No Permanent Friends or Foes; Only Permanent Interests
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No Permanent Friends or Foes; Only Permanent Interests

 Neighborhood Perceptions of India’s Rise

No Permanent Friends or Foes; Only Permanent Interests

By Sindhu Dinesh

A country’s rise in the international system is supported as well as constrained by factors in its regional environment. The neighborhood is a conditional environment that impacts the growth trajectory of any country. India’s immediate neighborhood environment consists of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. This regional outlook directly has a bearing on India’s power status calculus. There exist multi-layered complex perceptions and misperceptions in the region on India and its rise. Some of these include the neighbor’s view of India as a ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Regional Hegemon’. They are fuelled by factors like the natural geographical asymmetry, demography, and comparatively stable strong political system. However, each of these countries has their own perception of the rise of India as an important international player and the implications it has on its own political and security scenario.

A major factor in the rise of India has been its proactive engagement with other developing countries by extending financial aid and building infrastructure projects. Afghanistan has received extensive development aid and assistance from India in its re-construction. All of these soft power-driven diplomatic initiatives have resulted in a positive perception of India by the majority of the Afghans. It can also be extended further and understood that they would support India’s Rise as a growing India would imply a growth for their own country as well. Often scholars have engaged in debates on whether India’s aid to Afghanistan has been sufficiently considered to assess whether India fulfills Afghanistan’s needs. Nevertheless, a perusal of literature on Afghanistan reveals that the majority of Afghans take a positive view of India’s Rise.

The ties between India and Pakistan have always been tumultuous. Pakistan has been the most antagonistic player to India in the region. Historically it has been proven since the partition. The military establishment in Pakistan wields control over the political establishment. In such a scenario, any development and progress that India makes have always been resented by Pakistan. Thus, there exist presumptions such as any perception in Pakistan on the Rise of Indiawould indeed be negative. Primarily, the resentment stems from the perception that a rising India is a security threat to Pakistan. As much as these fears are unfounded, it is a widely accepted narrative among the establishment and populace of Islamabad.

To that effect, Pakistan media engaged in falsifying the very phenomenon of India’s Rising power status. When the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked in 2011, that the US wanted Rising India to play a greater regional role; Pakistani newspapers reported it in titles like – ‘Sponsoring India’s Rise’, ‘America plays Indian game’, ‘US daydreaming’, ‘Challenging Regional Environment’ and other similar ones. While some Pakistani scholars argue that Pakistan must realize that the Rise of Nations cannot be sponsored and that Pakistan must accept the reality of India’s Rise; others argue that Pakistan could instead focus on its own internal development to match India’s growing capabilities, or utilize India’s Rise to facilitate a peace deal for the region or otherwise bandwagon with India to capitalize on the economic opportunities. Nevertheless, the perception by Pakistan on the Rise of India although varying among scholars is predominantly negative and is resented due to the fundamental underlying hatred towards India.

Nepal has always considered itself dwarfed by the size of India. A recurring theme in the writings of scholars in Nepal is their resentment on India’s unnatural influence in the internal affairs of their country. Some of their daily newspapers support India’s rise and seek to benefit from it; many are wary of it and feel that it would mean more interference in their internal matters; while few others, perceive India’s rise to be skewed. With India’s rising status, Nepal has no choice but to revamp its foreign policy to accommodate the economic powerhouses to its south as well as north. Popular opinion is that it must ride on the benefits that emerge so that, Nepal could benefit rather than resist and overestimate its own importance to both India and China.

Scholars have observed that China seeks a multi-polar world and a unipolar Asia. In this context, although explicitly accommodative of India’s leadership in South Asia, it views the Rise of India as unwelcome competition. It has expressed its resentment through various means. Over the past year, asserting that mutual trust is the key to strong ties, President Xi Jinping and PM Narendra Modi have both made efforts to usher in a new tide in the bilateral relationship through the informal summits in Wuhan and Mamallapuram. China seeks to develop new ties and a development partnership with an emerging India. China would perhaps want to keep a check on the Rise of India and ensure it doesn’t alter the status quo it enjoys in the region.

It has been reiterated by both Head of States on various instances, Bhutan and India are bound together by a 'special relation’. Over the past decades, their bilateral ties have slowly evolved from a donor-recipient to equal partner relationship. This is best illustrated by India’s investments in the development of Bhutan’s water resource for hydropower generation. In 2015, India stood strong with Bhutan during the Doklam crisis proving to be a credible and reliable friend. Against this backdrop, Bhutan harbors a positive perception of India and its rise as long as Bhutan’s own sovereignty is acknowledged and respected by India.

New Delhi and Naypyitaw have shared a relationship covered in fluctuations. Myanmar’s eventual democratic transition and India’s growth as a leading power in the international arena have brought the countries closer due to resulting regional geopolitical developments. Myanmar in all likelihood favors India’s Rise as it would strengthen ties between the two and furthermore, would help Myanmar balance against its excessive dependence on China.

Ties with Bangladesh for India have more often than not been primarily dependent on the personality and political party occupying the Prime Minister’s Office in Dhaka. PM Sheikh Hasina has been benevolent and accommodative towards India’s sentiments as opposed to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). While the majority of Bangladeshi politicians are generally suspicious of India’s intentions, their scholars opine that the possible recognition Bangladesh could receive in the international community has been overshadowed by India. With regard to their demographic issues, they argue that India’s towering presence captures the western registers of imagination and results in the overlooking of Bangladesh’s migration concerns. Bangladeshi perceptions of India and its Rise are closely intertwined with the ruling party administrative establishment and certain domestic impediments. Under the current regime, it can be understood to be largely supportive and encouraging despite some setbacks that arose in the ties due to a few recent events.

The bond between India and Sri Lanka is rooted in deep cultural ties and a shared vibrant heritage. A contemporary analysis of Sri Lanka’s policy statements and remarks by their political leaders shows that they essentially seek an economic driven development partnership with India. In the absence of sufficient economic engagement with India and other irritants in the ties; they edged closer towards China. Ever since then, they have played the cards of both countries against each other in the process of obtaining maximum benefit from both. Sri Lanka explicitly expresses positive sentiments on the Rise of India. However, they would support India’s Rise only if it helps Colombo realize its national interests.

India’s ties with the Maldives have treaded on a gray area despite depicting different shades of colors at different points in time. At present, the visit by PM Narendra Modi in 2019 has strengthened the relationship and ushered in proactive engagements between the two countries. The Maldives claims to practice an ‘India First Policy’; its perception of India’s rise although assumed to be positive is essentially at best ambiguous.

Evidently, there are varying perceptions. Some common elements underlying these perceptions include the China factor, India’s relatively larger size, and capabilities. The small neighboring states have more often than not derive benefits from India’s growth. It is India’s rising capabilities that have enabled the country to move beyond its own territory and invest in these other nations. Perhaps these perceptions provide an insight into the famous remark by Lord Palmerston, ‘There exist no permanent friends or foes; only permanent interests’. The neighbor’s perceptions of India’s rise have extensively been shaped by their own national interests and security calculations. While these are the multi-layered perceptions in the neighborhood countries on India’s Rise, it would be important to explore the global perceptions of India.

About the Author:

Sindhu Dinesh (ORCID: 0000-0002-0691-5784) is a postgraduate research scholar in the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka. Research interest areas include Geopolitics of South Asia and India’s relations in the Neighbourhood.

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.