Neighbourhood First: Bolstering India’s regional relationships

Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi’s first visit abroad to Maldives and Sri Lanka clearly spells out the NDA government’s priority to strengthen their position in the region

June 24, 2019

Minister of External Affairs, S Jaishankar, recently visited Bhutan to highlight India’s adherence to the Neighbourhood First Policy

Engagements with Bangladesh and Afghanistan have been positive high points of Government of India’s Neighbourhood First policy

Groupings such as BIMSTEC and BBIN have helped to drive India’s engagement in the region, opening up new opportunities

The Neighbourhood First policy will help India to ensure a stable multi-polar balance of power and strengthen economic cooperation

Shortly after Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi returned to power for a second term, he quickly indicated a priority in the NDA government’s foreign policy – to strengthen India’s relations with its immediate neighbours and with South Asian countries through its “Neighbourhood First” Policy. 

Not only did he invite leaders from BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) countries, including Kyrgyzstan and Mauritius for his swearing-in ceremony, he marked the onset of his foreign policy 2.0 by visiting neighbouring Maldives and Sri Lanka. 

Foreign policy analysts believe that India’s stance is clear: India will continue to prioritise and enter into strategic engagements with its neighbours, Central Asia, and Indian Ocean region in the coming years.

India’s new foreign minister S Jaishankar too made a short trip to Bhutan to highlight India’s adherence to the Neighbourhood First Policy, indicating their commitment to play a crucial role in the region’s progress enabled by trade, connectivity, and people-to-people contact. In a speech soon after he took over as India’s foreign minister, S Jaishankar said that if we want to propel economic change, there is greater responsibility for Indian foreign policy today to focus on the external aspects and work towards creating partnerships not just within India.  

New horizons of engagement

The cornerstone of the Neighbourhood First Policy, launched in 2014 by the central government, has been PM Modi’s Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas (solidarity with everyone, development for all) motto. And, this was most reflected in the successful launch of the first-ever South Asia Satellite (SAS) two years ago to boost communication and improve disaster links among its six neighbours. This “opened up new horizons of engagement” in the region and helped India to carve a unique place for itself in space diplomacy. 

No other prime minister had visited Nepal and Sri Lanka on bilateral visits as well since the late 1990s and 1970s respectively. But, in his first term, PM Modi set the pace by visiting Nepal thrice improving relations with this Himalayan kingdom. 

He had announced a US$1 billion soft credit line for infrastructure, irrigation, and energy projects and took up the work of starting a 5,600 MW Pancheshwar project, stalled for 18 years after the agreement. With his two visits to Sri Lanka, in 2015 and 2017, he was the first PM in 28 years to visit the nation.

Regional groupings such as the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) for energy development, and BIMSTEC, have helped to drive India’s activities in the region.  

Policy Impact to drive relations

Bangladesh and Afghanistan have been positive high points of the Neighbourhood First policy. After 2014, long-pending land and boundaries issues were resolved with Bangladesh leading to a golden chapter (Sonali Adhyay) between the two. 

India signed a record 90 agreements with Bangladesh in this period, even extending development assistance to the tune of US$8 billion pledged over an eight-year period, with bilateral trade between the two countries increasing by 28.5 per cent from US$7 billion to US$9 billion. 

With Afghanistan, India has helped in the reconstruction and development of the country, giving US$2 billion as aid assistance, making New Delhi the largest donor among regional countries. In June 2016, when PM Modi visited Afghanistan, he inaugurated Salma Dam in Herat and proclaimed that “your friendship is our honour; your dreams are our duty.” The decision to improve transport connectivity through Iran’s strategically located Chabahar port will ramp up trade between India and Afghanistan as well.

India as a rising regional power

India’s Neighbourhood First policy rests on India’s prime responsibility to lift up its neighbours, to establish a rules-based order to preserve multilateralism and to establish peace and security in the Indian Ocean. 

In line with this thinking, during PM Modi’s recent visit to the Maldives, he donated a networked radar surveillance system to secure its large seas and offered training facilities for their defence force.

In his speech at the People’s Majlis, the Maldives parliament, the PM reiterated this stand. He said that the Indo Pacific “was our lifeline, our trade route and the key to our future. And, there is a need for all countries to work together for “openness, integration, and balance, as it will increase trust,” he said, clearly staking their claim to secure their interests in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Regional groupings such as the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) for energy development i.e. motor vehicles, waterpower management and inter-grid connectivity, and BIMSTEC, have helped to drive India’s activities in the region. This includes efforts such as the Cross Border Electricity Trade, which is undertaken through power purchase pacts signed as part of special agreements between governments.

Creating connectivity links

India is building a closer region through regional connectivity projects as well. During PM Modi’s state visit to the Indian Ocean archipelago, it was decided to start a passenger-cum-cargo ferry service between Kochi and Male via Kulhudhuffushi atoll to strengthen connectivity and boost tourism. 

Additionally, India has been signing a slew of MoUs with its neighbours, to ensure a free flow of resources, energy, goods, labour and information across borders.

Last year, India decided to build a strategic railway link between Raxaul in Bihar and Kathmandu in Nepal to expand connectivity between the two neighbours and enhance people-to-people linkages and promote economic growth and development. 

Similarly, a direct bus service between the two sacred cities of Janakpur in Nepal and Ayodhya was inaugurated to strengthen connectivity and develop religious tourism. India is trying to connect Nepal with waterways to enable the country to export their goods abroad. 

Aid and cricket diplomacy

In the recent past, India has augmented its development assistance to countries, including its neighbours to boost regional diplomacy and position itself as a leading power. In the case of Maldives, it has been a slice of cricket diplomacy as well, with PM Modi setting the tone by gifting a cricket bat signed by India’s cricket team to the Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

The Maldives has sought India’s help to strengthen the game of cricket in their country too, and this assistance includes the construction of a cricket stadium. 

Development assistance can be in the form of restoration of monuments as well. As PM Modi recently pledged to contribute to the conservation of Maldives’ Friday Mosque, known as Hukuru Miskiy, a unique place of worship made of coral stone. 

Sri Lanka too will benefit from India’s largesse. There are US$0.04 billion worth community projects carried out by India in Sri Lanka in different stages of completion. These include the free emergency ambulance service, already operational in several districts and construction of 14,000 homes for upcountry Tamils. The first phase of 1,500 houses was handed over last August. 

The Indo-Pacific focus

No doubt, Neighbourhood First policy will help India to ensure a stable multipolar balance of power, advance Indian representation on matters of global governance and strengthen economic cooperation to improve the quality of life of South Asian people. Yet, India realises that relationships need constant nurturing amid the backdrop of fluid politics in the region. And, as the Narendra Modi government embarks on its second term, the government seems clearly committed to expand India’s profile in the wider Indo-Pacific and carve out a stable balance of power in the region. 

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