Is India a good neighbour?

August 04, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 12:23 am IST



Phunchok Stobdan

Foreign policy had earlier been driven by peace. The new priority to security has distorted India’s image

There is no single yardstick to measure foreign policy successes and failures but the absence of crises is broadly viewed as a sound criterion. India’s foreign policy of late has come under sharp public scrutiny — especially the direction in which it is moving.

So what do we see? On the one hand, an extremely frosty relationship with Pakistan. On the other, the relationship of stability with China built over three decades has been falling apart despite increased diplomatic engagement; not only because of Chinese mistakes but also because of the absence of innovative thinking in India to deal with its biggest neighbour.

India lacks a coherent means to contain China except for nurturing some myopic ideas. The old time-tested friendship with Russia has been allowed to slip through our fingers by downscaling the levels of engagements and limiting the areas of interest over time. The tragedy is that China has shrewdly neutralized India’s close proximity with Russia while at the same time sustaining its nexus with Pakistan.

Security-centric approach

Broadly speaking, Indian foreign policy relied on its deep resources of wisdom and inner strength based on a percept of it being a civilizational state, that was reflected in its international conduct. To that effect, foreign policy has been driven by peace rather than security. It gave India a global persona of benign international influence.

There is a marked divergence from that position. Priority to security has distorted India’s image vis-à-vis its neighbours — especially when policies are pursued through the precolonial security-centric “zero-sum” or “frontier mindset” or even from a Cold War political prism. In fact, this approach has failed to stop China’s influence in India’s neighbourhood despite the “neighbourhood-first policy”

Seventy years is not a short period for India to come up with a sound and clear statecraft device. Yet we see a clear lack of finesse in India’s approach, more so when the world has moved away from a bilateral to a multilateral context.

In our pursuit to gain great power status, we have slipped into apathy in transforming our old arrangements with smaller neighbours like Bhutan and Nepal. Instead of developing India as a regional economic hub, we are turning it into a fortress by overemphasizing on border security.

Getting fundamentals right

A better option to probe future ties would be to return to the strategic fundamentals. A good example to emulate is the top-down waterfall approach espoused by Russia and China to lower tensions between them.

At the same time, India need not see China as an object of disdain in perpetuity — a narrative often sold by the West. An honest attempt to build a new paradigm of India-China trust grounded on the shared historical and cultural awareness, as also on the collective wisdom of ordinary citizens on both sides, may prove to be more effective. For India to emerge as a global power of any reckoning, it has to start realizing that a narrow tactical pursuit devoid of strategic thinking will lead to nowhere. We need to reframe our terms of relationship with China; rethink our own posture; rescue ourselves from experiencing a delusion of grandeur and instead persevere to emerge as a confident and aspiring regional power.

Of course, one cannot judge foreign policy on the ephemeral flux of events only. What is seen as success today may turn out to be blunder tomorrow. Also, foreign policy failures may not always be the consequences of a botched-up diplomacy; it can be the result of a misplaced and impractical pursuit of goals.

Phunchok Stobdan is a former diplomat and a strategic affairs commentator



Veena Sikri

China might have deep pockets, but the relations between India and her neighbours are multidimensional and interactive

Based on my own experience and certainly over the last three years of the Narendra Modi government, neighbourhood is the first ring of India’s foreign policy. Neighbourhood became the primary focus with the creation of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) in 1985, but it has been enhanced over the last three years.

Ties that bind

If you take the area of education, there is enormous interest in the neighbourhood in coming to India to study. Engineering and medicine apart, even cultural subjects like dance, music are of great interest. Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh are being offered a large variety of scholarships, as also Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka. Some of their brightest students come to study in India. They go back as India’s ambassadors with a lifelong interest in fostering good ties with us.

Health is another area where our neighbours seek our active cooperation. [External Affairs Minister] Sushma Swaraj has repeatedly emphasised that medical visas will be offered to Pakistanis. Half a million visas are being offered to Bangladeshi citizens covering tourism, treatment and all other aspects of bilateral ties.

Nepal and India have an open border where trade and business is prominent; Bangladesh and India have a huge trade gap, but Bangladeshi exports to India are going up to almost a billion dollars. Sri Lanka-India trade is enormous and growing fast. Trade relations among all South Asian countries should be viewed as a specialisation area of India’s foreign relations. Natural disasters are another area where India has extended support to neighbours consistently — the Indian Navy has been prompt in helping in disasters in Sri Lanka or Maldives, and the Air Force was prompt during the Nepal earthquake. These areas remain under the radar, but the fact is in foreign relations work is always going on.


Problems do arise from time to time in neighbouring countries, but India has always helped in its own way. In 1971, Bangladesh faced a terrible genocide; 10 million refugees poured into India. In Sri Lanka, the 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord marked a new beginning. In Afghanistan, we are working along with all other countries.

Neighbourhood first

The relations between India and her neighbours are multidimensional and interactive. The shared civilizational heritage between all the countries of South Asia is reflected through the activities of the Indian Cultural Centres run by the ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) in the capital cities of each of India’s neighbours. The launch in May 2017 of the South Asia Satellite is another example of the strong mutually beneficial nature of the relations between South Asian countries. Prime Minister Modi’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy has yielded rich dividends. His visits to each of India’s neighbours have focussed on both summit-level meetings and popular interactions with academicians, corporate leaders, media representatives and opinion-makers. These visits have laid the ground for future growth trajectories through innovative projects of cooperation and collaboration. In turn, South Asian leaders visit India regularly, and this, too, plays a vital role in developing partnerships of friendship and understanding.

India gives complete importance to its neighbourhood. China may like to give some support to South Asia, but it is not all its primary neighbourhood. Pakistan has a so-called strategic partnership with China, but how many go to China for people-to-people contact? In India, we have people from Pakistan willing to travel to our country all the time; official, non-official visits are regular. China has deep pockets but it does not have the support of geography.

As told to Kallol Bhattacherjee

Veena Sikri is a former Indian Foreign Service officer


B.R. Deepak

India’s dealings with its neighbours can be characterised as both benevolent and malevolent

We must acknowledge that the geographical boundaries in our neighbourhood are an outcome of the colonial and imperial legacies inherited by both India and China. This has bred ‘Sinocentrism’ and ‘Indocentrism’ on either side of the Himalayas and both are vying to maintain their influence in the smaller countries or diminish each other’s. The ‘India-centric’ fragmented integration in South Asia, according to some Chinese scholars, has provided an opportunity to China to build a new regional order in South Asia, diminishing India’s role in the region. This demonstrates that the contours of bilateral and multilateral relationship in our immediate and extended neighbourhood are extremely complex, and more often than not have given rise to narrow nationalism and regional hegemonism.

The good and the bad

Irrespective of the complexity and hypersensitive nature of the security issues, India’s dealings with its neighbours can be characterised as both benevolent and malevolent. No other country in the region can allow free and unrestricted movement of people across their border as India and Nepal have done even after delineating the border more than 200 years ago. This understanding guarantees employment opportunity and facilitates trade, tourism and transport between the two countries. Conversely, the 1989 and 2015 Indian blockade crippled Nepal economically, and gave rise to anti-India hysteria. In case of Bhutan, India remains one of the most trusted partners as far as economic and security relations are concerned. However, India halting the subsidized fuel supply to Bhutan just prior to the general election in July 2013 didn’t augur well for bilateral relations. In the same vein, if India’s support for the Bangladeshi liberation movement brought the two countries closer, discords such as sharing of the Ganges water, Bangladesh denying India transit facilities to the Northeast, etc. have cast a shadow on bilateral relations. As regards Sri Lanka, the traditionally friendly relations were negatively impacted by India’s intervention in the Tamil and Sinhala conflict, whereby India not only failed to solve the nationality conflict but also displeased both the parties.

Under Narendra Modi, India has formulated an increasingly assertive foreign policy. The continental mindset is undergoing tremendous change, and there is a strong rationale for developing blue economy as well as blue-water naval capabilities; the Prime Minister’s visits to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka in early 2015 demonstrate this.

Engaging China


Given the complexity of the relationship and the nature of animosities, India has managed its relationship with China fairly well, albeit these could have been managed better especially when it comes to the resolution of the boundary issue. Generally speaking, the security, trade and investment, and people-to-people exchanges have been broadened in scope.

Imagine if India’s borders with China plunge into the kind of volatility we have witnessed with our western neighbour! Thanks to the existing border mechanisms, the India-China border has remained peaceful barring a few stand-offs including the recent one at Doklam. These face-offs along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) are an indicator that any attempts to enhance military capacity along the borders by both India and China may vitiate the security environment. On the other hand, the peaceful resolution of these face-offs point to the maturing nature of ties. But the face-offs are also a pointer to the fact that relations remain “fragile” and the border issue is the root cause. If not handled properly, it could rekindle animosities in no time. It is imperative for both India and China to show political will and reach an agreeable resolution as soon as possible.

B.R. Deepak is Professor of Chinese and China Studies at the Centre for Chinese and South East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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