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India’s relationship with its neighbours: Conflict and Cooperation

Amb Sri Achal Malhothra
Amb Sri Achal Malhothra
Amb (Retd) Sri .Achal Kumar Malhotra

By: Sri Amb (Retd) Achal Malhotra
Venue: Maharshi Dayanand University, Rohtak
Date: March 06, 2014

Another Article Click here India’s Neighbouring Countries: Addressing trust deficit and building bridges

At the outset, I would like to express my gratitude to the Management of the Maharshi Dayanand University of Rohtak and Public Diplomacy Division of the Ministry of External Affairs for giving me the opportunity to address the students of this University. This is my second visit to your University and I vividly recall my interaction with the well-informed audience last year.

I have been assigned the task to speak to you on India’s foreign policy approaches towards its neighbourhood.

Let me begin with a quickly sketched profile of South Asia which accounts for the bulk of our neighbourhood. I will later touch upon our next-door neighbours in East Asia namely China and if time permits also Myanmar.

India’s neighbourhood which the member-countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) namely Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka comprise, is a fairly complex geographical entity. This is, to say the least. In fact, India can be said to be living in a dangerous neighbourhood. The constituent countries-individually as well as collectively-represent a world of historical links, shared legacies, commonalities as well as diversities which are so elaborately reflected in their ethnic, linguistic, religious and political fabric. China and Myanmar, the other two neighbours, are no less complex.

The South Asian region is also full of contradictions, disparities and paradoxes. In the post-colonial period, South Asia has been a theatre of bloody inter-state as well as civil wars; it has witnessed liberation movements, nuclear rivalry, military dictatorships and continues to suffer from insurgencies, religious fundamentalism and terrorism, besides serious problems associated with drugs and human trafficking. The region also has the dubious distinction of having over 540mn people who earn less than $ 1.25 a day and account for 44% of developing world’s poor. The region has produced several powerful female leaders and yet in the overall much remains to be done for the empowerment of women. On the barometer of religious tolerance, the constituent countries range anywhere between flexible secular-minded and rigidly fundamentalist.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has remained in existence for over 27 years, yet South Asia is considered as the least integrated of the global regions; this is despite the stipulation in its Charter that “bilateral and contentious issues shall be excluded” from its deliberations, thus making it possible to put the contentious issues on the back burner and focus on areas of possible cooperation.

On the positive side, the region has been registering a healthy growth (average 6% per annum) during the past several years. Also, democratic forms of governance (howsoever flawed and feeble) are beginning to gain some ground in most parts of the region.

Where does India stand in this rather volatile region? India’s position is unique in more than one sense. As a matter of an interesting geographic factor, India shares borders with all other South Asian nations whereas no other South Asian nation (except Afghanistan and Pakistan) shares borders with any other South Asian nation. Notwithstanding some shortcomings, democracy and rule of law as instruments of political governance are well entrenched in India. Transfer of power has been more or less peaceful and transparent. In relative terms India can be arguably considered as the most stable country in the region, moving ahead on the fast tracks of development, even though the growth has of late slowed down.

Further in terms of its population, territory, GDP, its image as an emerging world economy and a responsible de-facto nuclear State, and as a country which is destined to play a larger role on the international arena, and also for several other reasons, India stands apart amongst the bunch of other South Asian countries. In fact, India can be said to dwarf others in the South Asian region which in turn has created misperceptions about India and its intention.

India thus has reasons to be proud of its achievements. However, in the regional context, “India’s pride”, unfortunately, is also “neighbours’ envy”.

There are unjustified and erroneous perceptions about India floating around in the region: “Big Brother bullying the smaller neighbour”; “India treats its neighbours as a neglected backyard” etc. etc. There is no justified explanation for the “trust deficit”. On top of it, there are vested interests and lobbies for whom being anti-Indian is synonymous with being patriot and nationalist. And then there are strong institutions within the framework of a more or less failed and rogue State in the neighbourhood (Pakistan) which would like to see relations with India in a state of perpetual suspension. India’s motives are suspected even in cases of innocent proposals for economic cooperation which would lead to win-win situations.

At times the domestic compulsions in India arising out of regional and coalition politics complicate matters further.

It is against the above backdrop of various challenges one has to look at the options which India’s foreign policymakers have at their disposal for this region.

In a scenario where we have incorrigible Pakistan at one end and genuinely friendly Bhutan at the other end of the spectrum, and everyone else somewhere in between, it is perhaps difficult to write one single foreign policy prescription for the entire region. Nevertheless, there are some basic approaches which India has consistently endeavoured to adopt and apply; these include for instance:

  • India advocates the policy of constructive engagement, despite such serious provocations as have been in the past (attack on Parliament, Mumbai terrorist attacks etc). It believes that violent retaliation and confrontation can only complicate the matters. This applies in particular to Pakistan- the origin of State-sponsored terrorism targeted at India. The policy of engagement is not be allowed, however, to be misunderstood as weakness. Strong and loud messages must emanate from India each and every time our patience is tested.
  • India adheres to its benign and noble policy of non-interference into internal affairs of other countries in the region. However, if an act – innocent or deliberate – by any country has the potential of impinging upon India’s national interests, India does not hesitate in quick and timely intervention. Mind it: intervention is qualitatively different from interference, particularly when the intervention is made at the request of the country concerned.
  • Foreign policy in India, by and large, enjoys national consensus. At times, however, there are instances when it appears that the foreign policy is being held hostage to domestic regional politics. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are the most glaring examples. Domestic sentiments and genuine concerns of the segments of the society must be taken into consideration but not allowed to determine country’s foreign policy which must be guided solely by the overriding national interests and must be made in New Delhi.
  • India has endeavoured to deal with the government-of-the-day, be it a democracy, monarchy or military dictatorship, insisting that the choice of the form of government is best left to the people of the country concerned. India does not believe in exporting democracy but does not hesitate in promoting democracy wherever potential exists; this is done by proactively providing assistance in capacity building and strengthening the institutions of democracy;
  • In the contemporary globalised world, the foreign policy and the foreign economic policy objectives stand integrated and cannot be addressed divorced from each other. Creation of an external environment which is conducive to all-inclusive growth in the country is one of the integral components of India’s foreign policy. All diplomatic skills and political leverages are being put to use to impress upon the partners in the region that joint exploration of natural resources can lead to win-win situations. India’s cooperation with Bhutan in hydropower generation is an example to be cited and followed. In contrast, as a result of its reluctance to collaborate with India in this field, Nepal remains a net importer of electricity despite its enormous hydro resources.
  • India has skilfully used its policy of non-prescriptive development assistance as its soft power since the early 1950s. In return, India has sought “goodwill” and “friends of India”. In a slight departure, India is gradually switching over from pure charity to a judicious mix of outright grants and soft loans linked to project/commodity exports. Also, India is judiciously working to ensure that the “goodwill’’ thus earned must get translated into concrete political and economic dividends.
  • Finally, India is ready to go an extra mile in seeking the integration of the region. As often cautioned by the International Financial Institutes, only through regional cooperation can South Asia be a part of the Asian century?

Resurgent India : Are there any Implications For the Neighbours

In the course of over six decades of its independent existence, India’s global image has undergone a substantial change: from the distorted western perception of land of Sadhus, Beggars and Snakes to one of a leading economy and emerging global player destined to play an important role in international affairs. The past fifteen years have been of utmost importance. India’s economy has moved out of insulated and protected shell and stands integrated into the world market. The resilience it demonstrated during the global financial crisis had earned the Indian economy the due appreciation it deserved. The marginal slowdown in the recent past is in sync with the global trends, particularly in the emerging economies, and therefore has had no adverse impact on India’s global image. India’s credentials as a responsible de facto nuclear power are now well established. Most of those who matter in contemporary global affairs have placed on record their support for India’s candidature for Permanent Seat in UN Security Council as and when it is expanded. There is much more to celebrate India’s success story.

It is often said against this backdrop that on international arena India does not punch according to its weight even though it aspires to sit on the high seat of UN Security Council. It is a matter of debate as to what should be the levels of aggression with which India should conduct itself at international fora. It is arguably clear however that India can ill afford to adopt aggressive postures in its neighbourhood, and will have to tread with caution while dealing with its oversensitive tiny neighbours.

Now from generics to some specifics:


Pakistan is and for foreseeable future will remain a permanent fixture on the agenda of India’s policymakers. The State Relations between India and Pakistan have remained less than normal ever since the partition of India and creation of Pakistan in 1947. Sporadic efforts made by the civilian authorities on the two sides of the divide to provide the semblance of normalcy to bilateral relations have often been thwarted by the ISI and Army in Pakistan. History almost repeated itself in the recent past. Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif made several conciliatory statements during and after his election in May 2013. He was reportedly advised by his Army Chief to go slow and exercise utmost caution while striving to improve relations with India; this was even before Nawaz Sharif was officially sworn in. As the prospects of a possible bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in New York on the side-lines of the UNGA 2013 Session were looking bright and back-channel contacts had begun, the ceasefire violations along the LOC accelerated, culminating into the killing of five Indian soldiers(6th August 2013). India’s response was firm and strong. In a statement, the Defence Minister of India A.K. Antony said that “It is now clear that the specialist troops of Pakistan Army were involved in this attack when a group from the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) side crossed the LC and killed our brave jawans (soldiers) . We all know that nothing happens from Pakistan side of the Line of Control without support, assistance, facilitation and often, direct involvement of the Pakistan Army.”A chain of allegations and counter-allegations followed. In a resolution it adopted on 13th August, the National Assembly of Pakistan accused India of ‘unprovoked aggression by Indian military forces across the LoC”, promptly rejected and deplored by the Indian Parliament through identical resolutions in the two Houses of Parliament (Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha) reflecting the unity of approach to this issue by the ruling coalition as well as Opposition. Besides refuting the allegation and asserting that “it was the Pakistan Army that was involved in the unprovoked attack on an Indian Army patrol”, it also added, “our restraint should not be taken for granted nor should the capacity of our armed forces to ensure the territorial integrity of our nation.” To top it up the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his address to the nation on the 67th Independence Day singled out Pakistan by name and said: “for relations with Pakistan to improve, it is essential that they prevent the use of their territory and territory under their control for any anti-India activity”.

Against the backdrop of this vitiated atmosphere and divided civil society opinion, the Prime Minister of India decided in favour of meeting his Pakistani counterpart in New York on the sidelines of the UNGA. The focus of discussions during the meeting held on 29th September 2013 was on terrorism, reduction of tension on the borders and restoration of the ceasefire. Addressing the media, NSA Sh Menon said “Both sides want to see a better India-Pakistan relationship than we have right now. Both want peace and tranquillity along the Line of Control. The stage of broader dialogue has not come yet.”

In my assessment the future of India-Pak dialogue would depend on i) whether or not Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is able to minimise Army’s influence and control over foreign and security policies; ii) tangible deliveries from Pakistan on issues of India’s serious concerns particularly arising out of Pak-inspired/sponsored cross-border terrorism against India.


As Afghanistan moves closer to multi transitions (NATO drawdown, Presidential elections, economic transition) and enters the phase of transformation decade, India’s focus on Afghanistan is becoming sharper in view of the stakes India has in Afghanistan from the perspectives of Its own security and strategic interests. India can ill-afford the return of Taliban. The emergence of a regime in Afghanistan which is a proxy of Pakistan and dominated by Islamic fundamentalists would not be in the interests of India. A stable and peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan is of no use to India if its territories are allowed to be used for the purposes which are inimical to the national interests of India.

Indian policy makers will have to pick up the right option as the security situation evolves; in the event there is no deterioration in the current security situation, India could continue with its policy of commitment to contribute substantially towards reconstruction of Afghanistan and capacity building including training of Afghan Security Forces. [India has invested over $2bn in Afghanistan as development assistance; under its strategic partnership agreement, India is providing training to Afghan Security forces]. It could also adhere to its commitments as Lead Country in Istanbul CBMs. In case Afghanistan returns to chaotic and bloody civil war posing physical threat to Indian personnel’s presence in Afghanistan, India may find it difficult to continue to operate in Afghanistan. At the same time, India’s military intervention in Afghanistan is more or less ruled out.

Sri Lanka

India’s policy approach towards Sri Lanka is reflected In its response to a question tabled in the Parliament (Lok Sabha Q. N. 1542 dated 14th August 2013 ); the Government stated “India has long advocated the creation of an environment in Sri Lanka in which all communities, particularly the Sri Lankan Tamils, are masters of their own destiny within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. Our objective continues to remain the achievement of a future for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka that is marked by equality, dignity, justice and self-respect. In this context, India has been engaged with the Government of Sri Lanka at the highest levels on its stated commitment to implement the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution and to go beyond, so as to achieve meaningful devolution of powers.”

India has adopted a multi- pronged approach since the liquidation of the LTTE;

this policy has several components: i) India misses no opportunity to impress upon the Sri Lankan Government to abide by its commitments towards Sri Lankan Tamils particularly meaningful devolution of powers and the implementation of the 13th Amendment and beyond in a time bound manner; ii) India reassure as often as possible the Sri Lankan Tamils that it will make every effort to ensure the 13th amendment is not diluted and the future for the community is marked by equality, justice and self-respect; (In June last year “Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was explicit in conveying to the visiting Tamil National Alliance (TNA) delegation from Sri Lanka that he was “dismayed by reports suggesting that the Government of Sri Lanka planned to dilute certain key provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution ahead of elections to the Northern Provincial Council” [Ministry of External Affairs official statement, New Delhi, June 18, 2013] ; iii) India continues to invest into the reconstruction of Northern Sri Lanka; iv) As far the Tamil leadership in India, the Central Government in New Delhi listen to their demands, accommodates them to the extent feasible but ultimately exercises the prerogative of the Centre in the formulation of foreign policy taking broader national interests into account rather than being pushed by narrow regional priorities; v) India is monitoring carefully the Chinese overtures in Sri Lanka and check the latter’s drift towards China.


In terms of geographic and demographic dimensions, skilled manpower, civilizational depth, China is the only country in the region which qualifies for comparison with India.

The two countries have a long history of civilisational links. Soon after its own independence and the Maoist revolution in China, India went an extra mile to reach out to the communist regime. India was quick in recognising China, and supported its entry into the United Nations; recognized Tibet as an autonomous region of China The 1962 border conflict, therefore, came as a political shock to India. While Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s landmark visit in 1988 began a phase of improvement in bilateral relations, it is the cumulative outcomes of seven key High-Level visits in last 10years which have been transformational for India-China ties. [These were that of Prime Minister Vajpayee [2003], of Premier Wen Jiabao [2005 & 2010], of President Hu Jintao [2006], of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [2008 and 2013] and of Premier Li Keqiang [2013]. It is noteworthy that more than 60% of the agreements between India and China have been signed during the last decade. As of today, both sides have established 36 dialogue mechanisms covering diverse sectors. Bilateral trade has registered enormous growth reaching $70bn in 2011 (and may touch $100bn by 2015). The year 2014 has been designated as the Year of Friendly Exchanges between India and China. The two sides have established a Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity(2005) The leaders of India and China have also been meeting on the sidelines of regional, plurilateral and multilateral gatherings and conferences.

This is not to suggest that there are no irritants in relations between the two countries; there is always the other side of the coin: the border dispute between India and China remains unresolved; China’s plans to build dams on the Brahmaputra or seek access to Indian ocean through Pakistan and Myanmar, “string of pearls” etc are matters of concern. In addition, the rapid economic rise of China and its military strength have given it the audacity to occasionally flex political and military muscles.

It remains to be answered precisely as to whether modern China is an opportunity, challenge or threat? Perhaps, a mix of all three.

Source :- https://mea.gov.in/conflit-cooperation.htm

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