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Neighbourhood “FAST” Policy

  • Category
    International Relations
  • Published
    4th May, 2022

Context

New Delhi now stepping up engagement with India’s neighbours as a part of ‘Neighbourhood first policy’, now by shifting towards the ‘Neighbourhood Fast Policy’ declared at the South Asian economic conference.

  • The conference was organised by the Foreign policy Think tank and Research and Information System for Developing countries (RIS) in the capital.

Background

Understanding the concept of ‘Neighbourhood Fast Policy’

India shares its boundary with nations that vary in strength, resources, and size that includes Bhutan, Afghanistan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan.

  • The Minister for state for external affairs (MOS) has called for the “Neighbourhood fast policy” to ramp up the connectivity between the neighbouring countries.
  • It also said that South Asia is the world’s least connected region and has the lowest level of interconnectivity.
  • To achieve the faster connectivity it is necessary to strengthen regional multimodal connectivity with digital and financial connectivity in the region.
  • India’s neighbourhood policy has revolved around national security issues and economic development encouraged by its historical strategic, culture and furthered by the desire to become a global power.

Analysis

What is Neighbourhood First Policy?

  • Neighbourhood First Policy of India is a core component of India's foreign policy.
  • It focuses on peaceful relations and collaborative synergetic co-development with its South Asian neighbours of the Indian subcontinent encompassing a diverse range of topics, such as
    • Economic
    • Technology
    • Research and education
    • Connectivity (digital, surface and air transport, energy grid connectivity, logistic chains, etc)
    • Space program
    • Defence security
    • Environment
    • Climate challenge
  • This policy creates new avenues as well as leverages existing regional cooperation initiatives, such as SAARC, SASEC, BBIN, and BIMSTEC.
  • It compliments India's Look East policy focused on Southeast Asia and Look West Policy focused on Middle East.

Salient features of the Neighbourhood First Policy:

  • Immediate priority to neighbours: Priority is to improve the relations with immediate neighbours as peace and tranquillity in South Asia is essential for realizing development agenda. The neighbourhood first policy of actively focuses on improving ties with India’s immediate neighbours.
  • Dialogue: It focuses on vigorous regional diplomacy by engaging with neighbouring nations and building political connectivity through dialogue. First initiative in this direction was extending an invitation to all heads of government of SAARC countries for the oath taking ceremony of the Prime minister in 2014.
  • Resolving bilateral issues: Focus is on resolving bilateral issues through mutual agreement. For instance, India and Bangladesh have signed a pact to operationalise the historic Land Boundary Agreement (LBA).
  • Connectivity: India has entered into MoU with members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). These agreements ensure a free flow of resources, energy, goods, labour, and information across borders.
  • Economic Cooperation: It focuses on enhancing trade ties with neighbours. India has participated and invested in SAARC as a vehicle for development in the region. One such example is the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) grouping for energy development i.e. motor vehicles, waterpower management and inter-grid connectivity.
  • Technical Cooperation: The policy put emphasis on technical cooperation. Recently a dedicated SAARC satellite was developed to share the fruits of the technology like tele-medicine, e-learning etc. with the people across South Asia.
  • Disaster management: India’s offer cooperation on disaster response, resource management, weather forecasting and communication and also capabilities and expertise in disaster management for all South Asian citizens. For example, India provided immense assistance to its neighbour Nepal in the aftermath of the 2016
  • Military and defence cooperation: India is also focusing on deepening security in the region through military cooperation. Various exercises like Surya Kiran with Nepal, Sampriti with Bangladesh aim to strengthen defence relations. Also, India has committed to play a greater role in capacity building of the Afghan National Army by providing training to them.

Why India puts its neighbourhood first?

  • Geostrategic importance: The country’s geopolitical and geostrategic location has prompted New Delhi to pursue unique relations with neighbours.
  • Disturbed history: Important turning points in the history of relations have been India’s nuclear tests of 1998, the Kargil War of 1999 and the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US and on the Indian parliament.
  • With the background of Gujarat’s development model and inspiration from the ‘Gujral Doctrine’, Prime Minister has embarked on a pragmatic and proactive policy of putting the “neighbourhood first”.

Gujral Doctrine

  • The Gujral Doctrine is a set of five principles to guide the conduct of foreign relations with India’s immediate neighbours as spelt out by I.K. Gujral (12th prime minister of India from April 1997 to March 1998), first as India’s foreign minister and later as the Prime Minister.
  • These principles are:
    • first, with neighbours like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, India does not ask for reciprocity, but gives and accommodates what it can in good faith and trust
    • second, no South Asian country should allow its territory to be used against the interest of another country of the region
    • third, no country should interfere in the internal affairs of another
    • fourth, all South Asian countries must respect each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty
    • finally, they should settle all their disputes through peaceful bilateral negotiations
  • It now seems clear that India’s “neighbourhood first" policy, which accords primacy to nations in India’s periphery, includes in its ambit the Bimstec—a grouping that includes almost all countries of South Asia and some in South-East Asia.

Challenges for India

  • Relation with Pakistan: Relation with Pakistan, remains India’s biggest diplomatic and security challenge. India’s challenge is to manage relationships with a state which, openly, uses terror as an instrument of state policy and has fractured, multiple power centres.
  • Unstable Afghanistan: 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. Indian diplomacy is active in international efforts to stabilise the country.
  • China: China is another big challenge that is increasing its presence around India. The relationship is marked with suspicion over China’s policy towards Pakistan, including the construction of the Gwadar port. Also, China-Pakistan economic corridor running through POK.
  • Anti-Indian sentiments: Anti-Indian sentiments are getting rooted in the minds of people of region due to perceived notion of India’s big brother attitude and its economic dependence to India. For instance, the recent step of Demonetization impacted many countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar which use the Indian currency as a parallel currency within their borders.

Required measures

India’s immediate neighbourhood directly impacts it geopolitically, geo-strategically and geo-economically because of its vicinity. Thus, working with them is important for India to rise as a superpower. Emphasis must be on sustainable and inclusive development. Strengthening the measures such as;

  • Transportation: As the largest country, India should be leading to establish cross-border transport and communication links.
  • Developing Markets: India should work with its neighbour in strengthening their markets and its own infrastructure to its neighbours.
  • Dialogue: India must ensure its neighbour of continuous support for their development. Efforts must be made to strengthen Indian exports in the region.
  • Soft power: India’s soft power and common culture provide an opportunity for India to strengthen its cultural roots further in the region.

Conclusion

India’s foreign policy in the region is based on the principles of respect, dialogue, cooperation, peace and prosperity. Trust deficit at the borders must be restored to fulfil the India’s vision. The need of the hour is to speed up the connectivity for strong ties and for resolving issues between the neighbours.

Practice Questions

Q1. South-east Asia holds great geo-strategic significance for India. In context of this statement, discuss the need to shift from "Neighbourhood First" to "Neighbourhood Fast" policy.

Q2. ‘The time has come to repair the complex India-Nepal relationship.’ Examine the statement in the context of India-Nepal-China matrix.

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