To say that India’s relationship with its neighbours has never been fraught with tension, would be an understatement. While India has been a major power in South Asia due to its strategic position, China’s increasing presence and influence in South Asia has led to concerns about New Delhi’s rising presence in the region. Another important player in South Asia—the United States—has its own concerns about China and considers India as an important strategic partner.
India–US relations have recently turned sour on matters of trade. Furthermore, several South Asian countries have been strengthening their relationship with China. In an interview with Akshobh Giridharadas, a consultant with the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, USINPAC discussed India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis its neighbours and analysed the US–India relationship and its impact on India’s diplomatic position in South Asia.
A journalist by profession, Giridharadas was based out of Singapore as a reporter and producer with Channel News Asia.
India’s Foreign Policy Vis-à-Vis its Neighbors
The Modi Doctrine or the Foreign Policy of the Modi government, has had its fair share of ups and downs. Recent events in the Maldives, as well as Nepal’s overtures to China, have concerned India watchers, who believe that Indian influence is being challenged in its own neighbourhood. However, the picture is much more complicated.
Akshobh Giridharadas explains that although there have been several challenges in India’s foreign policy towards its neighbouring countries, the Modi Government has been cognizant of the importance of India’s neighbourhood. “One of the things that Modi mentioned was that neighbourhood was his first priority,” Girdharadas said, “Modi’s first visits after taking office were to Nepal and Bhutan and not to the US or the UK.”
However, Giridharadas stressed that the Indo-Nepal Relationship does require special care. He said that India and Nepal’s relationship is often overlooked for several reasons. First and foremost, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is one of the least integrated areas in the world. An economic and geopolitical union of South Asian nations, SAARC has been encumbered by water disputes, trade disputes and even problems of security. India and Nepal, both happen to be members of SAARC. Furthermore, the presence of nuclear states such as Pakistan and China, in India’s neighbourhood often overshadows other relations.
Although India’s foreign policy may understand the importance of its neighbourhood, it does not always cater to them. “It is often said that SAARC as a region is very big brother dominated neighbourhood and smaller countries like Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives don’t necessarily get a chance to voice their concerns,” Girdharadas said.
“In this context, India’s relationship with Nepal is often haloed, and it looks like everything is going very well, although the relationship with Nepal needs special care,” Giridharadas said.
Giridharadas also talked about India’s relationship with its other neighbours including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. He commented that although India and Sri Lanka have a special relationship, recent and past events, such as the new Chinese ran Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, have affected the relationship. Giridharadas also noted that under the Awami League, Bangladesh has pursued closer relations with India. However, the Indo-Bangladesh dispute over sharing the waters of transboundary river Teesta caused an “overall belief that India needs to engage more with Bangladesh,” Giridharadas stated.
The Dragon in the Room
The importance of Chinese influence in South Asia cannot be underestimated, neither can the importance of India’s relationship with China. Both countries are rapidly growing economies, members of the G20, and both are nuclear powers. Additionally, “Modi and Xi are some of the most popular and influential leaders in India and China respectively.” Giridharadas said, “So, both Modi and Xi have been making their presence felt on the foreign stage.”
Modi has been very keen on pursuing closer economic ties with China. Giridharadas looked back on Modi’s visits to China when he was still the Chief Minister of Gujarat. As the Chief Minister, Modi visited several Chinese provinces and invited several Chinese companies to contribute to his Vibrant Gujarat Summits. However, other aspects of the Sino-Indo relationship have made New Delhi wary of Beijing. “Of course you have the Doklam standoff of 2017, which evoked memories of the 1962 war.” Giridharadas said, “ Thus, there has been an overhanging cloud as to whether China can be trusted.”
India has been very concerned about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and a Chinese 'String of Pearls'. The String of Pearls theory refers to a network of Chinese developed and run facilities in strategic locations in the Indian Ocean. The Hambantota Port is seen as one such strategic facility. Another controversial project, part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative has been the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which runs through the contentious Kashmir region.
Girdharadas noted that while New Delhi is not too happy with the China – Pakistan collusively, India has its own trade relations and barriers with China. Furthermore, “the Wuhan summit has helped in resetting the relationship.” Giridharadas said.
India’s willingness to work on Sino-Indian ties was demonstrated during the Shangri La Summit. “Even though James Mattis tore into China during the Shangri – La summit, Modi reiterated that he was optimistic about working with China,” Girdharadas said.
Where does the US Fit In?
In addition to big brothers like China and India, South Asia has been of considerable interest to the United States as well. “The US looks at India as a democratic counterweight to China, even though experts in India and China do not see India as a counterweight to China in the same sense,” Giridharadas said. Giridharadas expanded on this by explaining that the foreign policy coming out of India has always included unilateral engagement with everyone, including countries such as the United States, China, and Russia without being subversive to anyone. In fact, India has always been wary of power blocs given its legacy of the Non-Alignment Movement. “The fact that India is developing its unilateral relationship with China should not be seen as a snub to America and vice-versa,” Giridharadas said.
However, the US-India trade relations have been frosty, but Girdharadas believes that matters of trade aside, the US continues to view India as a strong strategic partner since both countries share some common ideas, concerns, and democratic ideals and values as well. Giridharadas stated the example of Canada and the recent U.S.-Canada trade disputes. “It is not a Washington-Delhi problem, but a Washington problem,” Giridharadas said. “Yes, India and the U.S. will disagree on various aspects of trade, but this will not stop a robust India – US relationship.”
India and the US have become increasingly concerned about China’s influence in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific. Other common interests include security and defense. Thus, in recent years India has been purchasing more weapons and increasing military cooperation with the U.S.
Giridharadas credited the Indian diplomacy for maintaining a strong U.S.-India relationship. “India’s diplomacy has always been that we will work with whoever is in power and it is a credit to them and Prime Minister Modi that they have continued to work very well with the US under two very different administrations – ie, the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration,” Giridharadas said.
An improved US- India relationship and India’s Neighbourhood
Having a paramount relationship with the US can definitely help India gain diplomatic ground in its neighbourhood, especially amongst smaller countries in the region. However, Giridharadas cautioned that a strong U.S.-India relationship would propel Pakistan closer to China.
“There is a saying, ‘Everyone wants the US as its friends, but no one wants China as its enemy,” Girdhardas said. Yet, the Indian diplomacy has the potential to dispel tensions with China caused by a close U.S.-India strategic partnership. India believes in unilateral engagement with everyone in the region without compromising on its own interests.
“There will be no adverse effects or long-term setbacks to the strategic partnership between the US and India,” Giridharadas said.