That Neighbourhood First has remained at the core of Modi government’s foreign policy focus has been once again demonstrated post-poll results in 2019. If SAARC countries had been invited for 2014 oath-taking ceremony, the invitation to BIMSTEC for 2019 implies a clear distancing from if not isolating of Pakistan. It also expands the definition of neighbourhood into Southeast Asia from South Asia.
Then the selection of Maldives and Sri Lanka as first ports of call by the PM reaffirms that strong neighbourhood focus of the government. Importantly, the foreign minster’s first visit to Bhutan after swearing in is another ringing illustration of the newly-elected government’s neighbourhood first policy.
BIMSTEC: Lies in the extended neighbourhood
BIMSTEC straddles both South Asia and Southeast Asia. Its geostrategic primacy vis-à-vis the Indian Ocean coupled with Chinese increasing incursions in the region, cannot be emphasised enough. With a combined GDP of more than $2.5 trillion and 21 percent of the world’s population, the grouping offers tremendous commercial and investment potential for the country. Given PM Modi’s unremitting drive for economic growth, surge in investment and push for employment generation, the overtures to BIMSTEC can be seen in that context. According to a report by FICCI, the potential trade opportunity that beckons BIMSTEC nations seems to be as high as $250 billion, as compared to the current trade of $40.05 billion.
Maldives: Making a comeback to Indian fold
As an archipelagic country located in the western waters of Indian Ocean and home to over 22,000 Indians, the country has for long had a close political and security relationship with India. Given that Maldives is not part of BIMSTEC, the PM’s first visit to the country is a reassurance that the archipelagic country has remained at the centre of Modi’s geostrategic focus. Notably, this will be the first bilateral visit to the Maldives by a PM since 2011. Significantly, Modi was the only Head of Government to attend President Solih’s swearing-in last year. Since Mr Solih’s coming into power, India has expedited several projects significantly impinging on the lives of Maldivians in the spheres of health, education, urban development, sports among others.
Sri Lanka: Expression of solidarity from a fellow-sufferer
Then the choosing of Sri Lanka as the next venue by the PM’s team also signifies the neighbourhood first policy of the new government. In light of the Easter Sunday terror attacks that the island-nation had to suffer in April this year, the visit will not only be an expression of solidarity and empathy with a fellow-sufferer on account of terror, it would also reinforce their existing relations on multiple fronts.
So, the upcoming visits are also likely to give a new momentum to the trilateral maritime security cooperation that India, Maldives and Sri Lanka had undertaken back in 2012.
Bhutan: India’s Brother in the Neighbourhood
And the first overseas trip by the new foreign minister to Bhutan is another strong statement of intent by the government. One of the closest friends and a neighbour, Bhutan too had been enmeshed during the Doklam standoff. In fact, during Doklam, India had steadfastly stood by Bhutan in the face of the Chinese aggression on the Himalayan Kingdom. Regardless, the visit would feature discussions on upcoming high level exchanges, economic development and hydropower cooperation.
Therefore, the invitation to BIMSTEC grouping for the oath ceremony and making Maldives and Sri Lanka as first destinations outside the country in addition to the foreign minister visiting Bhutan, the Modi government has accomplished three key objectives. One, that the neighbourhood is eternally important. Second, countries such as Pakistan and China get the message that the incoming government is not letting its guard down in any way and is only pursuing national security interests with more vigour and drive. And third, the neighbourhood countries have to become a part of the story of Indian economic resurgence. In other words, the Security And Growth for All in the Region or the SAGAR doctrine outlined by Modi in 2015 aiming to keep the Indian Ocean region peaceful and secure, is being operationalised to the fullest.