India Is Paying the Price for Neglecting its Neighbors
Narendra Modi came to power promising to prioritize relations with countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. China is taking advantage of his failure to do so.
As India manages the fallout from its deadly clash with China last week—the first border skirmish in which there were troop fatalities since 1975—it would do well to take a step back and assess its broader regional situation. And if it does so, New Delhi would realize that its problems are by no means limited to Beijing: India’s relations with each of its neighbors are in shambles.
Things could so easily have been different. In May 2014, shortly after being elected to office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited his counterparts from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)—to his inauguration. It was a deft exercise in public diplomacy, as no previous prime minister had made such a grand gesture. It was also in keeping with his Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign manifesto, which had promised to improve ties with India’s neighbors.
Modi used the occasion to announce his “neighborhood first” initiative, a new focus on prioritizing relations with SAARC member states. The project, had it come to fruition, would have given a much-needed boost to regional trade and investments and led the way in addressing geopolitical tensions. It would have also provided a natural—and lasting—bulwark against China’s relentless attempts to expand its footprint across the region, especially with its Belt and Road Initiative.
Modi’s initial steps certainly signaled his commitment to this new policy. In June 2014, he picked the Himalayan visit as prime minister. The tour was in part a nod to Bhutan’s substantial role in helping India end sanctuaries for insurgents in the state of Assam. But despite this very promising start for regional relations, New Delhi went on to somehow worsen relations across the board. Consider the following: India nearly went to war with Pakistan in 2019, and it has had frequent and high-profile border skirmishes that could easily get out of hand; ties with Bangladesh, a country India helped birth into existence, are in the doldrums; Nepal’s parliament has just approved a new map that includes land claimed by India, putting relations at their worst in years; and Sri Lanka and the Maldives, both historically allied with India, are rapidly drifting into China’s orbit of influence. Meanwhile, democracy in Afghanistan has been in crisis, with the Taliban continuing to rise in power and influence—a development that sets back decades of Indian investment and diplomacy. The only country that still has a reasonably cordial relationship with India remains Bhutan, but even this friendliness stems mostly from the tiny Himalayan country’s bid to gain support in its border dispute with China.kingdom of Bhutan for his first foreign
The question then is how a policy welcomed by most of India’s neighbors unraveled so completely since 2014. After all, Modi actually devoted—at least at the start of his first term—a considerable amount of time, attention, and energy to regional foreign-policy issues. He undertook a spate of visits to international capitals and made much of his personal rapport with a variety of national leaders.
With the possible exception of relations with Pakistan, one can trace the collapse of this well-meaning and ambitious policy to several failures on the part of the Modi government. Flawed choices at critical moments eroded regional trust in New Delhi. For example, 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.
Modi’s stance toward other small but significant neighbors 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 northeastern 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 instill 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 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.
Finally, relations with arch-enemy Pakistan have plummeted dramatically. On this front, in all fairness, the Modi government only shares a degree of blame. Modi’s initial overture to Pakistan in 2014 was met with little reciprocity. On the contrary, at least two major terrorist attacks—which could be traced to Pakistan—took place in 2016 and again in 2019. The second, on a paramilitary convoy along the India-Pakistan border, led to a spiral of conflict culminating in India’s first use of airpower across the so-called Line of Control since the 1971 war. But while tensions eventually cooled, New Delhi’s rushed move in August 2019 to revoke the special status of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir led to a dramatic deterioration in India-Pakistan ties. Pakistan withdrew its ambassador from New Delhi and expelled his counterpart from Islamabad. Pakistan suspended trade ties with India. And Prime Minister Imran Khan took the opportunity to criticize India on a global stage at the United Nations and in the opinion pages of Western newspapers. While the success of those moves was limited, ties have not recovered since. And once again, China has taken advantage. Beijing has made substantial investments in Pakistan as part of its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, including new roads, power plants, and the deep sea port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea.
Six years on from Modi’s “neighborhood first” promises, there have been very few real advances—and relations with most neighbors have worsened. As a result, New Delhi has missed out on several potential gains: Trade and investment could have expanded, and countries could have united around common regional problems such as environmental degradation and food and water security. Each of these developments, in concert, could have also limited China’s long march into the region. There is little question that Modi’s initial move to try to boost relations with India’s neighbors was both commendable and timely; it represented a clear shift from the failed policies of previous governments. But a failure to follow through with a sustained strategy has left India worse off than before it conceived of a grand, flashy slogan for its neighbors, each of whom seems to now be following what we can now call a China-first policy.