Geopolitics

India and the South Asian Neighbourhood
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Issue Vol. 27.4 Oct-Dec 2012 | Date : 01 Jan , 2013

Map showing threats to India

India’s relations with her neighbours need to be analysed frankly and unsentimentally, without recourse to the usual platitudes when pronouncing on the subject. It is fashionable to assume that there is some larger moral imperative that governs relations between neighbours, with the bigger country being obliged to show a level of generosity and tolerance towards a smaller neighbour that would not be applicable to attitudes and policies towards a more distant country. The compulsions of “good neighbourliness” between countries are, however, not the same as between neighbours in the same building or the same street. The commandment “Love thy neighbour as thyself” elicits no obedience from the chancelleries of the world.

India’s relations with her neighbours need to be analysed frankly and unsentimentally, without recourse to the usual platitudes when pronouncing on the subject. It is fashionable to assume that there is some larger moral imperative that governs relations between neighbours, with the bigger country being obliged to show a level of generosity and tolerance towards a smaller neighbour that would not be applicable to attitudes and policies towards a more distant country. The compulsions of “good neighbourliness” between countries are, however, not the same as between neighbours in the same building or the same street. In the case of the latter the rights, obligations and duties of citizenship are the same, all live under the authority of the same state and conflicts are mediated through the instruments of law. We should not commit the mistake of transposing to international relations the codes of conduct between citizens of the same country. The commandment “Love thy neighbour as thyself” elicits no obedience from the chancelleries of the world.

Had India not been partitioned in 1947, its western frontier would have extended to the Persian Gulf…

Before talking of India and her neighbours we should have a clearer idea of what, in India’s eyes, constitutes her neighbourhood. Should we look at India’s neighbourhood strategically or geographically? If the first, then a case can be made out that India’s neighbourhood encompasses the entire region from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca. This is India’s security parameter. Developments in this region have a major impact on India. On the western side, six million Indians are employed in the Gulf, remitting to their home country annually over $50 billion. This region is the largest supplier of oil and gas to India. This area is the heart of Islam and influences and ideologies emanating from here impact on India’s immediate external environment and indeed, to an extent, the domestic scene. In any case, had India not been partitioned in 1947, its western frontier would have extended to the Persian Gulf.

In the East, India’s possession of the Andaman and Nicobar islands stretches her frontiers to the other choke-point, the Malacca Strait. The Bay of Bengal has Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand as littoral states. This stretch of the sea is the link to South East Asia and beyond. For buttressing India’s ‘Look East’ policy, this area is of vital importance. Apart from India forging bilateral ties with these countries, the security of the sea lanes of communication in an area where the only regional blue water navy is Indian, devolves some special responsibilities on India.

If geography alone were to determine who India’s neighbours are, then Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives constitute the core of the neighbourhood. Myanmar is a contiguous neighbour but as India has been conditioned over the years to view essentially the SAARC countries as her neighbours, Myanmar is lost sight of, despite its critical geographical location adjacent to the north-eastern region of the country. Myanmar, which applied for full membership of SAARC in May 2008, has yet to consummate it. However, with the rapid changes in the country, it is opening up and the progressive removal of sanctions, its profile as India’s neighbour will keep rising.

The unresolved  border dispute between India and China constitutes a major Indian foreign policy problem…

Afghanistan may not be a direct geographic neighbour today. However, given the fact that Pakistan’s occupation of the northern areas in Jammu and Kashmir is regarded by India as illegal, in a sense it can be treated as one. In any case, with the inclusion of Afghanistan as a full member of SAARC, the political case for treating Afghanistan as an integral part of India’s neighbourhood stands reinforced.

With China’s occupation of Tibet, the former has become India’s direct neighbour. The unresolved border dispute between India and China constitutes a major Indian foreign policy problem, colouring her relationship with the world’s foremost rising power. Moreover, in India’s perception, China has adversely influenced India’s relations with its South Asian neighbours. China, therefore, qualifies as India’s most formidable neighbour, affecting India’s role not only in the South Asian region, but in Asia as a whole and even at the global level.

The management of relations with neighbours is always a declared priority in any country’s foreign policy. The assumption is that a stable neighbourhood strengthens a country’s foreign policy posture, whereas an unstable and troubled neighbourhood saps its ability to act fully effectively on the international stage. The credibility of a country’s regional and global posture, it is believed, is also undermined if it is seen as embroiled in disputes and conflicts with neighbours. The accepted view is that the time and energy spent in controlling events in the immediate neighbourhood is at the cost of pursuing wider interests at the regional and global level.

In actual fact, most countries have very problematic relations with neighbours and yet many are not held back because of this. Historically, Britain rose to global power status despite almost ceaseless conflicts with its neighbours. France became a world power despite being embroiled in wars with neighbours. China has huge problems with its neighbours, without this affecting its inexorable rise today as a global power. Turkey has problems with virtually all its neighbours, without this materially affecting its rise to regional power status. It is, therefore, open to question whether a stable neighbourhood is a pre-requisite for a country’s rise to regional or global status. There are many other factors at play that allow countries to rise and flourish even if their neighbourhood is not peaceful.

In India’s perception, China has adversely influenced India’s relations with its South Asian neighbours.

While in theory the need to have a peaceful, stable and friendly neighbourhood may appear self-evident, what would that mean in practical terms? Can one have good relations with neighbours simply because that would be desirable in itself? Can one build such relations unilaterally? To what extent should one be willing to make concessions? Should one look for reciprocity or not? How far is it the responsibility primarily of the bigger country to make the requisite effort in forging positive relationships? Is a smaller country always right in its demands? Can a country demand or plead for extra consideration simply because it is smaller? Should it on that basis be entitled to a more sensitive treatment of its fears, vulnerabilities and even paranoia?

These are not the only issues that arise in any examination of the conditions in which neighbouring countries relate to each other. What about the role of third parties and of external actors? During the Cold War, the competing powers had an incentive to extend their political and ideological reach to all corners of the globe. In that process relations between neighbours, who were pulled at times in different ideological directions, were distorted, adding to already existing tensions or misunderstandings. Today, in the age of globalisation, different pulls and pressures operate and these could be helpful or harmful depending on circumstances.

The short point is that countries cannot always act in their neighbourhood as they please depending on local advantages in power equations. Outside forces will be there to provide a counterbalance, either because a particular country might want to bring an external power into the neighbourhood to reduce the weight of a perceived regional hegemon or external powers themselves, pushed by balance of power considerations or policies of containment, may intrude into the region on their own and manipulate their local partners for larger strategic purposes.

Sections of Indian public opinion are acutely conscious of India’s failure to stabilise her own neighbourhood. It is argued that India as the biggest country in the region has the primary responsibility for managing the regional environment. Often India is criticised for not being sufficiently generous to her neighbours, of hesitating to make unilateral concessions to them, which it is believed she can well afford to do. Such concessions are advocated especially on the economic side, the argument being that India as a huge economy can easily absorb the limited sacrifice that is expected of it and in the process can attach the neighbouring economies to itself in a mutually beneficial manner. The stakes which develop because of this interdependence would theoretically make it difficult for other governments to pursue adversarial policies beyond a certain point. Poor border management, failure to create proper border posts and customs infrastructure is viewed as another example of insensitivity to the need to facilitate relations with neighbours.

The management of relations with neighbours is always a declared priority in any country’s foreign policy…

Such criticism overlooks many complexities. For one, India’s capacity to order her neighbourhood in a manner congenial to her requirements is exaggerated. India did intervene in Sri Lanka in agreement with its government. However, the experience left her chastened to the point that she rejected an intrusive role in Sri Lanka later as the ethnic conflict grew, even when other countries prompted it to take greater responsibility for steering the course of events there in the right direction. She abdicated playing the central role in the developments leading to the defeat of the LTTE and it is to be seen how much constructive influence it can bring to bear in ensuring that the present opportunity to settle the Tamil question equitably is not lost. India’s intervention in the Maldives at the request of its government was more successful, but this cannot be construed as an attempt by India to shape its immediate environment to suit its needs or a model for future interventions.

India has been sensitive in handling the issue of democracy in her neighbourhood. Even as western democracies seek to impose democratic values on others and use instruments of moral reprobation and boycotts to coerce select non-democratic countries to reform their political systems, India has abjured such thinking. Her basic approach is to do business with whichever government is in power. Even as there is awareness that a truly democratic system in Pakistan that limits the power of both the armed forces and extremist groups, would be beneficial to India-Pakistan ties, India has not sought to interfere in Pakistan’s internal politics. On the contrary, she has willingly done serious business with Pakistan’s military regimes, especially that of General Musharraf. Likewise in Bangladesh, India has never rejected serious engagement with the military regimes there. In the case of Myanmar, even at the cost of earning some diplomatic flak, India has sought to build close ties with it irrespective of the country’s regime for reasons of overriding national interest. India will, of course, abide by legalities and UN sanctions against any country for transgression of norms, but participating in a crusade for democracy because of a sense of superior political values, is not part of India’s thinking about her neighbourhood and beyond. For India this is practical politics, shorn of the hypocrisy of those who promote democracy selectively and at lowest political and business cost to themselves.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Kanwal Sibal

Former Foreign Secretary of India

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2 thoughts on “India and the South Asian Neighbourhood

  1. It’s a good review. After reading it couldn’t help wondering if we need a stronger leadership . A leader ,who wouldn’t tolerate interference of the US, western and Chinese interference in India’s neighboring policies and if they do so India should all imports from them.Our export is anyway negligible to these nations compare to our imports from them.

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