India’s neighbourhood: Challenges and strategy | By Dr Rajkumar Singh

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India’s neighbourhood: Challenges and strategy


WITH the coming of Bhartiya Janata Party-led coalition in power, in May 2014, Narendra Damodar Das Modi became the new Prime Minister of India and in respect of country’s relations with neighbour upgraded the ‘Look East Policy’ into ‘Act East Policy,’ expanding its earlier scope from geographical to land and maritime borders that also include the regions and countries that are tied with India by economic and diasporic links as well as having strategic value by Indian policymakers.

Thus, apart from countries of South Asia, the nations sharing land and maritime borders with India include China, Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Maldives while having strategic implications cover the countries in the Indian Ocean Region, on the East African seaboard, in the gulf region, Afghanistan, in the Central Asian Region as well as countries in Southeast Asia.

In the context it is also to add that the region South Asia has always attracted the great powers, the Super Powers, in particular, of the world and their rivalry impacted on the stability of countries in India’s neighbourhood, namely, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In post-Cold War phase, the scenario has changed with US appearing in a friendly role forIndia and the circumstance combined with the emergence of China as a new factor.

The coming of PRC in a challenging mood and to some extent in capability, once again, disturbed the balance of power equation in India’s neighbourhood.

In nutshell, India’s ‘Extended Neighbourhood Policy’ has been designed keeping in view the bilateral, regional and global considerations and demands of the present situation in and around India.

Bases of ‘Look East Policy’: In response to the unipolar world, marked by the end of Cold War and the demise of USSR, India officially announced in 1992 its policy of ‘Look East’ to realise the dream of making India a major world power, nourished since the days of its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

In fact, it was a part of re-assessing the role of India in the transformed international milieu and extend its spheres of influence outside the region, the Southeast Asian countries, in particular, which mattered economically and politically for India.

In the context, it is also to note here that India has a long-standing history of engagement with East and Southeast Asian countries on the basis of its geographical proximity, similarity of historical experiences, cultural identity, economic interests and common strategic concerns in the Indian Ocean region.

The region Southeast Asia comprised of 11 different nations which include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste and Vietnam.

In general, the end of Cold War and coming of globalization increased the importance of maritime and seaborne trades and from this emerged the new challenge of the stability of maritime navigation routes, their management, and improving its infrastructure for economic growth.

The new situation coming ahead also enhanced the economic and strategic significance of East Asia Sea, South China Sea, the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean region not only for India but for the US and China as well.

Earlier, the basic feedback for the policy was prepared by the India-China war of 1962 from where Beijing began to encircle India through Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Maldives and other countries not on friendly terms with New Delhi and, in response, India too initiated strengthening bilateral, multilateral relations with nations surrounding China through ASEAN.

Thus, from the early 1990s New Delhi remained in constant and regular contacts by different diplomatic channels-exchange of delegations, exchange of high-level meetings, visits and agreements of mutual benefits of the country concerned in the region.

India from ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’: Upgradation of the policy in May 2014 with the premiership of Narendra Modi simply amounts to a more intensive engagement with South East and East Asian countries aswell as for greater credibility in implementing its agreements.

In the new regime of Bhartiya Janata Party both Prime Minister and Minister for External Affairs undertaken several visits of the region and there is a marked emphasis on accelerating infrastructure connectivity, institutional linkages in economy, disaster response, political security and maritime spheres.

In comparison to the earlier, the region has now acquired more strategic dimensions and volatile because of greater participation of Vietnam, Japan and Australia.

On the other hand,as regards India’s relations with great powers and especially with the US, it has now acquired primacy due to the decline of influence of Russia as well as a sharper salience of China factor the US began potential help to New Delhi.

Although, the policy initially intended to forge economic strategy to boost India’s trade and investment relations with the Southeast Asian region but over the years it assumed significant strategic and political dimensions and a large number of countries came in contacts including Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

The new government has narrated its vision in the region in one-word SAGAR which stands for Security and Growth for All in the Region.

In fact, New Delhi is anxious about the uncertainties in the region following the decline of US influence and rise of China and this is why India is interested in playing an active role along with like-minded countries to evolve a new regional order based on rules and free from the influence of any single hegemonic power.

Narendra Modi highlighted this point while addressing the Shangri La Dialogue in June 2018.

Especially for a country who are dependent on sea born trade they must get the inherent right to navigate, over flight and unhindered privilege in open seas.

Ultimate aim of the policy: Both, the first and second innings of Modi government have exhibited the desires and commitments of the dispensation to expand India’s influence in the region East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and in the Indian Ocean region and erect an effective checkmate against rising power and influence of China.

For the purpose, apart from enhancing bilateral relations with individual countries, it has begun to laid emphasis on institutional mechanisms and multilateral forums of the region as a whole.

— The writer is Professor and Head, Department of Political Science, B N Mandal University, Madhepura, Bihar, India.