Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Sep 26, 2019
‘Neighbourhood First’ policy in the changing regional geopolitics

On the occasion of completing 100 days of the Modi government’s second term, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar reiterated that “the first circle of priority” remains the neighbourhood and highlighted two elements of the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy—frequent high-level political exchanges and “non-reciprocal policy” towards its smaller neighbours. Beyond these stated elements, the neighbourhood approach is guided by pragmatism as Delhi rearranges the geopolitics of its neighbourhood.

India’s prioritisation of engagement with neighbours has coincided with growing US-China strategic competition in its backward, traditionally considered its sphere of influence. That Delhi is letting the US to keep the pressure on China in its periphery to leverage the situation to further its strategic interests, is but only a part of India’s current approach towards its neighbourhood.

Delhi’s desire to shape political changes and foreign policy choices of its smaller neighbours using hard power— ­­­­­­­­­military intervention and economic blockade — have not always achieved the desired goals. In 2015, India’s “unofficial” economic blockade of Nepal pushed Kathmandu to enter in trade and transit deals with China. Moreover, such actions have often fuelled ‘anti-India’ sentiments in the countries of its periphery.

Sino-India geostrategic competition has long been a dominant element in India’s relations with its smaller neighbours. For some time now, Delhi has been warily watching China’s growing economic and military footprints in its periphery as Beijing emerges as the top trading partner and a major investor in most of its smaller neighbours. The line dividing Delhi’s desire for its smaller neighbours to be sensitive to its security concerns and being accused of interfering in their foreign policy has further blurred as all its smaller neighbours, except Bhutan, joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Engaging China to counter-balance India remains a key foreign policy feature of India’s smaller neighbours. Delhi might have problematised the traditional mindset by maintaining a low profile in the emerging US-China rivalry in its backward. As smaller neighbours increasingly attempt to balance their ties between America and China, the India-China strategic competition for influence in these countries has taken the backseat for now. The recent controversy surrounding Nepal’s stance the US Indo-Pacific strategy suggests the new framing of the strategic dilemma confronting India’s smaller neighbours.

India has positioned itself as supporting the growing aspirations of its smaller neighbours. As Delhi adopts a “multi-aligned” policy vis-à-vis major powers, it also appears to be signalling to its smaller neighbours that it is not against their policy of engaging more players to maximise benefits. India is aware that it is a key player in that matrix. This pre-empts the tendency of the smaller neighbours accusing it of preventing them from engaging with other major powers, a stance that is often viewed through the lens of a big power limiting smaller nations in exercising their independent foreign policy.

Another issue that has long created tension in bilateral relations between India and its smaller neighbours has been Delhi’s “interference” in domestic politics and foreign policy of the smaller neighbours. That Delhi has been lying low in US-China in its periphery allows it to reinforce  the rhetoric that it wants to share its prosperity with the smaller neighbours and this helps it to push a strategic imperative of reintegrating itself with the smaller neighbours through “connectivity, commerce and contacts.”

Delhi probably is using an experience it has gained from its relations with Southeast Asian nations. India’s strategic value for the region increased—in the light of intensified US-China rivalry—as both a balancing and a stabilising force. The current geopolitics in its backward state might be presenting a parallel geopolitical situation where Delhi can position itself to play a similar role. India enjoys greater advantages in its periphery than other regions owing to geography and deeper economic and cultural linkages with the smaller neighbours. This had been demonstrated when the Maldivian government under Ibrahim Mohamed Solih government, that came to power in November last year, recommitted to ‘India First’ in its foreign policy.

The strategic underpinnings of India’s current neighbourhood approach are driven by both external and internal imperatives. Within the rapidly changing regional geopolitical dynamics, a strategic objective of Delhi has been to strengthen ties with its smaller neighbours by reviving old linkages and building new ones. The past couple years have seen several trilateral and bilateral projects that have been inaugurated including cross-border pipelines, power transmission lines, rail and road connectivity, inland-waterways, border trade, bus services between various Indian cities and border towns with its smaller neighbours.

The internal strategic imperative is in addressing the issue of India’s underdeveloped border regions. As Delhi’s interests spread beyond its borders, the need to stabilise and develop the border regions have become critical, as these places are key to unlock the potential of India’s engagements with its neighbours. A critical element in achieving this goal is through the involvement of the smaller neighbours for mutually beneficial projects. Delhi has engaged external partners such as Japan and Asian Development Bank in developing cross-border infrastructure projects to strengthen its linkages with the smaller neighbours.

To view US-China rivalry in India’s backyard as constraining Delhi’s strategic space may probably be misleading, as the current geopolitics seems to fit in India’s approach of reconfiguring its neighbourhood as a rising power that is taking along its smaller neighbours in its rise. In further expanding and scaling up its reintegration efforts with its neighbours, Delhi may involve more partners such as South Korea, Australia, ASEAN, EU, among others with the aim to provide alternative options to countries in India’s neighbourhood.

As China’s Belt and Road vision and America’s Indo-Pacific vision compete for influence in India’s periphery, is it in Delhi’s interests to keep the focus on reconnecting with its smaller neighbours. The strategic significance of “the first circle” in Delhi’s own vision of the rearranging the geopolitics of the region will remain a key factor in India’s ability to shape developments in the wider region.

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