How do we define India’s neighbourhood? Does it refer to our immediate neighbourhood, is it determined by geography, is it shaped by history or is it shaped by political impulses that are beyond our control? Answering this question is important to not only understand India’s core national interest but also in determining India’s foreign policy. In British India, our neighbours were different. Post independence, our borders shrunk — we lost direct connectivity to Iran and Central Asia. As history progressed new borders were created and new countries were born. For example China expanded into Tibet and became our immediate neighbour. Therefore, it is clear that the concept of ‘neighbourhood’ can evolve.
Each impediment leads to innovation. When we lost direct connectivity to Afghanistan it led to a search for alternative routes. As a nation, we are more aware of our neighbours on the west and we have a fuzzy idea of those on the east. This is probably because we have a general awareness of our land neighbours forgetting our maritime neighbours such as Thailand, Indonesia, Oman or even East Africa. It is because of the recognition of such maritime neighbours and neighbours on the East that in foreign policy narrative we see the term ‘extended neighbourhood’ evolve or the basis of our ACT East policy.
In ancient times our culture and kingdom spread right from Indonesia to Cambodia, all of which form a part of our zone of influence. Perhaps the British aided in extending our neighbourhood by taking people to Mauritius and Fiji among other countries. Today, we are rightly looking at Indo-Pacific as our extended neighbourhood. Therefore we can define neighbourhood depending on our core national interests, areas to which, as a nation, we feel connected to. All these factors determine our neighbourhood policy. In this context, the Gulf is as much a neighbour as is SAARC.
In the ASEAN context we have the three Cs — culture, connectivity and commerce — that drive our foreign policy initiatives. Similarly we have the five Ss — samman, samvad, samriddhi, suraksha and sanskriti — as the basis of our foreign policy approach , which to my mind have the greatest salience in our immediate neighbourhood as South Asia is in a way a fragmented India. So, when SAARC was created in 1985 the objective was to boost the three Cs and the five Ss. We can say that connectivity, both people to people connectivity and physical connectivity, is a lynchpin in our South Asian policy. In fact, when we look at SAARC it becomes clear that only India has common borders with SAARC countries, giving India a central role in policy initiatives. Therefore, our policies should not be seen as that of a ‘big brother’ but rather as a benevolent regional power that is trying to achieve a peaceful, prosperous and integrated neighbourhood. For example, India created a special window for all the least developed countries (LDCs) within SAARC and granted a zero duty access to India. It was important that our neighbours have a stake in the large and growing economy as in the past.
However, since SAARC itself later became moribund, we had to evolve a mechanism for SAARC-minus ONE from where sub-regional cooperation initiatives emerged such as BIMSTEC. Our neighbourhood policy is then, driven by our size and centrality and is often based on the principal of non-reciprocity.
Post May 2014, our outreach to the neighbourhood increased and while objectives remained largely the same, security was a new dimension that was added. Security is essential for the continued growth of India. India is also aware that as it rises economically it will necessarily have to carry its neighbours also, for which it will have to open its markets and build consensus among the people. Another key element in the neighbourhood policy is that, India will not pick political winners or losers in the neighbourhood but will focus on building excellent relations with all nations and people within the neighbourhood across the political spectrum.
A major factor that will guide our policy is that India will become a net provider of security and humanitarian assistance in the region. Since we don’t have expansionist designs it becomes easy for us to make these interventions in consultation with our partners. The Doklam incident is a clear cut case where India came out in support of a neighbouring country. Similarly, India was the first to reach out to Nepal, Maldives and Yemen for humanitarian assistance. These are key lessons for policy makers and our neighbours alike, for it is a reflection of our capabilities and a changed India.
As for domestic politics, we must include bordering states like Bihar, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Punjab in the decision making process. Five of our states share a border with Bangladesh and face problems like immigration, smuggling and drug trafficking. Therefore they must be involved in foreign policy making. A good example when the Centre and a state, West Bengal, looked at an issue in the same light leading to a good outcome is the recent land boundary settlement or the Ganges water sharing treaty with Bangladesh in 1996.
Another advantage we have is in terms of skill development. India has become a hub for education and is attracting people for short term courses like computer skilling, English language, health services, finance and accounting. Protection of our diaspora has also emerged as a very important aspect of our policy. Increasingly it will take on a more important role as it has the potential to increase regional cooperation. Moreover, we have to actively articulate our point of view especially with rogue nations so that the international community takes a tough stance. In the past, we never did it and people would often ask, what does India want? This is changing now and we are more clear and direct on our policy articulation. The dialogue is more open and direct and our partners know what are our redlines. Finally, samman, samvad, samriddhi, suraksha and sanskriti should remain the guiding lights of our foreign policy.
(This article is a summary of the address delivered by Shri Amar Sinha, former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India on 28th January, 2018 at New Delhi at the Workshop on India’s Foreign Policy organised by India Foundation in partnership with Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.)
(This article is carried in the print edition of March April 2018 issue of India Foundation Journal.)