India’s Foreign Policy in its Neighbourhood

*Note: This article only contains  excerpts from the interview. To listen to the entire interview, head to our Interlinked page or check us out on Spotify.

Sandeep Bharadwaj, a doctoral candidate at the History Department of Ashoka University, speaks with Interlinked to unpack India’s Foreign Policy approach in its neighbourhood. The podcast majorly focuses on India’s involvement with South and Southeast Asia and others in context to the growing Chinese influence and the pandemic. Sandeep was a foreign policy researcher at the Centre for Policy Research until recently. He has co-authored the official history of the Kargil War for the Government of India, regularly engages with various government agencies on issues of national security and writes on South Asian history and Indian foreign policy in the Hindu, the Indian Express etc.

India is a vast country with a very diverse neighbourhood. Since we will be talking a lot about India’s Foreign Policy with respect to its  neighbourhood, what do you think India must treat as its neighbourhood and why?

Generally, this argument has existed for a long time that India is a major country in Asia. Over here we are talking about a very loose definition of Asia, which also includes to a certain degree North and East Africa, going all the way to Pacific. Moreover, it is the third largest GDP in the continent, one of the world’s largest populations, massive military potential alongside the historical cultural ties and a huge diaspora spread all around. So obviously India should not have the kind of provincial outlook that it has, in which it has basically just concentrated itself in South Asia. Thus, the argument is that India needs to set its sights larger. This is not just necessarily for us, for our own interests, but also incumbent upon us as a major, potential power in Asia that we should take up greater responsibility in the region in maintaining order and stability.

However, there are two important caveats to this view. One is that it’s very important to recognize that India can’t play the bigger role, whatever that would be, unless it puts its own house in order. If India gets into a border crisis with Pakistan or China, every two years, like we are doing like clockwork, it becomes more of a wishful thinking to think that we can play a major role somewhere else. The other caveat is that India needs to be clear about its role in the region. Its role is characterised by three things – India’s capabilities, perceived interests and the desire to be a superpower. These three have an effect on the definition of Asia in their own way. 

Historically, what are some features that have characterised India’s influence in South and Southeast Asia? Has it mostly been economic, strategic, a mix of both or has India’s culture, Bollywood, religions also affected its image and ties with other states?

Firstly, we need to disaggregate South and Southeast Asia. We will come to discuss South Asia a bit later. For Southeast Asia, India is quite close to it geographically, but not so much politically or conceptually. Therefore, influence is not the right word here. There are several agreements that can be pulled out that India must’ve signed with others in the region. However, in the long term, in any major events like the Vietnam War or several endless civil wars in the region, India hasn’t played a big role there. There are obviously very deep economic diasporic ties that exist between these two and go back several millennia. In the recent decades yes, there have been these Look East/Act East policies but they haven’t paid off much. Therefore, ‘influence” in the traditional hard power sense is not the right word. Moreover, it’s not just government policies that have caused this. There is a certain level of inward-looking attitude in Indian society at large, which basically creates this gap. 

With respect to Bollywood and India’s soft power in that sense, yes. Bollywood sells a lot, goes everywhere, but this is not a deliberate effort by Bollywood. It makes movies for domestic and maximum to maximum NRI consumption. This becomes somewhat of a lag or drawback on this idea of the soft power part. Therefore yes, there is some impact but it must be taken with a pinch of salt. 

Coming to South Asia now, what do you think has weakened SAARC? Given that India is the only major power, should India try to reboot it? Does BIMSTECH have the potential to replace SAARC and achieve what SAARC couldn’t?

SAARC has been on life support for a while now. There is certainly a deep problem in SAARC right now due to India-Pakistan which cannot be simply overcome. Nevertheless, India has certainly missed the opportunity of SAARC. Since its inception, it has preferred dealing with the members bilaterally, despite the crucial role that it could play as the only major power in the organisation. Moreover, countries in the SAARC itself do not depend on India as much as members of other multilateral forums depend on each other. The basic implementations of various mechanisms set up by the SAARC are lacking. Hence, its weakening isn’t just the failure of India. 

Also, BIMSTECH has its own problems of having members who are not that interested – making it a very unwieldy grouping. There is another group that has come up – BBIN (for Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) – which has been able to deliver on some key issues. However, it does not have a regional conceptual element attached to it unlike SAARC. 

It is not a lesser-known fact that dealing with China is very important for India. For this, it needs to secure its relationships with its neighbouring states and ensure they are not tempted by the Chinese. How do you see this happening especially in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka where both India and China appear to have their strongholds?

There are two things to keep in mind while looking at China’s role in South Asia. One is that historically there has been an undercurrent of paranoia in India, that China is going to come in South Asia. This has been going on since the 1960s, even when China was nothing compared to what it is now. For example, once China got control over the Wuhan situation and started pumping out money, this paranoia was triggered again. However, if you compare Chinese to aid to what the US gave out, it is nothing. The other thing is the idea that India and China are playing a zero-sum game. Anything that China does in the region is not a loss for India and vice versa. For example, India claims that over the past 7 years, one of the most successful relationships it has had is with Bangladesh, even though it has joined the BRI. Still, it is considered to be a successful relationship. 

More generally, whatever China must be investing in the region might not always be to the detriment of India. It could be possible that India is losing out on trade that is less competitive. However, this analysis needs to be done by looking at commodity-wise exports from India and China in more detail. In such a case, politics is out of it and it becomes a simple decision of choosing a product which is better. Moreover, South Asia is not an open field where India and China can do whatever they want. It has a conscience of its own and hence India needs to deal with them in a more sophisticated way. 

What does the future of Indian Foreign Policy in its neighbourhood look like to you? Do you think India’s ‘Vaccine Maitri’ plays a very important role in building lost ties with its neighbours or is a more strategic re-organisation of India’s foreign policy required?

The long-term impact of Vaccine Maitri is unclear. Several countries gave aid to each other while those who held back got criticised for it. India has also killed its Vaccine Maitri program as of now, throwing other countries’ schedules off. It may be resumed but there is no information about what this timeline would look like. Moreover, COVID is such a cataclysmic event that no one can really predict how things will play out in international relations. Nevertheless, the few patterns that are coming out show that health is going to play a huge role in foreign policy. Just like after 9/11 terrorism became a big thing and many countries converged and diverged. Health will affect many aspects of relations of states with each other in terms of visa policies, aid, etc. Secondly, the cross-country inequity will only grow due to this affecting the future policy outlook of India. It will affect how India sees itself in the world and how other people see India and its “influence”. 

In terms of South Asia, India does not have any overarching strategy of tapping this huge resource for a region. It seems to work out well with some countries, not so much with others, making it very all over the place. So, if India doesn’t come up with something like a systematic strategy or vision of what we want out of this region, what is going to happen, which is already happening to a certain degree, that countries will start sidestepping it. Hence, in the long run, basically they will extract themselves from this gravitational pull, which is India. India needs a security reset of some sort with its neighbours at least. It can’t go on with this kind of heightened tensions situation, like it is currently.

The podcast was conducted by Deepanshu Singal, an undergraduate student at Ashoka University, who has a keen interest in Economics, Political Science and International Relations. 

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