Addressing the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in January 2018, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi followed in the Chinese President Xi Jingping’s footsteps from last year’s event to present a clarion call in defence of globalisation, stating that ‘India is an investment in future’.
A few days after the Davos summit, India welcomed the heads of state from ten member nations of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) for its 69th Republic Day celebrations in what marked a break from the usual diplomatic practice of inviting a singular head of state. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, highlighted the essence of ‘shared values, common destiny’ in the India–ASEAN partnership. Despite this historic occasion, a series of developments within its immediate borders have raised question marks on the coherence of India’s engagement to its neighbouring states. Before seeking to understand what these present day challenges are, one first needs to place a historical context on how India moved towards greater regional multilateralism.
South Asia emerged as a geopolitical arena of significance only in 1947, the year of India’s independence and the creation of the ‘Indian subcontinent’. The early doctrine of India’s foreign policy was based on the principle of ‘non-alignment’—which meant not aligning with any of the great powers. In this world view, states look after their mutual interests through communication and contact, and violence is only a regrettable last resort. The cornerstone of India’s neighbourhood policy, if any, was thus placed within a security dimension aimed at managing turbulence in the region—primarily with Pakistan and, to some degree, with China. The first real signs of a foreign policy impetus in the broader region surfaced sometime in the 1990s with a ‘Look East’ outreach that involved tapping into stronger economies and investment destinations in Southeast Asia. However, this did not translate into a coherent regional economic integration initiative, even though there were mechanisms such as South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) that were instituted but did not succeed owing to the precarious India–Pakistan dynamic in the region.
At its core, the design and thrust of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy is based upon its increased cooperation in the South Asian region. In his inaugural Independence Day address in August 2014, the Indian Prime Minister outlined the need for greater regional cooperation in combating poverty and the need to reinvigorate the SAARC as an arena for dealing with developmental challenges. Essentially, the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy was laid out based on a paradigm of ‘geoeconomics’—a synergy between domestic economic goals and the strategic environment of common spaces and mutual destinies around the territory of the country.
Through this lens, India is characterized to be ‘the elephant on its own subcontinent’, separated from the rest of Asia by some of the world’s largest mountainous terrains. Its geography not only dictates the country’s ‘destiny’ but is pertinent to understand the historical context of India’s relations with other countries in South Asia.
The coherence, especially in terms of trade and connectivity, was sought to be achieved through putting in place a dedicated neighbourhood cooperation mechanism. It even involved the symbolism of Prime Minister Modi inviting heads of government from the region to his ceremonial oath in 2014. India started wooing its neighbours on its economic growth potential and the allure of the Indian market.
However, the thrust of this policy, as it stands today, is faced with the growing challenge of maintaining influence, given the significant asymmetry of power that emerged between India and China. The contestation with China has been exacerbated by recent events that have unfolded in the region, such as the grant of a long-term lease of a strategic port on the southern coast of Sri Lanka to a company controlled by the Chinese government, a hastily concluded free-trade deal between Maldives and China, and a standoff in Doklam plateau at the tri-junction bordering area of India, Bhutan, and China. In light of these developments, a parliamentary panel on external affairs in India has also expressed its concern regarding India’s foreign relations with its neighbours.
How does India navigate in dealing with emerging geopolitics around its periphery, especially with the much more interventionist role taken up by China? The advance of the Chinese dragon is largely driven as part of an expansive infrastructure footprint sought to be established via the Belt and Road Initiative. India views the initiative with suspicion and has expressed sovereignty concerns regarding the territory through which the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) would be running through.
India can only nurture the relations to its neighbours by moving from mere rhetoric to more sustained actions. The Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN) energy network augurs to provide just that. The centrality of ASEAN support, especially on India’s security engagement with the region is critical, albeit the inability of the regional coalition to form a cohesive response to China’s maritime aggression in the South China Sea.
Towards counteracting China’s fury on the seas, a pivot has been sought to be created towards the concept of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ that was outlined by the former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his visit to India in October 2017. The contours of the geographical space and the values that this would inherit are being developed around the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (‘Quad’), a partnership of four maritime powers comprising India, United States, Japan, and Australia. A rule-based order in the Quad would perhaps stretch beyond a maritime exercise to one providing increased connectivity in the region.
Competing imaginaries and a contested regional multilateralism are at stake in terms of values, norms, ethics, and influence when it comes to how the future of South Asia might evolve. The challenge in dealing with China requires a strategic vision and some degree of finesse in maintaining cooperation amidst competition in the region. This is illustrated to an extent in the recent appointment of a former Indian ambassador to China as Foreign Secretary, as well as in the increased Chinese investment that has been coming into India over recent years. The modus vivendi that India charts in its future engagement with China will be critical and have a bearing on the overall management of its relations among its neighbours in South Asia.