India’s approach in crafting a good neighbour policy with its South Asian sisters comes from the strategic calculation that our security does not exist in a vacuum

As in economic affairs, the tide in global strategic affairs has definitely “pivoted” to the East, to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This shift, coupled with the web of challenges that populate the environment in India’s immediate neighbourhood in South Asia, and in the Gulf region, makes policymaking complex. For India, the perils of proximity have only grown. This does not mean we turn our back on the world or our neighbours. Rather, we must grow our comprehensive national strength in the economic, scientific, technological, military and communication fields, in order to craft astute responses to the challenges.

By virtue of geography, territorial size, economic heft, extent of development, military capability and, the size of our population, India has a preponderant and central presence in South Asia. Each of our neighbours needs to understand, as the late Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, Lakshman Kadirgamar noted, where they stand in relation to India, in terms of geographical location, historical experience and national aspirations; how the region also needs to collectively understand India’s “unique centrality” to the region.

Hub for South Asia

None of our neighbours (except Afghanistan vis-a-vis Pakistan and vice versa) can interact with the other without traversing Indian territory, land, sea or airspace. India and its neighbours in South Asia are integrally bound by ties of ethnicity, language, culture, kinship and common historical experience. The Himalayas and the Indian Ocean are the physical boundaries for India, and equally for South Asia, as a region. India exists as the hub for South Asia. There is merit in the reasoning that India should concern itself with the nature of any external influence or presence within the confines of South Asia since threats to its national security can emanate from the working of such influences.

India’s approach in crafting a good neighbour policy with its South Asian sisters is no afterthought. It comes from the strategic calculation and grasp of the core idea that our security does not exist in a vacuum. Our neighbourhood will remain tough as long as our neighbours harbour tendencies and foster elements that see the targeting of India as adding incrementally to their (false) sense of security and well-being. This is a calculus that is self-destructive as the growing tide of domestic terrorism and insurgency in Pakistan created out of a sustained fostering of terror groups by some sections of the establishment would indicate. The incursions and military provocations from across the Line of Control are another manifestation of this calculus. We are yet to see any realisation in Pakistan that pointing the gun at India in Afghanistan through terror groups and their affiliates who wage a proxy war can never bring peace to the Afghan people. Neither will treating Afghanistan as an instrument to build strategic depth against India help Pakistan. India has always stated its intention to continue to invest and to endure in Afghanistan because the Afghans need us and we will not abandon them. The rising tide of democracy in Pakistan, we hope, can alter the trajectory of mayhem and violence that emanates from its soil. While bilateral issues that create conflict and contestation between India and Pakistan need to be resolved by the two themselves, in the larger international arena India must step up its campaign. It makes sense for India to substantively develop its partnership with the U.S. and demonstrate strategic foresight to plan and provide for this relationship.

As 2014 approaches, and the U.S. and its allied forces prepare to draw down (and possibly withdraw totally) from Afghanistan, strategic planners have to assess the options available to India. Taliban extremism in Afghanistan has shown no sign of muting itself, and any loss of the Afghanistan we have known since 2001 will have grave implications for our security. We must assume a scenario in which the Taliban will seek to destabilise the legitimate government in Kabul. India must not hesitate to work to strengthen the international and regional coalition for Afghanistan, and ensure that a democratically elected government is not left to fight the forces of medieval extremism and radicalism on its own.

Balance of interests

India’s northeastern States would be benefited by smoother access through Bangladesh to the rest of India. This will be a significant development “enabler” for the northeast. While traditionally, foreign policy is the sole purview of the Centre, we are now entering an era where the word of the State governments and the parties that run them is increasingly weighing in on the moves that New Delhi can make. In the case of Bangladesh we need to develop a “whole of government” approach that enables a concerted approach of consultation involving all the States that border that country so that a critical balance of interests is evolved without sacrificing national interest.

The welfare of Nepalis should be at the core of India’s relationship with Nepal and the strengthening of mutual trust and strategic reassurance that Nepal can always count on Indian support and friendship is essential. Any use of Nepali territory by alien, adversarial forces to threaten and weaken India’s security concerns us. I believe we can well afford to be more generous with meeting the needs of neighbours like Nepal and Bangladesh in order to cement trust and confidence and also to safeguard our national security.

Myanmar is our land gateway to Southeast Asia. Its northern part defines the landscape of the India-China-Myanmar triangle. Security cooperation with Myanmar to counter insurgencies in our northeast is vital as also the fast-tracking of road and multimodal transportation projects to build connectivity. Anti Rohingya violence in Myanmar has had its reverberations in India, and bears close monitoring.

For Sri Lanka, India is the only near neighbour. Our memory drive on Sri Lanka must encompass the last 30 years of our relationship with that nation, in particular. The unfolding scenario of ethnic conflict and civil war spelt disaster for all communities in Sri Lanka, with nobody more affected than the Tamil population of the North and East. The repercussions for India in terms of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi were tragic. The end of the civil war is a historic opportunity for reconciliation and the healing of wounds of a bitter divide that pitted one Sri Lankan against another. While the final word is yet to be written, it is in the interest of both of us neighbours, that the pride and self-esteem, the self-respect of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka is not eroded, that they are treated with magnanimity and that they are able to contribute their talents, their knowledge, and their effort for the progress of Sri Lanka.

India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have institutionalised their cooperation on maritime security issues. This is a constructive development that creates a progressive template for security in our region. China is our largest neighbour. The challenge is to manage our relationship with China despite inherent complexities and embed it in the matrix of dialogue and diplomacy. The China factor has understandably influenced our security calculus. It subsumes bilateral issues and China’s regional profile and military capabilities. The dispute over territory, in our language the boundary question, has existed for over 50 years. The tried and tested way across the world is to manage these differences so that they do not escalate, to promote and sustain mechanisms to maintain peace and tranquillity. Much responsibility devolves on us, as governments in India and China, to help chart an enlightened way through what some scholars call “the cartographies of national humiliation” which confine us to a sense of what we should feel about boundaries rather than how we handle the geopolitics that surround them in a mature manner.

West Asia is vital for India, from the point of view of fighting terrorism, the welfare of the 6.5 million Indians who live there, energy security and fighting piracy. We have been active in supporting dialogue processes in the region, whether it is on the Palestinian question, or seeking a way out of the nuclear conundrum surrounding Iran.

New contours

Where does all this leave India? Differing challenges require a mix of approaches to address them – a firm and clear strategic calculation that ensures the uncompromising defence of our security interests, as well as the pursuit of foreign policy goals that stress dialogue and negotiation to achieve solutions to long-standing problems, and do not forego the people-centred dimension that is an essential ingredient of all viable diplomatic relationships. The situation is not frozen; it acquires new contours and shapes year to year, and we must calibrate our responses with firmness and where required, flexibility. The future has promise, but to embrace it, we must ensure an objective, clear headed understanding of the present and its possibilities.

(The writer is a former Foreign Secretary. These are edited excerpts from the 22nd Sree Chithira Thirunal Memorial Lecture in Thiruvananthapuram on December 14)

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