Talk at the National Defence College (NDC) by Dr Arvind Gupta, Director, Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), New Delhi, 17 September 2018
Understanding India’s Strategic Neighbourhood: Challenges and Opportunities
Historical Background

A look at the relief map of India brings out clearly that India’s political boundaries do not coincide with the geographical boundaries of the sub-continent. The Hindukush mountains have been Indian sub-continent’s geographical frontier in the North West just as the Himalayas are in the North. This mismatch in boundaries has been the cause of many of independent India’s security problem.

Relief map of the Indian Sub-continent

Historically, India was a well-connected region. These connections helped forum the strategic neighbourhood of India. Indian traders went right up to Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Southeast Asia, China and Central Asia. During the Indus-Saraswati Civilisation 3500 years ago, Indians were trading with Mesopotamian civilisations. Much before the people had heard about the Silk Road, India Indian traders and pilgrims were using what is called The Uttar Path or the Northern Route which connected India with Afghanistan and other regions. During the Indus-Saraswati civilisation, the port of Lothal, on the Gujarat coast, provided connectivity to far off regions.

Land and river routes, and maritime connectivities, assisted by the monsoon winds, have been developing in India for millennia. The spread of Buddhism from India to the East, Adi Shankaracharya’s visits across India, the voyages of Guru Nanak, Vivekananda and many other social reformers, religious leaders and traders brought the Indian civilisation closer to other civilisations and also generated a sense of cultural oneness in India.

In the age of Mahajanapadas, even before Buddha, India had developed an Uttar Path and Dakshina Path, the main highway along the East-West and North-South directions. These provided connectivity not only within India but also to what is now Afghanistan and Central Asia on the West and Myanmar and Yunnan in the East. The Port of Tamralipti at the mouth of Ganga was a gateway to the East and the Port of Bharuch in Gujarat to the West. The Eastern and Western coasts of India have numerous ports connected with the hinterland. Ancient Hindu, Buddhist and Jain literature have numerous references to these routes.

This connectivity formed the basis of what we call an extended neighbourhood. Except in the last 250 years when the European colonised India, India was a rich civilisation accounting for the bulk of global GDP.

The partition sundered India from the regions with which it had close contacts. Formation of Pakistan on arbitrary lines created fault lines which persist today. India has been cut off from Central Asia. The Indus water basin was artificially divided. The Kashmir region which was well integrated with Central Asia also became isolated. In the East, the formation of East Pakistan dealt a blow to mainland India’s connectivity with Southeast Asia. Many of these problems are being addressed now.

India’s neighbourhood can be divided into two categories: the immediate neighbourhood and the extended neighbourhood. The immediate neighbourhood includes countries with whom it has land or maritime borders. These include Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives, China, Thailand and Indonesia.

The extended neighbourhood includes the regions of ASEAN, Central Asia, West Asia, and the Eastern shores of Africa. India has had civilisational contacts with these regions. They are important for India’s stability and prosperity. India’s maritime trade passes through the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific regions. A large number of Indians live and work in these areas. In some countries, they have been therefore several decades.

Immediate Neighbourhood

The striking features of the neighbourhood are that while India has borders with all its neighbouring countries, few of them has borders with each other. It is also the largest country in terms of size, population, and economy. Geography, history and culture link India’s neighbours visit deeply. Volatility in India’s neighbourhood affects India deeply as we do from examples in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Geography is an important driver of India’s relations with its neighbours. The Himalayas have historically acted as a barrier between India and China. The occupation of Tibet by China removed the buffer status of Tibet thereby bringing India and China in contact with each other and making them neighbours. However, this also has raised major issues of the boundary which have not yet been settled and all because of friction between India and China. The neighbourhood is critical for the stability and prosperity of India. therefore, stability and prosperity in the neighbourhood is important. The current challenge is how to promote comprehensive connectivity in the region to promote economic development in a region which still houses amongst the pooerest people in the world.

Another challenge is to understand and deal with the role of China in the neighbourhood. China’s influence in the region is growing. It has used its Belt and Road Initiative and other connectivity schemes to promote itself in the region. There are geo-political consequences of China’s inroads into South Asia. India has to be aware of the consequences of China as penetration in the region.

Undoubtedly, India has to be sensitive to the concerns of its neighbours. Likewise, they should be sensitive to India’s security concern. The attitude of the neighbours respect to India is sometimes ambiguous. They do not always share the same perception of the neighbourhood as India. They have in the past regarding India as a “big brother” and a hegemonic power in the region. They have often looked to China and outside the region to introduce balance in their relationships with India. This policy can succeed only partially as geographically, historically and culturally their destiny is linked with India.

The apprehensions about Indian motives have reduced over the years. This has to do partly with the rise of India as an economic power and also the change in India’s own attitude towards neighbours. Earlier India used to emphasise bilateralism over regionalism. Now, India has realised the importance of regional cooperation as well as subregional cooperation.

Regional Structures (SARC, BIMSTC, BBIN)

In 1983, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was set up as a regional cooperation structure. Political issues were kept outside the ambit of SAARC. Member countries were able to agree on its free-trade agreement (SAFTA), a common Terrorism Convention and many other projects of cooperation. However, SAARC has not been able to live up to its full potential. Political issues between India and Pakistan have held up the progress. In recent years, some members of SAARC have also expressed their desire to see China as its full member. This is not acceptable to India. Therefore, due to various reasons, connected with politics, SAARC has not delivered.

In recent years, the idea of sub-regional cooperation has gained ground. This is reflected in the rise of such cooperation structures as Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). The recent summit of BIMSTEC leaders has given impetus to this sub-regional cooperation grouping which connects South Asia with ASEAN countries as well. BIMSTEC common security space is being realised. The BIMSTEC joint military exercises is a step in that direction. A new concept of “mountain economy” has also been suggested. The Bay of Bengal which was historically an important region connecting South Asia with Myanmar, Malaya and Singapore is being revived as a region of cooperation. The idea of BIMSTEC security space is also germinating.

Connectivity with the ASEAN is critical for India. India has had a cultural and comical pride in ASEAN region for a long time. India has adopted an Act East policy aimed at promoting deeper cooperation with the ASEAN region. India is also playing an important role in Mekong Ganga cooperation projects.

Extended Neighbourhood (Indo-Pacific)

India’s strategic interests are not limited to the immediate neighbourhood. This is evident in the rise of the concept of Indo-Pacific which extends, in India’s views, from the West Pacific to the eastern shores of Africa. India’s participation in the Indo-Pacific affairs has brought it close to the United States, Japan and Australia in the form of a quadrilateral grouping called the ‘Quad’. India has maintained that in the Indo-Pacific, the centrality of ASEAN should be preserved. Prime Minister Modi, speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018, clarified India’s concept of the Indo-Pacific. He said that Indo-Pacific must be an inclusive concept. This has assuaged the feelings of China and also reassured the ASEAN countries of their continued centrality in the Indo- Pacific. At the same time, Prime Minister Modi has also stressed upon the need for maintaining freedom of navigation and dispute resolution in accordance with the international law.


India’s strategic neighbourhood also includes countries in the Indian Ocean Region. The concept of ‘security and growth for all’ - that is SAGAR. Within the framework of SAGAR India has expanded maritime cooperation with the countries of the Indian Ocean. Maritime cooperation includes projects such as infrastructure construction, defence cooperation, maritime domain awareness, capacity building et cetera. The initiative has been welcomed by many countries.

Connecting Central Asia

The strategic neighbourhood also includes Central Asia. India is building a port in Chabahar and also participating in connectivity projects like international North-South Transport Corridor and Ashkhabad agreement. Chabahar will provide alternate connectivity to Afghanistan. The Port is functional and the businessmen are using it for trade purposes.

Connecting with Africa

India’s relationship with Africa is also deepening. There is talk of Asia-Africa Economic Corridor although this remains at this moment only a concept. We need to develop proper connectivity is including maritime connectivity between India and the African countries. Shipping lines can operate only if there is enough trade. Sufficient trade will happen only if there are transport connectivity is. Thus there is a need to break this vicious circle. Africa has huge potential for development. This problems of connectivity will need to be sorted out to realise that potential.


There are many challenges on the way to building an integrated strategic neighbourhood. India has to have proper capacities and capabilities to do so. This is a work in progress.

Political considerations often constrained regional integration. India has not been able to build proper connectivity with Central Asia and Afghanistan because of the obduracy of Pakistan. Similarly, the Iran-Pakistan-India Pipeline could not be built partly because of the instability in Pakistan and partly because of the geo-politics of the region. America’s withdrawal from Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and sanctions on Iran have the potential of derailing India-Iran cooperation. The continuing instability in Afghanistan is also the reason why the progress on the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) gas pipeline is slow. Instability in these regions also discourages investors from investing on projects located in unstable areas.

India’s Approach to Strategic Neighbourhood

A paradigm shift has taken place in India’s approach to its neighbours and in the extended neighbourhood. Prime Minister Modi has launched a policy of ‘Neighbourhood First’, and connectivity with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka have improved. Many new plans are underway including roads, railways, electric grids, oil and gas pipeline, port construction etc. Overall India’s approach can be summarised as follows:-

  1. India has realised that it must engage deeply with the neighbourhood in a non-reciprocal fashion. This is a major change in India’s policy.
  2. Consequently, India has enhanced its engagement in the immediate and extended neighbourhood. Prime Minister Modi has followed a policy of neighbourhood first.
  3. Regional cooperation is center piece of India’s approach. It has sought to infuse energy in initiatives like BIMSTEC and BBIN.
  4. Security cooperation is not being shunned. The emphasis on counter-terrorism cooperation and cyber security as well as defence cooperation is pronounced.
  5. Defence cooperation forms an important component of India’s neighbourhood approach.
  6. Prime Minister Modi has realised that political engagement at the highest levels is critical to build an integrated region. He has taken initiatives to engage with the top leaders of the region.
  7. The effort is to build institutions of cooperation. This will pay dividends in the long-term.
  8. India is willing to share its capabilities with other countries. The launch of a South Asia satellite was an excellent example of that.
  9. India has activated the maritime dimension of regional security as many of the countries or maritime countries. Thus the emphasis on maritime cooperation, blue economy and, maritime domain awareness etc. has been quite pronounced. India has also settled its maritime boundary with Bangladesh in accordance with the International Court of Justice verdict which actually went against India. Thus India has walked the talk on cooperation. This has sent a powerful signal of India’s sincerity.
Key points of the Borderland and Boundaries of the Indian Subcontinent (from the book by Prof Dilip Chakrabarti):-
  • Behind the ‘boundary’ line, which are the products of historical circumstances, lies the concept of ‘borderland’.
  • To understand India’s history through the ages, it is essential to understand the geographical and historical nuances of the Indian borderland.
  • The British regarded Kabul and Quetta as the two doors whose security was vital to their interests.
  • The Hindu Kush formed the natural border of the Indian continent.
  • Right from the Gulf and the Iranian Zagros to the present day Chinese, Turkistan or Xinjiang, there is swath of land which carries clear Indian imprint.
  • Many of the so called ‘invasions’ of Indian history were nothing more than the pushes from those areas which were not foreign in a strict sense but were very much within the Indian geo-political orbit.
  • There has been intense pattern of geographical, historical, religious and economic interaction between the borderlands and each of their segments.
  • During the Kushan period, trade between India and Central Asia was at its height. Indian traders moved up to South Siberia.
  • The network of Silk Route integrated the entire region into a much wider orbit of Asia and Europe.
  • India figures prominently in the ideological, political and economic underpinning of early Myanmar. The Indian impact on the genesis of the early history of Myanmar is clear.

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