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Lecture-Discussion on “India’s Neighbourhood Policy”

C3S Event Report No: 015/2019

The Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) and National Maritime Foundation – Tamil Nadu (NMF – TN) held a Lecture-Discussion on ‘India’s Neighbourhood Policy’ on June 20 2019. The event was led by Amb. Nagendra Nath Jha IFS (Retd.), and chaired by  Prof. V. Suryanarayan, Former Director, Centre for South and South East Asia Studies, University of Madras; President, C3S. Ms. Asma Masood, Research Officer, C3S, delivered the welcome address and introduced the speaker.

Ambassador Nagendra Nath Jha started his diplomatic career in May 1957. He retired in January 1993. During this period, he dealt with the South Asian region for 12 and a half years; he spent 10 years dealing with the United Nations and multilateral organisations including the IAEA, Vienna and approximately 7 years in the Middle East and the extended Middle East. He also spent 1 and a half years as Joint Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, handling China. He has also served as Ambassador to Ireland, Turkey, Kuwait, Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka. He served as the BJP’s National Executive Member from September 1994 to April 2001. He remained convener of the BJP’s Overseas Cell from 1998 to 2001. He was Lieutenant Governor (LG) Andamans from May 2001 to January 2004. He also served as LG, Pondicherry from January 2004 to July 2004. Ambassador Jha was the convener of an informal advisory group of the BJP on foreign affairs for the 2009 and 2014 general elections. He is a regular panelist on the print and electronic media for foreign affairs. He has authored the book Modi’s Foreign Policy in 2016.

Prof. Suryanarayan set the tone for the discussion by pointing to the “confusion” that has beset New Delhi regarding what India’s neighbourhood is. The prevalent understanding includes an immediate neighbourhood, constituted by the SAARC nations, and an emerging neighbourhood constituted by the ASEAN. Prof. Suryanarayan emphasized the need to look beyond such existing frameworks and take a fresh look towards nations like Indonesia, Thailand etc. which share close cultural and geographical links with Southern India that are missed out under the New Delhi-centred foreign policy outlook.

Amb. Jha explained India’s relations with each neighbouring country. Relations with Bangladesh are currently on an optimum path, with the Sheikh Hasina government remaining relatively pro-India. Nepal however poses some problems in light of its increasing proximity to China. Nepal currently has over 76 Confucius centres. There are multiple, highly-placed entities in the Nepali government who are close to the Chinese government. The improving relations range from multiple scholarships granted by China to Nepali students, to frequent Chinese delegations to Nepal. Even though the current Indian government is emphasizing cultural and religious ties, this by itself can have only limited results. The Chinese have made sizable tangible investments in Nepal in the form of roads and other infrastructure. A major obstacle that has long plagued India’s efforts in the neighbourhood is the delay in delivering projects, while Chinese projects are often completed on time.

Sri Lanka is another neighbour with which India’s ties have strained due to increasing Chinese presence in the island country. The 2019 Easter Attacks have shaken up the Sri Lankan establishment. Nevertheless the island nation’s administration needs to address the Tamil issue adequately, in the interest of putting up a united front against Sri Lanka’s problems. However, unlike Nepal, India is Sri Lanka’s only proximal neighbour and Sri Lanka cannot afford to play the hedging game as much as Nepal. Nonetheless, the experience of the attacks could mean enhanced cooperation between India and Sri Lanka in the intelligence domain.

On the question of Bhutan, Amb. Jha while citing the Doklam conflict, focused on the border issues between India and China as the prominent point of conflict impacting India’s relations with Bhutan.  It can be speculated that China might let up on what it terms as ‘South Tibet’, but will not necessarily do so on Tawang due to strategic considerations. The Indian Constitution does not allow for the ceding of territory because of which even Aksai Chin cannot be given away in the interest of improving relations in the region. Amb Jha proposed some exchanges if feasible by mutual agreement.

On the topic of Pakistan, the speaker stated that Kashmir remains the primary issue between the neighbours and long-time rivals. Amb. Jha put forth ideas to resolve the issue by way of certain exchanges which could be mutually accepted by both countries after discussions. However the present government has clearly stated that no talks can be resumed unless the terrorist infrastructure is dismantled and state-sponsored cross border terror attacks are stopped.

In Afghanistan, relations are reasonably good with India being among the biggest investors in the country. Amb. Jha spoke of the need to stick to support of Afghan President Ghani who is considered to be a moderate influence.

The Maldives is currently a bright spot in India’s foreign policy, with a newly elected pro-India Prime Minister who has reiterated Maldives’ support for India in the region, and a diminished Chinese influence. However  it is important for India to not take things for granted and the country needs to ensure that Maldives is given a top priority for furthering economic, cultural and strategic relations.

With regard to the South East Asian region, Laos and Cambodia are resolutely China-oriented, while Indonesia too would be wary of alienating China. The Philippines too is China-friendly but the nationalist President, Rodrigo Duterte, would be cautious in the interest of national sovereignty and autonomy. Vietnam is an area of potential for India, where India has already been granted exclusive access to the strategically placed Nha Trang port. Focusing on Myanmar, Amb. Jha noted that Indo-Myanmar relations were currently at 50-50 and emphasized the need for more engagement, especially since India shares a border with it.

Mr. M. R. Sivaraman IAS (Retd.), Former Revenue Secretary GOI, ED IMF and Adviser UN SC CTC; Vice-President, C3S, spoke about the issues faced by India vis-à-vis China. He pointed out the potential security concerns of Chinese 5G technology in the Indian market, the massive trade deficit that India carries in its trade with China (US$68 billion), and the dangers that state-supported Chinese pharmaceutical companies (among other Chinese businesses) pose to the competitiveness of Indian companies.

Prof. Suryanarayanan underlined that India’s neighbours maintain a “love-hate” relationship with the country: On the one hand there are deep historical and cultural ties between India and its neighbours which cannot be blocked. On the other hand, they also fear India as it presents as a major geographical, demographic, and economic power in the region, especially compared to the rest of South Asia. That fear is to an extent justified since “India often deals in a Big Brother attitude”. Prof. Suryanarayanan emphasized the need to give more importance to BIMSTEC, pointing out that the “sea unites, where land divides”.

Ms. Asma Masood emphasized that while India cannot match China’s check-book diplomacy, the country can compensate for the same in the quality of its projects. China’s infrastructure is often critiqued for its standards, environmental considerations and for being less grassroots-friendly.  This is an area where India can tackle China’s money might, by enhancing existing Indian schemes to train South Asian persons by way of skill development, English language skills, and IT.

The session was concluded by highlighting some aspects of India’s foreign policy attitude towards the neighbourhood. This included the necessity of contingent plan for when a different, possibly less India-friendly government comes to power in Bangladesh. The potentially volatile nature of an individual-centric foreign policy approach was also pointed out. India’s attitude towards pro-democracy movements in the neighbourhood was another area that was discussed. The rising need for a comprehensive refugee law for India was also stressed upon.

Prof. Suryanarayanan delivered the Vote of Thanks.

(The views expressed are the speaker’s own.)

(Compiled by Interns, C3S- Balasubramanian C., M.A Public Administration, IGNOU, and Devika Makkat, BA International Studies, FLAME University, Pune.)

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