A meeting of the sub-regional body BIMSTEC has recently taken place in Kathmandu. There are seven members, a group of countries clustered around India which is the main inspirer and promoter of the initiative. Largely South Asian in composition, BIMSTEC stretches eastward from the sub-continent to include Myanmar as well as Thailand, thereby having the potential of functioning as a bridge between South and South-east Asia.
It also picks up some important themes of cooperation within the Asian region that have been drivers of Indian policy for a few decades: today it is ‘Make in India’, earlier it was ‘Look East’, both attempts to develop more intimate and productive links within the region as a whole. India had been slow to reach out to the booming Far East and to modify the westward orientation of its economic vision.
But that has now been achieved, new partners have been found to the east of us, and economic relations between India and countries to its east have flourished, initially under the leadership of Mr PV Narasimha Rao, when India began to develop a more active policy towards the Far East.
At much the same time various regional and subregional bodies were established to give further shape to this developing vision of wider cooperation in Asia. BIMSTEC takes its place within this new constellation of international organizations that have come into being in India’s neighbourhood.
BIMSTEC comprises a number of countries that are all arrayed along the Bay of Bengal littoral. In the past few years the Bay has become an increasingly significant route for Asian trade and commerce, and it has maintained its rapid economic progress. This is only one of several multilateral initiatives designed to give further momentum to the economic advancement of the region as a whole in the domain of goods and services, investments, connectivity, and other such processes that are the staple of regional economic cooperation.
The ultimate goal, as yet only distantly perceived, is to fashion a free trade area that brings together the members of this regional body. For India, connectivity towards the East is a particularly important feature of the BIMSTEC concept, as it fills a gap in India’s efforts to open out in that direction.
There have been many plans for improved transport infrastructure between India and its eastern neighbours, including inter-regional roads and bridges across the several rivers on the way, but these have so far failed to make the kind of progress that was expected.
Indeed, connectivity between India’s NorthEast and the region beyond has in some respects advanced little since World War II, when India became a supply base for the Chinese KMT armies and new roads and airstrips proliferated across the North East, opening up the land for transit and development, but when military requirements no longer pressed, much of the infrastructure went into neglect.
It was only after 1962 that sustained effort to fill the gaps were made, and even today a great deal more needs doing. Nevertheless, some of the disused access routes can be revived and some new ones have now come into being, to provide points of entry to the east and to boost security and commercial cooperation.
Among these is a long disused riverine route from the Andaman Sea to Mizoram that awaits redevelopment, and there is also a project to upgrade the commercial and passenger traffic river along the Brahmaputra, which requires cooperation with Bangladesh.
Thus there is an extensive menu for India to give substance to its long expressed desire to strengthen connectivity with its own NorthEast and also with its neighbours in South-east Asia. Efforts to improve connectivity have their own problems, the most awkward having less to do with the difficult terrain, which certainly complicates the task, more with the difficulty of agreeing on details of the scheme.
Not that there is any insuperable divergence of view: BIMSTEC as a whole wants improved communication among its members but as yet there is no fully structured programme of implementation. Moreover, there are alternative proposals that have made their own claims for priority and can affect the wider region.
Of special note in this context are ideas emanating from China, not part of BIMSTEC, which has promoted major schemes like OBOR that enjoy heavy financial backing and cover some of the same ground. Among the established regional initiatives is SAARC which has been longer in existence than other comparable bodies and has done much to serve the needs of its members.
But SAARC has been held back by differences among its members, mainly, but not exclusively, between India and Pakistan. This has limited growth of effective cooperation within the organization, even though theoretically this should be a readymade area for economic cooperation, having been part of the same economic entity until 1947. But the hard incompatibilities between India and Pakistan have held SAARC back and encouraged members to look to alternative ways of cooperation in the neighbourhood.
Though the SAARC framework provides for concrete programmes of sub-regional cooperation within the larger structure, such efforts have never quite taken off, despite occasional efforts over the years. Meanwhile, as already mentioned above, ambitious China-led concepts for strengthened cooperation in Asia and beyond have come into being and have developed considerable momentum.
China-Pakistan collaboration in developing an economic corridor from the Gulf to Central Asia has caused concern in India, not so much for its economic potential as for its strategic footprint. As a result, India has kept aloof from the scheme in its various ramifications; it has also kept away from Asia-wide projects for overland transit and maritime transportation.
Thus there are now rival alternative schemes aimed at developing regional and trans-regional processes of economic cooperation and exchange. There is to be a BIMSTEC Summit later in the year, for which the Kathmandu ministerial meeting was part of the preparations.
India’s interest in this organization is strong and is growing, and no doubt India will make every effort to ensure that the Summit goes well and strengthens the organization for the future. Yet this is a time of flux when parallel plans for expanded regional cooperation are taking shape. How these various initiatives relate to each other, and how far various national concepts of cooperation can be reconciled, is something that needs to be assessed.
Events are moving rapidly and the requirements of trans-border cooperation have become more pressing. It would be helpful even at this early stage to see how much common ground can be found between the various current proposals in the run-up to the BIMSTEC Summit later this year.
(The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary)