Contesting neighbours – revised geopolitical playbooks – Engaging the neighbourhood

GS 2 INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests, Indian diaspora.


The South Asian region, which is home to eight countries, and the Indian Ocean region (maritime Indian Ocean region; mostly Western Indian Ocean) comes under the broad geographic expanse of India’s neighbourhood.

  • There are ideas such as “extended neighbourhood”  – linking India with other regions which do not necessarily share borders but share cultural, civilisational or economic linkages.
  • Centrality and capabilities, since Independence, traditionally India had preponderance in the region, especially in South Asia and to a large extent, in the Western Indian Ocean.
  • Most of the South Asian smaller neighbours have had friendly ties with India in their post independent period.
  • The year 2020 has been a watershed moment for relations between India and China 
    • clashes between the two countries in the Galwan region of Ladakh since the 1962 war.
    • events have had a cascading effect on the very thought process of foreign policy.
    • not just for India with regard to its neighbourhood but also China’s understanding of its own threat perceptions as well.

Evolution of India’s neighborhood policy:

  • The phase under colonial times centred on ideas and slogans around 
    • anti-colonialism
    • anti-imperialism
    • anti-racism
    • agendas of Asian Relation Conference of 1948
  • which cemented India’s relations with its neighbours and in a way, supported their respective de-colonisation movements.
  • The post-colonial phase, which broadly began in the late 1940s
    • has had a complementariness which helped India and its neighbours.
    • to propel ideas such as non-alignment in the international arena
    • which was inspired by a macro-level “third worldism”, “South-South cooperation” and so on.
  • Though multilateralism prevailed in India’s foreign policy at the international level,
  • There has been a tremendous focus on bilateralism in India’s approach to its immediate neighbourhood.
    • This was due to a variety of factors since Cold War related dynamics at play in the region.
    • India’s foreign policy approach towards its neighbours were shaped by the “principle of balancing”.
      • the policies that the major adversarial States (Pakistan and China) followed with super powers defined India’s relations with the latter.
      • Such balancing and counterbalancing have had an effect on India’s neighbourhood.
  • It does not imply that domestic level factors never played a role in the shaping of neighbourhood policy,
    • indeed, some of the conflicts in the neighbourhood had domestic dimensions .
      • for eg:- the India-Sri Lanka conflicts in the eighties.
      • water sharing issues with Bangladesh.
  • Parallel to this, the role of super powers and their Cold War proclivities significantly contributed to India’s neighbourhood policies.
  • In the post-Cold War period, which began in the 1990s, 
    • India set out to refashion its foreign policy premises on non-alignment.
    • its relations with Western bloc countries
    • regionalism 
    • which in turn had a huge impact on India’s neighbourhood/regional policies.
  • Factors that contributed to such changes broadly fell under two categories systemic and domestic.
    • systemic (international) level factors –  included the:
      • collapse of the Cold War binaries.
      • spread of globalisation.
      • increased degree of regionalism.
    • domestic level factors – included :
      • introduction of economic reforms.
      • emergence of coalition politics.
      • nuclearisation.

India and its Neighbors:

  • India even undertook non-reciprocal initiatives to its South Asian neighbours 
    • to build ties and instil a high degree of confidence.
    • Eg:- “Gujral Doctrine” of 1996.
  • Intermittent conflicts with neighbouring States like Pakistan continued,
    • affected the forward march of the South Asia specific regional organisation(SAARC).
  • India through new neighbourhood policy at that point in time was striving to address both traditional and non-traditional issues.
    • Traditional included military and economy.
    • Non-traditional included water, sharing, migration, climate and disasters.
  • 1990s, many treaties have been signed with neighbouring States to address issues 
    • the India-Bangladesh Ganges Treaty.
    • Mahakali Treaty with Nepal.
  • Security related issues have dominated India’s relations with Pakistan and of late with China
    • though India-China trade increased exponentially in the period of post-Cold War era.

India and West Asia:

  • India’s commercial and cultural relations with the region have ancient roots.
  • People to people contacts were established between the two great civilizations. 
  • when the merchants of the Kulli culture in Southern Baluchistan and the Sumer dynasties were in existence. 
    • Later the period between the rise of Islam in the 7th c CE to 10th c CE. 
    • may be termed as the golden age of trade relations between India and the Arab world.
    • An important factor influencing India’s foreign policy is socio-cultural affinity of Indian Muslims owing to – Macca and Madina located in this region.
      • Every year more than a lakh Indian Muslims go for Hajj.
    • For the past four decades trade, energy and human resource have been the principal drivers of India’s economic relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
  • India has been heavily dependent on energy supplies from the region.
    • while Indian expatriates have constituted a substantial share of the regional labour market.
    • Remittances from the region were last estimated to be 50% of the total of 80 million USD coming to India.
  • Strategic autonomy
    • today a term New Delhi’s power corridors are well-acquainted with.
    • is much different from the Nehruvian era thinking of ‘non-alignment’. 
    • “The alignment is issue based, and not ideological.
    • For Beijing and New Delhi,the ethos of equitable engagement with the three poles of power in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel.
      • without stepping into the entanglements of the region’s multi-layered conflicts and political fissures.

Contemporary Issues:

  • In the “current pandemic phase”, in the times of contracting economies, several fissures have emerged between India and its neighbours resulting in violent conflicts 
    • like the one witnessed involving China, which subsequently expanded into the economic and business arena.
    • are increasingly leading to traditional security conflicts.
    • China’s aggressive actions and action of smaller countries are some of the indicators of a new geo-political situation.
  • Apart from this, there is an ongoing trade conflict between the US and China
    • an offshoot of the emerging new Cold War at the global arena.
    • the China factor, will play a significant role in India’s foreign policy, of which its neighbourhood policy is a crucial one.
  • India’s outreach to West Asia sharpened since 2014 with the coming of the Narendra Modi government.
    • As the powerful and oil-rich Gulf states looked for investment alternatives
      • away from the West to deepen their own strategic depth, 
      • persuaded by Mr. Modi’s centralised decision-making style.
    • India doubled down on its relations with the likes of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh
      • giving open economic and political preference to the larger Gulf region.
  • While engagements with Israel moved steadily forward, Iran lagged behind,
    • bogged down by U.S. sanctions
    • which in turn significantly slowed the pace of India-Iran engagements.

China’s Advantage in West Asia region:

  • China’s overtures have been steadily more adventurous as it realises two major shifts that have taken place in West Asia.
  • First, Beijing has tried to capitalise around 
    • the thinking in the Gulf that the American security safety net is not absolute
    • they need to invest more in others.
    • China, being second only to the U.S. in both economic and military terms today, 
      • United Arab Emirates (UAE) obtained Chinese Wing Loong drones in 2016 
      • (a copy of U.S.’s infamous armed MQ-9 ‘Reaper’ drone that Washington refused to sell)
  • Second, the Gulf economies such as Saudi Arabia, attempting a hard shift away from their addiction to the petro dollar
    • will still need growing markets to sell oil to in the coming decade as they reform their economic systems. 
  • A $400 billion, 25-year understanding between Iran and China
    • advantage of U.S. President Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal.
  • Tools such as the Belt and Road Initiative, now ready to offer an alternative model for “investment and influence”.

Way Forward 

  • India’s perspective, as it maintains its trapeze-wire balancing act of diplomacy in West Asia
    • the overt outreach to the Gulf 
    • the ensuing announcements of multi-billion-dollar investments on Indian shores by entities from Saudi Arabia.
  • A new neighbourhood policy needs to be imaginatively crafted in tune with the emerging realities 
    • to maintain its regional power status
    • to realise status transformation to the next level in the near future.
    • It calls for promotion of a multi-vector foreign policy 
    • by diversifying its foreign policy attention on multiple powers in the global arena 
    • while developing a stronger matrix of multilateralism.
    • employing stronger diplomatic communications strategies.
  • Re-strategizing can enable India to strengthen its position in the region/neighbourhood.


       The theory of interests superseding ideology in foreign policy is fast unravelling practically, both from the perspectives of India and China.        

While in the recent past, the Indo-Pacific, with the development of the Quad, has taken centre stage, other geographies such as West Asia have also started to showcase bolder examples of New Delhi and Beijing’s metamorphosing approaches towards the international arena.

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