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Daily-current-affairs / 08 Dec 2023

Navigating Challenges: India's Foreign Policy in the Neighborhood : Daily News Analysis


Date : 9/12/2023

Relevance: GS Paper 2 – International Relations

Keywords: Neighbourhood First' Policy, Act East Policy, Vaccine Diplomacy, Gujral Doctrine


The persistent challenge for Indian foreign policy lies in its relations with neighboring countries. Despite having ambitious goals, such as becoming a leader in the global South, a mediator in global geopolitical conflicts, and a significant player in world politics, India faces hurdles in its own backyard. Unlike other major powers, India encounters a particularly complex situation in South Asia, exacerbated by the emergence of a rising superpower in the region for the first time in its history. While India aims for regional cooperation, its neighbors appear hesitant to fully embrace India's narrative, posing indirect obstacles to its aspirations.

India's relations with its neighbors have undergone significant transformations throughout history:

British India to 1950:

During the colonial era, India's foreign policy was largely shaped by British interests. Bhutan ceded strategic passes to the British, maintaining autonomy. Nepal's independent status ended in 1816 with the Treaty of Sagauli, favoring the British. Anglo-Burmese wars led to Burma's annexation in 1885. Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948.

1950s and 1960s:

India's foreign policy, marked by idealism, embraced the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) and the Panchsheel principles with China. The 1962 Indo-China war prompted a reassessment of relations. The 1965 Indo-Pakistan war heightened tensions.

1970s and 1980s:

India pursued a more assertive foreign policy, intervening in the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971. SAARC was formed in 1985 for regional cooperation. The 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord addressed the Sri Lankan civil war, and Operation Cactus in 1988 thwarted a coup in the Maldives.

Post-Cold War:

The 'Look East' policy (1991) aimed to strengthen ties with Southeast Asian nations. The Gujral Doctrine (1996) emphasized non-reciprocity, non-interference, and peaceful dispute resolution with neighbors. BIMSTEC (1997) and IORA (1997) fostered regional cooperation.

'Neighbourhood First' policy, 2014:

Initiated in 2014, this policy aimed to enhance ties with South Asian and Indian Ocean nations, emphasizing regional cooperation and development.

Dilemmas Faced by India:

  • Rise of Anti-India Regimes:
    The emergence of politically anti-India regimes, such as in the Maldives, where the government is urging Indian nationals to leave, poses a direct challenge. Additionally, the prospect of a Khaleda Zia-led government in Dhaka with potential ideological opposition to India adds to the complexity.
  • Structural Dilemmas from Beijing's Influence:
    China's expanding footprint in South Asia, particularly through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), complicates India's regional standing. Beijing's outreach to smaller states, often bypassing normative considerations, and its strategic border settlements contribute to a shifting balance of power.
  • Geopolitical Architecture and Policy Stance:
    The regional geopolitical architecture has evolved with the diminishing presence of the United States, leaving a void filled by China. India's policy stance, marked by a status quo bias and a historical belief in its cultural and historical connections, further complicates its relations with the changing dynamics in its neighborhood.

Causes of India's Dilemmas:

Regional Geopolitical Architecture:

  • The diminishing presence of the United States in South Asia has created a power vacuum.
  • China's aggressive rise acts as a geopolitical buffer for smaller states, giving them an alternative to India.
  • The least interconnected and economically challenged region tends to gravitate toward powers that can address their material needs.

Policy Stance and Assumptions:

  • India's policy focus on dealing with those in power generates path-dependencies, alienating other power centers.
  • The assumption that South Asia minus Pakistan would align with Indian geopolitical reasoning has not materialized.
  • The belief that cultural and historical ties would naturally foster better relations is being questioned in light of evolving geopolitical realities.

What are the various initiatives to harmonize relations in neighborhood?

India has implemented several initiatives to foster harmonious relations with its neighboring countries. These include:

  • Neighbourhood First' Policy:
    This policy emphasizes mutual respect, understanding, and sensitivity to address the concerns and priorities of neighboring countries.
  • Act East Policy:
    This initiative focuses on strengthening ties with Southeast Asian and Asia-Pacific nations to enhance regional cooperation.
  • Connectivity Initiatives:
    India is actively promoting connectivity through projects like the international north-south transport corridor, the Chabahar port in Iran, and the Kaladan multimodal transit transport project in Myanmar.
  • Development Cooperation:
    India provides development assistance through programs such as the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) Program and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR).
  • Vaccine Diplomacy:
    India has played a crucial role in the region's COVID-19 response by supplying vaccines to neighboring countries as part of its vaccine diplomacy initiative.
  • Bangladesh–Bhutan–India–Nepal (BBIN) Network:
    India participates in this sub-regional grouping to strengthen ties with neighboring countries.
    Country-Specific Initiatives:
    • Bhutan: India supports Bhutan through the Indo-Bhutan treaty of peace and friendship and agreements on hydropower projects.
    • Nepal: The Treaty of peace and friendship was signed in 1950, with agreements on hydropower projects like the Arun hydropower project.
    • Sri Lanka: India assists in implementing the 'Unitary digital identity framework' and provides financial support during economic challenges.
    • Bangladesh: Agreements related to sharing river waters have been signed with Bangladesh.
    • Maldives: Indian companies are involved in projects like the Greater Male connectivity project and the restoration of Addu atolls.
    • Myanmar: India offers assistance in education, healthcare, disaster management, capacity building, and cultural exchange.

Leveraging Science and Technology: India launched the South Asia Satellite (SAS) to enhance communication and disaster management links among South Asian nations.

About Neighbourhood First' policy

The 'Neighbourhood First' policy, launched by India in 2014, is a foreign policy initiative focused on bolstering ties with its immediate neighbors. Its core objectives include fostering a peaceful and stable neighborhood by promoting increased connectivity, economic collaboration, and people-to-people interactions.

Key principles of the 'Neighbourhood First' policy include upholding sovereignty and territorial integrity, fostering mutual respect and sensitivity, refraining from interference in internal affairs, promoting shared prosperity, prioritizing connectivity for regional integration, and encouraging people-to-people exchanges.

The Way Forward:

Acknowledging Changed Realities:

  • India must accept the fundamental shift in the balance of power in the region.
  • The old paradigm of Indian primacy no longer holds, and a pragmatic approach is needed to engage with the emerging dynamics.

Involvement of External Actors:

  • Proactive engagement with friendly external actors is crucial to counter the growing influence of China.
  • Creating a balance of power in the region requires strategic alliances and collaboration.

Flexible Diplomacy:

  • Indian diplomacy should adapt to engage with multiple actors within neighboring countries.
  • Focusing on reducing anti-India sentiments rather than alienating opposition elements is a more effective approach.

Expansion of Diplomatic Resources:

  • The shortage of diplomats hinders the implementation of India's foreign policy.
  • Addressing this shortage is essential for India to effectively respond to emerging opportunities and crises.

In 2014, the Prime Minister extended invitations to all South Asian heads of state for his oath-taking ceremony, signaling the initiation of the 'Neighbourhood First' policy.

A notable instance of strengthened ties with Afghanistan occurred in 2015 when PM Narendra Modi visited the country to inaugurate the Afghan Parliament, a project supported by India. In 2016, he returned to Afghanistan to inaugurate the Salma Dam in Herat, further solidifying bilateral relations.

Recent developments(In last 10 Years) related to the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy

In the case of Nepal, PM Modi made history in 2014 by becoming the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the country in 17 years, emphasizing the importance of fostering closer ties.

The relationship with Bangladesh saw a significant development in 2015 when PM Modi visited the country. During this visit, India and Bangladesh exchanged instruments of ratification, finalizing an agreement on the historic land boundary.

A regional initiative, the BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement, aimed at regulating vehicular traffic among BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) members, was signed in 2015, demonstrating a commitment to regional cooperation.

Amid the global Covid-19 pandemic, India implemented the 'Vaccine Maitri' initiative, prioritizing its neighbours by providing them with assistance in the form of vaccines—a diplomatic effort to address the public health crisis collaboratively.


India's evolving foreign policy challenges in its neighborhood demand a comprehensive and strategic approach. The rise of anti-India regimes, China's growing influence, and shifts in regional dynamics necessitate a reevaluation of India's traditional assumptions and policy stances. Acknowledging the changed realities, actively involving external actors, adopting flexible diplomacy, and addressing the shortage of diplomatic resources are crucial steps for India to navigate its neighborhood dilemmas successfully. The geopolitical landscape demands adaptability, innovation, and a departure from historical paradigms for India to secure its position in an ever-changing world.

Probable Questions for UPSC mains Exam-

  1. Discuss the historical shifts in India's foreign policy with neighbors and analyze challenges posed by anti-India regimes and China's influence. How can India adapt strategically to changing dynamics while fostering regional harmony?(10 marks, 150 words)
  2. Evaluate India's 'Neighbourhood First' policy initiatives, their impact on regional stability, and suggest innovative diplomatic approaches to address current challenges in the neighborhood. (15 marks, 250 words)

Source- The Hindu