Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[op-ed snap] Make the neighbourhood first againop-ed snap


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

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), SAARC, ASEAN, BCIM corridor

Mains level: India’s dwindling relationship with neighborhood


India’s neighborhood policy

  1. India’s neighborhood policy is clearly adrift
  2. New Delhi’s connect with its South Asian neighbors is weaker than it has been for a very long time

Problems faced in regional relationships

  1. The first problem is that for various reasons other governments in the SAARC region are either not on ideal terms with New Delhi, or facing political headwinds
  • In the Maldives, President Yameen Abdul Gayoom has gone out of his way to challenge the Modi government
  • In Nepal, the K.P. Sharma Oli government is certainly not India’s first choice
  • And no matter which party is in power in Pakistan, it is difficult to see Delhi pushing for official dialogue
  • In Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, elections this year and the next could pose challenges for India

2. Impact of China

  • China opened up an array of alternative trade and connectivity options after the 2015 India-Nepal border blockade
  • In Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Pakistan, China holds strategic real estate, which could also be fortified militarily in the future
  • China stepped in to negotiate a Rohingya refugee return agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh
  • It hosted a meeting of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s foreign ministers to help calm tensions and bring both on board with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) connection between them
  • It also offered to mediate between the Maldivian government and the opposition

3. Use of hard power tactics in the neighborhood

  • The “surgical strikes” on Pakistan of 2016 have been followed by a greater number of ceasefire violations and cross-border infiltration on the Line of Control
  • The 2015 Nepal blockade and a subsequent cut in Indian aid channeled through the government did not force the Nepali government to amend its constitution as intended
  • Mr. Modi’s decision to abruptly cancel his visit to Male in 2015 did not yield the required changes in the government’s treatment of the opposition
  • Even in Bangladesh, the Indian Army chief, General Bipin Rawat’s tough-talking last week about immigration has drawn ire there

Use of soft power

  1. India’s most potent tool is its soft power
  2. Its successes in Bhutan and Afghanistan have much more to do with its development assistance than its defense assistance

Opposing China not the solution

Instead of opposing every project by China in the region, the government must attempt a three-pronged approach

  1. First, where possible, India should collaborate with China in the manner it has over the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic corridor
  2. Second, when it feels a project is a threat to its interests, India should make a counter-offer to the project, if necessary in collaboration with its Quadrilateral partners, Japan, the U.S. and Australia
  3. Third, India should coexist with projects that do not necessitate intervention

Learning from ASEAN

  1. SAARC needs to learn from the success of ASEAN
  2. Leaders of SAARC countries should meet more often informally
  3. They should interfere less in the internal workings of each other’s governments
  4. There should be more interaction at every level of government

Way forward

  1. The government’s challenge is to steer India towards a course where it is both feared and loved in appropriate measure
  2. And away from a situation in which it is neither feared nor loved
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