Neighborhood First Policy: Prospects and Realities of India’s Sub-Regional Strategy

Map of China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). Credit: China Daily

by Sayantan Haldar 1 January 2018

South Asia has been the recurring centre stage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy ambitions. There has been a clear vision of substantial co-operation within the region from India’s side in recent years. The developments and shifts in India’s approach to foreign policy have been influenced by its aspirations to emerge as a regional power. The 21st century has been privy to the change in epicentre of power in global politics from the Euro-US alliance to Asia. This has happened due to various reasons, which have also had a full impact on India’s activities in the region. India has identified its interest in the area falling under its strategic geopolitical ambit, mainly in and around South Asia. India’s prioritization of sub-regional strategic cooperation has been intensified by various factors which include the new maritime discourse in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), China’s looming presence in South Asia and India’s approach to enmesh geo-politics and shared strategic co-operation.

South Asia was on Prime Minister Modi’s priority list since the day he got elected to power, which was evident from the guest list of his swearing-in ceremony. South Asia enjoys a very comfortable geo-strategic position which makes it unique concerning its potential. The region houses 24.78% of the total world population, making it almost a quarter of the entire world and the most significant sub-region in Asia regarding population. India’s ambition to emerge as a regional power is well suited with the geo-strategic positioning of the sub-region, under its shared cultural orientation and burgeoning economies. However, South Asia has not been able to rise to its fullest potential and deliver a promising regional integration. One of the primary reasons for its failure could be the inherent lack of political coherence among the nations within which has come in the way of a rock solid regional solidarity, perhaps like the South-East Asian neighbours. One of the fundamental requisites for South-East Asia to have developed such a robust regional co-operation with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is the successful identification of shared geo-strategic interests of the region. The South Asian nations have vehemently missed this, which may be due to the imbalanced share of power within the region.
India and Pakistan have mostly dominated the power narrative in the region, with the rest of the countries merely participating in lobbies. The rifted Indo-Pak relations have been instrumental in the failure of South Asian Association of Regional Co-operation (SAARC) to make any substantial space for a thriving South Asia. The rift has manifested regarding summit boycott by India in 2016, on account of Uri terror attacks.

China’s new strategic activities have also hindered India’s free run as the sub-regional giant. China, with its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has made significant development in the region. India is the only country in the area which has not affirmatively responded to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s pet globalization project. India’s outright denial and strategic standpoint was apparent by its refusal to attend the OBOR Summit organized by China in May 2017.

India’s prioritization of its immediate neighbourhood has also been incentivized by its security threat apropos China’s String of Pearls. India’s perceived threat to sovereignty in the region along with China’s increasing influence in South Asia, along with its strategic partnership with Pakistan has served as a premise to India’s sizeable ambition in the region. However, India’s ambitions have not accurately translated into reality. India’s foreign policy, with regards to its ambition in the region, has been somewhat ambiguous concerning realising them. India’s response to its conceived plans has not seen any concrete development.

SAARC’s failure to establish regional solidarity has been replaced by the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) which aspires to accommodate maritime discourse along with sub-regional ambitions. However, BIMSTEC’s future isn’t entirely devoid of the cloud of uncertainty owing to the fundamental nature of engagements India has made thus far. Regarding India’s strategic proximity with ASEAN, the shift from Look-East to Act-East in 2014 has also been somewhat rhetorical. India has yet to device substantive efforts to reach out to ASEAN. Although India had identified its shared strategic vision with ASEAN in 2014, it was only earlier this year, that the Modi administration has made any concrete development towards the same by inviting all the ASEAN leaders to the Republic Day ceremony. Several issues regarding trade, connectivity, security need to be adequately sketched and sorted out, which has not featured in the negotiations, thus far.

On account of China’s rising presence in South Asia as well as Indian Ocean region, which are considered as India’s backyard, India’s counter engagements have more often than not lacked actual substance. The pattern flowed by India has been that of short-term solutions. India’s sketchily similar ideas of reprising ancient trade routes inland as well as maritime space, along with certain route maps, or even the example of Chabahar Port’s geographic location, which is a strategic response to China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), are all indicative of India’s hurriedly response to China. The China factor in South Asia and elsewhere is a serious issue, owing to China’s shifting gears in the global sphere. It would require a more concrete and tangible alternative. However, India doesn’t lack the potential; in fact, its identification of neighbourhood policy is a positive step towards establishing a formidable counter to China. The rhetoric needs to be cut out, and the initiatives need to be seriously looked at.

India’s prioritization of South Asia as a premise to establish itself as a regional giant is a strategic move towards meeting its ambitions. India has the potential to occupy a significant place in a new regional architecture. To realize the same, it needs to ensure economic, connectivity, security stability in the region. India’s association with ASEAN, BIMSTEC and formulating alternative counter-strategies to China’s emergent BRI are all steps towards that. However, India’s policies have been plagued with rhetoric which needs to be eliminated for India to achieve tangible progress within South Asia and bridge the gap between its prospects and realities, to predict reach a definite conclusion.

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