I
ndia’s relations with our neighbours are historical and traditional. During the Cold War, the behaviour of US and Soviet Union across the world had forced India to pursue less foreign policy initiatives, focus on domestic issues. Now China tries to do that job to India.

As India’s presence across the Indian Ocean declining, China filled the void of dominant power in the regions sphere of influence. At present China, has danced across the Indian Ocean, welcoming all neighbours as a dancing partner. Our observations lead us to presume that our neighbours are keen to continue this relationship with China because of Modi’s unrealistic foreign policy articulations. If this strategy persists India’s future relationship with her neighbours will be in jeopardy. As the window to thwart their ties with China continues to slowly close, the window of opportunity on the Chinese side is wide open. Lots of promises were made during the 2014 election campaign by prime ministerial candidate Modi and have yet to be fulfilled. Though Modi has less perception on foreign policy, he talked louder about the subject than any other candidate but failed to provide any clear policy framework. Days before the election, he heavily criticised the Congress government on its neighbourhood policies. In the last three years Modi’s strategy for neighbour relations has had no clear policy direction. This is seen in particular with India’s relationship with Pakistan, Nepal, and the Maldives, all of whom have seen a new low in diplomatic and economic relations. Sri Lanka wants to travel in two tracks, with both India and China. Our efforts are huge in Afghanistan butprovide little to our interest. Now this government is facing the real heat of their policy. The focus of this article is to critically evaluate how Modi has dealt with our neighbours in the last three years.

Pakistan is a major neighbouring state. During 2013-14 the Prime Ministerial candidate Modi attacked Dr Manmohan Singh stating his leadership should have more guts with strategic trajectory in handling Pakistan than the Congress Party led UPA government. Today, Modi is in a desperate mood as he faces people’s expectations and questions, in particular - in what way has his government policy differentiated from the previous Congress Party’s foreign policy? What happened to the promises made on the campaign trail?

In the last three years more than 150 armed forces members were killed while fighting terrorists and recently two soldiers martyred in active combat. Not only were these two soldiers killed in action, but they were mutilated and beheaded by Pakistan army. Though these acts are against the International Human Rights Law and Geneva Conventions, Pakistan denounced the claim for responsibility and failed to act. In the face of such a cruel and inhuman act, what is or where was Modi’s response to Pakistan?

Last September the BJP attempted to take credit for the surgical strike made by the Indian army that occurred on Modi’s order. Modi’s Administration statement states that the Pakistani Ambassador to India was summoned during this. While the Congress Party government did it, it was criticised by the BJP. Now it is the BJPs turn. They have to respond to the people, especially as ceasefire violations are continuing. The Uri attack was unforgivable, and Pathankot would be unforgettable. This government is functioning by statements and phrases. So what about Udhampur, Gurdaspur and Pampore? Modi’s strategists simply stopped with statements of condemnations. Has Pakistan been contained or controlled? No. What is this government’s policy on Pakistan? Does it have any worth-while, effective foreign policies? Would Modi’s foreign policy articulators have any perceptions on strategy? Why did Modi visit Pakistan to wish his counterpart on his birthday? Would this not be considered a bluff incident to analyse and ultimately be criticised by IR scholars? Why this sudden failed tilt? Without any homework, Modi’s Pakistan visit was more of a performance and created big media debate than anything else. This is not a strategic move.  

With what reason was Pakistan allowed to investigate the Pathankot base? This is right time to implement changes and direction into India’s policy. Though Pakistan is facing challenges from across the spectrum, its geographical location makes it difficult for the US, Russia and China to isolate or dismantle their relations, even as the war on terror continues to be a global, primary national security threat. India exercising its diplomacy by using the word ‘terror’ to isolate Pakistan from the international system has not yet yielded any expected advantage. China announced a new $43 billion partnership with Pakistan. The new president of the U.S., although favouring India, insisting us to talk with Pakistan. Has Modi not seen that our ally Russia continues to try and sell military equipment and weapons to Pakistan, even participating in military exercises together. However, India still imports 75% of her military procurements from Russia. This may be because if India was to divert some of its military purchasesto the US and Israel, it would not be well received by Russia. For this reason, Russia is emitting a warning signal to India by making a move towards Pakistan. Responding to Russia, Modi’s External Affairs Department has showed nothing but disgust, which demonstrates that the department was not functioning properly or not allowed to function.

The day in 1979 when Afghanistan was invaded by Soviet forces, was a troubling period for all South Asian nations. They all wondered, what is going on in Afghanistan? The post-US withdrawal created a vacuum for the Taliban to restart theirfundamental Islamic political movement again. Pakistan would like to undermine and dismantle India’s investment in Afghanistan by using the Taliban. An unstable Afghanistan would be a crisisfor all its neighbours. India has invested vast amounts of money and resources to create stability and security across Afghanistan.Bilaterally, New Delhi and Kabul’s realisation are very encouraging and convergent. However, the policy under Modi is not enough to support President Ashraf Ghani in combating the Taliban directly. Hesitation inestablishing and strengthening Afghani security is a weak policy and this needs to be resolved. A week ago its former President Hamid Karzai said, “India should have its own policy on Afghanistan”. This is absolutely right.The International Community acknowledges our commitment to rebuild Afghanistan, but to safe guard what we have built and established there the Modi government needs to have a separate policy in strengthening Afghanistan. This includes giving the armed forces training and knowledge of the Taliban as a terrorist organization and the weapons they use. If not, all the contribution and work carried out by India in the post-US withdrawal in Afghanistan could disappear. Moreover, failing to rethink our present strategy on Afghanistan, in particular itslax security condition and ambiguous, unclear initiatives only embolden the Taliban to take control of another city like Kunduz.

Once, Nepal was akin to a state within India. Then, Nepal became a buffer state between the two giants of India and China. Now, under the current Modi government’s strategy it has become akin to a state within China. Nepal’s failure to accommodate India’s concern over their new constitution showeddisrespect to India’s ruling elite.This caused a major rift between New Delhi and Kathmandu, and was widened by our National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s suggestions to apply realism to Nepal. The Modi government stopped the energy supply to Nepal and this impacted their domestic politics, heavily backfiring on our relations with the nation. The result of this was Nepal being pushed to acquire its energy supply from China. As the saying goes, this indicates that Modi may have scratched his head with firewood. When a landlocked country like Nepal solely relies on us, there is never an appropriate time to suggest the application of realist approach to its government. There is no need to follow that approach, particularly when it does not take an IR scholar to know that Nepal has no other choice but to turn to its other neighbour. Who pushed Nepal into China’s lap? No one else to blame. It is absolutely the failure of Modi government. Now we cannot expect the same trust from Nepal, as they will always have China as an option.

Bangladesh shares its borders with India and Myanmar. However, China invested more than $38.05 billion into the country the last year. Investment inflow is good for Bangladesh because their other demands will be imported from India. At the same time, China’s also aims to move Bangladesh into their sphere of influence in order to gain regional leverage against India in the future. Modi’s soft corner with Prime Minister with Sheikh Hasina would be a traditional method. Reaching out to the opposition is also a good strategic trajectory and Modi should try this. The recent visit of Hasina to India after a seven year gap was proclaimed as a success from both sides. The Indian prime minister announced a $5 billion line of credit to Bangladesh. This shows that New Delhi and Dakha have moved beyond Teesta. In addition, if the Modi government makes a comfortable environment to resolve the Teesta it will strengthen Hasina’s hands in the upcoming election in Bangladesh. However, no fresh thinking has been added in terms of solutions to Teesta or containing China’s influence in Bangladesh. It indicates that the Modi government has failed in articulating new policy directions towards Dhaka.

The new government of Myanmar has taken a new policy shift after the Foreign Minister Aung Suu Kyi visited China. Her earlier objections on Chinese investments in Myanmar are now given importance and under reconsideration by her government. We can certainly presume that this is a new shift by the democratically elected government. Still, the new government has an emotional attachment with India that can be strengthened while the foreign minister visits India. However, Aung Suu Kyi’s mind may change and turn towardother neighbours for investment from abroad. Obviously China will be a better option for them than India. During 2015-16 India’s bilateral trade with Myanmar was just $2 billion and Chinese with Myanmar was $9.4 billion. China is ready to offer everything that India can not. For this reason we cannot blame Aung Suu Kyi’s change in policy stance. Now she is not a leader of a movement but Myanmar’s foreign affairs minister and the State Councillor. She has a responsibility to take care of Myanmar’s interests, not India’s. To continue historic bilateral trade agreements for the sake of old friendships would not benefit India either. Constrictive policies and follow-ups are completely missing from India towards Myanmar. Modi’s achievement in regard to India’s relations with Myanmar has been inadequate and this government has pushed Myanmar towards China. However, the consolation would be the commitment of Aung Suu Kyi – that Rangoon will never allow any third parties to target India from their land.

India gave humble warnings to the Maldivian government while it failed to consider giving afair trial to the former President Mohamed Nasheed. Further, what was India’s stance on the Maldives while the increasing activity of ISIS and Saudi Arabia’s madrasas flowed in effortlessly? How is it possible to maintain that we are the main security provider across the Indian Ocean, while the Modi government abstains to give resolutions to the island nations issues. However, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) states are expecting from India to deliver our policy exercises and allow the democratically elected system to rule Maldives.Moreover, Modi did not visit the Maldives while he travelled to the Indian Ocean countries. It was announced that the prime minister would not be visiting the island due to the difficult situation unravelling in the Maldives. Still, India is hanging on to the old policy of non-intervention under Modi’s administration at a time when India is seeking major power status in the international system, while the world is facing multipolar disorder. This indicates that our policy is paving the way for the Chinese to intrude and spread their presence in the Indian Ocean.

India and Sri Lanka face many difficult challenges. Between Indian-Sri Lankan fishermen issue, the UN enquiry into human rights violations during the 2009 war, concerns of LTTE reestablishments, India’s concern of Chinese Investment in Sri Lanka, the debate on the new constitution, and Sri Lanka’s policy dance between India and China, it seems support to Sri Lankan in the last three years has diminished. In this environment, it would be wise to presume that Sri Lankans will move their focus towards where help and support is presented. For this reason we cannot accuse our neighbours of turning their backs, rather they have changed due to their own national interest, and China stands with their interest. Engaging with our neighbour, China’s trajectory is very clear in that it would like to hold its dominant position in the Indian Ocean. He had accused and criticised the previous Congress government, but he does not have any new policies with him or demonstrate any significant change. If Modi has guts, he should talk with strong diplomatic language to our neighbour that if Colombo’s moves hurt India’s interest, it means they are hurting themselves.

Conclusion

Our traditional ties with our neighbours are now under threat. The rising shift in focus of our neighbours towards China will not be thwarted unless a suitable strategy is applied by Indian policy makers. Not enacting a significant policy sooner has been a huge loss and major mistake. Today, our strategy indicates that our relationship with our neighbours has one major obstacle - that is they must notbe too close to China. Traditionally, it was India that provided security and support across the region. Whenever the Chinese land on our neighbour’s soil with the bequest of economic assistance and stronger diplomatic ties, our governments response is not very sharp. Hence, this has not displayed any serious diplomatic pressure on our neighbours. Moreover, Modi has no trust in his external ministry or external affairs ministerto work effectively and discharge her duties. This is the main reason he is not willing to accommodate her in his foreign visits. Modi’s foreign policy formulations are only by their government secretaries. This government’s department of external affairs issues run by a government secretary. The prime ministerstill believes in his personnel charisma in dealing with the foreign policy of India. It has considerably failed. Since he does not realise this- his government will not learn from past mistakes either. China’s perceptions are not presumed by this government. This would be observed as a large weakness of this government’s diplomatic circle. Where ever our policy is weak, without any difficulty or hesitation China has managed toland very safely. The present ‘soft power’ approach of this government would not give any strategic advantage to India’s interest with our neighbours. Like a bandwagon, our neighbouring states are ‘looking east’by standing in our hold. If this government could not make our neighbours stand at our side, then seeking major power status in the international power system under this administration would be a joke.

Antony Clement

Antony Clement is currently a student of the International Relations program at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK

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