< !DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd">
It is considered almost axiomatic that management of relations with neighbours should be the first priority of any countrys foreign policy. The stakes are always high as conditions in its immediate vicinity directly impact on a country. An unfriendly neighbourhood means tensions and a heightened danger of conflict. That implies more military expenditure and diversion of resources away from the economy to meet security needs. Such an environment also creates opportunities for external powers to interfere and distort local relationships. The advantages that flow from mutually beneficial trade arrangements are reduced or lost.
A countrys ability to pursue its interests beyond its neighbourhood is also impaired if it is constantly distracted by problems around it. Its political and diplomatic credibility too suffers at the international level if it is seen as being unable to settle its differences with countries at its own door step.
Indias size and power may be intimidating, but the neighbours have experience of Indias reluctance to react to provocations”¦
A stable, friendly and peaceful, neighbourhood, on the contrary, helps to reduce additional political, economic and military burdens on a country. Its capacity to act on a regional or even global platform- depending on its size, strength and resources- is enhanced if it has the support and understanding of its neighbours. At a time when regional arrangements and organisations are seen as instruments for advancing collective regional interests, a fractious neighbourhood can mean collective loss.
To examine Indias relations with its neighbours in this context, the extent of its neighbourhood would need to be defined. Should we look at Indias strategic neighbourhood or its geographical one? If it is the first then the entire region from the Straits of Hormuz to the Straits of Malacca should be considered. In actual fact, if India had not been partitioned in 1947 and Pakistan hived off it, its western frontier would have extended to the Persian Gulf. In the east, the Andaman and Nicobar islands stretch Indias frontiers to the vicinity of Indonesia. If, however, geographical neighbours alone are to be considered, then we have to confine ourselves to Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Myanmar.
Oddly, Myanmar has not figured sufficiently in our political consciousness as our neighbour, despite the fact that it is contiguous to our troubled north-eastern states and we have vital security interests to protect in developing close ties with it. Myanmars membership of ASEAN has contributed to blurring its identity as our direct neighbour, but its step in May 2008 to seek full membership of SAARC should help us to focus more on that relationship. Afghanistan presents a case of Indias political frontiers not coinciding with strictly legal ones in view of Pakistans illegal occupation of the northern areas of Jammu and Kashmir.
A stable, friendly and peaceful, neighbourhood, on the contrary, helps to reduce additional political, economic and military burdens on a country. Its capacity to act on a regional or even global platform- depending on its size, strength and resources- is enhanced if it has the support and understanding of its neighbours.
However, with Afghanistans full membership of SAARC, it becomes in practical terms an integral part of our neighbourhood. Historically, China and India have never been contiguous, but Chinas occupation of Tibet has made it as our direct neighbour.
While in theory the case for a peaceful, stable and friendly neighbourhood is quite clear, how can such objective be achieved in practice? How can such balance of interests be created that would bind neighbours in friendly ties? Is it contingent on reciprocity or is the bigger and stronger country required to make unilateral concessions? How can fears, prejudices, the weight of history, traditional animosities and such factors be overcome? Is a smaller country entitled to greater consideration simply because of its size?
The role of third countries is important as countries have relationships that go beyond their immediate neighbourhood. In todays globalized world different pulls and pressures operate, helpful or harmful to the interest of individual countries depending on circumstances. Countries look for alliances and partnerships beyond their own region for advancing their own political, economic or security interests. Smaller countries fearful of being overwhelmed by bigger neighbours have interest in seeking ties with external countervailing powers. They, in turn, may have strategic interest in containing regionally influential powers in order to create more space for themselves.