Two Years of Neighbourhood First – An Assessment Challenges and Motivations behind Neighbourhood First

Perspective By Dr. Vinitha Revi

Pakistan is widely considered to be Neighbourhood First’s biggest barrier. However, this criticism misses the point slightly, as it is in fact India’s relationship with Pakistan (and by consequence its inability to have a meaningfully economic relationship with Afghanistan) that forms one of the thrusts of Neighbourhood First.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his term in office with the most dramatic of political symbolisms. At his swearing-in ceremony in a move, totally unprecedented, he invited the leaders of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) demonstrating India’s commitment to its neighbours. ‘Neighbourhood First’, as it has since been described, has become a significant component of Modi’s foreign policy. The motivations behind it are obvious enough as the challenges in this region are glaring. Its geopolitics makes South Asia a vulnerable and complex neighbourhood; one in which India’s foreign policy had not helped establish favourable perceptions about it. India was being viewed as an overbearing big brother by its neighbours and not as a developmental partner.

Economically, despite its huge growth potentials, South Asia remained one of the least integrated regions in the world. The blame very often was assigned to India and Pakistan, and their inability to put aside political differences and co-operate for the sake of the region. Believing there were other less contentious regions to be traded with, such as ASEAN and the EU, India looked beyond its immediate neighbourhood and focused on its own economic development. However, economic disengagement cost India in political terms, as China’s influence in its neighbourhood grew. As the British real estate phrase ‘location, location, location,’ goes, location indeed was everything and India woke up to the fact that their location gave most of its neighbours, whether big or small, geostrategic significance.

To the new government with the largest parliamentary majority and big plans for India’s future, it was evident that a course correction was needed. India’s top economic and strategic priority seemed fairly straightforward – reach out to all its neighbours and improve relations. And so it began with PM Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, followed by several high level visits within the earliest days of government; India’s passionate commitment to integration at the SAARC Summit in Kathmandu and Foreign Secretary’s SAARC Yatra were all initiatives under this bracket policy. The Modi government came into power with a clear message – it was ready to actively strengthen ties within this regional bloc and the Indian Ocean; it would put its neighbourhood first.

South Asia is a region dominated by deeply entrenched feelings of mistrust and insecurity, neighbouring an increasingly volatile West Asia that is adding to its security concerns. It is not an easy neighbourhood to engage, particularly after years of neglect. Neighbourhood First has as a result saw many setbacks but also some successes. This article looks back at the last two years of Neighbourhood First to review: What are the key take aways? What are the lessons learnt?

Neighbourhood First: A Response to India-Pakistan Hostility

Pakistan is widely considered to be Neighbourhood First’s biggest barrier. However, this criticism misses the point slightly, as it is in fact India’s relationship with Pakistan (and by consequence its inability to have a meaningfully economic relationship with Afghanistan) that forms one of the thrusts of Neighbourhood First. At the SAARC summit of 2014, PM Modi addressed the difficulties of integration in South Asia by saying, “The bonds will grow. Through SAARC or outside it. Among us all or some of us.” This was a strong statement, indicating India’s preparedness to improve connectivity in the region with those members that were willing.

This was not to imply that Pakistan should be left behind, but rather it could join when ready. Therefore vis-à-vis the Pakistan challenge, Neighbourhood First should not be judged as a failure, as it was this very challenge the policy was addressing. It committed India to being proactive in the region and ensured it would find alternative solutions where tensions with its western neighbour were holding back greater economic co-operation. Neighbourhood First in no way excludes Pakistan, however India’s Pakistan policy is extremely complex and encompasses far more than the challenges of the neighbourhood.

India-Bhutan Relations: Extremely Constructive

India’s relationship with Bhutan is perhaps one of the most constructive in the South Asian neighbourhood and in many ways should be adopted as a model for other bilateral relations in the region. Like all sovereign states, India’s economic goals are predicated on its security concerns. Since the security interests of these two countries are aligned, economic cooperation is able to take place with ease through several hydro-electric power generation projects which have been described as a win-win for both countries. Even though good relations with Bhutan predates Neighbourhood First, and therefore not a consequence of it, PM Modi’s choice of Bhutan as the destination of his first visit abroad was rich in positive overtones.

India-Bangladesh: Good Relations, Some Challenges

Neighbourhood Policy was off to a good start with regards to Bangladesh, and some of the credit for this must be given to the solid foundations that were laid down by the previous UPA government and the Awami League. Bilateral relations have been on an upward trajectory since 2009, with political engagement at the very highest levels. However, the previous government’s inability to deliver on their assurances exacerbated the impression in Bangladesh that India wasn’t fully committed to achieving real progress. In the recent past India-Bangladesh relations have been replete with messages of goodwill from both sides, whether it was Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s zero tolerance to terrorism, the handing over of Indian insurgent groups from across the border in Bangladesh or External Affairs Minister (EAM) Sushma Swaraj choosing Bangladesh as her maiden visit.

PM Modi played the diplomatic game well by sending External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Bangladesh on her first official visit abroad, as the BJP’s rhetoric during the election campaign was aggressive and strong on the issue of illegal migration. In contrast, during Minister Swaraj’s visit this was handled with admirable diplomacy where she pointed out illegal migration was a sensitive issue tied to the security of both countries and stressed the need for consultations with all stakeholders. Such political visits serve the diplomatic purpose of registering India’s legitimate concerns with issues such as illegal migration, yet distinguish them from the threats of immediate deportation that are simply part of election rhetoric. The most significant progress was made by the ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) by the Indian Parliament; exhibiting India had the political will to resolve differences with its neighbours.

The major hurdle for India is that relations are subject to Bangladesh’s domestic politics. Unlike the Awami League, which sees better relations with India as being beneficial to Bangladesh’s development, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in the past has been less inclined to cooperate. The challenge for India is to engage both the government and the parties in opposition. Reflecting this goal Swaraj on her three day visit made the effort to meet both the BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia and the opposition leader Rowshan Ershad.

The other main problem, like with many of India’s neighbour is one of perception, mainly that India does not deliver on issues that are important to them. The ratification of the LBA has gone a long way towards dispelling this apprehension, the hold-up on Teesta, nevertheless remains. Given this may not occur anytime soon, India can continue to send out the right message by moving quickly on other less political matters, such as addressing the trade deficit through SEZs and Rail modernisation.

Diplomatic Adventures in Nepal

Indo-Nepal Relations touted as Neighbourhood Policy’s biggest success in 2014 nosedived in 2015. Bilateral relations underwent an incredulous 180-degree turn –beginning with the spectacular diplomatic success of PM Modi’s visit, the heralding of closer and better ties between the two neighbours. However, with recent developments, India-Nepal relations appear to be on the mend, and there is renewed hope in bilateral ties.

After months of political turmoil, some negotiations and certain demands promised, the blockade ended and proper flow of goods resumed. Following this, Nepal’s then Prime Minister Oli visited India in February 2016 and this helped diffuse the tension in relations. His visit to China which followed soon after saw the signing of several agreements, in particular a transit agreement that aimed at reducing Nepal’s dependence on India.

However, a dramatic change of events with the change in government has been met with much triumphalism in the India media, reflecting new hope that relations between these two countries will return to normalcy. India-Nepal relations are undoubtedly unique but also extremely complex. There are undeniable links of history, geography, culture, religion and people-to-people contact. Further, as a landlocked developing country, it is only natural Nepal will experience uneasiness over its dependence on India, no matter who is in power. Regardless of the fact that the change in government will help put India-Nepal relations back on track, Nepal will continue to seek closer ties with China.

India - Sri Lanka: A New Chapter?

The coming to power of Mathiripala Sirisena as President was welcomed by many in India who believed this would open a new and friendlier chapter in bilateral relations with Sri Lanka, as well as restore balance to the island nation’s relations with India and China. Hitherto Indo-Sri Lankan relations have been reserved in part due to the previous Rajapaksa government’s explicit tilt towards China as well as India’s vote in favour of the UN resolution against Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013. With the new government’s commitment to a non-aligned foreign policy, it does appear normal relations have resumed with India, particularly with several high level visits by both countries in quick succession. However, this notion that there is symmetry between China and India in relation to Sri Lanka, or for that matter in any other aspect is, of course, a fallacy.

As the Sirisena government attempts a balanced approach to engage all the great powers, there remains apparent continuity in its policy towards China. Foreign policy rarely shifts with change in government. Tilts and Shifts happen over time making it possible to trace continuity in policies across governments – just as it is even with Neighbourhood First. Similarly, certain issues, such as the fishermen or ethic issue are inherent to India-Sri Lanka bilateral relations and will not disappear with change in government in either country. Despite the fact that, PM Modi is not under the same electoral pressures as the previous government, it is unlikely he will completely ignore Tamil Nadu’s interests.

While the foreign policy of a country shouldn’t be influenced excessively by concerns of specific states, domestic worries often impact foreign relations and therefore bilateral diplomacy will always be the result of accommodating pressures and interests at both levels – international and domestic. Nevertheless, the Modi government with a strong majority has been less pressured and better able to move ahead on bilateral relations. Visiting Sri Lanka in 2015, 28 years after the last prime ministerial visit, immediately following the victory of Sirisena sent out the right signal.

India - Maldives Relations: Course Corrected

India’s relationship with the Maldives began well in early 2014 under the previous government when President Abdullah Yameen chose India as his first official visit abroad during which he described ties with India as being precious. This was further built upon when he accepted PM Modi’s invitation to his swearing-in ceremony, reiterating the Maldivian President’s desire to engage with both India and the South Asian neighbourhood.

The Modi government tried to recover from a recent diplomatic setback with Foreign Secretary’s visit as part of his SAARC yatra in August, followed by the EAM’s visit in October 2015. When at the Commonwealth Action Group, India supported Maldives’s relations got put back on an even keel. Yameen’s visit to India has been a high point in recent relations, where he thanked India for its support. His visit also saw the signing of several agreements relating to tourism, taxation and the SAARC satellite; the most praised being the defence action plan which is crucial given India’s security concerns regarding China.

In addition, the Maldivian government has reassured India that Chinese presence in its atolls is purely for economic reasons. As for the increasing clout that the scale of its investments will necessarily give China, there is not much India can do – as it cannot match it nor simply wish it away. All of its neighbours, as we have already seen in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Maldives will seek closer ties with China, irrespective of its equation with India or India’s equation with the party in power.

India’s strategy here as in elsewhere in its neighbourhood is the same, to register its concerns, seek assurances from its neighbours with regards to its security interests and to move on with bilateral relations by addressing issues that affect development.

Lesson Learnt: Some Successes, Some Blunders and Yet More Potential for Better Ties

Neighbourhood First as a policy was motivated principally by geopolitical and geostrategic developments in the neighbourhood rather than the region’s economic growth potentials. Despite nearly 57 percent of intraregional trade potential yet to exploited, SAARC is one of the least integrated regions in the world. However, with the rise of China’s presence in South Asia, efforts at regionalism have taken on greater momentum. Be that as it may, the obstacles to stability in the region – profoundly imbedded in history and exemplified by geographical contiguity – are greater than simply the active presence of extra-regional actors. The motivation for Neighbourhood First might be the growing influence of China in this region, but the challenges that this policy needs to address are far more.

Neighbourhood First has succeeded in addressing some of the challenges of this region and simultaneously worsening others. One of the key problems of this neighbourhood has been one of perception. The view that India’s foreign policy was ‘too Pakistan centric’ has been addressed by Neighbourhood First’s robust beginnings. Efforts at regional integration believed to have been impaired by India-Pakistan tensions are being renewed under Neighbourhood Policy with India’s initiatives at sub-regionalism. The long held criticism that India fails to deliver when it comes to implementation of agreements has in part been addressed by LBA agreement, although not adequately enough, as seen in the Raisina Dialogue held earlier this year, where grievances over the inordinate delays on India’s part resurfaced.

The impression that India behaves as a domineering big brother is one that is almost endemic amongst several of its neighbours. To an extent it is simply a feature of power politics – that all big nations, surrounded by smaller countries will be accused of big brother bullying and over-interference, both deservedly and undeservedly. China too, suffers from a similar negative image in its own neighbourhood.

If diplomacy and foreign policy are to face an enormous struggle, then it is definitely in the South Asian neighbourhood. The complications of this neighbourhood are what warrant specific and targeted policy. In this sense, Neighbourhood Policy simply by drawing attention to the region, by putting it at the centre of foreign policy, is in itself a step in the right direction for India.

The South Asian neighbourhood is laden with political messages, both intended and unintended. PM Modi’s invitation to leaders of SAARC countries, the choice of Bangladesh as Minister Swaraj’s maiden visit, China’s stress on equality and non-intervention in its relations with Nepal, presence of Chinese nuclear submarines in Sri Lanka, PM Modi’s omission of Maldives from his official visits, EU-India joint statement referring to Nepal’s constitution – all of these are strong messages and they resonate quite loudly across this particular neighbourhood. The positive messages reiterate good relations, the negative ones signal tensions; and the same message intended positively about one set of bilateral relations can be read in reverse depending on which side of the border one stands.

As the neighbourhood shrinks in geostrategic terms, highs and lows in bilateral relations have a wider and more resounding impact. India’s relationship with any of its neighbours is impacted on and influenced by multiple – players, regional as well as extra-regional; not simply China, but also the US, Russia, Japan, Saudi Arabia and so on. In this precarious and changing environment, perceptions and often misperceptions become an important soft power tool as we have seen in Nepal. India with its need for better relations with its neighbours has to pursue goals of political and economic engagement. Investing in continued dialogue at the highest levels creates more longterm goodwill and helps counteract negative narratives that emerge through political crises. Although Neighbourhood First has had some misadventures it needs to continue with these goals, and pursue sub-regionalism wherever possible demonstrating its genuine commitment to regional development.

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