Editorial✍ Hindu Edi Prelims cum Mains

The importance of being neighbourly


During previous years, focus on SAARC wasn’t fully fruitful:

  • Ties with South Asian neighbours were a priority even in the previous years.
  • After a promising start, there were some difficulties.
  • India’s relations with Pakistan soured, while China continued to expand its footprint in Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
  • However, India’s cooperation with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Afghanistan and Myanmar showed tangible progress.

BIMSTEC came into prominence:

  • As a result, attention was consciously shifted from SAARC to BIMSTEC, thereby giving an eastward shift to India’s neighbourhood policy.
  • In 2016, BIMSTEC leaders were invited to the BRICS summit in Goa.


Neighbourhood First Policy up and running under new government:

  • The new central government has acted swiftly to pursue its foreign policy priorities, with focus on strengthening India’s place in the world.
  • It has begun by shoring up the country’s position in the immediate neighbourhood, beginning with Prime Minister’s visits to the Maldives and Sri Lanka, and External Affairs Minister’s trip to Bhutan.
  • BIMSTEC leaders also attended the swearing in of the Prime Minister.


Three visits in focus:

1) EAM visit to Bhutan:

  • India’s External Affairs Minister visited Bhutan and held comprehensive discussions.
  • The visit was perhaps meant to assess Bhutan’s current thinking about Chinese overtures to open diplomatic relations and the China-Bhutan border issue.
  • This assessment would be important before Mr. Modi’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit soon.

2) PM’s visit to Maldives:

  • Mr. Modi’s visit to the Maldives was smartly designed to showcase that a dramatic turnaround has taken place in India-Maldives relations.
    • Former Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen gave a blatantly pro-China tilt to his foreign policy.
    • The result was that Mr. Modi had to wait until Mr. Yameen’s was out of office (he lost elections in late 2018) before he could visit the Maldives in November 2018.
  • Working in concert, the two governments have succeeded in deepening mutual understanding.
  • During the visit, Mr. Modi hit all the right buttons, highlighting India’s resolve to assist the Maldives in every possible manner.
  • He identified countering terrorism, addressing climate change, and promoting an integrated and balanced Indo-Pacific as the key challenges for the region.
  • Maldives again now committed to India First policy:
    • While visiting India in December 2018, Maldivian President was still somewhat cautious as he spoke of balancing friends, old and new.
    • But by the time Mr. Modi landed in the Maldives in June, 2019, Maldives became more receptive.
    • The President and the Majlis (Maldives Parliament) speaker reiterated the Maldives’ commitment to its ‘India first policy’.
    • The Majlis invited Mr. Modi to deliver a special address.
    • The President conferred the nation’s highest honour on Mr. Modi.
  • An indication of India’s improved assistance to Maldives:
    • PM’s visit demonstrated how India has begun to implement recent decisions including to:
      • extend ample financial assistance
      • move ahead with projects to be funded through a new $800 million Line of Credit
      • focus on people-centric welfare measures in accordance with the priorities of the Maldives
    • This is in sharp contrast with China’s approach of extending massive loans for mega infrastructure projects that end up in debt traps.

3) PM’s visit to Sri Lanka:

  • Mr. Modi’s visit to Colombo was sensible.
  • The visit conveyed India’s solidarity with Sri Lanka which is still overcoming the overwhelming effects of the Easter Sunday attacks.
  • He held discussions with all the main actors: the President, the Prime Minister, the Leader of Opposition, and Tamil leaders.



The visits show some new elements in our foreign policy:

  • New Delhi has clearly indicated that the neighbourhood will continue to be a priority.
  • Four subtle elements are being introduced in the policy matrix:
    1. Without always insisting on reciprocity from neighbours, India may get into a proactive mode and adopt measures to incentivise cooperation in the neighbourhood.
    2. India will prefer to work on quick impact projects that bring socio-economic benefits to the people.
    3. Recognising its limited capabilities, India would have no objection in forging a trilateral development partnership, involving India and Japan in a neighbouring country.
    4. India is consciously shifting to BIMSTEC due to the drawbacks of SAARC. India sees a mix of “energy, mindset and possibility” in the BIMSTEC grouping.


Way ahead:

  • The government is moving in the right direction.
  • It could also consider bringing the Maldives into BIMSTEC, at least as an observer.
  • The EAM should visit other neighbours soon, particularly Bangladesh and Myanmar.


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