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India’s Neighbourhood Policy

HOW DOES ONE SLEEP WITH ENEMY?

By Monish Tourangbam

Research Scholar, School of International Studies (JNU)

New Delhi, March 19 : Globalisation, the changing pace of communication, turning all global issues local have underscored one’s sense of neighbourhood.. But geographical proximity vis-à-vis the immediate region still demands primary attention. Indeed this imperative was highlighted by Foreign Minister Krishna in his recent speech on “India’s External Environment and Current Foreign Policy Challenges” at Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies.

His speech essentially focused on India’s foreign policy prospects and challenges in its immediate and extended neighbourhood. Another significant speech on “Transforming South Asia” was delivered by National Security Advisor Shivshanker Menon at the Third Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi. Undeniably, India’s role in the sub-Continent and the neighbouring countries perceptions towards its rise was the focus of discourse.

Pertinently, notwithstanding shared cultural and historical links, there is no shared perception of security and challenges among the South Asia. nations. In fact, many within the sub-Continent perceive major threats emanating from countries within the region, fomenting the “trust deficit” among them.

Indeed, this lack of trust is not the sole preserve of India-Pakistan relations as border disputes and maritime issues continue to rankle ties within the region, and repeated rounds of talks over the years have failed to bring any settlement resulting in people, specially the marginalized suffering.

Raising a moot point: Is there an ideal route to a better future? Could the trickle-down effects of economics and globalised trade bring dividends in the political spectrum along-with bridge the “trust gap”? Given economic integration could give a shared sense of responsibility to preserve peace and stability, for mutual benefit. But, is it enough?

The answers cannot be a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. South Asia’s regional integration is high on promises and potential, but low on delivery. The region definitely has advantage in terms of demographics, being home to a huge young, working population and hence is not lacking in human potential, but mutual suspicions and historical baggage among member nations have often scuttled the prospects of joint development.

Importantly, there is renewed priority being given in official policy-making to the idea of an “Asian re-integration” fashioned on the basis of common economic goals. Whereby, official accounts look at the potential by eliminating trade restrictions, increasing connectivity and tapping the great potential for intra-regional trade within South Asia.

However, efforts at economic integration and business inter-actions increasing despite with lingering differences over political and strategic is the way forward. India is the major landmass connecting all other regional nations wherein the economic potential and its market should be seen as an opportunity, not a liability or source of threat by others.

Asserted Krishna, India is driven by the vision of encouraging integration in its immediate neighbourhood. “As part of this vision, it has been implementing a policy of asymmetric engagement in providing market access to our neighbours, which enables integration in a mutually beneficial manner. This is one of the most significant challenges facing our foreign policy today.”

Towards that end, the South Asia Forum created under the SAARC aegis met for the first time in September last on the theme ‘Integration in South Asia: Moving towards a South Asian Economic Union.” India seeks to bring positive dividends out of its growth and the changes this could bring for the region. Nonetheless, trade and other economic concessions would not necessarily translate to greater acceptance of each other’s security concerns.

Undoubtedly, that is where the challenge lies. While economic integration is a vital process of building a sense of mutual partnership, there are lingering political and security issues: Unresolved boundary disputes, illegal migration problems, insecurity bred by rising fundamentalism and cross-border terrorism, river systems issues and fishermen plight etc creating hurdles for a more meaningful and effective integration.

Not to add, India’s continuing border dispute with its eastern neighbour and a rising global power, China. Regardless of multiple talks to resolve the border issue and optimism expressed at operalisation of mechanisms to bridge differences, the near future seems bleak. Whereby, the India-China relationship exemplifies how massive economic engagements and huge trade turnovers is not a sure shot recipe for better understanding on issues more political and security oriented. Beijing’s heavy investments and increasing influence in India’s traditional backyard is a major cause of worry for our policy-makers.

From Sri Lanka to Pakistan, Nepal to Bangladesh and Myanmar, Chinese footprints are an eyesore for India. Moreover, adding fuel to fire, some of these countries also believe that close ties with China could be used to hedge India’s ‘Big Brother’ attitude, wherein the China card could potentially extract more largesse from New Delhi. Although, geography demands that even as both continue to tussle for influence in the region and beyond, they also find ways in which to live and prosper together. In a way, India is forced to sleep with the enemy.

What next? Every country, however big or small, is bound to see itself as the core and others as periphery. Even under such a consideration, every nation has a stake in a periphery that shares one’s perceptions of security and development. Along-with efforts at linking the South Asian countries through market economics and developmental integration, a simultaneous effort should be made to fashion a common lens to look at regional security concerns.

India, as a democracy would definitely want to and should strive for the growth and sustenance of democratic systems in the region, but not at the cost of being called a meddlesome neighbour. Nepal, through trial and errors, is undergoing changes, Bangladesh has a pro-India Government at the helm of affairs that is magnanimous enough to pay tribute to New Delhi’s assistance during its liberation movement despite various domestic opponents.

Sri Lanka continues on its path to change and its inclusive politics amidst critics of Rajapaksa’s form of politics, the tranquil and exotic Maldives has caught eyeballs with the dramatic ouster of a young and dynamic President and Pakistan continues to stumble from one fiasco to another.

Certainly India lives in a volatile neighbourhood and no single prescription will serve as an antidote to handling this environment. Policy-makers and experts from these countries need to meet regularly to fashion a shared understanding of common problems scuttling growth and development.

Economic integration, in this age of globalised business inter-actions, would be an inevitable component of regional integration, but remember; many issues of concern are born and sustained on the fringes of globalisation which no boardroom power-point discussions can fix! —- INFA.

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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