In the first part of this 2-part blog on India’s foreign policy challenges, Raj Verma explores India’s evolving relationships with its South Asian neighbours.
Click here for part 2, which covers relations with the great powers and East Asia.
In 2015, there is lot of continuity in India’s foreign policy challenges. Although a new BJP-led NDA government came to power in India in 2014, India’s foreign policy challenges have remianed more or less the same and in some cases have been amplified. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has adopted a multi-faceted foreign policy, with a strong emphasis on improving relations with India’s neighbours.
Pakistan: Indo-Pak rivalry has manifested itself since the two countries became independent in 1947. Kashmir and cross-border terrorism has led to tensions and even open conflict between the two neighbours. PM Modi invited all the South Asian heads of state for his swearing-in ceremony in 2014, a move seen by many as a new facet and step in India’s diplomacy aimed at improving ties with its neighbours. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended the ceremony despite objections from the all-powerful Pakistani army. Since then, both PM Sharif and India-Pakistan relations have been on the backfoot. The Pakistani army which is a state within a state is averse to having cordial relations with India although Pakistan has realised that terrorism from within – rather than India – is its biggest security threat. After the killing of 141 people including 132 school children in an attack by Pakistani Taliban on a military school in Peshawar, PM Sharif vowed that Pakistan will wipe out all terrorists whether good or bad. However, India believes that Pakistan will continue to distinguish between ‘good terrorists’ and ‘bad terrorists’ and cross border terrorism will still emanate from Pakistan in 2015 and beyond.
India and Pakistan have also exchanged heavy fire across the International Border and the Line of Actual Control and the incidence and intensity has increased significantly in the last three to four months. This will continue because the Indian government has adopted a policy of heavy retaliation while ensuring that the exchange does not lead to a wider conflict and war. Consequently, relations in other realms will be sidelined or receive less importance.
Afghanistan: Relations between India and Afghanistan have continued to be friendly. A long history of cultural and civilisational linkages forms the foundation of a deep mutual trust. The relationship has been further strengthened in the new millennium due to increased development initiatives, capacity building and economic opportunities. Both countries share mutual economic and strategic interests and the relationship is symbiotic as Afghanistan provides India access to natural resources, access to Central Asia and a base for intelligence operations especially in the mineral rich Hajigak region. Afghanistan can also be used if there is a need to squeeze Pakistan from two sides, a factor which Pakistan is acutely aware of.
Afghanistan needs investment, technical assistance, development aid, military assistance and training for the Afghan National Army and government officials to strengthen state institutions and provide better governance which India can provide. This led to the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement between the two countries in 2011. President Karzai also attended PM Modi’s oath ceremony in New Delhi in 2014. However, the increase in terrorism, political instability and insecurity after the withdrawal of the NATO troops in December of 2014 is a major challenge for the relationship between the two countries.
Bangladesh: The links between the two countries are civilisational, cultural, social and economic and consequently there are a lot of commonalities. India played an extremely role in the independence and creation of Bangladesh and was one of the first countries (along with Bhutan) to recognise Bangladesh as an independent country. There has been tremendous goodwill for India in Bangladesh since Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina came to power five years ago. Bangladesh has cracked down on terrorism and anti-India activities, and has largely delivered on Indian security concerns. PM Sheikh Hasina attended PM Modi’s oath ceremony in New Delhi in 2014. Indian Minister for Foreign Affairs also visited Bangladesh.
Looking forward, there is scope for increased Indian investment in infrastructure, and trade and economic development. Despite this there are contentious issues in the relationship: the division of water from 54 international rivers that flow from India to Bangladesh, the land corridor that India wants through Bangladesh to connect West Bengal to the north-eastern states, undemarcated lands, non-exchange of enclaves, the continuing influx of undocumented migrants from Bangladesh through the 4094 km porous border with India on three sides (and the fourth side opening in the Bay of Bengal), the remaining anti-India forces in Bangladesh, the dispute over the Moore Islands, trade complications, Bangladesh as a market for Indian narcotics, non-compliance of major treaty provisions by India, and a lack of commitment from the Indian side to address these issues through goodwill and friendship. According to LSE’s Professor David Lewis, “India’s giant size and Bangladesh’s smallness mean that it is difficult to negotiate equally to reach fair outcomes between the two countries.” This has led to a lingering trust deficit which will continue to affect the relationship.
Sri Lanka: India and Sri Lanka have had cordial relations in the new millennium. Security cooperation, trade and investment are important factors in the relationship between the two countries. Human right violations against Tamils and rehabilitation of Tamils in the national mainstream in Sri Lanka after the end of the civil war have strained diplomatic relations between the two countries. However, India abstained from a US-sponsored resolution on human rights in Sri Lanka at the United Nations in March 2014, despite supporting India similar resolutions in 2012 and 2013. Moreover, PM Modi invited Sri Lankan President to his oath ceremony despite opposition from his allies in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. PM Modi heads a majority government and his policy will be less shackled by Tamil Nadu,
A major irritant is China’s growing relationship with Sri Lanka. President Xi Jinping visited Sri Lanka prior to his visit to India and called Sri Lanka ‘an important pearl in the Indian Ocean.’ This bears resonance with China’s encirclement of India using a ‘string of pearls’ in countries in South Asia. Consequently, India decided to strengthen relations and defence cooperation with Sri Lanka. Defence ties will continue as usual through joint training, sharing of warfare expertise and military exchanges. Another challenge is holding Colombo accountable to past bilateral commitments such as implementing the Thirteenth Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution which could add a piquant note to the bilateral relationship.
Nepal: Nepal and India share an 1800 km open border. India enjoys considerable influence over Nepal and was instrumental in the regime change in Nepal in 2005. In recent years, the increasing dominance of Maoism in Nepal’s domestic politics, along with the strengthening economic and political influence of China, has led the Nepalese government to gradually distance itself from India. Nepal has also become a haven for terrorists and separatists operating in India. India has been seeking Nepal’s cooperation in managing the border through several bilateral mechanisms. Due to domestic political turmoil, lack of political will and a resource crunch, Nepal has been unable to effectively cooperate with India. However, During PM Modi’s visit to Nepal in August 2014, India and Nepal agreed to “review, adjust and update” the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship to “better reflect the current realities” and expand ties in “a forward looking manner.” There is scope for increased engagement in the two countries but is and will be hampered due to suspicions of India’s intentions in Nepal leading to lack of trust and India’s interference in the domestic affairs of Nepal. However, due to India’s considerable influence over Nepal, India’s meddling will continue in Nepal in 2015 and beyond, something which will be a challenge in the bilateral relationship.
About the Author
Dr Raj Verma is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for International Studies, LSE.
Dr Verma is a regular contributor to the India at LSE blog. View his previous posts here.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the India at LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.