Building Bridges and Breaking Barriers: Revamping India’s Neighbourhood Policy

India's foreign policy landscape of today faces the challenge of navigating an increasingly complex and dynamic neighbourhood problem brought on by geopolitics and China's growing influence in the area.

India’s foreign policy landscape of today faces the challenge of navigating an increasingly complex and dynamic neighbourhood problem brought on by geopolitics and China’s growing influence in the area. The significance of fostering amicable relations with neighbouring countries cannot be overstated. A friendly neighbourhood not only promote India’s unhindered growth but also influences national security interests. As the threat of hostility looms larger and the shifting balance of power in the neighbourhood, the need to revamp India’s neighbourhood policy is becoming increasingly evident.

India shares a deep historical, cultural and religious relationship with South Asia which serve as the foundation for India’s foreign policy decisions, steering the nation towards balancing cultural connectivity with pragmatic diplomacy in navigating the complexities of its regional relationships. The influence that ties India and the South Asian countries permeates the geopolitical sphere, plays a pivotal role in shaping India’s stance towards its neighbours and contributing to the dynamics of regional politics. Presently, India’s neighbourhood is at a crossroads with growing Chinese presence. A friendly neighbourhood offers distinct advantages for India’s growth, bolstering economic, cultural, and strategic ties that are crucial for the country’s progress on the global stage. In contrast, a hostile or unfriendly neighbourhood would yield profound consequences, stifling India’s potential for regional integration, economic cooperation, and strategic partnerships.

With unstable Afghanistan and Pakistan, the rise of politically anti-India regimes and oppositions in the neighbourhood, such as in Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, poses considerable challenges for India’s foreign policy and regional influence. Maldivian President Muhammed Muizzu campaigned on ‘India Out’ and won the elections. Countries in South Asia are more and more moving closer to China and away from India. China’s persistent actions in the region have seriously impacted New Delhi’s relations with its neighbours and presented India with a strategic challenge. China’s increasing involvement in South Asia and the Indian Ocean has changed the dynamics and altered the power structure in the region. These instances have a direct impact on India’s regional diplomacy and its relationship with the neighbourhood. The anti-India sentiments and policies of these countries strains India’s ability to effectively engage and create an environment of mutual cooperation and respect. Consequently, they hinder India’s efforts to foster stronger ties and influence in the region, necessitating a reassessment of India’s approach to its neighbourhood.

Replicating the Act East strategy’s success is crucial to strengthening India’s neighbourhood strategy. Reviving India’s ties with its neighbours can be guided by the Act East Policy, with proactive approach that emphasises economic and strategic cooperation. Moreover, the revival of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) can offers India a chance to restructure its relationships with its neighbours. India can promote regional security and mutual prosperity by utilising SAARC’s potential to strengthen connections and enhance multilateral participation. The potential for SAARC’s resuscitation to serve as a forum for productive dialogue and cooperation might help India negotiate its challenging neighbourhood.

It is feasible to engage the neighbourhood even with a Chinese presence, as demonstrated by India’s dedicated engagement with Sri Lanka. India has aimed to establish more strategic collaboration with Sri Lanka through proactive diplomacy, establishing itself as the preferred partner in the area. Important projects like Nepal’s energy and infrastructure projects highlight India’s substantial investments in the area and show a dedication to forging mutually beneficial partnerships. Moreover, India’s interactions with Sri Lanka, as seen by their cooperative military drills, training initiatives, and trilateral collaboration with the Maldives, demonstrate a deliberate attempt to fortify regional security and establish a stronger stance in the Indian Ocean area.

The importance of inclusive growth, cooperative security approaches, and a robust diplomatic apparatus cannot be overstated in dealing with the complexities of a dynamic neighbourhood. India must prioritise actions that would help strengthen and mend ties with its neighbours in South Asia in order to provide the groundwork for an integrated regional framework. India’s diplomatic and strategic actions will have a significant impact on how its neighbourhood and the larger global geopolitical environment develop. India’s neighbourhood strategy should adapt to the changing circumstances and take into account modern realities.

Lalitha S.
Lalitha S.
Postgraduate student, Central University of Kerala.