By Jaishree Balasubramanian
India, Bangladesh and three other Asian countries in the BIMSTEC regional group on Monday kicked off its first-ever joint military drills focusing on counter-terrorist operations in semi-urban areas, Indian defense officials said.
Troops from Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are also participating in the exercises hosted by India and that run through Sunday under the banner of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), officials said. But member-state Thailand is taking part only as an observer and Nepal, another member, withdrew from the drills last week, a day after China allowed the landlocked Himalayan country to use four of its ports.
The aim of the field training exercises, codenamed MILEX-18, is for BIMSTEC nations to practice the “planning and conduct of counter terrorist operations,” the Indian Ministry of Defense said in a statement issued Monday.
The drills are taking place at the Aundh Military Station near Pune in Maharashtra state.
“The exercise schedule is focused upon learning of best practices, team building [and] special tactical level operations in a counter-terrorist environment in [a] semi-urban setting,” the ministry added.
Troops from the participating countries are undertaking drills in search-and-cordon operations along with handling and neutralizing improvised explosive devices, officials said.
“It is the most significant military exercise in the region in recent years,” said Col. Aman Anand, the Indian Army spokesman.
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Kathmandu pulls out
Nepal withdrew on Friday, after China allowed Kathmandu the use of four of its ports in Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang along with land facilities in Lanzhou, Lhasa and Xigatse.
A former Indian ambassador to China said he did not believe the Nepalese withdrawal from the BIMSTEC drills was tied to the agreement with Beijing.
“We can’t link the two issues. The Chinese port deal had been in the pipeline, but it has no practical significance, given the distance, terrain and road connection,” Ashok Kantha told BenarNews.
Kantha, director of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi, said Nepal’s efforts to establish more options to transport goods were positive for the Himalayan country. At the same time, it can be seen as a political signal that Kathmandu wishes to manage its relations with both China and India without those countries interfering.
“Essentially speaking these are symptoms of a larger development,” he said.
India and Nepal have had strong ties for years as both countries honor each other’s military while China, on the other hand, recently became involved with Nepal, he said. The deal with China could end India’s monopoly over Nepal’s trading routes as Kathmandu has relied on India for the supply of essential goods including fuel and the use of its ports for trade with other countries.
Nepal Commerce Ministry official Rabi Shankar Sainju said the additional access to Chinese ports was likely to cut shipping time and costs on cargo from Japan, South Korea and other north Asian countries, Reuters reported. Most goods have been routed through the Indian port of Kolkata and can take up to three months to reach their destination.
Analysts have pointed out that China’s investment in Nepal occurred after India did not support Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
BRI, proposed by President Xi Jinping five years ago, is China’s largest initiative to date aimed at building a modern-day Silk Road linking the world’s most populous nation to international markets, by constructing massive infrastructure projects revolving around transportation and energy.