Testing times for India’s neighbourhood policy

Here, I try to throw light on some recent developments in South Asia that pose a new set of challenges to India’s foreign policy.

India is an undoubted power in South Asia, a region where nearly one-fourth of the world’s population resides. With the fast-changing dynamics of global and regional power distribution, the last one decade has seen China getting involved in South Asia at different levels and proportions in a way undermining the traditional influence enjoyed by India among the smaller countries of the region, barring Pakistan. It is a well-known fact that South Asia’s regional integration is doomed to be sacrificed at the altar of India’s adversarial bilateral equation with China and Pakistan, owing to the unabated geopolitical rivalry and cross-border terrorism involving these two countries respectively. Above all, India’s power rivalry with China is not limited to South Asia as its spans across the broader Indo-Pacific. So, what is happening in South Asia lately?

Maldives and Sri Lanka

Let’s start with the Indian Ocean. The island country of Maldives witnessed a “pro-China” leader named Mohamed Muizzu winning the presidential elections in late September, this year. He is poised to replace the “pro-India” Mohamed Solih, who had been in power since 2018. In an interview to the BBC following the win, Mr Muizzu stated that he had expressed his intent “very clearly” to the Indian Ambassador in Male that Indian military should leave the island soon. On the other hand, Muizzu favours closer ties with China, a bigger Asian power that has made huge investments in the country as loans and grants for various infrastructure projects. For India, losing Maldives would mean losing a strong strategic foothold on the Indian Ocean.

Going further upward, Sri Lanka recently allowed a Chinese ship named Shi Yan 6 to dock at the port of Colombo amid security concerns raised by India. This came just a year after a similar port visit by another ship named Yuan Wang 5, whichremained in the strategic southern port of Hambantota for six days. The recent ship visit came just a week after Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe attended the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum in China and assured the economic superpower of the island’s continued active participation in the mega project, which is opposed by India as one of its trade route passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

While China calls Shi Yan 6 a “scientific research vessel” for conducting oceanographic and marine ecological studies, India is worried about its suspected potentiality to “spy” on Indian military assets in the region. Considering the fact that with an economy reeling under severe crisis, Sri Lanka can hardly afford to antagonise China, as the latter is investing heavily in the island, even though it allegedly comes at the cost of a “debt trap”.


Bhutan is perhaps the most steadfast partner of India in South Asia and vice-versa. The small Himalayan kingdom is a crucial beneficiary of India’s development aid and a key trading partner. India provides the much-needed transit route to the landlocked country, trains its military and is also the largest market for its exports, particularly hydroelectricity and minerals. The 2017 Sino-Indian standoff in Doklam – located close to the tri-junction between Bhutan, India and China – was a grim reminder of the profound importance of Bhutan to India’s security, particularly as India overlooks the worst-case scenario of a Chinese control over the region, threatening the Siliguri Corridor, a narrow stretch of land connecting mainland India with its Northeastern states.

Bhutan’s boundary talks with China, its other neighbour, is going on since 1984, and the dispute goes back to the time when Tibet was annexed by China in the 1950s. Negotiations were revived recently for the first time in more than seven years, casting a shadow on this special relationship with India. How? It is true that Bhutan and China currently do not have formal diplomatic ties, but Bhutan’s foreign minister Tandi Dorji visited China on October 24, where he met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi and Vice-President Han Zheng and both sides have agreed to “accelerate” the boundary demarcation process and the establishment of formal ties.

India considers the Doklam plateau as a complete territory of Bhutan, while China considers it as an extension of Chumbi Valley, which lies between India’s Sikkim state and Bhutan. There are concerns in New Delhi that a potential deal between Beijing and Thimphu may entail a territory-swap of sensitive areas like Doklam.

Other challenges

Coming to other countries in the region, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal are now closer to China than any time in recent history, at least as far as the fast-paced infrastructure development and growing trade are concerned, while regime changes in Afghanistan and Myanmar in 2021 pose the next set of challenges. Despite known vulnerabilities, China’s decade-old BRI resonates with almost all smaller neighbours of India due to its promises, with the exception of Bhutan, but the latter is also trying to mend ties with China as mentioned previously. Apart from its animosity with India, Pakistan happens to be an all-weather friend of China for decades now and the Chinese presence in Afghanistan is getting bigger day by day.

All these developments can only be read as undesirable factors pushing India to a disadvantageous geopolitical position, as far as its age-old pan-regional sphere of influence is concerned. Moreover, China has used the pandemic to make fresh inroads into the stagnant regional landscape of South Asia with the creation of newer frameworks of engagement such as the “China-South Asian Countries Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Centre”, launched in July 2021 and joined by five out of the eight members of the now-dormant South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

India-Pakistan regional rivalry has put SAARC in a state of coma since 2016 as India chose not to attend that year’s summit in Islamabad due to Pakistan’s alleged involvement in the Uri terror attack in India that happened in the same year, and the Indian Prime Minister famously remarked that “blood  and water cannot flow together” during a meeting of the Indus water-sharing treaty involving Pakistan as the other party. Bilateral ties between the two regional powers have been on the downward spiral since then, except for a brief respite during the Covid pandemic when India hosted an online meet of SAARC leaders and formed an emergency fund in this regard.

Remember that all SAARC leaders attended the oath-taking ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 in New Delhi and the year also marked the beginning of a new approach of “Neighbourhood First” in Indian foreign policy. Later India began shifting its focus to BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) as the primary platform of regional engagement, instead of SAARC, presumably to circumvent engaging Pakistan and the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, both being members of the grouping. However, it has to recalled that India’s robust ties with her neighbours date back to 1997 when the “Gujral Doctrine”, based on the principle of non-reciprocity, made its way to New Delhi’s diplomatic lexicon. Moreover, India’s ties with South Asian countries are civilizational and cultural in nature, going centuries back, even before the formation of modern nation-states, and it deserves to be preserved.

Over these years, the region has witnessed a lot of trials and tribulations, owing to political instability, economic meltdowns and occasional military skirmishes. But the recent developments pose a serious set of challenges and India must find ways to reinvent its waning regional clout if it wishes not to live in a China-dominated South Asia, and double down its support to its neighbours for their developmental, financial, security and humanitarian needs, as far as it can. India alone may not be in position to take on a gigantic economy like China that is five times its size. But, boosting collaborative partnerships with like-minded countries like Japan, reviving SAARC to the fullest extent and offering sustainable alternatives to the risk-ridden projects offered by China will go a long way in turning the tides to India’s side.

Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian writes on the contemporary geopolitics and regionalism in eastern Asia and the Indo-Pacific. His articles and commentaries have appeared in Delhi Post (India), The Kochi Post (India), The Diplomat (United States), and The Financial Express (India). Some of his articles were re-published by The Asian Age (Bangladesh), The Cambodia Daily, the BRICS Information Portal, and the Peace Economy Project (United States). He is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi, where he acquired a post-graduate diploma in English journalism. He has qualified the Indian University Grants Commission's National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) for teaching International Relations in Indian higher educational institutions in 2022. He holds a Master's degree in Politics and International Relations with first rank from Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, India. He was attached to the headquarters of the Ministry of External Affairs (Government of India) in New Delhi as a research intern in 2021 and has also worked as a Teaching Assistant at FLAME University in Pune, India, for a brief while.