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The BIMSTEC potential

PK Vasudeva |

On August 30, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a strong pitch for enhanced regional connectivity in his inaugural address at the fourth summit of the seven-nation grouping called Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).

India, he said, is committed to working with the group in the critical sectors and to combat the menace of terrorism and drug trafficking. BIMSTEC is a regional group comprising India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal. The summit was held in Kathmandu.

“I believe that there is a big opportunity for connectivity ~ trade connectivity, economic connectivity, transport connectivity, digital connectivity, and people-to-people connectivity,” he said. He dwelt on four critical areas of BIMSTEC that need to be achieved.

First, the region has become a meeting point for India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’ policies where it is committed to working with its member-states to enhance regional connectivity.

Second, there is no country in the region,which has not suffered from terrorism and transnational crimes, such as drug trafficking that is linked to networks of terrorism.

Third, India would set up a centre for Bay of Bengal Studies at Nalanda University and conduct research on art, culture and other subjects. Fourth, India will host the international Buddhist conclave in August 2020 and all BIMSTEC leaders will be invited to attend the event as guests of honour. Fifth, India is committed to enhance its national knowledge network in the field of digital connectivity in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal and also plans to extend it to Myanmar and Thailand.

Addressing the summit, Nepal’s Prime Minister, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, said BIMSTEC was not a substitute for the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and the two organisations could complement each other. He underlined the need for implementing the BIMSTEC poverty plan as well as the Millennium Development Goals for the benefit of member-states. He stressed the need for deeper economic integration and collaboration among the members for speedy development of the region.

Surprisingly, BIMSTEC has existed since 1997 but it was largely ignored until a push was given in recent years. The renewed push came from India in October 2016, a month after the terror attack in Uri. Alongside the BRICS summit of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa in Goa, India hosted an outreach summit with leaders of BIMSTEC countries. Weeks earlier, some of these countries had supported New Delhi’s call for a boycott of the SAARC summit scheduled in Islamabad last November. India claimed victory in isolating Pakistan when the summit was postponed on account of terrorism in that country.

India feels the potential of SAARC was being underutilised and opportunities were being missed due to lack of response and/or an obstructionist approach from Pakistan. At the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in 2014, Modi said these opportunities must be realised “through SAARC or outside it” and “among us all or some of us”.

“As former Indian ambassador to Myanmar Rajiv Bhatia once noted, BIMSTEC was at risk of being little more than a ‘rebound relationship’ whenever New Delhi fails to pursue regional integration through SAARC,” Constantino Xavier, fellow at Brookings India, wrote in a paper in 2018 for Carnegie India.

Around 22 per cent of the world’s population lives in the seven countries around the Bay of Bengal, with a combined GDP close to $2.7 trillion. All seven countries have sustained average annual rates of growth between 3.4 and 7.5 per cent from 2012 to 2016. A fourth of the world’s traded goods cross the bay every year.

Bangladesh views BIMSTEC as a platform to position itself as more than just a small state in the Bay of Bengal. Sri Lanka sees it as an opportunity to realise its ambition to connect with South-east Asia and serve as the subcontinent’s hub for the wider Indian Ocean and Pacific regions. For Nepal and Bhutan, BIMSTEC stands to further their aspirations to reconnect with the Bay of Bengal region and escape their landlocked geographic positions.

For Myanmar and Thailand, connecting more deeply with India across the Bay of Bengal would allow them to access a rising consumer market and, at the same time, balance Beijing and develop an alternative to China’s massive inroads into South-east Asia. “For India, it is a natural platform to fulfill our key foreign policy priorities of ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East”, said Mr Modi.

The Bay of Bengal is crucial for an increasingly assertive China in maintaining its access route to the Indian Ocean. As China has undertaken a massive drive to finance and build infrastructure in South and Southeast Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in almost all BIMSTEC countries, except Bhutan and India, BIMSTEC is the new battleground in the India-China battle for dominance.

It could allow India to buttress a constructive agenda to counter Chinese investments, and instead follow the best practices for connectivity projects based on recognised international norms. The Chinese projects are widely seen as violating these norms.

Again, the Bay of Bengal can be showcased as open and peaceful, contrasting it with China’s behaviour in South China Sea. It could develop codes of conduct that preserve freedom of navigation and apply the existing law of the seas regionally. In addition, BIMSTEC could stem the region’s creeping militarisation by instituting, for instance, a Bay of Bengal Zone of Peace that seeks to limit any bellicose behaviour of extra regional power.

Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, senior fellow with Observer Research Foundation (ORF), wrote in a paper this year: “The two organisations ~ SAARC and BIMSTEC ~ focus on geographically overlapping regions. However, this does not make them equal alternatives.

SAARC is a purely regional organisation, whereas BIMSTEC is inter-regional and connects both South Asia and Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Since the SAARC summit has only been postponed, not cancelled, the possibility of revival remains.”

Amid Chinese assertiveness, there have also been suggestions of BIMSTEC engagement with other groupings ~ ASEAN, Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN), Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and Cambodia- Myanmar-Laos-Vietnam (CMLV). The BIMSTEC region has considerable potential for economic development and for curbing terrorism through the cooperation of these countries.

The writer is retired Professor of International Trade. He may be reached at [email protected]