Constantino Xavier is a Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings India in New Delhi and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. Xavier’s work over the years has focused on the role India plays in South Asia, which is one of the world’s least connected regional neighbourhoods, on nearly every measure. He is also writing a book about how India responded to crises in neighbouring nations.

Xavier spoke to about Sambandh, the Brookings India effort he oversees to document connectivity in the region, how Chinese involvement in South Asia has spurred India to do much more, and what research he would like to see from scholars on this subject going forward.

Tell me a little bit about the work you do at Brookings India.
I’ve been now involved and in India for the last 20 years in terms of studying here, but early on, I noticed a puzzle of regional disintegration in South Asia, which is exceptional compared to any other region in the world. Exceptional in the sense of the current state of a partitioned subcontinent well beyond just India-Pakistan, which is obviously the most well-known partition, but also the economic partition, the infrastructure partition, the cultural partition all over the subcontinent and of different ethno-linguistic groups that live along and across political borders. Most of these borders have been instituted and solidified over the last 70 years.

I think that’s really the puzzle that has drawn me more to study India and its neighbours, this state of regional disconnect.

So were you working on this subject even before you embarked on this project at Sambandh?
Yes, my PhD research was precisely about India’s neighbourhood policy. I looked at how India dealt with a variety of internal crises in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, between the 1950s and the 2000s. This was based on archival research and interviews with Indian government officials – diplomats mostly but not only, also people from the army establishment or the intelligence service.

I tried to understand how India addressed Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar in its larger regional policy, and this allowed me to understand the past of India’s neighbourhood policy. But in many ways, as I got deeper into it, I also realised that there is a new region shaping up for many reasons since the 1990s, including India’s economic openness, and growing competition from China and other countries. So I looked at India’s old neighbourhood policy, but I think we are in a very new neighbourhood now.

These changes have opened up a very interesting debate today in India and the consequent need for more expertise about the region. Under the Sambandh regional connectivity initiative, we try to come up with a series of research papers on regional studies and on mapping the levels of connectivity across many dimensions between India and its neighbouring countries.

To unpack these ideas a little more clearly for the reader, what do you mean by old neighbourhood and new neighbourhood in this context?
When I refer to the neighbourhood, whether old or new, I concentrate on the region beyond Pakistan, which has its own logic of rivalry and hostility with India, and has been the focus of much of India’s attention, probably too much. My attention is more towards Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, but also Afghanistan and the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean regions where India’s influence stands out historically. This is an area including many countries where India used to be a predominant power, for example by using political interference to shape the internal affairs of these countries.

This was an India that chose an economic model between the 1960s and the 1980s-90s that was autarkic, closed, introverted and therefore, it was an India that really erected borders as barriers between itself and these neighbouring countries. And that, to give you a concrete example, reflects in many studies we’ve done where you realise that India-Nepal, India-East Pakistan, India-Sri Lanka were sometimes more connected in the 1950s and 1960s than they are today.

For example, up to 1964, you had 12 functioning railway links between India and East Pakistan. Today, you’re have maybe three or four with Bangladesh. Inland waterways linked Nepal, Bhutan, India and Pakistan, commercial arteries that are mostly defunct today.

So on all these levels, this is a very disconnected region today, which is puzzling because the whole world from the 1950s onwards went into the direction of regional integration, whether it’s Europe or Southeast Asia, South America, and even certain African regions. All of these regions today have higher levels of intra-regional share of trade.

To give an example, South Asia’s intra-regional share of trade is around 5%. In ASEAN, Southeast Asia, it is around 30%. So, this is really the old Indian neighbourhood policy that has come into question post the 1990s because India slowly opened up its economy. There’s been a movement towards reconnecting through trade, through lower tariffs, through engagement in basic infrastructural investment in railways, roads and ports with neighbouring countries.

And at the same time, there is China as an additional geo-strategic driver beyond the economic one, also pushing India to change its neighbourhood policy. China, which is seen as a competitor or a rival, depending on how you look at it, has been able to deliver tremendous support to India’s neighbouring countries, and in many dimensions much more than India in terms of development cooperation, infrastructure, investment. So those two drivers – economic and strategic – are really pushing India to rethink its policy towards the neighbourhood over the last 10 to 15 years. It’s a slow process. But it’s been happening since the early 2000s.

Why look at ‘connectivity’?
In the traditional foreign policy and strategy space, particularly in New Delhi, the neighbourhood has often been looked at as composed of small countries that could be taken for granted, as strategic satellites. Another term used is “India’s backyard”, because that’s what it often really was. This was the Indian state’s strategic framework since the late 19th century, even for the British Raj, focused on buffer states and security instruments.

That has been the traditional geo-strategic security and political lens through which India has looked at the neighbourhood until the 1980s, reflecting also its closed economy. When China shows up with its Belt and Road initiative in 2014, and brings in this new buzzword called connectivity, naturally the dominant Indian interpretation has been to see the Chinese initiative as a geo-strategic political and security instrument. And that’s why it has led to a lot of hostility and concerns in India, some of course very valid, but others not at all.

There are concerns about how the Chinese have been investing, giving out loans to many of India’s neighbours, how they have used their strategic infrastructure projects and financing mechanisms to pursue also their political agendas, how they have started to influence media coverage, pressure universities to study China in a positive way, how they have curtailed coverage of Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang.

But beyond this geo-strategic and security focus, under the Sambandh Initiative we’re looking at connectivity from a broad sense, not only the hard aspects of connectivity such as investments, trade, infrastructure, telecommunications, roads, railway, ports, but also the softer connectivity dimensions. This includes, for example, student exchanges, tourism, media coverage, linguistic and migration ties, diplomatic links, official visits etc.

In one of our recent reports, for example, we found that – using Indian official higher education data – if you look at India’s neighbouring countries, even if you exclude Pakistan, you now have almost as many students going to attend Chinese universities as Indian ones. You would expect, because of proximity, language, price incentives, because it’s literally next door, that many of these students from Nepal, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka would prefer to come to India to study.

So, from the old attitude of taking these countries for granted, that old language that you are a regional power, we are realising that, relatively speaking, India today has decreasing regional influence. In the 1950s, Indian universities were a regional hub for students even from Burma, today there are growing but still very limited numbers. This is an important indicator of India’s regional soft power, which is missed if you look only at the geo-strategic and hard and classic dimensions of connectivity, including regional trade or cross-border infrastructure.

Whether old neighbourhood or new, hard power or soft, the amount of expertise on the neighbourhood in India seems limited.
When you look at the expertise in India on Nepal, on Myanmar and Sri Lanka – people in civil society, journalists, academics, think tankers, etc – it’s not a coincidence that the average age is very high, including mostly retired officials.

This reflects on what I was telling you before, that for several decades there was a growing disinterest in these neighbouring countries. Students, scholars, even government officials didn’t look at these neighbouring countries as interesting places to invest in for a career within academia, to become specialists. Sri Lanka or Bangladesh were seen as dull, and it was more promising to do work on Pakistan or the United States or the Soviet Union.

It took the rise of China in the neighbouring countries to attract a lot of younger people to re-engage with Nepal, Sri Lanka or Myanmar, which is a great development. There’s rising economic interest and new geo-strategic attention on what is happening across India’s borders. And that’s what we are trying to do with Sambandh: to steer the discussion for a new generation of younger people to benefit from very experienced, retired officials who know these countries well and also focus on the region more holistically as a unit of analysis and research. We must also do this across different disciplines and collaboratively with a new generation of scholars and experts in India’s neighbouring countries.

You mention how little connectivity is there in the subcontinent. We’ve seen Prime Minister Narendra Modi start off with ‘Neighbourhood First’ in 2014, and changes over the last 10-15 years to the strategy. What do you make of these?
I think we should first dismiss the idea that there really is an integrated region, because that’s what the image of neighbourhood reflects. My sense is that this term neighbourhood signifies an illusion of openness, betrayed by conditions on the ground.

I visited the India border with Nepal earlier this year. And the narrative about the border has always been that it is open. By the 1950 treaty, you have the free circulation of goods almost fully in terms of trade, you have free circulation for citizens, special rights of residence, even an extraordinary degree of parity in joining each other’s civil or military service.

So it is truly an open border – but mostly on paper...because in practice it’s mostly a closed border by modern standards of connectivity and mobility. It takes you several hours to cross a few kilometres because infrastructure is so bad. You don’t have a single railway link connecting India-Nepal, with two links yet to be inaugurated. You will have smuggling, which is paradoxical because trade is almost free, but it’s not registered because the checkposts are so over-strained that it sometimes takes a day for a truck to clear the old paperwork processes.

That’s the state of effective disconnectivity along that border. When you go to the Terai, or the Madhes, which are the lowlands of Nepal, people may be emotionally and socially linked to India, they speak Hindi, they are Hindus, etc. But in terms of a modern economy and modern connectivity – telecommunications, energy, digital links – you are really talking about a pre-modern borderland.

So given this bleak panorama, coming to your question, about whether things have changed in India’s policy. I think so, from the early 2000s, but China’s Belt and Road initiative post-2014 has really pushed India to now do more than ever in terms of regional connectivity. Delhi has finally upgraded connectivity as a foreign policy imperative, which is reflected in this “Neighbourhood First” slogan, but its impact is still far too little and too slow.

So on the one hand, I can give you the good story of India’s unprecedented political outreach and activity under Prime Minister Modi. In terms of visits, I don’t see any prior Prime Minister since Nehru to have done so many visits to all of India’s neighbours. He’s received leaders from the neighbouring countries several times in Delhi, given them an open door and opened a direct channel of communication. He’s established personal relationships with [Nepal] Prime Minister Oli, with the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka, with Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh, and further normalised relations with Myanmar.

Now, on the other hand, for the not-so-good story: you can have all the political outreach you want, but if you’re not able to upgrade your bureaucratic system and bring down the economic barriers, improve trade and investments, and implement your cross-border connectivity projects, it’s going to be very difficult to implement your ambitious regional agenda and commitments.

So, based on this tremendous political will and, for the first time, policy consensus across the Indian government, there is a strategic understanding about the urgency to connect with your neighbouring countries through more economic ties and better infrastructure.

The thinking now is quite clear that by creating greater interdependence with your small neighbours, you will achieve your strategic long-term interests of economic growth and regional security, political influence. But this is not easy to pursue in practice, it is pushing the Indian state to its limits, exposing its weaknesses, based on decades of insulation, slow and bureaucratic decision-making across different ministries, central-state tensions, etc.

The transformation is one from the old policy of denial and “right of first refusal” towards the new policy, which I like to call the capacity of first delivery. That’s a change that is bound to be stressful and will take time.

It’s common to hear people say “Neighbourhood First” has failed, pointing at how the domestic politics in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka do not seem to be in favour of India. Is this a misreading?
I get a little restless when people declare “Neighbourhood First” either a total failure or an amazing success. It’s like two refrains of the same, simplistic song. There are several reasons why I see people rushing to each of these conclusions.

First, unfortunately we still have a rather poor media coverage of India’s neighbouring countries. In fact, you had a better system of regional correspondents back in the 1960s and ’70s than you have today. You had deep reportage from Yangon, Colombo, Dhaka, up to the 1970s, including from The Times of India. Today I can only think of one solid correspondent, The Hindu’s Meera Srinivasan in Colombo. So we have the illusion of immediate information, assuming you can find out about Nepal or Sri Lanka with a couple of clicks and then dictate India’s failure or success.

The second reason is that the complex neighbourhood offers great fodder for political games. So every government wants to politicise its great success in the region. And I think whoever is in opposition tends to see the neighbourhood always as a total failure. And the trick is that whenever you look at the region, at any point in time in the past 70 years, you can always find cases to push either the narratives of success or failure, because it’s a very complex region. I mean, how can you put seven or eight different neighbouring countries in the same basket to make categorical judgments? We are talking about a complex, diverse region, where there is a continuous but impossible policy objective to get so many different ducks in line.

The third reason is this facile temptation which reflects the old thinking in the Indian neighbourhood approach, of constantly looking at either pro-India or anti-India factions in these countries. The appearance of China has modified this to the supposedly pro-India or pro-China factions. These are rather reductionist terms that fail completely to grasp the complex politics in Kathmandu, Dhaka or Colombo and Male – today, there are no more eternal pro-India factions in these countries, if there ever were.

The only similar dimension you now have in each of these neighbouring countries is leaders that are trying to maximise their country’s national interest by balancing India, China and other countries. That’s a complex, difficult game. In fact, it’s the same game India has played at the global level for many decades. India’s non-alignment was not very different from this: you are playing and balancing with the Americans and the Russians and the Europeans and others. And the idea was always trying to keep that very fine balance, diversifying your options and playing off these great powers to maximise you strategic autonomy.

And that’s exactly what Nepal, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka are doing today. India cannot afford to think of permanent friends anymore in these countries, there will no longer be any so-called pro-India leaders, parties, constituencies. India now can only afford to have permanent interests and those interests are to deliver more and connect closer with these countries. It will have to be a more transactional approach that focuses on long-term socio-economic interdependence, amidst growing competition with China and other countries offering alternatives to India.

You may have heard people say that India is somehow losing the neighbourhood. I would say that it’s the opposite, India is actually doing more than ever, but it is the neighbourhood that is losing India. It is the countries of South Asia that are moving on, escaping the traditional region called South Asia with India as its gravitational core. That is an old region that is fast disappearing.

Look, for example, at Pakistan where the concept of South Asia is completely sidelined today, compared to just 15 years ago when there was still a momentum to reconnect and normalize with India, for example through the idea of SAARC [the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation]. But that South Asian identity of the Pakistani state is almost eroded today.

You may be critical of it and say it rejects cultural, historical and other subcontinental ties, but the reality is that the Pakistani state has made a strategic decision to connect more with China. Effectively Pakistan is gravitating towards China, towards Central Asia, to Afghanistan, to the Gulf region. So when the Pakistani leadership is not excited about SAARC, or even boycotting it, I’m not surprised. What does Pakistan today really have in terms of economic benefits of trying to make SAARC work and reaching out to Nepal, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, all the way across India?

So in a similar way, other South Asian states are also changing their geo-strategic and economic alignments beyond the traditional concept of the subcontinent and India at its heart. It’s a natural development reflecting two to three decades of economic opening. For Nepal, for example, the Himalayas are shorter today than they were in the 1950s, which opens up new trade and interdependence possibilities with the Tibetan plateau and China.

Bangladesh is poised to overpass India in terms of GDP per capita when just three decades ago it was seen as a global basket case for absolute poverty, and it is now on the way to become a lower middle income economy positioning itself as a regional hub between India and Southeast Asia. Sri Lanka is also connecting to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region. Rather than a threat, as in the past, I think India should see all this as an opportunity. It is unavoidable, in any case – you can’t dictate Colombo or Kathmandu to pursue an India first policy anymore. But you can develop strategic connectivity and interdependence and use that as transactional leverage if push comes to shove.

I would happily dig into each of these countries separately with you but we’ve already been talking for a while. A lot of our readers are academics and students – many of whom appreciated your thread on aspiring public policy professions – and so one of the things I’d like to ask you is, what research would you like to see?
Historically informed knowledge about foreign policy has been very limited in India. And if you don’t know your own history, it’s very difficult to come up with constructive ideas to shape future policies. You’ll end up making the same mistakes, or you will assume everything is new, which unfortunately we hear a lot about these days.

I think we need a lot of better archivally informed and evidence based research, which is doable now because the archives have opened up. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to understand what is the past, learn from what didn’t work and expand on what worked. And I’ll give you an example: there is this ossified mantra that India doesn’t care about democracy and values in its foreign policy.

Now, I was surprised to discover the historical records showing that within its own limitations India has always had a philosophy of foreign policy that understood the benefits of democracy based on inclusive and representative institutions, on secularism, on decentralisation and federalism, or on civil-military separation.

All these principles actually affected the way India looked at crises in the neighbourhood, and how it tried to help solving them, whether it was the war and ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka, the military autocracy in Burma, or the royal absolutism and identity politics in Nepal. I think that we can learn a lot by seeing that India actually has often done a lot of this, even if different from the American style, European style, or Chinese style. History shows us that India may not have always promoted, but it certainly assisted and encouraged democratisation in its neighbourhood.

The second area that I think is very important is to connect foreign policy to specific sectors. So instead of having grand geo-strategic debates about what is strategic autonomy, what is non-alignment, how will India balance between the US and China – these are all excellent questions, but they’re largely philosophical – I think we should be doing much more research on the regional, global, bilateral or multilateral dimensions of India’s foreign policy connected to health, education, migration, technology and any other functional area.

In fact, that’s what we’re trying to do with Sambandh, trying to just assess and map the density of India’s relations with neighbouring countries, going beyond just classic foreign policy. For example, my colleagues came out with a really interesting policy brief on regional tourism, comparing India and China. They discovered that a small change in visa policies towards Bangladesh in 2014 made it easier to come for medical tourism to India, which translated into a massive surge in tourist arrivals and tremendous economic benefits for India.

This is the type of work we need to do, which has greater policy utility for leaders and bureaucrats, because often it’s the small solutions that work wonders.

What can you tell me about the book you’re working on?
The book is my revised doctoral dissertation about Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives – their history from the 1950s to the 2000s and how India reacted to their different political crises, how deeply it interfered and whether democratic values played a role.

The initial title was something like from inaction to intervention. Sometimes, during coups or violent pro-democracy movements, [India] just looked the other way and stuck to its policy of non-interference. That’s one extreme. But then you also have the Sri Lankan military intervention, when India had boots on the ground, lost over 1,000 men and for three years pretty much fought a war in the neighbouring country to pursue a political settlement.

So I look at that range of different degrees of interference, and, more importantly, how India may have tried to shape or support conflict resolution. I call India’s approach democratic realism – sometimes you have security interests, or you want to buy gas from Burma or you want to throw the Americans out of Sri Lanka, these are interests in many ways, but there are also certain values about how India would like these countries to look like.

If you look at the (2015) blockade in Nepal, certainly there were many different Indian interests, but there was also a strong vision that Nepal had to devise a constitution that was more accommodating for all the Madhesis and other minorities. The same for Sri Lanka or Myanmar.

I show that there has always been a liberal concern in Indian foreign policy. And it is not puzzling or surprising that those foreign policy values reflect India’s own democratic experience at home. So everything that has worked in India for the past 70 years, India sort of suggests to other countries and tries to push them to different degrees, to impose or facilitate or support, whether it’s by training people in parliamentary and electoral procedures, or by mediating between the Tamil separatists and the Sinhala nationalists in Sri Lanka.

This is not easy for Indian foreign policy, its democratic realism had to make constant trade-offs in relations with neighbours. This is mostly a tension between a more agnostic current focused on short-term interests under authoritarianism, and a more activist current focused on long-term stability through democracy. Let’s see how that balance changes in the current times, given India’s changing democratic identity and also the competition of the Chinese authoritarian model. Beyond my historical cases, this is the present and future context that I hope my book will help throw some light on.

What three things would you recommend to readers who want to stay on this subject?