Indicating its desire for investing political and economic capital for the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), New Delhi invited the leaders of the grouping this time on the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony after holding office for the second consecutive term on May 30.
Many analysts understood this move as India’s attempts at diverting attention and resources away from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which turned out to be victim of Indo-Pak standoff to BIMSTEC of which Pakistan is not a member. It is fresh in memory that New Delhi invited the leaders of the SAARC countries on the Prime Minister’s oath-taking ceremony during his first term in 2014.
The failure of Kathmandu SAARC Summit in meeting New Delhi’s proposals on regional connectivity (due to Pakistan’s opposition to the proposals), a spate of cross-border terror attacks including Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama attacks during Prime Minister Modi’s first term in office further strengthening the refrain “talks and terror can’t go together” and cancellation of 19th SAARC Summit which was to be hosted by Islamabad following Uri attacks indicated a dismal record of the SAARC as a regional organization and pushed New Delhi to introspect over its regional diplomacy.
New Delhi’s shifting focus to BIMSTEC toot shape at BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Goa when Prime Minister Modi hosted an outreach summit with BIMSTEC leaders in October 2016 and it was clearly articulated in 2017 during BIMSTEC summit, when Modi announced: “It is a natural platform to fulfill our key foreign policy priorities of Neighborhood First and Act East.”
India’s shifting thrust in regional diplomacy must not be seen from the perspective of failure of SAARC as well as bypassing Pakistan in the regional permutations and combinations rather it is commitment to “Act East” policy articulated during Modi’s first term in office which necessitated close India-BIMSTEC ties.
BIMSTEC is a South Asia-Southeast Asia sub-regional grouping which comprises five countries from South Asia – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and two from Southeast Asia – Thailand, Myanmar, and constitutes one of the significant yet underexplored regions comprising 22% of the world population (1.5 billion people) and a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of almost $2.8 trillion.
The grouping is a mix of five rim countries of the Bay of Bengal as well as two landlocked countries – Bhutan and Nepal which are strategically placed between India and China in the Himalayas and depend on the Ocean for access to maritime trade.
India has been cautious as to the intensity of the rise of Chinese influence among the neighboring countries close to the Indian Ocean once they become stakeholders of BRI initiatives. Almost all the members of BIMSTEC except India and Bhutan are also stakeholders of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The Bay of Bengal of the Indian Ocean is not only significant on account of presence of huge untapped resources primarily in the shape of massive reserve of natural gas, it provides route for about 25 per cent of global trade.
India’s shifting focus could address the concerns emanating from the rising Chinese influence among the neighbors through a web of greater connectivity and coordination among the BIMSTEC members. The persisting concerns in India’s perception that many experts believe would be the Chinese sponsored BRI which has spawned debt traps that might force the neighbors in the Indian Ocean littorals to hand over their port infrastructure for China’s military use. For instance, leaders of Myanmar may like to gratify their Chinese sponsors by allowing naval vessels to dock the Kyaukpyu port.
The trade potential of the region is enormous. According to a knowledge paper “Reinvigorating BIMSTEC” published by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in 2018, the trade potential of the region is projected to be as high as $250 billion, as compared to the current volume of intra-regional trade of $40.05 billion which is just about 6 per cent of the entire trade conducted.
However, considering the size of population and volume of GDP (about $2.8 trillion), it is understandable that the region carries high potential in terms of regional trade and investment. India has been emphasizing on connectivity projects which could boost the volume of trade under its Act East policy.
For instance, India-Myanmar-Thailand highway is one of the key projects to enmesh Myanmar into intricate physical ties considering it is the only Southeast Asian country with which India shares a land boundary. Similarly, through Kaladan Multimodal project, India seeks to tighten inter-connectivity with Myanmar further. The project envisages connecting Kolkata to Sittwe port in Myanmar, and then Mizoram by river and road. Although India and Myanmar had signed a framework agreement in 2008 for the implementation of this project, it is far from being accomplished as yet.
The BIMSTEC is not only a bridge between South and Southeast Asia, the littoral countries are crucial to strengthening presence in the Malacca Strait- a major global trade route. The members of BIMSTEC have identified many priority areas of cooperation including trade and investment, technology, energy, transport and communication, tourism, fisheries and agriculture whereas Blue Economy and the Mountain Economy made their way into the list in 2016.
India has the experience of leading others in two areas such as counter-terrorism and transnational crime and telecommunication and transport. Considering the Chinese sway in the region primarily in the area of connectivity, India also considers connectivity (physical connectivity, grid connectivity, and increasing the people to people contacts) a significant area of the cooperation among the members of the grouping. Providing sea access to two landlocked South Asian neighbors -Nepal and Bhutan, forging coastal shipping agreements and security cooperation to deal with traditional and non-traditional threats would remain as some of the key objectives of India’s policy thrust.
New Delhi must realize that efforts at activating sub-regional initiatives such as BIMSTEC have been sluggish; for instance, the grouping launched in 1997 took 17 years to have a permanent secretariat in Dhaka in 2014. The intra-regional trade is as low as 6 per cent of total trade conducted by the member-states. While the grouping has not taken off in the primary and essential areas of cooperation (crucial to formation and sustenance of a regional grouping) such as economic cooperation and physical connectivity, it has been witnessing lack of commitment and dearth of resources as well ever since it was launched.
Second, India’s focus on BIMSTEC should not mean that it can look over ties among the littoral countries of the South Asian region such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives where China has enhanced its footprint to the exclusion of New Delhi’s influence. The countries are not only engaged in ports and interconnectivity projects with China under BRI, some of them have become recipient to massive arms and military assistance from China. Therefore, the members of the South Asian region which are not yet part of the BIMSTEC cannot be less significant to India’s foreign policy imperatives.