Opinion

Have India’s Relationships with Its Neighbours Been Degrading?

A strong Foreign policy has been something that the Narendra Modi led government has been consistently bragging about since coming to power in 2014

Replying to a query in Rajya Sabha in 2018, the then Minister of State for External Affairs V K Singh, listed the countries visited by the Prime Minister between 2014 and 2018. An expenditure of over Rs 2,021 crore was incurred on chartered flights, maintenance of aircraft and hotline facilities during Indian PM Narendra Modi’s visits to foreign countries since June 2014, according to the government.

All of this was justified, and rightly so, on the basis of India receiving the maximum FDI from the countries visited by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, lately there has been a thorn in this shining shoe of foreign diplomacy in India. Its relationship with the immediate neighbours, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and even Nepal, seem to have hit a rocky patch. Though India’s relationship with Pakistan, China and Bangladesh have never been great, but they have been on a downhill in the recent times.

India – China

Relations between India and China have been worsening in recent months. The two world powers are facing off against each other along their disputed border in the Himalayan region.

The root cause is an ill-defined, 3,440km (2,100-mile)-long disputed border. Rivers, lakes and snowcaps along the frontier mean the line can shift, bringing soldiers face to face at many points, sparking a confrontation. The two nations are also competing to build infrastructure along the border, which is also known as the Line of Actual Control. India’s construction of a new road to a high-altitude air base is seen as one of the main triggers for a clash with Chinese troops in June 2020, that left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead.

Despite several military-level talks, tensions continue. The most recent skirmish – on 20 January – left troops on both sides injured. It took place along the border in India’s Sikkim state, which is sandwiched between Bhutan and Nepal. The year 2020 was particularly violent. The June clash in the Galwan Valley – fought with sticks and clubs, not guns – was the first fatal confrontation between the two sides since 1975. India acknowledged its deaths. China did not comment on reports it also suffered fatalities.

India – Pakistan

Pakistan in April 2021, lifted a nearly two-year-long ban on its import from India amidst tensions over the Kashmir issue but did a U-turn a day later.

This conflict needs no introduction as India and Pakistan have fought four wars, of which three—in 1947–1948, 1965, and 1999—have centred on the territorial dispute over Jammu and Kashmir. The other conflict, in 1971, was triggered by the secessionist struggle in Bangladesh. In the recent years, there have been the “surgical strikes” and expression of aggression from India towards Pakistan. India’s move to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 angered Pakistan, which downgraded diplomatic ties and Pakistan expelled the Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad. Pakistan also snapped all air and land links with India and suspended trade and railway services.

However, in April 2020, Pakistan lifted a nearly two-year-long ban on its import from India amidst tensions over the Kashmir issue but did a U-turn a day later. Prime Minister Imran Khan decided that Pakistancannot go ahead with any trade with Indiaunder the current circumstances after holding consultations with key members of his Cabinet on importing cotton and sugar from the neighbouring country, a media report said.

India – Bangladesh

PM Modi’s stance towards small but significant neighbours has also frittered away the early gains from his first term in office. For example, in 2015, New Delhi successfully concluded a land boundary agreement with Bangladesh, ending a contentious issue in bilateral relations that had existed since the creation of East Pakistan—now Bangladesh—in 1947. Yet again, the positive impacts would not last.

In 2019, the Modi government set in motion its National Register of Citizens, a massive exercise in the north-eastern border state of Assam designed to verify the citizenship of its inhabitants. The government was embarking on this project because it had made illegal immigration from Bangladesh a key campaign issue in the 2019 national election. To be sure, the matter of illegal immigration is a legitimate concern for India, but the Modi government used it mostly as a political cudgel to instil fear among India’s Muslim minority and to expel anyone who could not produce the requisite documents. Bangladesh, which could be forced to accept many deportees, strongly objected to the National Register of Citizens.

Not surprisingly, relations with India have since become frosty. This amounts to a real missed opportunity given that Bangladesh’s economy was thriving until the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. And once again, in the wake of the ongoing health care crisis, China has stepped in with much-needed medical supplies for Bangladesh.

India – Sri Lanka

India has also lost considerable ground in Sri Lanka. The Modi government wholeheartedly backed the government of Maithripala Sirisena, but with strongman Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s electoral victory in November 2019, New Delhi suddenly found itself on the backfoot—the Rajapaksa brothers, after all, have long built closer ties to Beijing. Once again, India seems to have missed its chance: It could have positioned itself more strongly as an infrastructural investor in the country.

India-Sri Lanka relations are headed for new turbulence as New Delhi is beginning to get “concerned” that Colombo is once again tilting towards Beijing. In February 2021, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government in Sri Lanka scrapped its $500 million agreement with India and Japan to develop the East Container Terminal (ECT) project, instead seeking investments from the two countries for the West Container Terminal of the Port of Colombo under a public-private-partnership model

(continue from page 1) Days earlier, Colombo had handed over a $12 million energy project to a Chinese firm for the joint development of three renewable power plants in as many islands off the Jaffna peninsula, about 50 km away from the Tamil Nadu coast. New Delhi has reportedly lodged a strong protest on the issue, making it clear to Colombo that the energy project poses a grave security threat to India, while also conveying that it will “not” let the ECT plan get “washed away just like that”, official sources said.

Adding to the tensions is a looming UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) investigation into the Sri Lankan civil war, where Colombo has sought Delhi’s support in what is a politically sensitive issue for India.

India – Nepal

In the wake of a devastating earthquake in Nepal in April 2015, India acted with considerable speed in sending critical aid—efforts that generated much warmth and goodwill. Those sentiments, however, would not last long. Later the same year, Nepal was on the verge of adopting a new constitution. Kathmandu faced a degree of domestic opposition, especially from an ethnic group known as Madhesis, who straddle the Nepal-India border. They believed, with some justification, that their interests were not adequately represented in the new constitution.

Since some ethnic Madhesis also live in northern India, Modi’s government imposed an informal blockade on landlocked Nepal in an attempt to court their votes. The consequences of the blockade were disastrous for the Nepalese economy: For example, the price of rice doubled, and a cylinder of cooking gas became at least five times as expensive due to a severe drop in supplies. Not surprisingly, the reservoir of goodwill for India that its disaster assistance had generated quickly evaporated. Meanwhile, China took this golden opportunity to step into the breach, setting the stage for Nepal to reduce its dependency on India in the future.

India – Russia – China – Pakistan; The Conundrum of Relations

Russia’s arms sales to India have been the mainstay of the bilateral relationship since the former USSR and India signed a deal in 1971. More than 60% of India’s defence forces are equipped with Russian weapons. India’s ambition to become an arms exporter also explains why it collaborates with Russia in producing arms. Both countries are cooperating in the manufacture of the “Brahmos” missile system and licensed production in India of SU-30 aircraft and T-90 tanks. They reportedly plan to jointly manufacture AK-203 rifles, involving full technology transfer. India’s decision to buy Russia s S-400 missile system – providing India with a sophisticated anti-aircraft weapon – reflects its wish to maximise its military and diplomatic options by being able to diversify its arms suppliers.

But analogous considerations have also led China to purchase the S-400, which has raised India’s concern given Beijing’s recent territory-grabbing push in the Himalayas. 68% of China’s arms imports come from Russia. China and Russia are also collaborating in arms production. India-Russia trade and connectivity lag behind those between China and Russia. Trade between Russia and India amounted to US $10.11 billion in 2019–20 and both countries have invested in each other’s oil and gas sectors. They have set a bilateral trade target at $30 billion by 2025. Yet this is nowhere near Russia-China trade, which hit $110 billion in 2019.

But since 2015, Chinese investment has accounted for 85% of foreign investment in the Russian Far East. China is also the top trading partner of the Russia-steered Eurasian Economic Union, which comprises former republics of the USSR. In 2019, trade turnover between EAEU countries and India amounted to $13.8 billion, whereas China’s trade with the EAEU that year exceeded $133 billion. Russia has joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and Moscow and Beijing are now discussing the coupling of the EAEU with China and creating a Great Eurasian Partnership.

On the other hand, notwithstanding unease in New Delhi, Russia on the 7th of April 2021, pledged to provide more ‘special’ military equipment to Pakistan and hold more bilateral wargames both in the mountains as well as in the Arabian Sea. Russia has since long been the largest supplier of military hardware to India and has been maintaining a low-key relationship with Pakistan. But with the changes in the geopolitical landscape and New Delhi’s growing ties with Washington DC since the landmark India-US civil nuclear agreement of 2008, Moscow too started responding to Islamabad’s overtures to improve bilateral relations. They started discussing the sale of Russian Mi-35 attack helicopters to Pakistan in 2014 and the delivery of the choppers purportedly began in 2018, although New Delhi had conveyed to Moscow its concerns over the deal.

Russia also inked a defence cooperation agreement with Pakistan in November 2015 and the two nations had the first joint military drill in September-October, 2016 – just weeks after India signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement with the US. The last annual exercise between the Russian Army and the Pakistan Army took place in November 2020.

The Digpu News Bottomline

The Bhartiya Janata Party government has ridden the horse of foreign policy for close to 8 years now. But has this horse reached the finish line of a race that was neglected by the horse rider? With India Pakistan relationship not getting better courtesy August 5 2019 and the Himalayan region of India under the constant threat of the Dragon, there is no respite from any side.

Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal are building ties with China while India stares into the self-created oblivion of the second of COVID-19. Moscow at the same time has not been liking the close proximity between D.C and India.

Here is a very simple question you need to ask;

Where is India’s foreign policy?

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