India’s BIMSTEC Gambit

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India’s BIMSTEC Gambit

With SAARC stalled, India is turning to BIMSTEC to center its foreign policy.

India’s BIMSTEC Gambit

From left, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, Kyrgyzstan President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, Bangladeshi President Abdul Hamid, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Myanmar President U Win Myint, Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth, Nepali Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, Thailand’s special envoy Grisada Boonrach pose for photographs after swearing in ceremony of Modi and other ministers at the presidential palace in New Delhi, India, May 30, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup

By inviting leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) member states for Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi on May 30, India has signaled the priority it plans to accord to this regional grouping in its foreign policy in the coming years.

BIMSTEC comprises seven states; five from South Asia — Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka — and two, Myanmar and Thailand, from Southeast Asia. Five of its member-states are rim countries of the Bay of Bengal and two (Bhutan and Nepal) are landlocked countries, which nevertheless depend on the Bay of Bengal for access to maritime trade. Importantly, with the exception of India and Bhutan, the other BIMSTEC members are participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

By inviting BIMSTEC leaders to the swearing-in, India has signaled that Modi’s second term as prime minister will see India pivoting from its focus on the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to BIMSTEC. Set up in 1997, BIMSTEC has made little progress. It has suffered from neglect and lack of commitment from its members. So why is India eyeing BIMSTEC now?

Five years ago, when Modi first took his oath as prime minister, India invited the leaders of SAARC’s member states. The leaders of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka attended the event. Their presence signaled the priority the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government intended on giving its neighbors and SAARC.

Modi’s engagement of India’s neighbors began early; the day after his swearing-in he held talks individually with each of the visiting leaders. He visited Bhutan in June 2014, making it the destination of his first state visit and followed that up with a visit to Nepal in August. In November, he participated in the 18th SAARC summit at Kathmandu.

The first 18 months of Modi’s first term witnessed an upturn in India-Pakistan relations. Although Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif were only seen to have shaken hands at the SAARC summit at Kathmandu, it emerged subsequently that they had met “secretly” for at least an hour on the sidelines of the summit. The two prime ministers met again on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit at Ufa in Russia in July 2015 and in December 2015, the Indian and Pakistani national security advisers met at Bangkok and discussed a range of issues including terror and Kashmir. A few days later, the two foreign ministers met at Islamabad and announced the start of comprehensive bilateral dialogue on all issues of disagreement. Bilateral bonhomie touched a high on December 25, 2015 when Modi dropped in to greet Sharif at his home in Lahore on the occasion of his birthday.

Throughout this period of overt cordiality, tensions were simmering, however. As early as August 2014, for instance, India called off foreign secretary talks as the Pakistani High Commission in Delhi was meeting Kashmiri separatist leaders. Pakistan’s continuing support to anti-India terror groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) drew Delhi’s ire, especially as the Pakistan-based group carried out several attacks on Indian soil, including the attacks on an Indian Air Force (IAF) Station at Pathankot in January 2016, an Indian Army camp at Uri in September 2016, and an Indian paramilitary convoy at Pulwama in Kashmir in February this year.

This refusal on the part of Pakistan to “abandon the use of cross-border terrorism” against several SAARC members — including India, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh — as well as its obstruction of meaningful cooperation among SAARC members deepened India’s frustration with the regional grouping, S.D. Muni and Rahul Mishra point out in their recent book India’s Eastward Engagement: From Antiquity to Act East Policy.

The last straw on the proverbial camel’s back was Pakistan’s obstructive attitude at the SAARC summit at Kathmandu. It vetoed agreements on regional connectivity projects, which all the other SAARC countries were willing to sign. Pakistan’s intransigence stems from its insecurities over Indian goods flooding its markets and apprehensions over allowing India-Afghanistan overland trade and connectivity via its territory.

Such obstructionist conduct is not new in SAARC. Consider this: SAARC members signed the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreement in 2004. And although India extended Most-Favored Nation status to Pakistan as early as 1996 (Delhi withdrew this after the Pulwama attack), Islamabad never reciprocated. Consequently, although SAFTA came into effect in 2006, intraregional trade continues to stand at a meager 5 percent.

In 2016, SAARC suffered another setback. In the wake of the JeM attack at Uri, India and other SAARC members pulled out of the 19th Summit that Islamabad was to host. The grouping has remained in limbo ever since. Given the deep conflicts within SAARC, mutual suspicion, and the need for consensus for decision making within the organization, SAARC has few concrete achievements to speak of in the 30 years of its existence.

With SAARC proving to be a “dysfunctional” grouping, India began to look for other “multilateral regional/subregional organizations that are devoid of Pakistan,” write Muni and Mishra. BIMSTEC fit the bill and India started “trying to energize and develop” BIMSTEC “as almost a parallel to SAARC.”

At the BRICS summit at Goa in 2016, India provided BIMSTEC with a shot in the arm by inviting its leaders to BRICS’ regional outreach meeting. In doing so it sent out the message that if SAARC wasn’t ready to deliver, India had BIMSTEC to turn to. With his invitation to BIMSTEC leaders to participate in his government’s recent inaugural, Modi has reiterated that message. The Indian prime minister has also engaged BIMSTEC leaders in bilateral meetings.

While some analysts have interpreted India’s intensified engagement of BIMSTEC as aimed at isolating Pakistan, this would be a flawed reading of India’s foreign policy. BIMSTEC is not just about isolating Pakistan. It is much more. It should be seen in the context of India’s heightened interest and commitment to its “Act East” policy. Without a strong outreach to BIMSTEC member states, India’s attempts at achieving its Act East policy goals will lack momentum. Likewise, BIMSTEC will boost Thailand’s Look West policy. Smaller members too stand to benefit from the opening up of markets in India and Thailand.

There are strategic motivations as well behind India’s growing interest in BIMSTEC. China’s influence and presence in India’s neighborhood has grown enormously on account of BRI initiatives. Debt burdens have forced India’s neighbors to hand over assets to China.

Unable to pay back its huge debt owed to China, Sri Lanka handed over the strategic Hambantota deep-sea port to the Chinese. Understandably this has worried India. Will such debt traps culminate in Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean littorals handing over their port infrastructure for China’s military use? Would China’s likely development of Kyaukpyu port in Myanmar result in Chinese naval vessels docking here? This would mean a larger Chinese military presence in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. It would have serious implications for India’s security. India will be hoping that its economic engagement with Bay of Bengal littoral states will restrict Chinese influence in these countries.

India is likely to find that focusing its diplomatic energies on BIMSTEC member states could be rewarding. For one, relationships among BIMSTEC members are generally cordial, unlike the strained India-Pakistan relationship, which repeatedly tripped up SAARC.

However, BIMSTEC is not without its share of problems. India will need to convince other BIMSTEC members that its new outreach to them is not a “rebound relationship,” a short-term one to thumb its nose at Pakistan. Plus, BIMSTEC suffers from a lack of human and financial resources. India needs to allocate more resources to its BIMSTEC budget and should take an informal leadership role to provide BIMSTEC with momentum.

Importantly, India needs to do some soul searching. It cannot blame Pakistan alone for SAARC’s underperformance. New Delhi’s own intransigence on issues, deep suspicion that its neighbors were “ganging up” against it, and its tendency to be a bit of a bullying brother to them eroded South Asian countries’ confidence in India. India should not repeat these mistakes in engaging BIMSTEC.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues.