Re-elected Prime Minister Modi invited BIMSTEC leaders for the swearing-in ceremony taking place today. Many foreign policy experts pointed out that Pakistan’s Prime Minister is not being invited for this important occasion. Even though Pakistan is not a part of this 7-nation grouping. Neither it is a strategic partner of India.
India’s foreign policy for long been obsessed with improving the relationship with Pakistan. While other mutually rewarding regional relationships got little or lesser importance in the past. Myanmar was one such point in case.
The baggage of improving the relationship with Pakistan was so heavy that even PM Modi had to make futile efforts to improve relations with Pakistan in the initial days of his government. These positive efforts, including Lahore visit, were reciprocated with terror attacks in India by the establishment that drives policy in Pakistan. The olive branch extended by PM Modi did not change Pakistan’s terror and deception policy nor it will change in the near future.
The obsession to improve the relationship with an irritant is not limited to India’s foreign policy affairs. It is equally true for US foreign policy as well. In foreign policy, actors with nuisance values get more attention. However, this exaction policy cannot go in perpetuity.
Better, if India focuses on mutually beneficial relationships rather than wasting time and resources on affairs that bear no fruit.
In 2014 at SAARC Summit PM Modi said ‘the future I dream for India is the future I wish for our entire region’. Implementing this dream for the entire region may not be a reality on the ground. Perhaps, BIMSTEC can achieve that in a short span of time.
Shared boundaries and shared history among BIMSTEC members did not translate into shared economic growth for its members as of today. The region at large remains mired in poverty and a lower rate of human development.
As stated in its charter, this grouping should contribute towards regional prosperity with higher trade volume, faster connectivity and strong people to people connect as its backbone. Regional cooperation should also lead to national security maximisation for every member state under integrated regional security architecture.
Prime Minster’s invitation to BIMSTEC leaders is a continuation of his policy of ‘neighbourhood first’ and ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’.
BIMSTEC – People, economy and environment in numbers
BIMSTEC represents 1.67billion people, economic opportunities and elbow room for regional integration that can become a benchmark like ASEAN. Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar share a direct land boundary with India and maritime boundary with Sri Lanka. Thailand is another maritime neighbour near Andaman and a member of ASEAN along with Myanmar.
The BIMSTEC region with a total GDP of $3.535 trillion with an average GDP growth of around 6%. Intra-regional trade volume stands at $83 Billion. Economically Nepal falls within the lower income category. While India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka stand in the lower middle-income group. Only Thailand is placed in the higher middle-income category.
BIMSTEC has identified 14 areas of cooperation.
Transport, trade and investment, climate change, counter-terrorism and transnational crime and disaster management should be priority concerns for BIMSTEC
Trade & Transport
Lower or zero volume of direct flights to major regional cities points out the state of connectivity, trade, investment and people to people connect. 6 out of 7 members share a land boundary with each other, however, intra-regional connectivity on the ground remains dismal. Multi-modal transport is key to achieve tangible results in a short period. Efficient and cost-effective means of transport and communication can invigorate trade, investment and people to people connect. Furthermore, efficient logistics will help in reducing trade cost, improve export competitiveness for all partners. Streamlining regulations and processes for intra-regional trade will be another step to improve logistics performance along with better infrastructure. Trade, people to people connectivity can take a leap with facilitation of work permit and friendlier visa regime.
Two decades after its formation, member states are reaching towards BIMSTEC Free Trade Agreement. Implementation of FTA will characterise the seriousness of the group for regional integration.
Tourism is another area needs to be explored. Developing intra-regional historical, spiritual tourism corridor can contribute further to the economy.
Four BIMSTEC countries – Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Thailand are among the top ten countries that are most affected by the impact of climate change. Flash floods, sea level rise, heavy rainfall, drought, cyclones are present dangers that affect the entire region. The group must initiate policy dialogue on the impact of sea level rise, its effect on coastal population and other climate catastrophes. Climate change is a common challenge and a collective responsibility for the entire region.
Sluggish development and higher poverty rate in Nepal, Eastern parts of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar provide opportune ground for instability, transnational crime, drugs, human trafficking and terrorism. Terrorism is a serious concern for all members. India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh have suffered multiple terrorist attacks in the past. In 2009 BIMSTEC members, except Nepal, signed a convention on Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organized Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking. Nepal signed this convention in 2018.
BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters also needs the approval of its member states. The convention will enable member states to strangulate criminal financing in the region. The convention will greatly benefit connected landmass of Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand in the fight against organised criminal syndicates in the region. BIMSTEC members, especially Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand along with India can play a crucial role in countering terrorism, transnational crime, drug trafficking and fake currency operations in the region. 2019 Meet of National Security Advisor/Chief expressed their readiness to sign this convention. Hopefully, it will be done at the earliest.
Started in 2017, the annual meeting of National Security Chief/Advisors will improve the regional national security situation awareness in fighting terrorism, terror financing and other common threats.
BIMSTEC summit, with the participation of the political head of the states, is the highest policy-making body. The Summit is not a regular affair yet in the multilateral engagement calendar. BIMSTEC leaders met for the Summit first in Thailand in 2004. Afterwards, Summits took place in 2008, 2014 and 2018 in India, Myanmar and Nepal respectively. Making BIMSTEC summit an annual affair will be advantageous for faster decision-making process at the highest level.
Formed in 1997, BIMSTEC has not yet reached its potential to harness the energy of this youthful region. Capitals of BIMSTEC members are not too far to reach out. However, political will, speedy consultations and faster decision-making process will decide how far this group can go. Hopefully, BIMSTEC as an institution will reinvent itself as an efficient group to achieve what needs to be achieved.