Let’s start with a question. Name the countries PM Modi first visited soon he assumed power in 2014 and 2019 respectively. If at all you were thinking about the major western power in answering this, you are for a surprise. In 2014, PM Modi chose Bhutan for his first foreign visit and its Maldives that saw his visit in 2019. We have earlier discussed it in our article PM Modi’s Neighbourhood First Policy.
Now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has returned from the successful visit to Bhutan. His timeline is abuzz with the postings of various moments he spent in that country. There are similarities in his approach to many neighbouring countries which can be summarised as below. Later, we can also think of how this approach is vastly different from that of China.
- PM Modi’s foreign policy gives utmost importance to neighbours irrespective of their country’s size and economy.
- Unlike China which is arguably following debt trap model with the smaller countries, India’s thrust is more on civilizational & cultural lines
- Post-2014, India has significantly improved its relationship with many countries which was perceived to be ‘strained’. Maldivesis a good example.
Different from China’s Approach
It is true that another big Asian country China is arguably putting more money in neighbouring countries. But many experts in foreign affairs have already argued that the very approach of China is of the old colonial way which is not sustainable. China is implementing grand projects like China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and One Belt One Road. The problem is China lends loan to countries like Pakistan for CPEC, but the China companies, technology, and even the labor force to a large extent which implement the project. So, the recipient country actually receives nothing except debt which it can never return. Thus, the process of colonization begins. Even the Pakistani media have highlighted in the past, how CPEC with many clauses over their resources tilts extremely in favour of China.
India is not at all competing this China’s model in its approach to neighbourhood. It does offer loans to neighbours but helps them to build their own capacity as well. In his recent visit to Bhutan, PM Modi initiated a partnership process in areas of education, space and healthcare. The inauguration of a ground station in Thimpu that was installed as part of India’s South Asia Satellite (SAS) reminds us of the earlier instance of India’s neighbourhood outreach in this regard. In 2017, India gifted SAS to its neighbours— Bhutan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka— which enabled them to access India’s satellite for their needs.
Emphasis on Cultural Ties
The economic co operation India is nurturing with its neighbours is cemented with ancient cultural ties. In his just concluded Bhutan visit, PM Modi talked about how education and learning have been central to the ties between India and Bhutan. He said, in ancient times, Buddhist teachers and scholars formed the bridge of learning between our peoples.
While talking in the Maldives parliament, PM Modi had touched an emotional chord by explaining how the language Hindi and Maldives’ language Divehi use similar words to express many things.
When Shri Lankan Prime Minister expressed his happiness for Ladakh becoming Union Territory, that essentially came from the respect he has for Buddhist culture.
India’s current administration has strengthened its ties with South Korea further by reviving the cultural bond. In 2018, India invited the First Lady of Korea, Kim Jung Sook to witness Diwali in Ayodhya. It is said that in ancient times, India’s princess Suriratna had reached South Korea and married Korea’s King.
In May 2018, when PM Modi visited Nepal a bus service between two historical cities, Janakpuri in Nepal which is Sita’s birthplace and Ayodhya in India which is Rama’s birthplace was flagged off.
Physical connectivity and infrastructure projects do connect small nations with India and there have been works underway in that regard such as Mizoram-Myanmar Kaladan road, Sittwe port development, a plan in progress to connect the Northeastern states with Bangladesh’s Chittagong port to name a few. But as explained above, India’s approach has been that of considering every nation as their equal partners irrespective of their size and economy. It believes that the neighbours who think in similar lines should grow simultaneously which will bring peace and prosperity to the region. In the process, it has also isolated a neighbour which shelters terrorists on its soil.
When the comparisons are often drawn between India and China, the fundamental difference between them in managing the region needs to be acknowledged.