Treading Carefully: India’s Diplomatic Tightrope in the Neighbourhood

India’s foreign policy often recedes amidst the fervour of general elections, yet glimpses of it emerge in the carefully crafted manifestos of political parties. However, the persistent gap between rhetoric and action remains a defining characteristic of governance, although the BJP-led NDA government in New Delhi aims to change this narrative.  Foreign relations, a critical realm of India’s policy regime, finds its contours shaped by the complex dynamics of diplomacy, particularly concerning India’s neighbours. The difficult challenge of neighbouring relations has long bedevilled India’s foreign policy landscape, with China and Myanmar also sharing borders compounding the tests within the region. Observers have noted a tumultuous path in the Narendra Modi government’s ‘neighbourhood policy’ over the past decade, fraught with conflicts and setbacks, reflecting the shifting geopolitical situation in the region.

Strains in the Neighbourhood

Amidst India’s assertive posturing on the global stage – from its significant role in the G-20 last year to crafting nuanced policies for the Arctic and Antarctic – strains in its immediate neighbourhood raise pertinent questions. Recent episodes, such as India’s defence minister’s posture on Pakistan, tensions with the Maldives, and the untimely projection of the Katchatheevu issue (with Sri Lanka), indicated slipups in New Delhi’s diplomatic finesse, inviting criticism of immature maneuvering. All this happened at a crucial time of the Modi government completing its tenth year in office and facing the six-week-long general election. 

In an attempt to recalibrate relations, the Modi government had launched the “neighbourhood-first policy,” a decade back, aimed at fostering friendship and enhancing trade with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, though the extent of friendly ties with China appeared vague. While numerous memoranda of understanding have been inked, spanning domains like education, healthcare, agriculture, and trade, tangible outcomes remained elusive amid the churn of bilateral disputes and security concerns. The spectre of border skirmishes, notably in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh with China, and recurrent clashes along the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, cast a pall over diplomatic overtures, undermining aspirations for substantive regional cooperation. Thus, while the Modi government espoused a vision of a ‘neighbourhood-friendly’ South Asia, the ground reality signalled a more arduous journey towards realizing this lofty ambition.

Dynamics with Pakistan

In the initial days of Modi’s tenure, there emerged promising signs of a thaw in relations with Pakistan, epitomized by the ‘Sari-Shawl diplomacy’ and the camaraderie between Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi. The latter’s impromptu visit to Lahore in 2015 captured global attention, though it stirred unease among Pakistan’s military and religious echelons. However, this potential amity was short-lived.  

The trajectory shifted dramatically in September 2016, spoiled by a terrorist attack on an Indian army base in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir, claiming the lives of 19 soldiers. India   pointed fingers at Pakistan-based militants, igniting a flare-up in tensions and dashing hopes for bilateral dialogue. The fallout from Uri reverberated across the region, casting a shadow over the 19th SAARC Summit slated for Pakistan, ultimately leading to its postponement. The Pulwama terror attack in February 2019, resulting in the tragic loss of 40 Indian paramilitary personnel, precipitated a swift retaliatory airstrike by India on alleged terror camps in Pakistan’s Balakot region, escalating hostilities and further impeding prospects for regional cooperation. Subsequent decisions by the Modi government, including the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 in August 2019, exacerbated tensions and brought bilateral trade to a grinding halt. However, recent remarks by Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, seemingly endorsing reports of Indian agencies employing mercenary agents to neutralize Pakistan-based terrorists, have further inflamed tensions. Pakistan’s vehement reaction to Singh’s assertion indicated the precarious state of bilateral relations, marred by mistrust and mutual recriminations.

Meanwhile, the recent change in government in Pakistan has signalled a tentative interest in revitalizing nominal trade ties, viewed as a means to resuscitate the faltering Pakistani economy. Understandably, with elections looming, the Modi administration has been cautious in its response to these overtures.

Relations with Bhutan and Nepal

During Modi’s early tenure, India’s focus on nurturing relations with South Asian Himalayan countries like Bhutan and Nepal encountered both progress and pitfalls. Opting for Bhutan as his inaugural foreign visit, Modi stressed the significance of these ties. Subsequent visits to neighbouring nations, barring the Maldives due to domestic upheavals, signalled a concerted effort to bolster regional cooperation. 

Yet, amidst efforts at cooperation, discord persisted. Border demarcation issues, particularly concerning certain unmarked areas along the India-Bhutan border, remained unresolved, leaving potential flashpoints ripe for exploitation, especially in the context of China’s strategic manoeuvres. China’s alleged encroachment along the India-Bhutan-China border in 2017, coupled with India’s counter-deployment, escalated tensions and complicated an already delicate situation. The spectre of a strategic partnership between China and Pakistan, manifested through the Belt-Road Initiative, further strained India’s relations with its neighbours.

Bhutan, historically aligned with India, began to assert its sovereignty, signalling a departure from past treaties and pursuing broader international engagements. This shift, coupled with Nepal’s evolving political landscape and growing proximity to China, stirred apprehensions in India and its Himalayan diplomacy. The Doklam standoff in 2017 was an example of the complexities of regional dynamics. Bhutan’s concerns over Chinese encroachments intersected with India’s strategic interests, culminating in a prolonged standoff with far-reaching implications for regional security and border disputes.

India’s vigilance over strategic chokepoints like the ‘Chicken Neck’ and its intervention in Doklam pointed to its strategic imperatives, albeit with repercussions on regional stability. As China’s influence looms large in South Asia, India set itself to start a delicate balancing act, safeguarding its interests while averting regional destabilization.

The discord between India and Nepal reached its lowest point following Nepal’s adoption of a new constitution in 2015, which India contested. The subsequent sanctions imposed by India, culminating in a crippling blockade, exposed the asymmetrical power dynamics between larger and smaller neighbours, prompting Nepal to explore alternatives, notably closer ties with China. The construction of a contentious road linking Uttarakhand with the disputed Lipulekh Pass in May 2020 further exacerbated tensions, leading to border skirmishes and straining bilateral relations. India’s porous borders with Nepal and Bhutan, while facilitating free movement, also pose security challenges, with India alleging exploitation by anti-Indian elements and terrorists.

Strains with China and Sri Lanka 

Initially, the Modi government sought to bolster trade and economic relations with China. However, escalating conflicts with neighbouring countries, including Bhutan, Nepal, and Pakistan, precipitated a shift. Border tensions in Ladakh since May 2020, culminating in clashes at the Galwan Valley, highlighted the complexities of managing border disputes. In fact, both nations vied for infrastructure development along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), with India’s construction of a new road triggering the June 2020 clash. High-level military discussions between India and China aimed at resolving border issues in eastern Ladakh since the Galwan face-off in 2020 have seen limited progress. These talks have primarily focused on pursuing full disengagement in the remaining friction areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with the goal of upholding ‘peace and tranquillity’ on the ground. On February 19, the 21st round of India-China corps commander level meeting took place at the Chushul-Moldo border. During this meeting, the Indian side reaffirmed its position on resolving the remaining friction points at Depsang and Demchok before seeking normalization in bilateral relations between the two countries. 

Despite negotiations, tensions persisted, erupting into clashes near the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh in December 2022. China’s continued opposition to India’s stance on Arunachal Pradesh was again exposed by reports of renaming 30 places along the border, prompting a strong rebuke from India’s Ministry of External Affairs. Amidst this backdrop, the region remains entangled in a precarious situation showing the fragility of regional stability.

The relationship between India and Sri Lanka has endured its share of trials and tribulations, particularly concerning the Tamil issue and maritime disputes. Early interventions in the Tamil conflict by successive Indian administrations were met with scepticism by Sri Lanka until the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 and the subsequent deployment of the Indian peacekeeping force altered dynamics. However, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi precipitated a fundamental shift in India’s approach, leading to a recalibration of relations focusing on economic and trade matters while eschewing interference in internal affairs.

However, India’s response to the Rajapaksa regime’s handling of the Tamil issue in 2008-09 was not widely appreciated, balancing political pressures from Tamil Nadu with strategic considerations. While the plight of Northeastern Tamils drew attention, the grievances of Tamils of recent Indian origin received comparatively less notice. The Tamil diaspora’s emotional ties to Tamil Nadu and the influx of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees showed the complexities of the issue, with lingering doubts about India’s sincerity in seeking a peaceful resolution.

Meanwhile, the recurring arrests of Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy further strained bilateral ties, exacerbating tensions over maritime boundaries and humanitarian concerns. Despite (1974 and 1976) treaties delineating boundaries and stipulating humane treatment, successive administrations in both countries failed to address this issue effectively. It was in this context that the controversy surrounding the Katchatheevu Island issue fuelled political posturing, with statements by Indian leaders often viewed through the lens of electoral politics, particularly in Tamil Nadu. Sri Lankan media criticism and opposition scrutiny added fuel to the fire, exacerbating tensions. Despite these challenges, both countries recognize the importance of continued cooperation, particularly in times of crisis. The reluctance to antagonize each other is seen in the context of India’s support during Sri Lanka’s financial distress, highlighting the absence of alternative benefactors in times of need.

Challenges in the Maldives and Bangladesh

During this period, India’s relations with the Maldives, often called a tropical paradise, soured considerably under President Muhammed Muizzu’s administration, characterized by anti-India rhetoric and a pro-China stance. Muizzu’s demand for the withdrawal of Indian troops by March 15, 2024, sparked widespread protests, exacerbating tensions. The Modi government’s earlier criticism of Muizzu’s anti-India remarks, coupled with controversies surrounding Lakshadweep, further strained bilateral ties, fuelling concerns about losing yet another friendly ally in the region. 

Conversely, India’s relations with Bangladesh have seen some progress, marked by compromises on border demarcation, albeit challenges remain, particularly concerning river water sharing. However, in 2015, India and Bangladesh signed an agreement to simplify their 4,000-km border and clarify the identities of 52,000 individuals living in enclaves, resolving a four-decade-old issue. The deal, originally proposed in 1974, involved swapping 200 tiny enclaves, improving living conditions for their inhabitants. Each country would assume control over most enclaves within its territory, granting residents the choice to stay or move across the border. Described as a ‘historic milestone,’ the agreement signified a breakthrough in the relationship between the two countries. Even at this time, Bangladesh’s growing ties with China and internal anti-India sentiments posed concerns, notwithstanding the generally pro-India stance of the Sheikh Hasina administration, positioning Bangladesh as a crucial player in India’s ‘Act East’ policy.

Engagement with Myanmar and Afghanistan

Myanmar holds strategic significance for India as a gateway to Southeast Asia, fostering opportunities for maritime cooperation and economic collaboration. India’s proactive engagement with Myanmar is perceived as a counterbalance to China’s expanding influence in the region, although challenges persist in reducing China’s sway and addressing moral issues emerging from Myanmar’s internal conflicts and human rights abuses, notably involving the military. 

Meanwhile, India’s historically warm relations with Afghanistan face uncertainty following the resurgence of the Taliban. Diplomatic ties have dwindled, and uncertainties will linger until the Taliban gets formal recognition. India’s humanitarian aid remains limited amid evolving political dynamics, indicating the delicate balance between regional stability and India’s strategic interests.

Conclusion: Challenges to Regional Diplomacy

In sum, fostering a harmonious and amicable neighbourhood requires India to prioritize the establishment of a stable and peaceful regional order. Central to this endeavour is the imperative for democratic engagement with neighbouring countries, irrespective of their size or stature. India’s erstwhile ‘big brother’ approach has often bred suspicion and unease among its neighbours, necessitating a departure from interfering in their internal affairs and refraining from remarks that encroach upon their sovereignty. 

A proactive stance in addressing emerging regional challenges, coupled with a concerted effort to prevent minor issues from escalating, is paramount. Aligning regional economic policies with inherent geographical advantages can further bolster cohesion and cooperation. The revitalization of SAARC, despite India’s historical reservations, serves as a potential platform for such endeavours.

Yet, addressing the complexity of relationships within the neighbourhood requires diplomatic finesse, given the inherent pattern of ‘love-hate’ dynamics among neighbouring nations. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauds India’s diplomatic strides and the transformative potential of decisions made at global summits like the G-20, the notion that India alone can reshape the global order amidst its geopolitical challenges is an overstatement. Former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh once remarked: “The real test of India’s foreign policy is dealing with neighbours.” If India aspires to foster a neighbourhood characterized by peace, prosperity, and stability, it must chart a new course away from conventional practices, embracing a democratic and inclusive approach to regional diplomacy.

[Photo by Prime Minister’s Office, India]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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