Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation is a mouthful which conveys little to ordinary citizens. This regional grouping of seven Asian nations is better known by its acronym, BIMSTEC. The India-led grouping has celebrated over 20-years of its existence with little to show for it.
Kathmandu is hosting the fourth BIMSTEC summit on 30th and 31st of this month. The senior officials meet a day ahead of the summit to prepare the draft of the final communiqué and do a full review of the progress since the last meeting. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in Kathmandu while junior foreign minister V K Singh will take on Sushma Swaraj’s duties, as she is away on a visit to Vietnam and Cambodia. BIMSTEC has made little impact so far, and it is time to put some fresh energy to this regional outfit if it is to remain relevant.
BIMSTEC got a boost during the BRICS summit held in Goa in 2016. The BIMSTEC member states were invited to the outreach summit for BRICS. But that was more in the nature of a diplomatic effort to get as many countries as possible to Goa, where the agenda, too, was to isolate Pakistan for sponsoring terror attacks on India. Delhi, despite all its talk about BIMSTEC, has not given much time or thought to developing and expanding the idea. This year’s theme in Kathmandu is a combination of the Blue economy of countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, India and Sri Lanka with the mountain economy of Nepal and Bhutan. Blue Economy and Mountain Economy,
While India is a member of several groups and sub groups, most are not in the immediate neighbourhood. SAARC was the only South Asian organisation which could have transformed the region, however rivalry between two of its largest member States, India and Pakistan, has ensured that SAARC never fulfilled its potential. Since the terror attack on the Pathankot airfoce station in January 2016, India-Pakistan ties have been in deep freeze. India geared up its diplomacy to ensure that Islamabad was isolated. The SAARC summit was the first casualty of the India-Pakistan impasse. Delhi used its clout to ensure that member States like Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal pull out. Till date SAARC has not been held. Perhaps there is an opening, now, with the change in government in Islamabad and cordial messages being exchanged between Prime Minister Modi and Imran Khan. Though SAARC has been more or less a moribund organisation, yet the summit gave an opportunity for South Asian leaders to meet regularly.
Frustrated at Pakistan’s constant opposition to all India suggestions at SAARC (India does the same to Islamabad sponsored ideas), BIMSTEC was formed in June 1997, as an alternative sub regional group for more meaningful cooperation among seven countries in the region, five from South Asia and two from South East Asia. Members are Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand and Sri Lanka.
BIMSTEC has a combined population of 1.6 billion, representing 22 per cent of the world and combined GDP of $2.8 trillion. Indian officials keep mouthing these figures but unless cooperation and trade pick up, it is of little relevance. Nepal, which is hosting the summit, is keen on regional connectivity and infrastructure development. Ironically, Nepal’s emphasis on connectivity was mainly because of Delhi’s unofficial blockade of the landlocked nation, during the Madhesi agitation following the unveiling of the new Republican Constitution in 2015. K P Sharma Oli, who was also the prime minister at that point, turned to China, its other Asian neighbour for help. China happily grabbed the opportunity and is spreading its footprints in the neighbourhing country. Prime Minister Modi’s visit this week will help in repairing ties.
Since Chinese president Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, connectivity has become the new buzz word, the BRI as well as the maritime Silk Route promoted by Xi is an idea which has the potential of transforming the Central Asian Republics, in desperate need of roads, railways, and other major infrastructure. With China ready to fund these projects, all countries are welcoming BRI with open arms. India has refused to be part of it because the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the centre piece of the BRI, runs through POK, which Delhi claims is Indian territory. So, India opted out on the issue of sovereignty. But other countries in the neighbourhood, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar have all embraced the BRI.
India needs some big ticket items to prove itself capable of delivering world class infrastructure projects like China. Delhi has been struggling with the Kaladan multi purpose project and the Asian Highway for years. Both were initiated as part of Delhi’s connect to ASEAN through Its north eastern region to Myanmar and on to Thailand, and the larger ASEAN market. Though there is much publicity around Modi’s Act East policy, on the ground the things remain no different than during the UPA period.
It is time for the Modi government to walk the talk. Shaking up BIMSTEC and injecting life into it would be a good way to signal that India means business.
Seema Guha is a senior journalist with expertise in foreign policy and international affairs.