Neighbourhood is still India's Achilles' heel

India needs to sail cautiously into new waters when its backwaters have become murkier and more troubled.
For representational purposes (Express Illustrations| Amit Bandre)
For representational purposes (Express Illustrations| Amit Bandre)

A three-step Bhutan-China roadmap to resolve the bilateral border dispute, the attack on Hindu citizens in Bangladesh, the lack of clarity on Nepal relations, the continuing tentativeness to Taliban ties in Afghanistan and the revival of terror attacks in Jammu & Kashmir in which Pakistan remains the main suspect … Let's not leave out our relations with the Maldives and its friendly government despite the periodic 'India Out' campaign and of course Sri Lanka, where Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla's recent visit is expected to turn the ties for the better, but there is no guarantee. Suddenly, India's cup of woes in the immediate neighbourhood is full, if not overflowing.

Seven years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared his Neighbourhood First policy, a coinage derived from the post-Independence Indian approach, the idea seems to be falling apart. It is more of a strategic relationship than aid economics, which has been China's forte. But New Delhi seems to have lost focus and replaced one with the other. Or so it seems.

As if in compensation or in deflection, New Delhi has been fast expanding its policy reach and outreach to create a four-nation Quad in the Indo-Pacific first and an even more unbecoming 'Quad II' in the Gulf Arab region now. It is like moving onto BRICS when SAARC did not work, as expected - yet, not like it.

It is like the good old days post-Cold War, after India embraced economic reforms first and the US-led West next. That was when a section of India's strategic community, as if acting on cue, propounded that India was already a Pacific/Atlantic power and had gone beyond its historic Indian Ocean baggage. Subsequent events, developments and consequent reassessments brought India back to the ground and the neighbourhood. India understood that the world has use for you only if your neighbours are your friends. But the flight-to-fancy spirit has since returned.

Through the past couple of decades, China's emergence and dominance has shaken India's confidence. The world has stopped thinking of South Asia and the adjoining Indian Ocean waters as India's traditional sphere of influence. India won the honour or honorific without earning it. It has since lost the honour because it did not work for it or work on it.

Rebound love: The quick-witted Indian decision to participate in Quad-II without experimentation of the Quad-I kind looks as if it were an instance of rebound love. Indian street sensitivity to the meaningful US reiteration that the Quad, also involving Australia and Japan, was not a military alliance (because New Delhi was seemingly shying away) - that too after signing the AUKUS 'military alliance' with Australia and the UK - seems to have provoked our country into joining a near-similar grouping, another of America's strategic products.

Already, volumes are being written about India outsmarting China's bid to woo Israel and the UAE through Quad-II. In typical south Indian culinary terms, India is fast becoming like curry leaves that are added to cooked food at the end.

Achilles' heel: The Quad, Quad-II and all of India's international military outreach can wait. The neighbourhood is still the nation's Achilles' heel. Recent developments have only added to India's woes, not solved any. In physical and psychological terms, China has got us where it wanted.

In Doklam, China made us commit extra forces to the trijunction without firing a shot, and where common neighbour Bhutan wants out, and on China's terms. After Chinese crudity in Galwan, our military commanders have been saying that emergency military procurements (alone) have empowered us to take on China.

There are questions. What if China had launched a full war, whether at Doklam or Galwan? Leave aside heavy weaponry and fighters, what does it mean when you say that post-Galwan, the army has procured 1,50,000 American and Swiss rifles? How come the IAF has since acquired 70,000 AK-103 Russian assault rifles against a double requirement to face off a new generation of terrorists armed with American leftovers from Afghanistan? That the Russian rifles are a replacement for home-made INSAS ones in this era of Atmanirbhar is beside the point. Is it the kind of unpreparedness that cost India the 1962 war?

It may sound overly conventional, lacking in confidence and refusing to celebrate the nation's newfound identity to say that India needs to sail cautiously into new waters when its backwaters have become murkier and more troubled. China is not going to attack India in the Pacific, off Guam or in the Gulf, where all the Quads take us. China may not even come to the Indian Ocean waters if it has to target India.

Having sowed the seeds of deep suspicion in the Indian mind about its neighbours, China can still restrict itself to the land borders, where it will be more comfortable in engaging India militarily. Unless it turns into another World War, our post-Cold War allies would be of little or no help on the ground. Yet, India and Indian troops will always have to fight with one eye to the back - from Turkey and Russia, to Iran and Pakistan, down to Nepal and Bangladesh, if not Bhutan and Myanmar - on our bad day.

(The writer is a distinguished fellow & head - Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at

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