India’s relationship with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and Maldives still problematic

-8587733122948820545By Yogendra Kumar–

I wish to thank Sikkim (Central) University for the honour to speak to the students here and the Public Diplomacy division of MEA for the opportunity to do so under its Distinguished Lecture Series.

I am delighted to be here. Yours is a young university but, with its network of affiliated colleges and 29 full-fledged departments, it has been imaginatively conceived to tap the unique talents of the people of Sikkim and to draw in students from outside the state for contribution to our national well-being and intellectual progress. During my stay, I hope to learn more about its growing role in our national life and to learn about your own, especially the young people’s, outlook on India’s foreign policy.


India’s geographical size and reach make its extended neighbourhood very large as a result of which its policymakers are confronted with a bewildering range of challenges practically representing a microcosm of the challenges faced by the global community as a whole. Thus, India’s foreign policy concerning its extended neighbourhood, like that of any other country, has to embrace the objectives of pursuit of enhancement of opportunities for its citizens to maintain and enrich the content of their national life as it keeps evolving; these, naturally, also include efforts to provide a safe and secure environment for them.

  • ‘Extended Neighbourhood’ has been variously defined in geographical terms. It includes countries sharing land and maritime borders whose list goes beyond the geographical description of South Asia; apart from Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, countries sharing land and maritime borders with India are China, Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Maldives. In addition, several countries, in proximity, outside of this list are tied to India through close economic and diasporic links and the developments wherein are perceived by Indian policymakers as having strategic implications; one could include in this category countries in the Indian Ocean Region, on the East African seaboard, in the Gulf Region, Afghanistan, in the Central Asian Region as well as countries in south-east Asia.
  • India’s immediate neighbourhood itself presents a complex strategic and foreign-policy challenge. It has border disputes with China and Pakistan which have considerable military capabilities, including nuclear weapons, and have a very close partnership which poses challenge for Indian policymakers. Systemic fragility/instability in many of the countries on India’s land borders remains a matter of concern because these borders are not natural and there are overlapping ethnic communities on both sides; systemic instability means not only uncertainty in relationships but also uncontrollable migration, cross-border insurgent and criminal linkages as well as domestic political pressures on the Indian leadership connected with developments across the border. This instability feeds into India’s fraught relationship with these countries and complicates any efforts against the looming ‘non-traditional’ challenges for the region as manifest in climate change, extreme weather events, natural and man-made disasters, water stress partly contributed by lack of common river basin management, human and animal pandemic diseases et cetera; our region is amongst the least integrated in the world with highly inadequate institutional capacities to address our common challenges inhering in poor technology assimilation, poverty and social backwardness. There is heightened exposure to the risk of terrorism, primarily jihadist, with a significant cross-border dimension but which runs some risk of conflating with global headwinds, represented by ISIS and Al Qaeda; the last two named terrorist groups are not ‘home-grown’ for India but there is an exposure to the risk of their activities spilling over from the neighbouring countries.
  • South Asia has, also, always attracted great power interests. During the Cold War, US-USSR rivalry impacted on the stability of countries in India’s neighbourhood, namely, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it also impacted on the stability of Indian Ocean maritime order as well as on that of several littoral countries. In the post-Cold War period, the scenario has changed with US appearing in a friendlier role for India but this circumstance combined with the emergence of China as a factor in the neighbouring countries’ foreign policies has led to an altered strategic calculus for India. In the ‘extended neighbourhood’, the strategic power play amongst the great powers has a significant, if unpredictable, impact on the regional dynamics.
  • With the end of Cold War and the onset of globalisation, the maritime dimension of India’s diplomacy has acquired a sharper salience because of the overwhelming importance of seaborne trade. It has led to renewed focus in Indian thinking, as well as in that of the other major powers, on the challenges of stability of maritime order to secure maritime navigation routes, prevent the domination of naval chokepoints by unfriendly powers and enhancing the stability of littoral states for better management of good order at sea. The challenges are also in terms of preventing the negative impact of climate change, improving maritime infrastructure for economic growth as well as tapping the potential of ‘Blue Economy’.
  • Because of India’s growing role, economic linkages and expanding diaspora, the problems which were distant until a few decades ago are now closer to home. The tensions in the, apparently, distant waters of East China Sea, South China Sea, the Mediterranean and distant corners of the Indian Ocean region affect India directly. Indian Ocean littoral also comprises a diverse set of countries in terms of income levels, development levels, systemic fragility and inadequate institutional capacity because of which the range of security challenges – both inland and offshore – present an enormous task not only for Indian leaders but for the global powers too. The newer kind of problems, because of these circumstances, have been illustrated by the evacuation of Indian citizens from Libya and Yemen; these challenges can morph into something unrecognisably different if the Gulf region, hosting millions of Indians, were to experience instability. The tension within the Indian Ocean region, already witnessing conflict/conflict-like situations on its northern periphery, could rise once the Chinese navy becomes more active.
  • But all of these countries, in India’s immediate as well as extended neighbourhood, are also source of technology, energy, beneficial economic and commercial cooperation as well as of mutually enriching cultural exchanges. Whilst the negative tendencies need to be countered, opportunities need to be nurtured, by going beyond the zero-sum thinking, for India to grow into a technologically sophisticated and socio-economically enriched and inclusive society.


The new leadership, fortified by a strong popular mandate and strong control over the ruling political alliance, brings in a new energy and an image of credibility in the eyes of its interlocutors in contrast with that of the previous government. Intensifying the level of engagement with a promise of quick delivery on its commitments, especially by means of an unprecedented personal diplomacy, the Indian leadership hopes to address both security challenges as well as opportunities for rapid technological and economic progress. Given the global and regional uncertainties, the diplomatic initiatives are unlikely to progress in a linear fashion but do amount to willingness to take risks in an increasingly volatile security milieu and to not to fall into a situation not of its own making. Prime Minister’s exhortation to Indian ambassadors, at their meeting last year, for India to be projected as a “leading” rather than a “balancing” power reflects the government’s intent to deepen its engagements with all the major powers and with the countries in its extended neighbourhood demanding both resources – both hardware and software – and high level of credibility with them.

  • The new government proclaimed its policy of ‘Neighbourhood First’ and carried out a masterstroke in inviting SAARC leaders, as well as the President of Mauritius, to attend PM’s swearing-in ceremony. It has manifested in PM himself travelling to all SAARC countries, including Pakistan (on a private visit). Special attention has been given in terms of development assistance and the efforts to address contentious issues. Concomitantly, effort has also been to strengthen existing regional multilateral organisations. However, apart from the issues mentioned earlier, the domestic politics in the neighbouring countries is characterised by, even at present, an external anti-India dimension due to the narrow political base and multiplicity of contending political parties and groups.
  • A major conducive factor is the US considering its strategic interests largely convergent with India’s. This gives the present government an opening to shape the strategic environment in the Indian Ocean region. Prime Minister’s recent diplomatic initiatives concerning the Indian Ocean island countries for greater regional integration and for achieving regional maritime domain awareness to monitor the security-related developments clearly have US endorsement. However, there are some hints that it might want India to play a more active role on the northern Indian Ocean region, like, the Persian Gulf and the Middle East and, even, South China Sea, where the situation is, indeed, worsening. Quite clearly, this requires a very careful, nuanced handling by the Indian leadership.
  • Pakistan, undoubtedly, remains India’s biggest diplomatic and security challenge; its systemic fragility is illustrative of the problems India faces in ensuring a secure environment for its national growth; but, as a paradigm, it gives an idea about problems inhering in similar situations in immediate – or, extended – neighbourhood for India. India’s challenge is to manage relationship with a state which, openly, uses terror as an instrument of state policy and has fractured, multiple power centres. It also, consciously, exploits its strategic location in building relations with great powers to further its ambitions to spread influence in the countries surrounding it. Patient attempts of Indian leaders – in contrast with their raucous electoral rhetoric – are always hostage to the next terror incident and setbacks to the modest achievements. Whilst bilateral engagement, backed up with personal diplomacy of the leaders especially active in PM Modi’s case, continues, the government effort is also directed at protecting the country from the negative fallout due to a neighbour spiraling into an ungovernable phase.
  • Afghanistan remains a challenge too. Fragile within and facing state-sponsored external threat from Pakistan, a possible state collapse would spawn jihadist terrorism in all directions from which India is unlikely to remain immune. The Modi government has stepped up its engagement with the leadership to bolster its defence and institutional capabilities but a question mark always remains as long as a lasting political settlement eludes the country. Although not a key interlocutor, Indian diplomacy is active in international efforts to stabilise the country. At a popular level, there is considerable friendship and belief in India’s sincerity in helping the country even though land access remains an issue; there is also an element of uncertainty in the Indian mind about the present President’s policy towards the country given Pakistan’s assurances of help in regard to talks with the Taleban.
  • India’s relations with Iran have been age-old but, in recent times, suffered from constraints because of western, as well as UN, sanctions on account of its controversial nuclear programme and the reluctance of Indian companies to develop trade and attract FDI. The lifting of sanctions over Iran opens up both investment in Iran as well as connectivity prospects with Central Asia through upgradation of the infrastructure at the Chah Bahar port. The prospect of a significant uptick in the economic relations between India and Central Asia, as a consequence, is still long way off although such connectivity would have a salutary impact. Prime Minister has, quite proactively, reached out to the Central Asian leaders to give a boost to India’s bilateral relations with them which are expected to be further bolstered with India’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). This approach is prompted by Indian interest in the prevailing balance of power in that region.
  • Prime Minister Modi also undertook path-breaking visit to the Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia, for building stronger economic ties, especially through FDIs, energy linkages and for budding security, including counter-terrorism, cooperation. The growing political and security uncertainties in the region, and India’s benign image, have given it a strategically significant opening in the region even though it is not a key power balancer.
  • The relations with four SAARC neighbours, namely Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and the Maldives, still remain problematic. With Bangladesh, there has been a definite uptick in the relationship although it is also, largely, due to the historical friendship of the present Prime Minister and her domestic politics. Relationship with Sri Lanka is also seeing a favourable turn due to the electoral victory of the new leadership but a lot will depend upon the progress on the Tamil reconciliation issue. With Myanmar, the relationship has been improving but a certain activation of Naga insurgents from its territory and the likelihood of increase in ‘hot pursuit’ actions could become complications in its growth; the country is the keystone in the ‘Act East’ strategy of the new government.
  • With the African seaboard countries, the present government has engaged actively with the South African leadership and with the other African leaders at the major India-Africa summit meeting in New Delhi; the cooperation covers spheres such as development assistance, investments, energy education, culture et cetera. Greater Indian presence has balance of power implications and helps tap opportunities for economic cooperation.
  • SAARC region remains amongst the least integrated although the government is making serious efforts to develop sub-regional cooperation in the East through mechanisms such as BBIN (Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal) and BIMSTEC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan).
  • With China, the deft diplomacy has helped in developing fairly robust CBMs on the border but the tensions remain portentous. China is one of India’s largest trade partners and Indian government is wooing Chinese investment in several areas. It is also collaborating on the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) corridor as well as on several international forums. Its relations remain testy over the China-Pakistan economic corridor running through POK and India’s approach to the South China Sea dispute. The relationship is marked with suspicion over China’s policy towards Pakistan, including the construction of the Gwadar port.
  • The upgrading of its ‘Look East’ policy to that of ‘Act East’ policy, essentially, amounts to a more intensive engagement with south-east and East Asian countries as well as for greater credibility in implementing its agreements. Both Prime Minister and External Affairs Minister have visited several Southeast Asian countries. The relationship having become stronger under the current leadership there is a marked emphasis on accelerating infrastructure connectivity, institutional linkages in economic, disaster response, political security and maritime spheres. Even as the engagement grows, the region is becoming more volatile requiring India to be cautious in handling the situation there. Its relationship also now acquiring a strategic dimension with the region, including through greater strategic engagement with Vietnam, Japan and Australia.
  • The new government’s major diplomatic push is to showcase India’s economic and technological strengths for attracting FDIs especially at a time when the Chinese economy is experiencing hiccups. The western countries do, however, expect India to move decisively forward on its economic reform agenda which has been promised by the present Indian leadership.

Larger context of national foreign policy challenges. Expanding the earlier mentioned factors over the larger canvas of national foreign policy challenges leads us to dwell upon their domestic, bilateral as well as multilateral dimensions.

    • Indian foreign policy inherits values of our freedom struggle. It has taken an anti-imperial orientation which has involved projection of universal ethical values of equity, advocacy of non-use of force/threat of force and taking position against bloc politics as well as against external intervention in a country’s internal affairs. It has been characterised by autonomy in decision-making in international relations, independent view of global events, advocacy of international support for poverty alleviation in developing countries and adherence to democratic values in its own national life without forcing them on others. These characteristics continue to define the foreign policy in current international circumstances which are very different from the early years of India’s independence.
    • Inheriting a culture of democratic, inclusive political discourse from the leaders of its freedom struggle, India developed strong and resilient political institutions which helped it to adjust to the tectonic shifts in global balance of power at different times in its post-1947 history in contrast with several – and, including ‘sibling’ – countries in the region; it has shown the ability to successfully leverage the cyclonic forces of globalisation for growth and modernisation due to its institutional resilience and maturity. The country has maintained a posture of external engagement and benefit from international cooperation in economic, technological and intellectual dimensions, and has, naturally, emerged stronger to acquire a global profile of a benign, stabilising power: most countries do not consider India to be ‘disruptive’ – wittingly or unwittingly (unlike some other countries, such as Pakistan) – of the existing global or regional order. Post-liberalisation reforms, Indian government and technocrats have a robust external outlook.
    • End of Cold War (1991) has radically altered the global environment as compared to the period following second world war. NIC (US National Intelligence Council) report on global trends up to 2030 (published December, 2012) speaks of tendency amongst analysts to underestimate the rate of change with regard to rise/decline of different states and in identifying looming disequilibria; instabilities growing within South Asia but, even, elsewhere where India’s strategic interests are involved. Relations between great powers getting increasingly aggravated, accompanied by military buildup. Thus, even as India becomes more intensively and extensively externally engaged, the international circumstances become more complex and uncertain. These uncertainties require nimble diplomacy and not to fall prey to ‘groupthink’ generated by vested interests within and outside the country.
    • India’s growing economy means commensurate expansion of its interests which, also, need to be protected by stronger, sophisticated military strength; such capabilities enhance the interest of both friendly as well as not-so-friendly powers to engage with it for their own interests. Because of its expanding regional and global interests, India needs to actively engage in international/multilateral diplomacy on several global challenges such as climate change, terrorism, WMD proliferation, global institutional economic reforms and building infrastructure connectivities with its immediate and not-so-immediate neighbours on land and across the seas. Pressure on India from diverse quarters makes the retention of autonomy of choice a complex diplomatic activity; with China becoming the locus of international tensions, these pressures can, even, have military ramifications with unpredictability due to a large number of ‘moving parts’ and of a fluid situation getting out of hand, including escalation up the nuclear ladder.
    • As regards relations with great powers, India’s relations with US have acquired primacy due to the decline of influence of Russia as well as a sharper salience of the China factor; US potential contribution to India’s economic growth, technological modernisation and, now, defence and defence-industrial modernisation has emerged as a significant stimulus. The same reasons could explain strengthening relationships with Japan, Australia and Vietnam. With European powers, relations are growing – largely in industry and defence – but, with EU, there are no significant breakthroughs.
    • Domestic dimension of foreign policy making is equally complex. A federalised structure has come into its own because of different parties being in power at the centre and the states. With global connectivity, diaspora linkages across large number of countries as well as large number of states having international borders, foreign-policy making process has become difficult because of the multiplicity of stakeholders; several critical foreign policy issues get mired in local politics, subjected to pressures of electoral politics and involvement of vested interests, including inter-personal rivalries of key political leaders. Often, these complexities kick in during the implementation phase of inter-governmental understandings rather than in the negotiations phase, negatively impacting on government credibility and loss of influence vis-a-vis other foreign powers which do not face such internal crosscurrents in the political arena. The other aspect is the national politics itself where divisions within Parliament have caused policy paralysis – a trend which, still, remains quite firm.
    • These above factors drive the foreign policy of the present government as well. The current challenges of leveraging the global balance of power, meeting critical threats emanating from state fragility, terrorism, looming ‘non-traditional’ threats, like climate change, WMD proliferation/terrorism, and the country’s equitable economic growth and technological modernisation face the present leadership too. It has, especially, taken steps to leverage country’s growing influence for a more active diplomacy which also has the very energetic dimension of closer linkage between foreign policy and national development aspirations.
      • Some of these initiatives, interwoven into the diplomatic activity for image projection abroad as well as for domestic showcase events, include the ‘Make in India’ programme. The other flagship investment programmes cover infrastructure such as Metro projects, trade, industrial corridors as well as special Finance Facilities in renewable energy, power, steel and SME sectors. A connected programme is the ‘Skill India’ programme for the younger generation for future job growth and economic equity imperatives. Government’s aim to create 100 Smart Cities has also been interwoven into its bilateral engagements with several countries. Significant amongst these is the ‘Digital India’ programme which has also involved the Indian diaspora in the developed countries. Energy diplomacy has two aspects, namely, clean energy (for example, International Solar Alliance launched and headquartered in Gurugram/formerly Gurgaon), power infrastructure, renewable and civil nuclear power and lastly, securing hydrocarbon energy. Defence technology is, also, the area where government has actively collaborated with major defence industrial powers in the world.
      • Apart from strengthening bilateral relations through multi-vector diplomatic engagement in countries of strategic interest, including those in our extended neighbourhood, India has been active in multilateral diplomacy. The initiatives have made in the form of holding Third India-Africa Forum Summit (US$ 10 billion Line of Credit for development projects apart from grant assistance of US$ 600 million). The Summit of Pacific Island Countries in Delhi was the first of its kind. As far as Central Asian countries are concerned, India becoming a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) signifies upscaling of India’s strategic engagement with the region. Similar level of engagement has been evident in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) as well as ASEAN-related organisations which, also, include organisations like BIMSTEC and MGC (Mekong Ganga Cooperation). India takes over the presidency of BRICS countries which is a major multilateral initiative for restoring balance with the developed countries-dominated global multilateral organisations such as the IMF and the World Bank. Yet another organisation, which has been the focus of the leadership’s activism is SAARC. Two other major initiatives in India’s extended neighbourhood are the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) as well as Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Gas Pipeline Project. At the global multilateral level, India has been active in pushing for its claim for permanent membership of the UN Security Council in its expanded, reformed composition. India’s role in the UN climate change negotiations was seen as a major contributor to the success of the 21st Session of the Conference of Parties (COP-21) to the UNFCCC. India is a major driver in the future growth of IBSA organisation (India, Brazil and South Africa) as well as G 20 summits.




        Despite its established institutional strengths, India finds itself in a more turbulent, fluid world. As common global problems become more menacing and immediate, the growing great power tensions as well as state fragility in different regions of the world diminish collective capacities to address them. India has weathered global turbulence well in the past but that was also possible, partly, because of India’s relative isolation in terms of its political and economic integration with the larger world. Now, that luxury is no longer available; the domestic terrain for foreign policy action has changed as manifest in a large number of young Indian people travelling and living abroad in different parts the world and having an outlook different from those of the previous generation. And, therefore, its institutional nimbleness to react to sudden turn of events needs to be even further honed. That is where there is a lot of work to be done at home.
        (This piece was published on the official website of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs based on a lecture by the author at Sikkim University on May 13, 2016. The author is a former Indian Ambassador)



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