Neighbourhood First: Modi 2.0’s Top Foreign Policy Priority

There’s one thing to be said about Prime Minister Narendra Modi — he does exactly as he says. He and his close advisors have been stressing the primacy of the neighbourhood, and the recent flypasts of the prime minister and his erudite foreign minister to Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bhutan gives more substance to a policy that has been pretty much continuous since 2014.

There’s no more taking these countries for granted as Delhi’s ‘backyard’. That’s all changed.

A look at the Joint Statement with Maldives indicates a bag of goodies worthy of a Santa Claus. This includes not only the training of a cricket team that the Maldivians will cheer, but also a slew of measures designed to tie Malé securely to India’s security concerns in the Indo-Pacific. The coastal security radar system is back on track, after it was vetoed by the earlier government.

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With 1,200 islands, Maldives commands an Exclusive Economic Zone of 89,000 square kilometres – no mean slice of ocean – that sits astride shipping lanes to West Asia.

A training facility for the Maldivian National Defence Force is also on the cards. These offers don’t imply any direct security role for Male, but simply extends India’s benign security ring outwards. The backbone of all this is a generous assistance package of $1.4 billion committed last year, at a time when the Archipelago is still reeling under a debt of $3 billion to China.

Beijing is still around. Its companies remain involved in a string of projects, including a massive housing construction enterprise in the main island. This is still big money, and its not going away in a hurry.

Also Read: EAM S Jaishankar Meets Chinese Communist Party Leader Li Xi

Sri Lanka was more of a pit stop, but important in terms of timing. Modi’s visit to the battered church that was hit by the Easter bombing incident was not on the schedule, but typical of a prime minister who goes by his instincts. Since his last visit in 2017, a slew of assistance has been put in place (not just announced) among which is a free emergency ambulance service of 280 vehicles.

Now that’s both emotive and practical, with big returns for a really small investment. In the area of big money, India has turned to Japan for projects like the LNG terminal.

Sri Lanka’s political turbulence continues, and persuading it to give promised rights to its minorities in the constitution is going to be no easy task. That requires diplomacy of a very high order.

As western media has pointed out, all this activity seems to be aimed at displacing China from islands so close to the Indian mainland. This could certainly be a driver, but can never be the main motivation. There’s no gainsaying geography.

This is India’s immediate neighbourhood, and it would be foolish in the extreme not to keep them in good humour, even if India has to provide generously with one hand, while keeping the heavy ‘big brother’ act aside.

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For a ministry long used to adopting a lofty tone with smaller countries, that requires a fundamental change in attitude and training.

A second issue is that unlike the past, India now actually has the wherewithal to give more. It’s not just the growing economy which allows us to hand out assistance, but growing capabilities in vital sectors. For instance, physical links with islands around us is possible because the Shipping Corporation of India, which had nearly rusted away into nothing, has been revitalized with 63 ships of different types.

Under Gadkari, the ministry has also eased archaic shipping rules for doing business. There’s more to be done here to achieve our full potential. The hole in the wall is of course our continued defence production weakness, which prevents the kind of relationship that propels genuine alliances. Modi’s Make in India is a great initiative, but the reluctance to share technology is the most apparent in the defence sector.

Other sectors need attention as well. India for example is paying for Sri Lankan training at the Dehradun based Forest Research Institute. Once a magnificent institution, it has fallen victim to the decay that is inherent to government institutions.

The China factor was actually most evident in the FM’s visit to Bhutan, which was almost ignored by the foreign press.

Satellite imagery shows that China is increasing its presence in Shigatse, which is the jump off point for the Indian –Bhutan border among others. The Kingdom not unreasonably doesn’t want to be caught in the cross fire between the two, and will probably come close to wanting peace at any price. There diplomacy – and our lack of capability – requires some bolstering from outside.

Look to the Quad meeting recently in Bangkok, where representatives from India, Australia, Japan and the US met to discuss matters relating to the Indian Ocean. That’s a long way away from Bhutan. But that virtual alliance matters, as much as the next Wuhan summit.

As Foreign Secretary, Jaishankar had called for ‘issue based’ diplomacy.

Also Read: With Jaishankar as EAM, India Can Merge Diplomacy & Security

In simple words, take what you can from anyone that suits your needs, even while quietly opposing them over what doesn’t.

That’s for the big powers. In the neighbourhood it’s a different strategy that requires not just giving generously, but also demanding as little as possible. Its not unfair. Its just good policy. If in doubt, read Kautilya.

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