Whither ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy: Analysing Prime Minster’s Visit to Maldives and Sri Lanka

Whither ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy: Analysing Prime Minster’s Visit to Maldives and Sri Lanka

The thumping majority with which the BJP got elected in the recently concauthorluded Parliamentary election of India is one of the milestones in the history of the party and that of Prime Minister Modi in whose term the ‘neighbourhood first’ policy was enunciated. His reelection generated a hope that India’s relations with the immediate neighbours will receive further boost and would lead to a mutually beneficial relationship. India has historically always given a priority to its South Asian neighbourhood with varying degree of results. Several policies are anchored based on ‘beneficial bilateralism’ and ‘Gujral doctrine’. In the last two decades India has extended several lines of credit to the tune of around 15 billion US dollars. While the economic focus has always been there the political focus in terms of highest level of visit by the Prime Minister immediately after he is voted to the office started since 2014 when Shri Narendra Modi in his first term choose to visit Bhutan as his first foreign destination. Therefore, his reelection has helped in continuing this focus and emphasis on the immediate neighbourhood. The selection of two important maritime neighbours of India in the strategic Indian Ocean region as the first foreign destinations signifies the importance of these countries to India for various reasons which includes cultural, economic, political and strategic. Prime Minister Modi visited Maldives on 8th of June and Sri Lanka on the 9th of June. Terrorism found a greater emphasis in this bilateral visit. 

It needs to be mentioned that in his last term in the office, Prime Minister Modi could not visit Male and due to certain domestic political development there. He had to drop his visit to Male from the itinerary. During former President, Abdullah Yameen’s rule, India and Maldives witnessed a downturn in the bilateral relations especially after the GMR episode. Moreover, though India maintained a distance from the domestic politics, former President sought refugee in the Indian Embassy. India’s sent a word of caution when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was arrested. While the Western countries were vocal and very critical of the undermining of democracy and the nascent institutional structure, New Delhi was cautious. His period also saw significant Chinese investment in Maldives as Yameen government facilitated Chinese investment by modifying domestic laws and passed a Free Trade Agreement which was rushed through the Parliament. After the election and victory of joint opposition candidate, Mohammad Solih the bilateral relations is in the path of recovery. Prime Minister Modi not only attended the inauguration of Solih’s government, but his visit signifies a major political step that New Delhi took to signal that Maldives remained an important partner. A ferry service was announced to give a boost to people to people contact. A $800 million credit line would help Maldives to build a crocket stadium, a composite training centre for the Maldivian Defence Force and put in place Coastal Surveillance Radar System. There were four MoUs that the two countries agreed upon. He was conferred with the highest honour, “Rule of Nishan Izzudeen” by President Solih. He also addressed the Maldives Majlis and emphasized on the need to fight terror and climate change. Maldives has highlighted the problem of radicalization and also has been a great champion of adverse effect of climate change. 

His visit to Sri Lanka is significant especially coming after the devastating Easter terror attack which killed more than 250 people. Choosing Sri Lanka as one of his first foreign destination is to express solidarity with a country that has become a victim of terror attacks after winning thirty years civil war in 2009. This visit signals that Sri Lanka is safe as the Western countries have issues advisory to its citizens after the Easter attacks and India stands beside it. India had provided intelligence input to Sri Lanka on the impending attack even though the attack could not be prevented. Prior to the visit, Sri Lanka approved the India-Japan joint venture to expand the Eastern container terminal at the Colombo port. Another trilateral venture of India, Japan and Sri Lanka to jointly develop the Trincomalee oil tanks is pending for the approval by the government. 

PM Modi held talks with President Mathripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe. Sri Lanka is going to have the crucial Presidential election by the end of this year. India remains engaged with all the political parties and share a cordial relationship with them. India has been involved in several projects in Sri Lanka which includes post war reconstruction, developing Kanakasanthurai as a commercial port and the Palaly airport to be develop by the Airport Authority of India. There are some negotiations on India’s offer to takeover the loss making Mattala airport build by China. 

The visit to the two countries signifies not just India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy but it is significant in the context of China’s over all expansion to the Indian Ocean. While India has emphasised on political solution of the Tamil grievances as it fear any possible conflict in the future would have several implication to India’s security given the ethno-national ties; it remains wary of changing global power dynamics and geo-political competition in this region. Threat of terrorism is one of the common themes between India and its two maritime neighbours; trade, people to people contact and close security cooperation remains major priorities for India. India, Sri Lanka and Maldives have annual Defence dialogue and also conduct trilateral naval exercise. India is involved in capacity building and has provided Offshore Patrol Vehicle to both these two countries to help the island nations to strengthen their maritime capacity. The three countries are part of South Asian Regional Intelligence Coordination Centre on Organised Crime (SARCC-TOC). India already has proposed SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) and is looking at close collaboration as concept of blue economy gains ground. 

While 2014 saw India inviting the heads of state of SAARC countries on the occasion of Prime Minister Modi’s oath taking; the 2019 saw an invitation to the heads of the state of BIMSTEC countries. Both these invitations reflect the emphasis that this government puts on the immediate neigbourhood. Sri Lanka is a member of BIMSTEC and the member countries are looking towards the growing economies of South East Asia and also strengthening cooperation in the Eastern Indian Ocean as part of BIMSTEC. Maldives is part of Indian Ocean Naval Symposium and there exist trilateral defence dialogue between the three countries of India, Sri Lanka and Maldives in which Mauritius and Seychelles are special invitee. This will help consolidate naval cooperation within a subregional framework with the larger Indian Ocean context.

 Sri Lanka and Maldives are important for India’s Indian Ocean maritime strategy. Apart from their crucial locations, these countries share ethno-cultural ties and historically there have been free flow of people and ideas between these countries. In spite of ebb and flow in the bilateral ties with these two important neighbours, they remain important partners of India. While India’s relations with Maldives has received a boost, several MoUs with Sri Lanka is awaiting government of Sri Lanka’s nod, i.e. developing the Trincomalee Oil tank, Sampur power plant and proposed LNG pipeline to Kerawalapitiya. Indian private sectors are keen to invest in Sri Lanka. Though a joint venture between India’s Accord Group and Oman’s oil ministry for building a oil refinery in Hambanttota is in progress, the two countries are yet to agree on Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement which has met with domestic resistance in Sri Lanka due to certain concerns of its private sector businessmen. It is important for the two countries to address these concerns and apprehensions to engage in the mutually beneficial relations. A relation based on trust and respect will go a long way in cementing India’s ties with these two important maritime neighbours of India. Neighbourhood first policy provides just a direction and nitty-gritties of the relations needs to worked carefully through deft diplomatic negotiations.

by Smruti S Pattanaik Ph.D (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses) 

Senior fellow INSSSL