Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

India’s Changing and Challenging Neighbourhood

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Anil Trigunayat
    Venue: NIT Warangal
    Date: August 22, 2019

Esteemed Director NIT, Distinguished Faculty dear students ,

I am indeed very happy to be here today. It is my first visit to your beautiful city. I am very thankful to NIT for their warm hospitality and Ministry of External affairs , XPD Division for sending me for this Distinguished Lecture.

Neighbours are a gift of geography in the geo-political sense. They have congenital problems and suffer from sibling rivalries like the humans and are complicated in their bilateral or multilateral discourse by the historic baggage or external inducements and machinations. Often land and territorial issues get merged with sovereignty dimension which become complex with engineered domestic politics of the country and the region. India- of a continental proportion and size is no exception. Several of its neighbours have had a historical nexus and coexisted as a part of the whole and even owe their being to the colonialism of barely 200 years. Both history and geography and extended neighbourhood further accentuated by modern day competition for their development, security and influence especially smaller countries. They also are cautious of their stronger and far bigger economic neighbours and try to neutralise that disparate regional influence by seeking the counter balance from extra regional or other bigger powers by entering into preferential agreements and treaties that sometimes are not even beneficial for their own good. But that happens all the same. And we see a dynamic but occasionally creative tension too depending on which prism one looks at it.

India has consistently followed a policy that an economically stronger neighbour is an asset for its own security . But it has had its share of difficulties in maintaining the relationships at a comfortable level with her neighbours at one time or the other. Since neighbourhood is no choice and a stronger neighbour with a balanced outlook is a perquisite for one’s own growth India followed a non-reciprocal policy providing maximum possible assistance especially through preferential market access, capacity building and investments and security and Counter terrorism matrix. India also emerged as a first responder and often a security provider be it water shortages and coup attempts in Maldives, devastating earthquakes in Nepal or recent terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka or the recurring floods in Bangladesh.

The only expectation remains that they would eschew any temptation which might afflict India adversely be it terrorism or for that matter economic projects inimical to India’s security. One could see the " Gujaral Doctrine” or provision of huge and favourable investments and lines of credit and grants or for that matter a really focussed " neighbourhood First Policy” of PM Modi. But China with its global ambitions and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as " String of the Pearls” strategy in the South Asian region has created immense challenges to India through its cheque book diplomacy and expeditious project execution style. On both these counts India has lot to catch up since most of her neighbours with the sole exception of Bhutan have bought into the Chinese bait and pie especially for the BRI where India has sovereignty concerns . In fact only last week PM Modi visited Bhutan again and inaugurated the land tracking station for the SAARC Satellite that India had promised and launched in record time despite Pakistan opting out . It is evident that more work with new strategies needs to be done.

Since SAARC itself has become hostage to Indo-Pak rivalry given Pakistan’s continued recourse to terrorism as a tool of state policy against India newer definitions of neighbourhood had to be devised. Hence the " Act East Policy” with emphasis on sub regional cooperation i.e. BCIM, BBIN and BIMSTEC, IOR etc. Moreover the "Look and Act West Policy” to strategically engage and expand the collaborative matrix with the Middle East especially GCC countries and Israel have acquired an unprecedented depth and possibly -the biggest success of the Modi Government’s foreign policy.Prime Minister Modi’s travels to all our neighbours several times over and his " inter-personal touch” with his counterparts have provided an unusual comfort level and understanding which will reinforce ties in the bilateral and multilateral context and is clearly evident in the enhanced strategic investments especially from the Gulf and expanding collaboration in security, defence and counter terrorism initiatives. Israel has also emerged as a major technological and security partner for India while India continues to support the cause Palestine in the international fora and through bilateral varied assistance even though given the diktat of real –politic India has de-hyphenated its Israel Vs Palestine policy like their other Arab neighbours . Then one should also look at the potential under Indo-Pacific frame work . This is important to understand that the "Neighbourhood First policy "has become an extended outreach and not restricted to immediate vicinity alone. But let us discuss our immediate neighbourhood since our own progress and development largely depend on the growth of our neighbours and that has been the consistent policy of India.

Neighbourhood First Policy :

India’s immediate neighbourhood can broadly be described within in the contours of SAARC ( South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation landscape) even though SAARC itself was established only in 1985 at the initiative of the then Bangladesh President Zia Ur Rehman to enhance closer regional integration and collaboration. South Asia though often loosely defined comprises small island nation like Maldives to India a country of continental proportions.It comprises of 23% of global population; 15% arable land ;6% purchasing power and 2% of global trade .Afghanistan , Bhutan and Nepal are landlocked and are dependent for their outward access on other countries including India. Its short six or seven decades old political and independent history has witnessed the amazing functioning of the largest democracy in India to Kingdoms in Bhutan and Nepal to political upheavals through frequent coup d’états in some countries in the group as well as resurgence of democratic communism in Nepal. Besides two of the major countries have nuclear capabilities that is further compounded by the already nuclear Chinese in the larger neighbourhood trying to keep their stilted balance by proxy through Pakistan. Above all, almost all countries have suffered and witnessed extremism and terrorism often exported from outside and across the borders though some have in the process become the havens of terrorist groups and camps as part of their unstated policy in order to serve their myopic untenable foreign policy goals and objectives. You guessed it right , I am referring to Pakistan. Prevalence of poverty , governance issues , underdevelopment and deep seated socio-political divisions and occasional territorial disputes in countries and between countries in the region have been the major challenges for the respective leaderships .Given its geo-political and geo strategic location with absolutely essential maritime trade lanes in the Indian ocean and Arabian sea the countries have fought or had problems with one another or have had proxy wars and conflicts through and sometimes for the cold war adversaries during the decades where efforts were made to contain the resurgent futuristic outcomes of new powers like China and India . It is arguably a given that 21st century is going to be the Asian century but the road is going to be rough and fraught with occasionally insurmountable pot holes as those used to enjoying the neo colonial power paradigms may not allow the new writ so easily inscribed. Besides the trust deficit among the constituents of South Asia remains unabated. No one wants to let the power space go as the politico- military history suggests. But definitely the economic levers are moving southwards towards Asia in general and South and East Asia in particular which ought to dictate the future course of international pivot and interaction.

Regional cooperation with limiting bilateral conflicts and dissonance is natural and desirable for peace, growth, stability and development. Unilateralism is also ceding space to multilateralism in the international discourse. In the 20th century several regional efforts were initiated. Hitherto EU, despite the BREXIT, is perhaps the best and most successful experiment where pan regional institutions have played an important role in achieving the high level of integration, among its 27members , despite huge road blocks and second world war and cold war baggage .Overcoming the concerns and developmental gaps and demands for enhanced support of individual constituents would always pose an existential challenge to any regional group. There are many such arrangements which are struggling and marching on at various levels of integration like NAFTA, MERCOSUR and ASEAN prominent among them. SAARC is no exception to this dichotomy and paradox.

With a combined landmass of 5.12 million square kilometres, a total population exceeding 1.65 billion, more than 60% of whom are below thirty, and an aggregate GDP of over US $6 trillion in PPP terms, the eight- member SAARC grouping was expected to play a critical role in the new Asian century ,provided it could overcome problems of poor domestic governance, export of terror by some, of sporadic outbursts of ethnic, communal and sectarian conflicts and unresolved border disputes gifted by the colonial past. Unfortunately it remains the least integrated region.

The South Asian countries since their independence in 1940s followed protectionist policies with state controls of economic activity, focus on self-reliance with less dependence on foreign investment through tariff and non- tariff barriers. Sri Lanka led the economic reforms liberalising in 1970s and others adopted the new globalisation route in 1980s and 90s. The process of economic reforms in most countries continues at a varied pace. It was also a prerequisite for achieving a meaningful regional institutionalised mechanism. Hence the seven South Asian nations that included Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka agreed upon the creation of a trade bloc called South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985 and to provide a platform for the SAARC Charter whose very first Article enunciated as follows;


"Desirous of promoting peace, stability, amity and progress in the region through strict adherence to the principles of the UNITED NATIONS CHARTER and NON-ALIGNMENT, particularly respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, national independence, non-use of force and non-interference in the internal affairs of other States and peaceful settlement of all disputes; people of South Asia to work together in a spirit of friendship, trust and understanding. " The SAARC Charter further stipulates that decisions at all SAARC fora are to be taken on the basis of unanimity. Bilateral and contentious issues are explicitly excluded from its deliberations and cooperation is based on sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. Ironically these provisions have their own cumbersome tale and have posed effective restraint on SAARC’s functioning since they have been observed more in violation than compliance.

Dhaka Declaration of 13th SAARC Summit in November 2005 included Afghanistan in the forum as its 8th newest member. There are currently 9 Observers in SAARC (China, EU, Iran, Republic of Korea, Australia, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar and US).

After a decade of establishment of SAARC, a regional economic cooperation agreement called South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement (SAPTA) came into existence in 1995 that led to higher level of intra‐regional trade liberalization and economic cooperation among the member countries. SAPTA sought to ensure preferential treatment through reduction of import tariffs on eligible items while ensuring special and the most favorable treatment to the least developed countries in the region. To further strengthen the regional economic cooperation, South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) became a reality in 2006. However, most members continue to prefer other bilateral arrangements and more liberal free trade agreements at the expense of SAFTA which stunted the attraction and pace of further regional integration. Moreover product diversification and member countries’ export structures, to effectively use the trade route in the region, have been missing. SAFTA aimed to reduce tariffs to 0 to 5% over ten year period. It required member countries like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to set their custom tariff under 5% by 2013, whereas it permitted LDCs like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal longer time frames to reduce or eliminate tariffs by 2016.Intra‐regional trade among SAARC countries has been one of the lowest for a region. SAFTA accounts for only around 10% of the total regional trade even after 30 years of the establishment of SAARC and despite the existence of logistical advantages. According to World Bank its 20% cheaper for India to trade with Brazil than with Pakistan. This is in contrast to the Intra-regional trade of roughly 65 per cent of European Union's total trade; 51 per cent in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) area; and 26 per cent in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and 16 per cent in the Latin American trade bloc, Mercosur. Same was the case with FDI. Though the FDI received by SAARC countries have significantly improved over a period of three decades, more than 84% of FDI was received only by India. South Asian countries will need to address not only economic factors such as trade facilitation and infrastructure development, but also some non‐economic factors like creating political will and building confidence so that the road map of converting SAPTA into SAFTA and further into South Asian Customs Union and finally into South Asian Economic Union by the year 2020 which now looks a distant dream given the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan.

India, given its size, population, economy and central location is indeed the pivot and engine of SAARC . It has common land/sea borders with six of the seven other members which places it in an unquestionable leadership role. Unfortunately, due to these very reasons often India willy-nilly becomes the target for its SAARC neighbours who suffer from the "Big Brother Syndrome”.

The coming to power of the new NDA government in India in May, 2014 afforded greater priority to regional cooperation under SAARC. The presence of all the SAARC leaders at the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the new government was an unprecedented and a welcome change. Prime Minister Modi made it clear that making the region peaceful, stable and prosperous is one of his main objectives. He also emphasized the desirability of all SAARC countries working together for ending the endemic poverty in the region.PM Modi has already been on successful visits to Afghanistan, Bangladesh ,Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka, Maldives and even to Pakistan and China. India also hosted leaders from several of our neighbours. While PM Modi visited Madives and Bhutan after his 2019 victory ,External affairs Minister Shri Jai Shankar is visiting Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka as we speak. Sheikh Hasina , PM of Bangladesh will come on her 4th visit to India in October.

Apart from thwarting the Pakistani " Negative veto and approach " to key projects India is following on parallel sub-SAARC and broader regional initiatives like the BIMSTEC and BBIN that eventually are expected to inject synergies into the SAARC cooperation process by associating other neighbours of India like China and Myanmar along with SAARC members like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. PM Modi had gone an extra mile and met PM Nawaj Sharif an unprecedented five times in less than 18 months including his unscheduled visit to Lahore on December 25,2015 to felicitate PM Sharif on his birthday and his daughter’s ,marriage . This combined with interactions at senior official levels gave hope that our initiative will lead to a positive and long term state of peace and friendship between the two countries but that was not to be simply as Pakistani leadership refrained from reciprocating the Indian gestures and also from taking any action against the groups of international terrorists targeting India from their soil. In fact much to the chagrin of Indians the Pak based terrorists carried out the Pathankot , Uri attacks immediately after the goodwill gestures by India ,while no progress in resolution of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks was frustrating enough. And then Pulwama and Balakot happened . India’s abrogation of Art 370 and 35 A ,which is our internal matter, allowed Pakistan to indulge in utter vitriolic against India . their efforts to internationalise the issue have met with no success . India made it clear that "Talks and Terror cannot go hand in hand”.

India remains steadfast and committed to SAARC and has made significant contributions to this asymmetric relationship .As per MEA data some of which are;

* India because of its geography, economy, international stature and commitment to the region is central to SAARC. The SAARC region has acute asymmetrical power balance as India encompasses more than 75 % of the region’s GDP and more than 70 % of population, territorial dependency on India is high and it possesses enormous military power compared to other countries in the region. India has a special responsibility flowing from the geography of the region and the size of its economy. Taking the region along in our march towards progress and prosperity is both an economic and demographic imperative. India has so far contributed over US$ 530.- million to SAARC institutions for socio-economic development.

* During the first engagement of Prime Minister Modi with SAARC at the XVIII Summit in Kathmandu in November, 2014. India made a number of unilateral offers , notably, to build a SAARC Satellite, monitor polio-free countries and provide polio and pentavalent vaccines to the children of South Asia, liberalize the regime of business and medical visas, increase intra-regional tourism, promote use of solar energy, increase cross-border physical, digital and knowledge connectivity, share its expertise in disaster management and mitigation etc.

At the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu, India offered to develop and launch a satellite dedicated to SAARC countries which has been launched even if Pakistan stayed out. . India has called for a Regional Air Services Agreement and offered to help in creating an enabling environment to reduce telecommunications costs to improve connectivity. It is also the prime mover behind the proposed Motor Vehicles Agreement and the Railways Agreement. India is also actively engaged in implementation of the SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation which offers a conducive environment to facilitate cross border electricity trade within the SAARC region.

* India’s trade with South Asia accounts for around 5.5% of its global trade. We have been advocating expedited negotiations/implementation of agreements, promoting investments, trade, exchanges in the region. Under SAFTA, India has unilaterally offered duty free access on all items to the SAARC LDCs and has met the Phase II commitments for non-LDCs. It has zero tariff for goods coming from LDCs. We are eliminating 455 out of 480 tariff lines in our Sensitive Lists for LDCs.

* India is ready with its schedules of commitments for early operationalisation of SAARC Agreement on Trade in Services(SATIS). Our approach is to lead in tariff reduction and eliminate sensitive lists in a calibrated, yet, progressive way.

* The fledgling SAARC Development Fund(SDF) finances sub-regional projects envisaged under its social, economic and infrastructure windows. India is the only country to have paid its assessed contribution( for the entire 5 year period) of US$ 89.9 million and a voluntary contribution of US$ 100 million.

* A currency swap arrangement for the region, with a base fund of US$ 2 billion from India provides short term foreign exchange liquidity requirements of Member States.

* The tele-education project for SAARC countries initiated by India benefits the target student community.

* India has been extending financial support to a number of cultural organizations working for regional integration in the SAARC context. SAARC Bands Festival, Literature Festival and Crafts Festivals, Folklore Festivals have become annual features. A SAARC Museum of Textiles and Handicrafts and Training Centre is being established in New Delhi

* The tele-medicine project in Afghanistan offered by India runs successfully. The regime of Indian medical visas has been liberalized for SAARC nationals.

* India understands and appreciates the concern over the challenge of climate change in the region. It has established an Endowment for Climate Change with a corpus of Rs. 25 crores to finance environment related projects. India has unilaterally undertaken several regional projects in the fields of solar rural electrification, rainwater harvesting, seed testing etc.

* India’s proactive stance since 2004 as part of its new approach to the countries in the neighborhood has been a transformative factor in ensuring the gradual and irreversible transition of the organization from its declaratory to implementation mode. India’s commitment to shoulder more than its assessed responsibilities, in an asymmetric and non-reciprocal manner, has resonated well within the region

Apart from the ambit of SAARC, India has taken several initiatives to improve bilateral relations with all the member countries without exception. India’s historic free trade arrangements with Bhutan and Nepal have been expanded to include a FTA with Sri Lanka and significant liberalisation of market access for Bangladesh’s principal exports, namely textiles. India had extended the MFN status to Pakistan way back in 1996 and waited for decades for Pakistan’s grant of Non-Discriminatory Market Access to it that is also prescribed in the very first article of WTO. India is committed to the economic development of Afghanistan and already has allocated US$ 2 billion on important infrastructure projects in the energy and highway sectors among others. Denial of transit access by Pakistan to Afghanistan has obliged India to develop the Chabahar Port facility in Iran for accessing both Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics. India has also extended billions of dollars worth of lines of credit to her neighbours in the spirit of " Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas”.

The Pakistani Nuisance:

The biggest obstacle to SAARC’s functioning and growth has been the frequent stand-offs between India and Pakistan- the two largest members , which between them control 80% of its land area, over 85% of its population and over 90% of its GDP. The exception to the SAARC bonhomie, and I concur with former Indian National Security adviser SS Menon, is Pakistan, not just because she is on the "cusp between West and South Asia, and suffers the ailments of both, but as a matter of conscious choice by the Pakistani establishment of the kind of state and society they are building, of their instruments, such as political Islam and jehadi tanzeems and terrorists, and of the calculated use of tension in their relationship with their immediate neighbours, India, Afghanistan and Iran”. He adds " Pakistan suffers from weak state structures, religion in politics and over politics, building nationalism on ancient or manufactured animosities, sectarian violence, an outsized military (in terms of its political role, its claim on national resources, and relative to the real security threats the country faces), a lack of popular participation and belief in the political system, weak economic prospects, and so on. At the same time Pakistan is trying to tap into the economic vitality and consolidation of East Asia, led by China. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, from Gwadar port through the Karakoram mountains to Xinjiang is one such an attempt”. However, it is a given that Pakistan is facing an economic disaster and living off the doles and debts.

It is an irony that Pakistan has benefited from the changing situation in Asia especially in Afghanistan to make itself relevant especially to US and other states like it did during the cold war and thereafter. China seeks regional and global role for which it requires pliable partners, and Pakistan is a ready and needy one. As often claimed if US were to indeed withdraw from Afghanistan they need to close the loop with the Taliban that Pakistan helped create ab-initio and now offers to help broker the deal. In another milieu acute contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran- Shia and Sunni, and the fight against (ISIS) Daesh have given yet another handle to Pakistan. It joined the 34-member Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia for which former Army Chief General Sharif has been appointed to lead.

Over the years, India has made repeated efforts and consistently sought to normalise relations with Pakistan in our own and regional interest with a good neighbourly approach. However, we have been repeatedly rewarded by the attacks on vital Indian targets by Pak based terrorist groups - a pattern that has become part of their DNA. Their intransigence in addressing the terrorism emanating with the support of the establishment from the Pakistani territory led to India not attending the Islamabad SAARC Summit and its eventual cancellation. This is indeed a setback for the regional effort.

Left with no option India has moved on to try and isolate Pakistan internationally on this score while developing sub regional cooperation in the context of BBIN and BIMSTEC and ASEAN which has begun to pay better dividends . This was clearly evident not only at the BIMSTEC Summits but through the invitation to all 10 ASEAN Heads of States to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day 2017. Moreover at the second swearing in 2019 of PM Modi ,India invited selected Heads of State from across SAARC and ASEAN including from Central Asia thereby effectively expanding the definition of the Neighbourhood. In the meantime India did not prevent the appointment of Pakistani Secretary General of SAARC. In the cultural domain India also sponsored the Karachi literature festival. Talks in Kartarpur Saheb corridor continue. However India now has begun to explore the sub-regional and bilateral options with greater rigour telling Pakistan "Better with you but will go on without you.” At the same time both India and Pakistan do collaborate in the framework of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) including in the defence and security areas apart from contributing in several SAARC working groups . Yet India continues international diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to come clean and to some extent it succeeded in isolating Pakistan after Pulwama and Balakot when a new paradigm in counter terrorism through surgical strikes has been implemented by India like the other major powers. This has been further evidenced by the international response to India’s abrogation of Art 370 and 35A and Pakistan’s failure to seek international intervention against India.

Allow me to talk little more about the Pakistani desperation to internationalise the Kashmir issue in the wake of India ‘s abrogation of Art 370 and 35 A to make all the benefits available to Kashmiris that are available to all Indians affording them greater opportunity for extensive progress and development with infrastructure , industry and employment . On June 16 with the help of China, Pakistan succeeded in having informal consultations by the UNSC but failed to generate any support and traction that was an acknowledgment of India’s legitimate and constitutionally and legally compliant " internal matter” . No doubt India stands tall but several challenges may still emanate both from within and outside for which we need to be thoroughly prepared and diplomatic engagement must be on a high pitch but possibly low profile.

PM Modi in his address to the nation laid out a clear vision, road map and menu of options that will be backed by large scale investments in infrastructure, employment generation and development of the two Union Territories . He assured that soon elections could be held and Kashmiris will choose their own representative in a transparent manner. He also promised that the current ‘Union Territory' status for J&K is absolutely temporary and will be upgraded back to the level of "State” . Large number of Kashmiris would hope so and aspire for better life for next generations even if some in the valley might remain unconvinced who had become addicted to the bounty of the erstwhile dispensation. This feeling can be assuaged if rest of India especially the political parties stop celebrating this feat through chest thumping ,irresponsible statements and their victory dance. Life must go on for the normalcy to return so that "ease of living "could be ensured for the people there.

All inclusive efforts with the support of religious leaders and social workers, NGOs for de-radicalisation and countering militancy in the medium term have to continue. To the extent possible it should be done in a more humane manner, where the forces are seen as friends and partners. Armed forces have already done a lot to serve the people going out of their way in education and developing local supply sources for their own procurements. It is important since Pakistan’s sole purpose is to continue to create the divides and destabilise India for its ulterior motives through its terror tools and networks. Since it will neither desist from nefarious intervention nor from its efforts to internationalize the issue we have to be internally and militarily prepared for all options while simultaneously exposing Pakistan and its terror machine through a diplomatic offensive. We may see heightened activities by Pakistan till the UNGA. So far the reactions from the international community have been broadly favourable considering it as an "internal matter” of India which indeed it is. In fact, we should be exposing Pakistan’s illegal occupation of Kashmir (POK) asking them to vacate which should be raised at all international fora. Major powers understand and took ‘neutral’ position while urging the sides not to escalate the conflagration.

Current State of Relations :

It is important to understand that the state of relations with our neighbours are also dependent on the leaders and ruling dispensation in a given time frame and are subject to policy vacillations since India remains a major factor in their domestic politics. They will continue to redefine their own strategic calculus and importance in the regional game of thrones. It is true for Bangladesh as the relations with PM Sheikh Hasina’s government are at their best compared to that during Irshad or Khaleda Zia’s time. Nepal has a similar problem as its communist government gives mixed signals and playing catch up with China rather strongly. Maldives after a worrying two years when it fully aligned with China is back to balancing relations with India after it realised the Chinese debt trap. In Sri Lanka one had witnessed the changes in their approach towards India and China with the change in their leadership. Bhutan after Doklam showed inclination to have closer relations with China but remains the closest neighbour of India . Pakistan driven by it’s army and intelligence and the India-centric terrorism remains a constant threat to peace in the region.However , considering all the tips and lows in the relations due to varying factors one could agree with Ambassador Satish Chandra that "At the beginning of 2019, it would be fair to suggest that India's ties with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and the Maldives are excellent, those with Sri Lanka are good, those with Nepal are prickly and those with Pakistan are hostile”[1]. But efforts must go on to smoothen the wrinkles through Public diplomacy and addressing their genuine concerns, even if much water may have flown down the Indus or Brahmaputra. They also need India and can’t do without it.


We share several neighbours with China. Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar have borders with China hence it is difficult to claim primacy of relationship. But India’s relationship with China is fraught with competition and cooperation. China unwillingly acknowledges that in the region India is the only country that could give it a run. Although China like any other country would like to develop relations with its neighbours and that’s normal but since they fit into a "containment perspective” as far as India is concerned the problem gets compounded. For example India’s closer relationship with US and Japan and ASEAN and supremacy in the SAARC is considered inimical to their interests by China. Same applies to India when one sees the Chinese aggressive projects like the CPEC; Belt and Road Initiative or for that matter maritime expanse in the IOR ( Indian Ocean RIM) all seem to fall into China’s " String of Pearls strategy ‘ geared to control Indian influence . Hence India’s closer collaboration with US in the context of " Indo-Pacific” is seen as countering China’s outreach . This gets further accentuated given its special , strategic and all weather friendship with Pakistan which is like a surrogate and a willing partner to Chinese designs be it through the proposed $ 36 billion projects under the CPEC or excessively close military and defence cooperation or for that matter turning a blind eye to Pakistan ‘s collusion with terror outfits. All these are prima facie inimical to India’s peace dividends. Moreover although we have interacted as two matured countries China continues to occupy over 4000Sq Km of Indian territory and part of Kashmir parcelled out by Pakistan to them besides making ridiculous claims on Indian territory most recent being in Arunachal Pradesh and the hue and cry made during the visit of HH Dalai Lama . If China was benign and did not have ulterior motives we would have no cause of worry. Since the relationship has several prominent adversarial knots our concerns are quite legitimate. China currently an Observer in SAARC has been aiming at the full membership through Pakistan and possibly other beneficiaries of its largess in the region. China held back India’s membership to SCO till Pakistan was admitted and now the same game is being played against India’s membership in the NSG. Likewise even in the fight against terrorism it has tried to protect Pakistan be it the listing until the very end of notorious terrorist Masood Azhar to blacklisting of Pakistan by FATF. China is effectively using Indo-Pak rivalry to its advantage and wants to keep India embroiled in its immediate neighbourhood alone. This vicious loop needs to be broken and we need to be prepared to use the pressure points to make China understand that India could reciprocate in the same coin.

To realize their Maritime Road or Silk Route ambitions and " string of pearls " objectives , China has been actively pursuing contracts for the construction of Hambantota port and the expansion of Colombo port. Xi’s visit to Bangladesh on October 14 ,2016 before he came to India for BRICS Summit , was the first by a Chinese head of state since President Li’s visit in 1986. During Xi’s visit, they signed 27 agreements involving $24.45 billion in assistance and investment for Bangladesh. Moreover, 13 Chinese corporations signed joint venture agreements worth $13 billion with Bangladeshi companies which ipso facto countered India’s efforts to strengthen relations with Dhaka. Xi emphasised the importance of Bangladesh to China as a partner in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. Keeping eggs in all or at least two baskets appears to be their strategy but a debt trap concern is also displayed on the horizon be in Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal or Sri Lanka. Pakistan is a different basket case. In September 2014 President Xi Jinping visited Maldives. China welcomed Maldives to jointly build 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives have supported the project, which includes Chittagong, Colombo and Hambantota ports, as well as a potential foothold in Maldives which became a strategic challenge for India. Fortunately with the new government in Maldives a more balanced approach is being witnessed.

It is normal and easier for smaller countries to offset one big country against the other by securing the political and economic benefits from both in the short and medium term. Our neighbours also suffer from the "Big Brother Syndrome”. And to carve out their identity, as far as India is concerned, they try to exploit the big power rivalry by eking out their respective strategic advantage to the Chinese and play the "China Card” with us. It may be difficult for India to match dollar for every Chinese Yuanned dollar for they have much deeper pockets. But India’s democratic dividend and distinct non- neo colonial advantage exercised through her economic strength and impeccable credentials should be able to neutralise such forays in our discourse with the neighbours. Perhaps an idealistic hope but could possibly plug into the realpolitik.

During his visit to India in September 2014 speaking at ICWA, President Xi articulated China’s approach stating that China views its engagement with India as part of China’s larger South Asian goals. Xi pledged that China will work with South Asian countries to increase bilateral trade to 150 billion U.S. dollars, raise its investment in South Asia to 30 billion dollars, and provide 20 billion dollars in concessional loans to the region in the next five years. Besides that, China, he said, plans to offer 10,000 scholarships, training opportunities for 5,000 youths and exchange and training programs for 5,000 youths, and train 5,000 Chinese language teachers for South Asia in the next five years. He noted that China is the biggest neighbour of South Asia and India is the largest country there, Xi said Beijing is ready to work together with New Delhi and make even greater contribution to the development of the region, "so that the three billion people living on both sides of the Himalayas will enjoy peace, friendship, stability and prosperity.” But this is better said than done since the ground reality is starkly different. . However, keeping in mind the mutual interests and India’s rising profile the informal Summit between PM Modi and President Xi Jin Ping have developed the "Wuhan Spirit” to keep the issues under the lid and to try and resolve them while continue with the policy of "Competition and Cooperation "which is serving the two sides well and could be further reinforced during the next October 2019 informal Summit in Varanasi between the two leaders. Unfortunately in South Asia China tends to see India as a real competitor for influence and obviously also through the uni-focal Pakistani prism which is myopic to say the least. Looking at all colours of the rainbow including the "Wuhan Spirit " might serve them better.

In conclusion, we can look at South Asia and SAARC as a half-full glass while the pessimist views it as half-empty. The realist, however, drinks the water in the glass and wisely quenches his thirst. We need not be despondent over population issues, abysmal poverty levels and endless squabbles over historic wrongs for ever .Rather we should focus on the region as immensely youth and change driven replete with vitality and a can-do approach, on-going reforms as well as its diaspora and huge market advantage so that SAARC could claim its rightful place. This blends well with PM’s Modi’s approach as underscored by former MOS(EA} MJ Akbar "The practical sinews of the Modi’s foreign policy are a belief in shared prosperity, security, comprehensive defeat of terrorism, expanded global engagement and promotion of development projects that help improve the quality of life of the people.”[2]. But this must sink in with our neighbours whose agendas could be driven by drawing on maximalist advantage by play China card with India but unless they are serious in addressing India’s concerns it will be difficult to sustain a mutually beneficial non-reciprocal policy matrix. But for now India’s definition of neighbourhood is surely expanding.