Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 28, 2018
India needs to delineate China element in its neighbourhood ties

Recent domestic developments in immediate neighbours, namely, Bangladesh and Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka, apart from some episodic incidents inside India that have caused concern in some, call for an early review of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. In particular, India needs to decide if it should continue with the post-Independence practice of looking at neighbours through the ‘adversarial prism’ reserved earlier for Pakistan, and now even more for China, and lose out on the inherent bilateral strengths, as in the past.

Though ‘launched’ with much fanfare at PM Modi’s inauguration in end-May 2014, his ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy has been in a limbo for most parts.


This is despite such imaginative initiatives as the launch of the ‘SAARC satellite’, among others, under this Government. In its place, inherited ties, be it with the US, now leading up to the ‘Quad’, or South-East Asia, the latter an improvement upon the ‘Look East Policy’, have taken priority. So much so, America’s Indo-Pacific strategic initiative has continued to dominate New Delhi’s post-Cold War thinking on India’s ‘traditional sphere of influence’, despite the change of government and of ‘political culture’ (?) at the Centre.

Independent of the case of individual nations or independent causes thereof, India seems to have lost the script in and on the neighbourhood, more so in recent times. On the one side, India’s over-identification with the Madhesi issue, the re-emergence of the Marxists in power, and the more recent merger of Left parties are seen as an irritant on the Nepal front. On the other, the massive victory for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in the 10 February nation-wide local government (LG) polls is seen as a dampener.

‘Internal affairs’

In the case of Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives, India has flagged its concerns pertaining to their ‘internal affairs’, to varying degrees. But there is a glitch, and that too has not gone unnoticed in the region. While talking strongly against the government of President Abdulla Yameen’s ‘anti-democratic actions’ in recent weeks, New Delhi has almost from start called for ‘free and fair elections’, and a level-playing field to facilitate the process, independent of the criminal case against now-exiled former President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed.

However, in neighbouring Bangladesh, India is seen as looking the other way when the Government of Awami League Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina adopts less than democratic ways to deny a level-playing field for predecessor and political adversary in Begum Khaleda Zia, leader of the Opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP). The last time, when the general elections were held in Bangladesh, India and the US had different interpretations for ‘democracy’ in that country. It now remains to be seen, who between them is doing the ‘compromise’, if necessary, how far and for how long.

It is the unprecedented Indian ‘coercive’ diplomatic initiatives on the Maldivian front, again centred on ‘internal affairs’ of the Indian Ocean archipelago, that has not gone unnoticed across the region – and even beyond.


If anything, the ‘extra-regional’ reaction against India’s perceived but wholly unfounded ‘military initiatives’, as flagged by Nasheed, came from China, whose growing foot-print in South Asia, New Delhi has been uncomfortable with, through and through.

This has given rise to the inevitable question if India is looking at ‘democracy issues’ in the neighbourhood as an end in itself, or as a means to another end, namely, New Delhi’s growing concerns over China’s near-non-stoppable expansion of economic footprint in the individual nations. A section of Indian strategic community also seems to see in the Chinese ‘economic expansionism’ as a strangle-hold to demand and obtain ‘geo-strategic advantages’ in a way and at a time of its choosing, as none of Indian neighbours can be seen as being able to repay the fiscal debts owed to China in the foreseeable future.

Strategic dialogue

China has been ‘restrained’ in diplomatic reactions, on reports of alleged Indian ‘interference in the internal affairs’ of Maldives. It stopped with declaring that no nation should seek military intervention in Maldives, and hinted that it would ‘intervene’, if it came to that. But on substantive issues of making Maldives an ‘agenda’ item in the UN Security Council (UNSC), China, along with another veto-power, Russia, stalled the US-led western initiative, which was anyway a non-starter, at least for now.

India is not a veto-power, it could not have also stalled a veto against its initiatives in the UNSC even if had the veto, but then the inherent weakness showed instantaneously.


Over the years, incumbent establishments and individual nation-states in the neighbourhood wants India to attest their own decisions pertaining to domestic affairs, be it ethnicity-linked power-sharing in Nepal and Sri Lanka, or democracy issues in Bangladesh and Maldives. Bhutan has had a mix of the two, and the China-linked ‘Dhoklam episode’ re-set the India ties, hopefully for all time to come.

Whether it was Pakistan earlier, China now, or the present-day ally in the US during the Cold War, New Delhi has not taken any initiative for a strategic dialogue with its smaller neighbours, whose own security concerns viz larger India are there – whether India wants to acknowledge it or not. Whatever ‘security dialogue’ has been there over the years and decades, they have been episodic and episode-centric, and mostly at the level of military commanders, and/or foreign/defence ministers.

In this, Sri Lankan grant of permission for Chinese submarines to berth for R&R during the later days of the erstwhile regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is only an example.


In more recent times, India’s greater tensions with Maldives erupted, not because of its consistent stand on ‘democracy front’ from the days of UPA-II Government in New Delhi, but flowed from the Yameen Government going ahead with an economy-centric FTA with China, nearly behind India’s back.

Yet, it was an economic pact, for which, yes, Maldivians should be concerned about repayment modes, methods and schedules – not, India, which has assumed (not incorrectly, maybe) that it was China’s way of entering the room and staying there. But then, India does not seem to be thinking about the ‘day-after’, either. In the case of Maldives right now, though India has begun openly expressing its democracy concerns viz Maldives, like the post-Cold War US ally and West European friends, it does not seem to have thought about the attendant ‘neo Cold War’ with China that would brew inevitably, where Beijing would still hold all the cards, at least for now.

With the result, India’s concerns remain even as the domestic political situation in those countries alone keeps changing. Today, when Mahinda Rajapaksa has won a land-slide in the nation-wide local government elections, there is panic in certain sections of the strategic community in Delhi, who have not otherwise known the rudiments of Sri Lanka’s domestic politics, electoral scheme, et al. It is not as if they have a better knowledge of politics and society in individual neighbourhood nations, their minds and mind-sets that go beyond what has been reduced to ‘managing the leadership’ of individual nations, again a post-World War concept, which India had desisted for most parts, but has failed to attempt or achieve that either.

In Sri Lanka, India had hoped that a change of regime would ease China’s hold, and throw open greater economic possibilities for the nation, instead. The reverse alone has happened. The unnatural alliance Government of President Maithiripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was united only in the Hambantota equity swap-deal with and in favour of China, which Rajapaksa himself opposed, whatever the reason and his domestic political circumstances.

That way, since Independence, there have not been any continuing/annual bilateral discussions of the kind India has had with larger European nations and the US, especially era the post-Cold War era.


It is not deliberate, but India has come to assume that our neighbours are aware of specific Indian concerns, and their political leaderships should act upon it the way India ‘thinks’ without expressing the specifics at the appropriate/highest levels.

Whenever India has taken up its own justifiable geo-strategic security concerns, or even internal security concerns, say involving Pakistani ISI, it has not talked straight an at the top-most levels, and continually so. Instead, it is seen as taking umbrage under side-issues, like demography-centric concerns in Sri Lanka during the Cold War, and in Nepal more recently, democracy in Maldives now, not when President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was in power for an unbroken 30 years, and Bangladesh, whenever Khaleda Zia and her BNP are in power.

‘Intolerance’ quotient

To all this, there is a new factor creeping in. There is no denying the reality of most of India’s immediate, South Asian neighbours being Muslim nations, and for historic reasons. While the incumbent Government, for reasons of political ideology and national expediency, has done the right thing by pressing the cause of ‘religious minorities’ in individual nations, the reverse is also becoming an increasing and more real concerns pertaining to ‘minorities’ in India.

Thus, at a conference for media professionals in Dhaka recently, Bangladesh’s Information Minister, Hasanul Haq Inu, is reported to have expressed concern over ‘intolerance in India’ affecting Bangladesh. Given the complexity of India-centric politics, to a greater or lesser degree, in most of these nations over the past decades, this is a strong statement, for India to take notice and act upon, in ways it sees fit. That way, Maldives possibly was the only neighbour where India was not a real political issue on the domestic front, but not after the nation became a multi-party democracy, but not over democracy issues, but over GMR first, and the ‘Nasheed factor’ since.

It is thus becoming incumbent upon India as a nation to look closely and constantly at the neighbourhood, and at the topmost levels of political and diplomatic leaderships in New Delhi.


In doing so, India has to delineate its real concerns and what many in these nations see only as a smoke-screen (even if not), and read everything India says or does only through that darkened prism. India can continue to blame them all, but then, India can also take the initiative to clear the smoke from that screen, and then the smoke-screen itself, and engage them bilaterally and collectively.

That way, India could still have initiated a common security strategy long ago, without letting them guess-work on what India’s intentions and geo-strategic moves in what is still a shared region and waters, viz the US and the rest, for Indo-Pacific, for instance, now are. If nothing else, India cannot claim to have taken any or all of them into confidence on its own role in what is essentially America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, and the Quad.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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