It could be a coincidence that three top officials of the government are touring neighbouring countries or the near abroad at the same time. But their visits — External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar is in Seychelles after Bahrain and the UAE, National Security Advisor Ajit K Doval in Sri Lanka, and Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla in Nepal — underline that India’s relationships with countries in the region need urgent attention. In the last few months, the foreign secretary has also made trips to Dhaka and Male. This concerted outreach at the highest levels comes at a time of aggravated tensions between India and China at the Line of Actual Control.
But long before this summer when the Chinese Army’s disruption of the military equation in Ladakh became apparent, it was actually in the South Asian and wider Indian Ocean region — now also known as the Indo-Pacific — where the rivalry between Asia’s two biggest powers was playing out. Delhi had for too long tended to take its influence in this region for granted, depending on its cultural links and old established ties with political elites, and overlooking the changing political and economic dynamic of these smaller neighbours. From these capitals, there is now a different view of Indian influence in the region from what it was even a decade ago, especially when some of decisions taken in Delhi seemed to go against their interests. Not surprisingly, deep-pocketed China offered an attractive way to leverage relations with India.
Dhaka’s anger at India’s new citizenship law and Nepal’s map adventure were eye-openers on how politicians and policy-makers in Delhi are sometimes unable to join the emerging dots in the region. And earlier this year, India seemed content to outsource its worries in the Indian Ocean to the Trump Administration, as Maldives signed a defence treaty with the US, and the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, landed in Colombo from where he berated China and warned Sri Lanka against Beijing’s debt trap. The Biden administration may have a more nuanced way of dealing with Beijing and it may be in Delhi’s own interests to do its own legwork in the region. Jaishankar’s visit to Seychelles will signal that India remains interested in the Assumption Island infrastructure project. Shringla’s visit to Kathmandu will hopefully take forward the repair of bilateral ties, a work in progress. Doval’s participation in a trilateral meeting on maritime security with Sri Lanka and the Maldives in Colombo, after the foreign secretary’s visit earlier this month to the Maldivian capital, should help reiterate that Delhi is a friend apart from being their closest neighbour.
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