A nation’s destiny is linked to its neighbourhood. That is why my government has placed the highest priority on advancing friendship and cooperation with her neighbours. (Narendra Modi’s address at the general debate of the 69th session of the United Nation’s General Assembly)
As per the strategic calculations, India is located at the edge of the Middle East and East Asia; it occupies the majority of the South Asian mainland and has the land or maritime boundary with every state in the region, as well as China, Burma, Indonesia and Thailand. With emerging as a soft power, the country has needed first to consolidate her own neighbourhood and regions, but had fallen short in relation to South Asia. Thus, it has been witnessed a significant shift in the horizon of ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy to ‘Extended Neighbourhood’ embedded with geo-political, strategic and economic interest and security concerns in the respective areas. In pursuit of national interests, India steps towards the core goal of ‘Strategic Autonomy’ in international terms and ‘Inclusive Growth’ in domestic approach.
The government has shown this shift by preferring Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) over South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) for the second time to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony unlike 2014. BIMSTEC members comprises of key littorals (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka) and two Himalayan nations (Bhutan and Nepal). This can be serve with dual objectives, a narrow range of the country’s strategic move is to ‘isolate Pakistan’ within the South Asian region. However, on a wider note, this neighbourhood forum presents its own merit for India at both internal and external levels, independent of Pakistan and SAARC.
Internal factors are the energy and economic security of the sea lanes of communication (SLOC) with India’s entire eastern seaboard, across the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and economic development of the Northeast region. Externally, the sub-region has allowed a greater role in the success of ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, the ‘Act East Policy’ and the ‘Indo-Pacific’ construct with its geographical leverage, as it provides natural advantage to the country. It would also help the country to integrate itself with ASEAN’s Master Plan of Connectivity 2025.
To the West Asian context, India’s geopolitical strategy [to strengthen the relation with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)] is motivated on two parameters. First, acknowledging the golden age of commercial and cultural relation with the Arab world, India is extending her hands for economic opportunities to their enormous energy resources, trade route links to the different part of the world (started with the development of Chabahar Port in Iran) and concerning the fact that it is a place of origin for the Abrahamic religion. Secondly, it has been engaging selectively on socio-political contacts. Moreover, as one of the largest diaspora population in the region, it is one of the huge targets for India’s practice of soft-power diplomacy.
Along with BIMSTEC leaders, India has also invited the leaders of two significant regions, namely Central Asia (President of Kyrgyz Republic and the current chair of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Indian Ocean Region (Prime Minister of Mauritius). Indian Ocean Region (IOR) continues to remain at the periphery India’s strategic calculations. From the last decade, Central Asian nations have also been looking for viable partners particularly in economic and security sectors. India deep-rooted bonds with the Central Asian nations and sharing same interests in tackling radicalization and terrorism, curbing illicit trade and exploring opportunities for economic cooperation, provide perfect set to enhance and capitalize current partnership.
The island countries in the Indian Ocean are culturally inclined to India’s ethnically diverse background and with the icing of sub-continental geography; these have become the new home for Indian strategic and diplomatic interests. This maritime cooperation includes combating piracy, dealing with maritime emergencies, establishing a collaborative early warning system and providing prompt and disaster relief. India’s strategy towards the Blue Economy partners can be traced with the shift in the Indian Navy’s deployment patterns to dynamic ‘Mission Based Deployments’ to carry out anti-piracy patrol and provide humanitarian assistance when required and the concept of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) is the most visible element in India’s evolving Indian Ocean Strategy.
China’s unprecedented rise in economic zone and security architecture has transformed the threat matrix for India. The country is challenging India’s interests in its immediate neighbourhood in multiple ways. Now, there is a need to make India more attractive and hospitable to draw investment especially in parallel to China. Thus, India has to come up with the appropriate measures to secure and safeguard its interest in the region.
In India, the COVID-19 diplomacy has seen the principle of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” or “the world is one family” in action as PM Modi has reached out personally to extended neighbourhood and the countries hardest hit by the virus. It includes evacuating Indians and the citizens of neighbouring countries from across the world, proactively supply of medical equipment and hydroxychloroquine to its neighbouring countries, also the creation of SAARC COVID-19 emergency fund. Moreover, India has sent medical experts in the neighbourhood to share their experiences and knowledge, conducted Vande Mataram Mission, exploration of digital space in the field of medical training, education and new avenues where the cooperation between the countries of the region is essential. With this ‘Medical Diplomacy’, has given the country the opportunity and strong vision to leverage its image as a credible development partner with the projection of soft power around the world.