Is BIMSTEC the new SAARC?

In the context of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi’s swearing in ceremony after a landslide victory in the 2019 General Elections, PM Modi identified and invited BIMSTEC leaders to this historic occasion. The Policy Times attempted an analysis on how BIMSTEC is the key to the success of the neighbourhood first policy given the huge scope of cooperation but India has to up its game

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Is BIMSTEC the new SAARC?
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Modi’s invite to the BIMSTEC leaders for his oath taking ceremony on May 30 brings back memories of 2014 when all SAARC leaders were invited and also the 2018 Republic Day parade when all 10 ASEAN heads of state were invited. That time it was said that the SAARC leaders were being invited keeping in mind the India’s neighbourhood first policy.

But what has happened since then that SAARC leaders have not been invited this time and instead it is BIMSTEC that’s being invited? For that it is important to know what BIMSTEC is. BIMSTEC is the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multilateral Technical and Economic Cooperation having Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, and Bhutan as its members.

BIMSTEC is today being touted as the new SAARC as things look bright here compared to the negativity surrounding SAARC due to the government’s oft stated policy that “terror and talks cannot go together”, i.e. a tough stance on Pakistani sponsored terror. And post-Balakot, riding on a wave of nationalism to victory it is all but impossible for the Modi government to change stance and give concessions to Pakistan right in the beginning of its tenure.

BIMSTEC is at the centre of South and South-East Asia. BIMSTEC countries in a way form a bridge between India and ASEAN. They have a lot in common like the vulnerability to ecological disaster from storms, cyclones, tsunamis, coastal submergence etc. while sharing the Bay of Bengal s maritime resources. BIMSTEC official documents say that there are 15 areas of cooperation like Trade & Investment, Transport & Communication, Energy, Tourism, Technology, Fisheries, Agriculture, Public Health, Poverty Alleviation, Counter-Terrorism & Transnational Crime, Environment & Disaster Management, People-to-People Contact, Cultural Cooperation, Climate Change and Blue Economy.

BIMSTEC may not have the same level of shared history as SAARC as stated by Modi in his 2014 Independence Day speech, “Our common forefathers fought for freedom together. If without weapons or resources we could defeat a powerful sultanate (British rule), can’t we win against poverty together? ” But given the fact that SAARC is all fine only when you subtract Pakistan, BIMSTEC as it involves every other South Asian country except Pakistan and Afghanistan is close enough to SAARC. For Afghanistan, India can prefer to do bilateral or multilateral engagement like the Heart of Asia summit.

Everyone agrees that BIMSTEC has a lot of potential but sadly due to the focus on SAARC there have been only 4 summits in the last 20 years since BIMSTEC was founded in 1997 at Bangkok and it was only in the Kathmandu summit of last year that BIMSTEC was given the fillip that it so desperately needed.

Lot of blame is put on the lack of political will of the region’s leaders but then there is only so much that governments can do. It is the private sector that has to drive engagement and for that it is important that the BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and Coastal Shipping Agreement are signed at the earliest.

The present Bangladesh High Commissioner to India Syed Muazzem Ali has very well outlined many possible areas of cooperation between the BIMSTEC countries like The BIMSTEC Network of Policy Think Tanks (BNPTT) to connect research scholars, BIMSTEC Parliamentarians forum, easier travel of businessmen and tourists, introduction of BIMSTEC scholarships, discounted airfare within the region, holding of cultural festivals which could a go a long way in making BIMSTEC visible and tangible to the common masses like the recent measure to reduce fees for BIMSTEC tourists in Indian monuments.

As said earlier, the BIMSTEC picture has not been all rosy. There have been roadblocks in spite of having good intentions like Bhutan’s refusal to ratify the Motor Vehicles Agreement for the BBIN (Bhutan- Bangladesh- India- Nepal) corridor due to environmental concerns. Also important to consider is that BIMSTEC as a forum has India as the biggest player owing to its size in terms of geography, population and economy. But the area covered by BIMSTEC also has the other big power of the region, i.e. China contending for influence. What’s worrisome for India is that China has deep pockets and can invest money in projects with long gestation periods at a much faster pace than India, thus drawing these countries away from Indian influence. The scale of Chinese investment can be understood from the amount that’s been invested in Sri Lanka ($1 billion Hambantota Development Zone, the $1.4 billion Colombo Port City project, $1.35 billion Norochcholai Coal Power Plant project and many more); the $7.3 billion deep-water port and $2.7 billion industrial area in a special economic zone at Kyaukpyu port in Myanmar and multiple projects in Nepal, Thailand etc which India may not be able to match given the concerns regarding the shape of the economy back home.

The only positive for India here is that China has earned somewhat of a bad name due to its ‘debt-trap’ investment strategy in the One Belt One Road (OBOR) projects like the 99 year lease of the Hambantota port due to the inability of the government to pay back the loans. Cases like these have made countries grow wary of Chinese investments thus opening the door to India.

More synergies have to be found through association with other regional and global groupings like BRICS (where actually a good beginning was made through the joint BRICS- BIMSTEC summit), ASEAN, RCEP, SCO etc. It is only then that BIMSTEC would become a group with global standing.

All eyes would be on India on May 30 because being the biggest player; it is best placed to drive BIMSTEC growth. It would also fulfill India’s dream of a prosperous neighbourhood which borrowing from the BJP’s campaign slogan can be termed “Neighbourhood Ke Saath, Neighbourhood Ka Vikas”.

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Author Bio

Rajesh Saravanan is a student at Hindu College, University of Delhi. He has a keen interest in foreign policy and aims to be a diplomat.

Rajesh is doing his internship with The Policy Times

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Is BIMSTEC the new SAARC?
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In the context of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi’s swearing in ceremony after a landslide victory in the 2019 General Elections, PM Modi identified and invited BIMSTEC leaders to this historic occasion. The Policy Times attempted an analysis on how BIMSTEC is the key to the success of the neighbourhood first policy given the huge scope of cooperation but India has to up its game
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The Policy Times