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India’s Growing Neighborhood Dilemmas

Context:

The persistent challenge for Indian foreign policy lies in its relationship with neighboring countries. While India aspires to a robust global role, aiming to lead the global South, mediate in global geopolitical conflicts, and establish itself as a significant player in world politics, its immediate neighborhood remains a stumbling block.

Relevance:

GS2- International Relations

  • India and its Neighborhood- Relations.
  • Bilateral, Regional and Global Groupings and Agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests.

Mains Question:

What are India’s primary neighborhood dilemmas at this point in geopolitics? How should the government approach them to build a long-lasting relationship with South Asian countries? (15 marks, 250 words).

Challenges in India’s Neighborhood:

Anti-India Governments:

  • Despite India’s ambitious foreign policy goals, South Asia not only resists aligning with India’s narrative but also seems to be indirectly hindering India’s progress.
  • The emergence of politically anti-India governments in South Asia, exemplified by the Maldives where the new administration is effectively urging Indian residents to depart.
  • Additionally, the prospect of a Khaleda Zia-led government in Dhaka, with upcoming elections, could pose an ideological challenge to India.

Rise of Beijing:

South Asian Nations and China:

  • Noteworthy factors include the increasing involvement of smaller states in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other Chinese projects, Beijing’s proactive engagement with South Asian nations even when the international community distances itself for normative reasons, and China’s efforts to resolve border disputes with neighboring countries, excluding India.
  • China’s deeper financial resources contribute significantly to the overall impact of its outreach compared to India’s efforts.
  • The potential outcome, or a scenario that may evolve over time, is somewhat disconcerting. Without innovative measures, there is a substantial risk of India becoming geopolitically confined within an unfriendly South Asia.
  • In the present era, South Asia is marked by the diminishing influence of the United States, which had long been a constant geopolitical factor in the region.
  • While New Delhi did not always find Washington’s presence in South Asia entirely advantageous, its departure is unquestionably detrimental, especially considering China’s assertive role in filling the power vacuum left by the U.S. exit.
  • The rapid and formidable ascent of China serves as a geopolitical buffer, at least for the time being, providing smaller states in the region with the means to leverage the “China card” in their foreign policy.
  • Although neighboring countries express a desire for strategic autonomy with India, there is notably less inclination to pursue such autonomy in dealings with China.

Dependency on China:

  • In one of the world’s least interconnected and economically disadvantaged regions, it is natural for the inhabitants to lean towards a power capable of fulfilling their material needs.
  • Given India’s limited capacity to meet these needs, China emerges as the dominant power.

Beijing as a Norms-Free Zone:

  • India has traditionally approached the region with a normative and political perspective, with regional states either acquiescing, rebelling, or falling in line due to a lack of alternatives.
  • Beijing has altered this India-centric calculus by presenting itself as a no-frills, non-normative alternative. For the first time in modern South Asian history, the region operates as a “norms-free zone.”

India’s Singular Approach:

  • The second factor contributing to India’s regional challenges is linked to its policy stance, which reflects a deep-seated inclination towards maintaining the existing state of affairs when dealing with the domestic politics and diverse power centers within the region.
  • While it may seem prudent and less risky to primarily engage with those in power in the regional capitals, be they elected or otherwise, such a singular approach creates path-dependencies that often result in the alienation of other centers of power or opposition leaders. Bangladesh serves as a potential example of this dynamic.

India’s other Complications:

  • Throughout much of its independent existence, New Delhi enjoyed unparalleled primacy in the region. However, the challenges of being the resident power in South Asia, with its associated cultural, ethnic, refugee, and other complications, are now felt more acutely than the advantages of being the primary power.
  • In contrast, China, as a non-resident power in the region, benefits from the absence of complications—ethnic, linguistic, religious—that typically arise from being a resident power.

Unmet Expectations:

  • Moreover, India’s predicaments are fueled by two longstanding misconceptions. Firstly, there has been a persistent belief in India that South Asia, excluding Pakistan, would be receptive to Indian geopolitical reasoning, prompting proactive engagement with the region while sidelining Pakistan. However, in hindsight, it must be acknowledged that this policy has not unfolded as India envisioned.
  • Secondly, there was a mistaken assumption in New Delhi that India’s special relationship with the region, rooted in culture, soft power, history, and ethnicity, would enable the country to handle its neighbors more effectively than those lacking intimate knowledge of the region, such as China.

Way Forward:

  • It is imperative for India to undergo a mental shift and recognize that South Asia’s power dynamics have undergone fundamental changes. The era of India’s primacy in the old South Asia no longer exists.
  • The emergence of ‘Southern Asia’ signifies a space where China has become a significant contender for regional dominance.
  • Accepting this realistic and pragmatic perspective would enable India to navigate the current reality instead of holding onto the outdated notion of Indian primacy.
  • New Delhi should actively seek the involvement of friendly external actors in the region to counter the impending possibility of it becoming Sino-centric.
  • Indian diplomacy needs to exhibit flexibility by engaging with multiple actors in each neighboring country.
  • The essence of diplomacy lies not in antagonizing anti-India elements but in mitigating their hostility. Similarly, while engaging with those in power is a sound policy, exclusive focus on them is detrimental.
  • Addressing a well-discussed issue, India must urgently address the shortage of diplomatic personnel. The glaring insufficiency of diplomats to execute the foreign policy of a nation with a population of 1.4 billion is poised to become India’s most critical challenge.

Conclusion:

As India plays an increasingly prominent role in global affairs, the shortage of personnel will be keenly felt. If the current situation persists, there may be no one available to represent India when opportunities arise or crises emerge.


February 2024
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