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Is India’s ‘neighbourhood first policy’ unable to win regional allies?




In an online webinar hosted by a Danish think tank, experts highlighted how the rise of China across South Asia has left an unpleasant impact on India’s relations with its smaller neighbours.


India’s ‘neighbourhood first policy’ was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature foreign policy initiative that sought to develop better relations with the country’s neighbours.

But experts, who last week spoke at an online conference organised by the Nordic Institute of Stability Studies (NISS), a Copenhagen-based think-tank, believe that the policy has failed to take a meaningful direction as Modi’s aggressive posture and growing Chinese pressure has prevented the country from winning allies in the region.

The conference’s title was “Failure of India’s Neighborhood First Policy under BJP Government: Implications for Regional Cooperation”.

Speaking at the conference, Scott Lucas, a professor emeritus of political science and international studies at the University of Birmingham, said that “Modi’s confrontational rather than collective approach in the region” has hurt India’s political prospects across South Asia.

The Modi government’s “focus on military measures rather than social elements” has also helped increase tensions across the region, increasing anti-India sentiment, according to Lucas.

Many experts in the conference echoed a common view that China appears to have benefited from increasing anti-India sentiment in the region, helping Beijing solidify its connections with other South Asian nations.

In the first few years of Modi’s rule, regional organisations like SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) were given utmost importance, but the ‘neighbourhood first policy’ failed to produce any positive outcome and instead, the country found itself competing with a far more belligerent China.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s domestic policies, which many criticise for being exclusionary against non-Hindu minorities, and attacks on press freedom have also made matters worse and further alienated India from its neighbouring countries, the experts said.

Muhammad Athar Javed, director-general of the NISS, who moderated the conference, also viewed that due to India’s patronising attitude towards smaller neighbours such as Nepal, Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, New Delhi is “now grappling with multilayered diplomatic challenges with SAARC member states.” The SAARC, which was established in 1985, includes states of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Muhammad Athar Javed, director general of the Nordic Studies of Stability Studies (NISS), moderated the international webinar titled “Failure of India’s Neighborhood First Policy under BJP Government: Implications for Regional Cooperation”. (Credit: Muhammad Athar Javed / TRTWorld)

Long enmity

Lucas also drew attention to the fact that when it comes to Pakistan, India’s regional policy sees a sudden shift “due to the factors such as Kashmir or Afghanistan”, making New Delhi’s foreign policy confrontational in nature.

The erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir has been a disputed region between India and Pakistan since 1947. India has always accused Pakistan of supporting an armed guerrilla movement that either seeks independence from both India and Pakistan or wants the complete merger of the disputed territory with Pakistan.

Another conflict that pits India against its neighbour Pakistan is Afghanistan. Islamabad has long been one of the patrons of the Taliban, a group which has recently come to power in Kabul after a long insurgency against the US-backed Afghan government. Pakistan has also raised concerns over growing hate crimes against India’s Muslim minority.

“India-Pakistan Economic relationship will be damaged if they don’t come to understand Afghanistan and they don’t make some good favorable decisions,” said Samuel Ramani, a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, during the conference.

Both countries need to work together for projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which is also known as Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline, Ramani said. The TAPI project aims to transport natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan and finally to India.

Projects like TAPI will test Modi’s mood on whether he is ready for such projects, which will empower India’s neighbourhood first policy, or “it’s just in papers”, Ramani said.

India-Nepal tensions

Ramani found similarities between the post-Arab Spring political environment in the Middle East and current South Asia. Relations among neighbouring countries in South Asia have not improved or gotten worse to some extent and it’s parallel could be found in deteriorating ties between the Middle Eastern states following the Arab Spring uprisings, according to Ramani.

While India’s ‘neighbourhood first policy’ is something New Delhi was keen on pursuing in the beginning, it now appears to be going nowhere, Ramani observed.

“India is interfering in the domestic affairs of neighbouring countries especially in Nepal in the violation of their sovereignty. India is also creating hurdles in free transit and free trade within and beyond Nepal and keeps suppressing its people and government,” the academic said.

A lot of things are “going wrong” in India’s foreign policy, Ramani added.

Anil Sigdel, founder of Nepal Matters for America, a Washington DC-based think-tank agreed with Ramani’s conclusions on India’s foreign policy. Sigdel also thinks that India urgently needs to address various demarcations across Nepal-India borders, which has particularly made Nepali citizens suffer.

As the Eminent Persons Group, comprising high level politicians and experts from both sides for a joint comprehensive review of the bilateral ties, sat down and finalised a list of recommendations, “Modi’s leadership was showing some promise,” Sigdel said, during the conference.

The poster of the international webinar on India’s Neighbourhood First Policy. (Credit: Muhammad Athar Javed / TRTWorld)

“But that goodwill quickly evaporated as there was no response from the Modi government or not even willingness to receive the joint group’s report,” the Nepali activist said.

According to Sigdel, Ajit Doval, India’s National Security Adviser, “opined that Nepal has benefited from the existing arrangements; therefore Modi does not want to move forward with the report recommendations. And that was it”.

There are also various remaining problems between the two countries such as the water management along the border, especially regarding high structures being built on the Indian side to manage flooding that exposes Nepali villages to danger in monsoon season, according to Sigdel.

During the monsoon season in South Asia, heavy rainfall is recorded between June and September every year.

On top of all these issues, Indian authorities wanted to show their disregard toward Nepal by organising a road inauguration ceremony in Kalapani, a disputed region between Nepal and India, according to Sigdel. But that triggered “an unprecedented defiance” by Nepal as the country’s parliament unanimously passed an upgraded map that included Kalapani as a Nepali territory, “giving a massive setback to the Modi government”.

Is Bangladesh a bright spot for India? 

Among others, India- Bangladesh relationship is “a sign of promise”, Ramani said, during the conference. But even in that relationship, things are not bright on the ground as many ordinary Bangladeshis find the political leadership of India under Modi as Islamophobic or anti-Islam, Ramani said. They think that the BJP is “pushing Hindus against the Muslims that create violence,” he viewed.

Nazmul Islam, an assistant professor of political science at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University, also thinks that “India’s domestic policies are creating problems” in Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country, showing India’s neighbourhood first policy faces serious challenges even in friendly territories like Bangladesh.

Modi’s recent visit to Dhaka sparked deadly protests. The protesters in the capital city Dhaka chanted anti-Modi slogans to draw attention to his controversial policies that many find to be discriminating against Indian minorities, especially the Muslims.

While Bangladesh maintains good relations with India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pro-Hindu policies do not help improve ties between the two countries. Protestors clash with security officers during a protest against the visit of Modi in Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 25, 2021. (Mahmud Hossain Opu / AP Archive)

Across India-Bangladesh borders, things are not looking good either with occasional skirmishes continuing to take place as “smuggling is at its peak”, according to Ramani.

In December 2020, India and Bangladesh held a virtual summit, where the countries discussed topics like boosting trade, investment and transportation links, but avoided the thorny issue of sharing the water of the Teesta River, which flows into Bangladesh from the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal, Islam said.

“Bangladesh, like most nations, will sign up for something for its economic benefit”, the academic said.

While India has disagreements with Bangladesh on several issues, “it’s wrong to assume that economic deals with China will make Bangladesh move away from India but India doesn’t like Chinese interest and its investment in Bangladesh”, Islam added.

“Bangladesh’s foreign policy sides with China and Pakistan over India in a few cases, and that Dhaka should be careful regarding its foreign policy and strategic choices as Indian interference in the region and in Afghanistan to gain its power will affect its relationship with Bangladesh in the future”.

Sri Lanka-India ties

One of India’s clashing points with China across South Asia happens in Sri Lanka for different reasons.

“India draws closer to the West, particularly through the Quad and other multilateral and mini-lateral initiatives”, said Shakthi De Silva, an assistant lecturer of international relations at University of Colombo, Sri Lanka, during the conference. Quad refers to a strategic dialogue between the US, India, Japan and Australia as a response to China’s assertive presence in the Pacific region.

But Sri Lanka’s connections with the West are not moving in a good direction as the country’s Rajapakse government faces increasing criticism from Western capitals on human rights issues and freedoms, according to Silva. As a result, Sri Lanka has begun moving toward China, increasing the possibility that Indo-Sri Lankan ties might deteriorate at some point, he said.

“Sri Lanka’s tilt towards China was not an inevitable outcome. Rectifying the situation requires India and the West to adopt a more nuanced posture on the issue of human rights and accountability,” Silva viewed.

But Silva still thinks that “Sri Lanka has, and will, continue to maintain warm ties with India, giving deference to Indian security interests and welcoming high level Indian visits,” Silva added. But the country has also increasingly inclined towards China owing to the latter’s FDI inflows, investment volume and Beijing’s ability to grant Sri Lanka much needed loans as the island tries to extricate itself from its economic crisis.

“Although Sri Lanka curtails its own behaviour to appease India’s security interest, it is increasingly relying on China and will continue to interact with China in the future.”

Source: TRT World



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China's National Day Supplement

Remarks on Celebrating the 73rd Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China & the 50th Anniversary of the Establishment of the Diplomatic Relations between China and Maldives





This year marks the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Over the past 73 years, earthshaking changes have taken place in China.

Since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core has coordinated the overall strategy of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation and the great change that has not happened in a century, have solved many tough problems that were long on the agenda but remained unsolved, accomplished many things of vital importance and long-term significance, and withstood the test of various risks and challenges at home and abroad. The Path of China’s development becomes wider and wider, the Governance of China becomes more and more mature, and the Theory of China becomes more and more prevailing. The Chinese people have successfully built a moderately prosperous society in all respects and fulfilled the first centenary goal. We are embarking on a new journey to fully build a modern socialist country, march toward the second centenary goal, and advance toward the grand goal of realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

This year is of great historical significance in the development of the CPC and China, as the 20th CPC National Congress will be convened on 16th of October. This Congress will, in response to the expectation of all the Chinese people, set well-conceived goals and tasks for China’s development in the next five years and beyond, and it will draw an overarching plan for China’s future development. Having reached a new historical starting point, China will follow the Chinese path to modernization to achieve the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. China will work with other countries to make every effort for peace and development, shoulder the responsibility for solidarity and progress, build a community with a shared future for mankind, and embrace an even better world.

At present, the COVID-19 pandemic has kept resurfacing. Global security faces uncertainty. Global economic recovery is fragile and unsteady, and various risks and crises are emerging. The world has entered a new phase of turbulence and transformation. Changes unseen in a century are accelerating. At the same time, the world continues to move toward multi-polarity; economic globalization is deepening, and our societies are becoming increasingly digitized and culturally diversified. Indeed, countries are becoming ever more interconnected and interdependent. Peace and development remain the underlying trend of our times. Around the world, the people’s call for progress and cooperation is getting louder than ever before.

In response to the common aspiration of the international community for peace and development, and make up the global governance deficit, President Xi Jinping proposed the Global Development Initiative at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly. Putting the people at the center, this initiative is a rallying call to refocus attention of the international community on development and build a global community of development. At the recent High-level Dialogue on Global Development he chaired, President Xi Jinping announced several dozen concrete major steps to implement this initiative, generating strong impetus for accelerating the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

President Xi Jinping proposed the Global Security Initiative at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2022. He called on the international community to pursue common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, to abide by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, to take the legitimate security concerns of all countries seriously, to peacefully resolve disputes through dialogue and consultation, and to maintain security in both traditional and non-traditional domains. By putting forward this initiative, he has contributed China’s vision to reducing the peace deficit facing humanity and provided China’s input to meeting global security challenges.

As China has one-fifth of the global population, its march toward modernization has important, far-reaching significance for the world. The path that China pursues is one of peace and development, not one of plunder and colonialism; it is a path of win-win cooperation, not one of zero-sum game; and it is one of harmony between man and Nature, not one of destructive exploitation of resources. We will continue to contribute our input to meeting the challenges facing human development, and make our contribution to creating a new form of human advancement.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Maldives. Over the past half a century, China-Maldives relations have withstood the test of international vicissitudes and become more mature and stable. China and the Maldives have been upholding the spirit of friendship and neighborliness, treating each other as equals, conducting cooperation for development, supporting each other with mutual assistance and tiding over difficulties together. China highly appreciates the Maldives’ long-standing understanding and support for China’s just claims on issues concerning China’s core interests and major concerns, and China also supports the Maldives in safeguarding its sovereignty, independence and national dignity, and will continue to uphold justice for the Maldives at the international arena. The Maldivian government has a longstanding and firm commitment to the one-China principle. The China-Maldives relations have become a model of friendly exchanges, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation between countries with different systems and cultures in international arena.

In recent years, under the strategic guidance of the leaders of the two countries, China-Maldives relations have maintained a good momentum of steady development. In September 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a historic state visit to Maldives and the two sides agreed to establish future-oriented all-round friendly and cooperative partnership, lifting the China-Maldives relations to a new level. In July 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping had a phone call with Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih and reached important consensus on deepening and expanding exchanges and cooperation in various fields between the two countries, setting the direction for the future development of the bilateral relations. In January 2022, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid a successful visit to Maldives with fruitful outcomes, opening a new chapter in China-Maldives relations. Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid visited China twice over the past year, which enhanced the mutual trust and friendship between the leaders of the two countries, and laid a sound foundation for the future development of bilateral relations.

As an all-round friendly and cooperative partner, China has been always strongly supporting the Maldives to speed up economic and social development and improve self-development capability. Recent years have witnessed fruitful results on jointly building the “Belt and Road” by China and Maldives. The China-Maldives Friendship Bridge is a landmark project of the “Belt and Road” Initiative. Since it opens to traffic 4 year ago, the bridge has witnessed over 100 million crossings by the local people and has dramatically promoted the sustainable development of Maldivian economy and society. As foreign minister Abdulla Shahid said the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge built with China’s assistance had brought enormous changes to the country and greatly accelerated the economic development process of the Maldives and befitted the Maldivian people. So far Chinese companies has completed more than 11,000 social housing units, which have contributed a lot in the improvement of living conditions of thousands and thousands of Maldivian families. Power generation and power grid connection built by Chinese companies meet 80% of all electricity demand of the residents and enterprises in the Greater Malé. Expansion and Upgrading of Velana International Airport Project will further promote the development of Maldivian tourism. The great contributions made by the Chinese side to the development of Maldivian economy and society will further enhance the solid friendship between the two peoples.

Looking into the future on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties, the two countries should continue with the past and open up the future, promote all-round cooperation to a new high and write a new chapter for the friendly and mutually-beneficial cooperation with a more far-reaching eyesight and broader vision. In this regard, I would like to put forward the following 4 suggestions.

Firstly, both sides should blueprint and steer the future development of China-Maldives relations under the guidance of the important consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries.

Secondly, both sides should adhere to the valuable experience to ensure the steady and smooth development of the bilateral relations. Both sides should continue to respect each other, treat each other as equals, help each other with sincerity as well as support each other on the issues of our respective core interests and major concerns. China will continue to support Maldives in safeguarding its national sovereignty and territorial integrity and in pursuing an independent foreign policy. We believe that the Maldivian government will uphold its longstanding commitment to the one-China principle and firmly support China to defend its core interests.

Thirdly, both sides should deepen mutually beneficial cooperation in full scale so as to benefit the people of the two countries. In this regard, both sides should continue to push forward Belt & Road cooperation with high quality, speed up major projects and tourist cooperation. I hope the Maldivian side could finish ratification of China-Maldives FTA as early as possible in order to boost the post Covid-19 recovery of the Maldivian economy. We should explore new areas of cooperation in telecommunication, big data and marine economy. We need coordinate closely in international affairs to safeguard the international system with the United Nations at its core and the international order based on international law.

Finally, both sides should expand the people-to-people and cultural exchanges. We welcome more and more Maldivian youngsters to further their study in China. A Chinese language center based in Villa College has been set up now, which will further facilitate the Maldivians especially youngsters to learn Chinese language and culture. The visa exemption agreement of the two countries has come to effect. We believe that as the Covid-19 pandemic situation eases and the direct flights resume in the future, the people-to-people exchanges between the two countries will increase, which will further promote the traditional friendship of the two countries.

History has proved and will always prove that maintaining good-neighborly friendly relations with mutual benefit and win-win cooperation between China and the Maldives accords with the fundamental interests of the two countries and peoples, and benefits the peace and development of the region and beyond as well. We believe that with the 50th anniversary of our diplomatic ties as a new starting point, China and the Maldives will enhance mutual trust, expand cooperation and deepen friendship, jointly embark on a new journey of China-Maldives relations and promote the future-oriented all-round friendly and cooperative partnership between China and Maldives to a new level.

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish China enjoy prosperity and its people wellbeing and wish China-Maldives relations flourish in the future.

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