conclusions on India's foreign policy. Sigdel also thinks that India urgently needs to address various demarcations across Nepal-India borders, which has particularly made Nepali citizens suffer.
As the Eminent Persons Group, comprising high level politicians and experts from both sides for a joint comprehensive review of the bilateral ties, sat down and finalised a list of recommendations, “Modi’s leadership was showing some promise,” Sigdel said, during the conference.
“But that goodwill quickly evaporated as there was no response from the Modi government or not even willingness to receive the joint group’s report,” the Nepali activist said.
According to Sigdel, Ajit Doval, India’s National Security Adviser, “opined that Nepal has benefited from the existing arrangements; therefore Modi does not want to move forward with the report recommendations. And that was it”.
There are also various remaining problems between the two countries such as the water management along the border, especially regarding high structures being built on the Indian side to manage flooding that exposes Nepali villages to danger in monsoon season, according to Sigdel.
During the monsoon season in South Asia, heavy rainfall is recorded between June and September every year.
On top of all these issues, Indian authorities wanted to show their disregard toward Nepal by organising a road inauguration ceremony in Kalapani, a disputed region between Nepal and India, according to Sigdel. But that triggered “an unprecedented defiance” by Nepal as the country’s parliament unanimously passed an upgraded map that included Kalapani as a Nepali territory, “giving a massive setback to the Modi government”.
Is Bangladesh a bright spot for India?
Among others, India- Bangladesh relationship is “a sign of promise”, Ramani said, during the conference. But even in that relationship, things are not bright on the ground as many ordinary Bangladeshis find the political leadership of India under Modi as Islamophobic or anti-Islam, Ramani said. They think that the BJP is “pushing Hindus against the Muslims that create violence,” he viewed.
Nazmul Islam, an assistant professor of political science at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University, also thinks that “India’s domestic policies are creating problems” in Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country, showing India’s neighbourhood first policy faces serious challenges even in friendly territories like Bangladesh.
Modi’s recent visit to Dhaka sparked deadly protests. The protesters in the capital city Dhaka chanted anti-Modi slogans to draw attention to his controversial policies that many find to be discriminating against Indian minorities, especially the Muslims.
Across India-Bangladesh borders, things are not looking good either with occasional skirmishes continuing to take place as “smuggling is at its peak”, according to Ramani.
In December 2020, India and Bangladesh held a virtual summit, where the countries discussed topics like boosting trade, investment and transportation links, but avoided the thorny issue of sharing the water of the Teesta River, which flows into Bangladesh from the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal, Islam said.
“Bangladesh, like most nations, will sign up for something for its economic benefit”, the academic said.
While India has disagreements with Bangladesh on several issues, “it's wrong to assume that economic deals with China will make Bangladesh move away from India but India doesn’t like Chinese interest and its investment in Bangladesh”, Islam added.
“Bangladesh's foreign policy sides with China and Pakistan over India in a few cases, and that Dhaka should be careful regarding its foreign policy and strategic choices as Indian interference in the region and in Afghanistan to gain its power will affect its relationship with Bangladesh in the future”.
Sri Lanka-India ties
One of India’s clashing points with China across South Asia happens in Sri Lanka for different reasons.
“India draws closer to the West, particularly through the Quad and other multilateral and mini-lateral initiatives”, said Shakthi De Silva, an assistant lecturer of international relations at University of Colombo, Sri Lanka, during the conference. Quad refers to a strategic dialogue between the US, India, Japan and Australia as a response to China’s assertive presence in the Pacific region.
But Sri Lanka’s connections with the West are not moving in a good direction as the country’s Rajapakse government faces increasing criticism from Western capitals on human rights issues and freedoms, according to Silva. As a result, Sri Lanka has begun moving toward China, increasing the possibility that Indo-Sri Lankan ties might deteriorate at some point, he said.
“Sri Lanka’s tilt towards China was not an inevitable outcome. Rectifying the situation requires India and the West to adopt a more nuanced posture on the issue of human rights and accountability,” Silva viewed.
But Silva still thinks that "Sri Lanka has, and will, continue to maintain warm ties with India, giving deference to Indian security interests and welcoming high level Indian visits,” Silva added. But the country has also increasingly inclined towards China owing to the latter’s FDI inflows, investment volume and Beijing’s ability to grant Sri Lanka much needed loans as the island tries to extricate itself from its economic crisis.
“Although Sri Lanka curtails its own behaviour to appease India’s security interest, it is increasingly relying on China and will continue to interact with China in the future.”