Context: India’s Neighbourhood first policy.
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- Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa visited India in early Februaury. It was his first foreign trip since his appointment as prime minister in late November 2019.
Neighbourhood first policy:
- It is part of India’s foreign policy that actively focuses on improving ties with India’s immediate neighbours.
- The neighbourhood first policy of Modi government actively focuses on improving ties with India’s immediate neighbours. It is one of the major policy initiatives of the Modi government to bring back the focus on its immediate neighbourhood in South Asia.
- Modi invited all the SAARC leaders to his swearing-in ceremony and on the subsequent day he held bilateral talk with all of them individually.
- Also, PM Modi dedicated SAARC satellite to share the fruits of the technology like tele-medicine, e-learning etc. with the people across South Asia to complement the currently operating Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme in the region.
- In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit abroad in his second term to the Maldives and Sri Lanka, certifies the traditional diplomatic emphasis on “Neighbourhood first”
- The Neighbourhood First Policy achieves various goals through a holistic approach to regional foreign policy:
- Connectivity: India entering into MoU with members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), these agreements ensures a free flow of resources, energy, goods, labour, and information across borders.
- Resource support, financial aid, equipment, human resource training and diplomatic alliances. For example, India provided immense assistance, to its neighbour Nepal in the aftermath of the 2016 earthquake.
- Regional Institutions: India has participated and invested in SAARC as a vehicle for development in the region. One such example is the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) grouping for energy development i.e. motor vehicles, waterpower management and inter-grid connectivity.
- India’s neighbourhood policy is predicated on his “sabka saath, sabka vikas” vision for inclusive growth, development and prosperity.
Current course of India’s Foreign Policy vis a vis neighbourhood:
- After SAARC becoming defunct (due to Pakistan’s misadventure) PM Modi turned to the BIMSTEC, India invited BIMSTEC leaders in the swearing ceremony of PM Modi’s second term.
- Earlier BIMSTEC leaders were invited to join the BRICS summit at Goa during 2016.
- Apart from focusing mainly on the land-borne neighbourhood, Indian foreign policy has to shift its focus towards the maritime neighbourhood. Though some positive steps in this direction have taken: For example:
- PM Modi first foreign visit in his second term is headed towards Maldives and Sri Lanka.
- Emphasis on SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) narrative, an Indian Ocean strategy outlined in 2015 when Indian PM travelled to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka.
- But India needs to engage with its maritime neighbourhood more enthusiastically as strategically important countries like Myanmar, Thailand, or Indonesia with whom India shared land and/or maritime boundaries were neglected in PM Modi first term.
- India and Sri Lanka share a 2500 years old relationship, built upon a foundation of intellectual, cultural, religious and linguistic interaction.
- Several infrastructure projects, direct flights between Chennai and Jaffna, resumption of ferry services, India’s new lines of credit and construction of houses for the internally displaced, homeless and landless people, are indicative of a new warmth in relations.
- Areas of Concern:
- In Sri Lanka, China holds strategic real estates, which could also be fortified militarily in the future. Sri Lanka handed over the strategic port of Hambantota to China, which is expected to play a key role in China’s BRI.
- Another thorny issue we have with Sri Lanka is the frequent arrest of Indian fishermen by Sri Lanka. Joint Working Group on Fisheries is discussing the issue. In the mean time, India has been encouraging fishermen to take to deep sea fishing so that they don’t need to fish in Sri Lankan waters.
- The strategic location of Maldives on Indian Ocean sea lanes makes this country important to us.
- The Diplomatic relations with Maldives were established in 1972.
- During Modi’s visit in June 2019, the inauguration of two projects worth Rs 180 crore — the Coastal Surveillance Radar System and the Composite Training Center of the Maldivian National Defence Forces — has deep significance for the success of India’s neighbourhood policy.
- India’s offer of lines of credit worth about $800 million and other capacity-building projects for water supply and sewerage are strong planks in our economic ties.
- Areas of Concern:
- Maldives and India do not have a Free Trade Agreement. However Maldives and China entered into Free Trade Agreement.
- There are reports on activities of religious extremists in the island. This is of concern to India and the Indian government has flagged this to the attention of the Govt of Maldives.
- Diplomatic relations between India and Nepal, established on 1947, encourages democracy, pluralism, stability and socioeconomic progress of both the nation
- Modi’s initial outreach to Nepal in 2014 managed to strike the right chord, and captured the imagination of people and policymakers in Nepal.
- In September last year, India and Nepal jointly inaugurated South Asia’s first cross-border petroleum products pipeline from Motihari in India to Amlekhgunj in Nepal.
- India is also prioritising the rebuilding of houses in Gorkha and Nuwakot districts, with “Build Back Better” as the guiding principle in keeping with Modi’s clarion call for a Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI).
- Areas of Concern:
- India has an open border with Nepal. It facilitates free movement of people but also of terrorists and smugglers who bring in fake Indian currency.
- The unsettled domestic political situation in Nepal is a matter of concern to us as it has a fallout effect on the bordering states, because of the close connection between people living on either side of the border. There is an urgent need for Nepal to address the political unrest in the terai region, where Madhesis have been voicing their concerns, many of which are genuine.
- Kathmandu has already signed on to the BRI , which is likely to cement China’s communication links with Nepal.
- Bangladesh continues to be bright spot for India’s neighborhood, policy despite attempts by pro-Pakistan radical groups to derail the flourishing bilateral relationship.
- Bangladesh has emerged as a key gateway for India’s sub-regional initiatives, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) initiative.
- India’s relations with Bangladesh under Modi and Sheikh Hasina have evolved into a model partnership, consolidated by high-level exchanges, mutual trust and enhanced cooperation on security matters.
- In July 2014, New Delhi and Dhaka accepted the judgment of International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and settled a long-standing maritime order dispute.
- 2015 Land Boundary Agreement, arrangements for sharing of Teesta waters, ongoing work of hydro-electric projects, revival of inland waterways etc are some of the strengths of India-Bangladesh relations.
- Areas of Concern:
- An immediate challenge for India is increasing efforts by China to rope in Bangladesh into its scheme of things on BRI initiative.
- Rohingya issue and the illegal migrants issue across borders is another cause of concern between two nations.
- India – Bhutan relations are based on mutual trust, confidence and respect for each other’s national interests. The importance of this Himalayan Kingdom arises from its strategic location between India and China.
- Hydro power is the most important area of economic cooperation with Bhutan. Three India assisted Projects – Chukha, Kurichu and Tala – with a total generating capacity of 1416 MW are presently operational.
- The introduction of the RuPay card in Bhutan and elsewhere in the neighbourhood will further cement economic and people-to-people ties.
- Areas of Concern: Opposition to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India (BBIN) motor vehicle agreement.
- South Asia has 1.8 billion people and a combined GDP of nearly $3.47 trillion, with India’s economy the largest by far. As the largest country, India should be leading the South Asia project:
- Establishing cross-border transport and communication links.
- Opening up its markets and its own transport infrastructure to its neighbours.
- Becoming the preferred source of capital and technology for their development.
- India’s focus on BIMSTEC and its Act East Policy has served to highlight India’s key role in promoting cooperative growth and development in several parts of South Asia.
- In a world increasingly characterised by a “my country first” approach, India has endeavoured to harness the impulse for regional cooperation in a spirit of generosity, without insisting on reciprocity, to realise Modi’s motto of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR).
- India’s security preoccupations are likely to be addressed with greater seriousness if it encourages its neighbours to build a stake in India’s own prosperity and capabilities. India’s immediate neighbourhood directly impacts it geopolitically, geo-strategically and geo-economically because of its vicinity.