India’s neighbourhood policy, in recent years, has managed to make more friends in the region in a surprisingly short span of time. Few projects including Salma Dam in Afghanistan and Chabahar port in Iran show India’s renewed interests in the region.
The new government’s priorities and strategic objectives are essentially five-fold:
- Prioritizing an integrated neighbourhood; “Neighbourhood First.”
- Leveraging international partnerships to promote India’s domestic development.
- Ensuring a stable and multipolar balance of power in the Indo-Pacific; “Act East.”
- Dissuading Pakistan from supporting terrorism.
- Advancing Indian representation and leadership on matters of global governance.
However, there is considerable scepticism within the strategic community regarding India’s material and political wherewithal to stay the course vis-à-vis these long-term projects, especially in the context of India’s not-so-impressive record when it comes to delivering on strategically important projects in the region and beyond.
Main problems in this regard:
- India lacks the financial resources to invest in crucial projects in a sustained manner due to budget constraints and compulsions of domestic priorities.
- There is also a problem of severe attention deficit resulting from an inability to commit diplomatic and political capital to pursue key strategic objectives.
- Many of India’s strategic initiatives in the region, Chabahar for instance, often get portrayed in competitive terms, thereby getting into the cross hairs of adversarial/insecure neighbours.
- The problem is compounded by the fact that India has traditionally displayed a self-imposed “unilateral bias” in addressing key challenges in the neighbourhood and near abroad.
How can these problems be addressed?
- By adopting a grand strategic approach in addressing key strategic challenges. There should be a clear rationale guiding India’s strategic engagements.
- By moving from a unilateral approach to tackling problems to a multilateral approach.
- By creating a regional/global consensus on key challenges.
What needs to be done now?
- India should partner with Japan or European countries in Chabahar port development. This would save us some money, enable us to complete the project on time, and ensure more security and acceptability to the project.
- If India’s Afghan policy is to be meaningful and sustainable, it needs to do two things: get like-minded countries on board India’s reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, and support and engage in the Afghan reconciliation and peace-building process.
- Indian reactions to China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project need not be either dismissive or worried, nor should we dismiss it as a “Chinese national project” and look the other way. Our objective should be to see how we can utilise the many economic, infrastructural and other opportunities opened up by OBOR.
It is important for India’s strategic planners to recognise that when it comes to dealing with key regional challenges and opportunities, unilateralism is not the way. We need to create alliances and coalitions to confront challenges and better utilise opportunities, and in today’s “loose multipolar” world, our alliance behaviour should be guided by clear strategic objectives rather than traditional friendships alone.