India’s policy towards its neighborhood has often come under attack for its mismanagement and insufficiency. This has been the case even after an exclusive policy of ‘neighborhood first’ was devised by the Modi government to show its goodwill towards its neighbors. But it is an uncontested law of international relations that small countries are insecure about their big neighbors due to the underlying asymmetry in geography, economy and in most cases, military might. This is the plight that has set in South Asia, where India, the largest country in all the aforementioned aspects, is surrounded by smaller countries that in one way or the other perceive India as the ‘big brother’ trying to dominate the region. The insecurities have exacerbated because of a sense of loss of identity among the smaller neighbors due to similarities in culture, civilization, religion, ethnicity etc., with India. This is the same insecurity that the smaller South East Asian neighbors face vis-à-vis China.
Kautilya, the renowned strategist of ancient India, in his political treatise called Arthashastra opines that neighbors will always be jealous and unfriendly. It is indeed valid even in the present day because of the constant factor of ‘national interest’ which drove the ancient kingdoms then and are driving the contemporary nation states today. The perceived insecurity propels these smaller states to open their doors to extra regional powers which, in the case of South Asia, is China.
Pakistan welcoming investments from China and allowing their influence to percolate into its governance structures should be perceived from a larger context of Pakistan’s incessant hostility towards India. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as well as China’s proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) violate India’s territorial integrity and nothing can serve better to comfort Pakistan’s ambitions in the disputed region. Nepal has been acting the ideal buffer state by playing the China card with India and vice versa. China has gained the inroads to the region by investing on a rail project that will connect Nepal with seven of China’s ports. This according to Prime Minister K. P. Oli, can enable Nepal to “use border points and routes as per their needs”, necessarily meaning the end of the so called ‘Indian monopoly’ over Nepal’s trade and connectivity. Nepal supports the BRI.
India’s border with Bangladesh has made it a home to about 3.1 million Bangladeshi migrants most of who make a living in India. The issue of migration has amplified with the additional influx of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar through the Bangladeshi borders. This can deepen the demographic inversion that has already taken roots in the Eastern and North-eastern states of India. Dhaka and Naypyidaw are also recipients of China’s investment for their port development and both joined the BRI. India’s policies towards its eastern neighbors have always sought mutual benefits rather than anything that is unidirectional even though there’s an absence of much financial gain for India like China. The swapping of the border enclaves with Bangladesh is one instance of India’s resolve in establishing harmony with its neighbors.
The case of Sri Lanka handing over the control of its Hambantota port for a 99-year lease is very much like inviting the debt trap laid by China. The ‘White Elephant’ that is now under the Chinese control will act as the pivotal hub of the Indian Ocean in the 21st century Maritime Silk Route. Though this might concern India regarding its security in the Indian Ocean Region, India is certainly not looking to woo Sri Lanka with more attractive offers but is trying to invest on agreements and dynamic diplomacy that can be rewarding for both the countries, much more to Sri Lanka. Despite India’s goodwill and unconditional support during distress calls, the Maldives’ ties with India have largely depended on the administration in Male which has also welcomed the BRI.
This complexity is compounded by the lack of a robust regional cooperation framework. The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has lost its flavor due to the persisting regional instability topped by the Pakistan-India antagonism that has continuously affected its functioning, paving way for China to enter into the South Asian theater. To conclude, neighboring states’ tilt towards China is a result of their wanting to balance their bigger neighbor. This is certainly a natural outcome of geopolitics and thus, the policy itself cannot always be blamed. As simple as it is to rebuke India for pronouncing an inadequate neighborhood policy, the fault is also on the side of the neighbors, who themselves are mismanaging their policies and letting themselves be allured by China’s offers. China’s policies aren’t of magnanimity but rather self-serving and assertively unilateral in the long term which is coated by short term financial aids and development projects. The effect of this can be seen with the set-back meted by the BRI as a result of withdrawal of certain countries.
Having said that India should not back off in its pursuit of extending its benevolence towards its neighborhood and also at the same time should hold cognition of the fact that it needs not compete with China to gain its place in the good books of its neighbors. Relations are molded according to interests and perceptions and being the bigger neighbor, India will forever have to overcome the insecurity hurdle in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee once said, “you can change friends, not neighbours”.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is a post-graduate research scholar in the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka, India. Her research interests include Indian Foreign Policy and Geopolitics of the Middle East including Israel.