Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[op-ed snap] Being a good neighbourop-ed snap


Mains Paper 2: IR | India & its neighborhood- relations.

From the UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: SAARC

Mains level: Need for better regional integration in South Asia


Weak regional integration of India

  1. If South Asia is one of the world’s least integrated regions, India is one of the world’s least regionally-integrated major powers
  2. While there indeed are structural impediments (posed by both India and its neighbours) in fostering regional integration, the most significant handicap is New Delhi’s ideational disinclination towards its neighbourhood
  3. Successive regimes have considered the neighbourhood as an irritant and challenge, not an opportunity
  4. Seldom have India’s policies displayed a sense of belonging to the region or a desire to work with the neighbourhood for greater integration and cooperation

Neighbourhood policy shaky

  1. The Narendra Modi government’s neighbourhood policy began exceptionally well with Mr. Modi reaching out to the regional capitals and making grand foreign policy commitments
  2. But almost immediately, it seemed to lose a sense of diplomatic balance, for instance, when it tried to interfere with the Constitution-making process in Nepal and was accused of trying to influence electoral outcomes in Sri Lanka
  3. While India’s refugee policy went against its own traditional practices, it was found severely wanting on the Rohingya question and seemed clueless on how to deal with the political crisis in the Maldives
  4. While it is true that 2018 seems to have brought some good news from the regional capitals, it has less to do with our diplomatic finesse than the natural course of events there
  5. The arrival of an India-friendly Ibrahim Mohamed Solih regime in Male has brought much cheer, and the return of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Sri Lankan Prime Minister is to India’s advantage too
  6. Nepal has reached out to India to put an end to the acrimony that persisted through 2015 to 2017
  7. Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh are also positively disposed towards India, though the relationship with Pakistan continues to be testy and directionless
  8. What this then means is that New Delhi has a real opportunity today to recalibrate its neighbourhood relations

Learnings from the past

  • India must shed its aggression and deal with tricky situations with far more diplomatic subtlety and finesse
  1. The manner in which it weighed down on Nepal in 2015 during the Constitution-making process is an example of how not to influence outcomes
  2. The ability of diplomacy lies in subtly persuading the smaller neighbour to accept an argument rather than forcing it to, which is bound to backfire
  • It must be kept in mind that meddling in the domestic politics of neighbour countries is a recipe for disaster, even when invited to do so by one political faction or another
  1. Preferring one faction or regime over another is unwise in the longer term
  • New Delhi must not fail to follow up on its promises to its neighbours
  1. It has a terrible track record in this regard
  • There is no point in competing with China where China is at an advantage vis-à-vis India
  1. This is especially true for regional infrastructure projects
  2. India simply does not have the political, material or financial wherewithal to outdo China in building infrastructure
  3. Hence India must invest where China falls short, especially at the level of institution-building and the use of soft power
  4. India could expand the scope and work of the South Asian University (SAU), including by providing a proper campus (instead of allowing it to function out of a hotel building) and ensuring that its students get research visas to India without much hassle
  5. If properly utilised, the SAU can become a point for regional integration
  • While reimagining its neighbourhood policy, New Delhi must also look for convergence of interests with China in the Southern Asian region spanning from Afghanistan to Nepal to Sri Lanka
  1. There are several possible areas of convergence, including counter-terrorism, regional trade and infrastructure development
  2. China and India’s engagement of the South Asian region needn’t be based on zero-sum calculations
  3. For example, any non-military infrastructure constructed by China in the region can also be beneficial to India while it trades with those countries
  4. A road or a rail line built by China in Bangladesh or Nepal can be used by India in trading with those countries

What India can do?

  1. There needs to be better regional trading arrangements
  2. The reason why South Asia is the least integrated region in the world is because the economic linkages are shockingly weak among the countries of the region
  3. The lead to correct this must be taken by India even if this means offering better terms of trade for the smaller neighbours
  4. Several of India’s border States have the capacity to engage in trading arrangements with neighbouring counties
  5. This should be made easier by the government by way of constructing border infrastructure and easing restrictions on such border trade
  6. India prefers bilateral engagements in the region rather than deal with neighbours on multilateral forums
  7. However, there is only so much that can be gained from bilateral arrangements, and there should be more attempts at forging multilateral arrangements, including by resurrecting the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)

Way forward

  1. India’s neighbourhood policy is at a critical juncture: while its past policies have ensured a steady decline in its influence and goodwill in the region, the persistent absence of a coherent and well-planned regional policy will most definitely ensure that it eventually slips out of India’s sphere of influence
  2. India must have a coherent and long-term vision for the neighbourhood devoid of empty rhetoric and spectacular visits without follow up

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