2018 in Review Opinion

We Live in Multiple Neighbourhoods

This is Part 1 of our series, 2018 in Review, and focuses on South Asia. Specifically, why India should look beyond.

If you are looking for a detailed take on geopolitical developments in each of the Indian subcontinent states, this article won’t help. But if you are interested in a macroanalysis of India’s outlook towards South Asia in 2018, read on.

Let me state my bias upfront: I would like to see India invert its foreign policy priorities. This means a reduction in its preoccupation with countries in the Indian subcontinent and a corresponding increase in engagement with other ‘neighbours’. In this imagination, geography is just one dimension along which neighbourliness should be measured. Economically, ideologically, and technologically, we are neighbours to a different set of countries across the world on each of these counts. Hence, my analyses of South Asia in 2018 is tinted with this multiple-neighbourhood bias.

Traditionally, any year-end analyses of India’s geographic neighbourhood would follow a well-established trajectory – present how India goofed up on many counts, how these blunders have pushed our innocent South Asian neighbours towards China, and how we should do the same projects that China does — with Indian characteristics of course — to regain lost ground. As my stated bias indicates, this is not what I intend to do.

It is perfectly natural that smaller states will play India against the other powerful economy in the neighbourhood. That is precisely what every state attempted under the cover of China’s Belt and Road Initiative throughout 2018. For this, all I have to say is that India alone can’t resist the growing Chinese presence in its neighbourhood with manageable costs. As long as these South Asian states are mindful of India’s security concerns and economic well-being, India shouldn’t be overly concerned with China’s South Asia presence. Given China’s unenviable performance in smaller states elsewhere, it is likely to establish itself as a primary object of hate in South Asia very soon. India must instead do enough to be the second-best option for every smaller state instead. This is the reference point against which India’s South Asia policy should be judged in 2019.

In any case, through my biased lens, 2018 did witness an India that looked beyond South Asia due to three important developments.

One, South Asia as a political construct continued its decline. The SAARC project found no takers even in 2018. As C Raja Mohan pointed out in his article that bid a Farewell to South Asia,

The last summit of the leaders of the eight SAARC countries was convened in Kathmandu in late 2014. The real tragedy, of course, is that nothing of substance would come out even if the summit was held tomorrow in Islamabad.

With SAARC being held hostage by the Pakistani military-jihadi complex, forums such as BIMSTEC and projects such as Chabahar gained prominence. 2018 was, in a sense, India’s new tryst with the idea of multiple neighbourhoods.

Two, Pakistan itself was uncharacteristically toned down throughout 2018. The internal political upheaval and the changing global narrative on state-sponsored terrorism did seem to have the intended effect. 2018 was one of those rare years in which no major terrorist attack from across the border materialised. Even before Imran Khan was installed to power by the military-jihadi complex in August, it was being said how this was a new opportunity for rekindling India-Pakistan talks at the highest levels. Thankfully, no political capital was wasted on such an imminently counter-productive exercise in 2018. A constrained Pakistan helped India recalibrate its outlook towards Pakistan from a strategic adversary that needs to be handled on priority to an irritant that needs to be quietly managed.

Three, China itself helped reorder India’s foreign policy priorities. Until only a couple of years back,  Pakistan was the first word that got dropped in any foreign policy discussion. But the 2017 China-India border standoff changed this. How India should deal with China with the ongoing rethink in US foreign policy has now become a question of paramount importance for Indian policymakers. China’s confrontational stance in Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Nepal has further helped India think beyond its subcontinental focus.

So, willy-nilly we have stumbled upon a situation where India is looking beyond the South Asia framework. That’s not a bad situation to be in, and here are a few ideas that might come of use in 2019.

One, we should continue to engage with Pakistan at the Foreign Secretary and National Security Advisor level, on the civilian and the non-civilian fronts respectively. Engagement at the highest political levels on our side creates unwarranted political risks and erosion of domestic political capital, with no commensurate benefits.

Two, Bangladesh should become the priority within South Asia. As a growing and sizeable economic opportunity for Indian companies and as a connectivity option to India’s north-eastern part, Bangladesh is unlike any other South Asian neighbour India has. With Sheikh Hasina back to power, India has a good opportunity to make this partnership strategic in the true sense of the term.

Three, integrating the North-Eastern region’s economy to a billion strong neighbourhood will be a key determinant of India’s success in the East. India must set up a Neighbourhood Relations Council with representatives from Indian states that have a land border or a coastline. This will allow greater coordination and alignment of states’ political interests with the overall national interest.

2018 was the year when India looked beyond Pakistan and South Asia. Let 2019 be the year when India reimagines itself as an important node in several neighbourhoods.

About the author

Pranay Kotasthane

Pranay Kotasthane heads the geostrategy programme at the Takshashila Institution. His research interests focus on geostrategy, geopolitics of the Indian subcontinent, public policy, economic reasoning and urban issues.