The second Modi government sends a powerful ‘neighbourhood first’ message

In a reaffirmation of New Delhi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit abroad is to the Maldives and Sri Lanka, while S. Jaishankar wraps up his first visit abroad as Foreign Minister to Bhutan. Leaders of several neighbouring countries were invited to Mr. Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. This is the first state visit by Mr. Modi to Male, which he had visited briefly for the swearing-in of President Ibu Solih in November 2018. A series of agreements are expected during the visits, including the implementation of an $800 million Line of Credit to the Maldives. The projects include a cricket stadium, water purification and sewerage systems, as well as a Coastal Surveillance Radar System and a Composite Training Centre for the Maldives National Defence Force. This follows the Indian practice of fulfilling the needs of neighbouring countries that they themselves identify, much as it has done in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister’s visit to the Maldives aims to send a three-pronged message: to continue high-level contacts between close neighbours, assist as development partners, and strengthen people-to-people ties. For Sri Lanka, Mr. Modi’s message is one of solidarity in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terror attacks and the communal violence that followed, as well as a commitment to continue bilateral cooperation on joint development projects agreed to in 2017. He will be the first international leader to visit Colombo since the attacks, and his visit sends a powerful message as Sri Lanka tries to recover from the trauma.

The atmospherics today are in contrast to the comparatively trickier relationship with the previous governments in Male and Colombo during Mr. Modi’s first tenure. In 2015, Mr. Modi had cancelled a visit to Male at the last minute following concerns over then-President Abdulla Yameen’s crackdown on Opposition parties. Similar misgivings had cropped up regarding former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime. China’s inroads into the region had formed a common thread straining ties with both countries. India protested when the Yameen government signed a free trade agreement with Beijing, and granted China land for development. It made its displeasure clear over the many infrastructure projects Mr. Rajapaksa granted to Chinese companies under heavy Chinese loans. Deeper concerns arose from the Chinese naval presence in both Male and Colombo. Now, the situation has turned. Governments in both countries have changed. Besides a charm offensive, India has chosen to mute its opposition to their continued cooperation with China on the Belt and Road Initiative. It also comes from a realisation in Delhi that at a time when factors such as the U.S.-China trade tussles and tensions in West Asia pose uncertainties, strong neighbourhood ties can provide much comfort.