Posts Tagged ‘Bangladesh’

This article was originally published by the Centre for Landwarfare Studies (CLAWS), a Defense think-tank, on March 16, 2017 here. Republished in the Indian Defense Review on March 20, 2017 here.  

When Narendra Modi took oath as the 14th Indian Prime Minister in May 2014, he made an unprecedented diplomatic outreach to India’s neighbours by inviting their heads of government. The audacious move generated great euphoria and excitement, especially among the observers of South Asian politics and relations. It was the very first initiative of what later came to be known as the ‘neighbourhood first’ policy of the Modi government.

The day after his inauguration, Modi held bilateral meetings with the South Asian leaders and vowed to work towards making SAARC a strong regional block. He soon made his first foreign visit as Prime Minister to Bhutan, the Himalayan neighbour that has been India’s closest and time-tested ally. India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj too, made her first official foreign visit in the neighbourhood, to Bangladesh, where she laid the foundation for Modi’s visit that followed later on.

The diplomatic priority that Modi attached to the neighbourhood is evident from the fact he made a visit to all of India’s neighbours, except Maldives, and the numerous leaders hosted in New Delhi and meetings at other multilateral fora. With Bangladesh, the completion of the historic land boundary agreement, besides fresh initiatives in energy, connectivity and counter-terrorism, have catapulted the relationship to new heights. With Sri Lanka, the relationship has come back to normalcy after increased strain in ties during the Rajapaksa regime. Modi also made visits to the island nations of Mauritius and Seychelles, giving an impetus to India’s role as ‘net security provider’ in the Indian Ocean region.

According to foreign affairs analyst Dhruva Jaishankar, India’s neighbourhood first policy has four aspects. The willingness to give political and diplomatic priority to its immediate neighbours and Indian Ocean island states, providing them with support as needed, greater connectivity and integration, and to promote a model of India-led regionalism with which its neighbours are comfortable. Modi realises that his domestic agenda of development and rapid economic growth cannot be fulfilled without a stable and conducive neighbourhood. He has often emphasised that India cannot grow in isolation and that there is a lot to gain by mutual cooperation and shared prosperity in the region.

Besides the compelling economic logic, Modi is also watchful about growing Chinese penetration into South Asia. While Chinese presence in the region is not entirely avoidable or undesirable by India, there are some pressing strategic concerns that New Delhi has. China has been steadily building infrastructure, especially ports, at strategic locations around India which is often called as the strategy of encirclement or ‘string of pearls’. It has made deep inroads into most of India’s neighbours, besides emerging as an all-weather friend of Pakistan.

The proposed China Pakistan Economic Corridor, where Beijing plans to invest $46 billion in rail, road and gas pipeline projects, has raised concerns in India as it passes through Gilgit-Baltistan, which is part of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, a territory that India considers as its own. This issue also came up in the most recent round of strategic dialogue held in Beijing, where Indian foreign secretary S Jaishankar conveyed that China should respect India’s territorial sovereignty.

Further, the region as a whole ought to be wary of increased Chinese involvement as it could undermine the process of democratization in the delicate and mostly fledgling democracies of South Asia. India has always been at the receiving end of parochial nationalistic politics of some of its neighbours which derive strength from anti-India rhetoric. All countries, including India, would benefit if this is replaced by an atmosphere of mutual trust and cooperation where developmental politics takes the centre-stage. But China has no sympathy either for democracy or developmental politics. As S.D. Muni, an expert of South Asian affairs, opines, China prefers strong, assertive and centralised regimes at its periphery. This is evident from the fact that China never supported or encouraged democratization in any of its neighbours.

While the last two and half years and more have seen a number of ground breaking developments in India’s relations with its neighbouring countries, there have been huge challenges at the same time. Modi’s visit to Nepal, first bilateral visit by an Indian Prime Minister in over two decades, was received with huge fanfare and optimism. India was also the first responder after the Nepal earthquake, providing considerable assistance. Yet, Nepal’s constitutional crisis caused a serious setback in relations with India. Although New Delhi’s stance, that the interests of the Madhesis should be respected in the new Constitution, was in the best interest of both Nepal and India, there was a serious perception problem. India was criticised and accused of causing an economic blockade even though the blockade was actually on the Nepalese side of the border, enforced by the angry Madhesi population. Relations between India and Nepal, however, seem to have gotten back on track with the new government, led by Prime Minister Pushpa KamalDahal or ‘Prachanda’, in Kathmandu.

The biggest roadblock for India’s neighbourhood policy, however, has been Pakistan, a country which is not only serving as an epicentre of terrorism in the region but has also been quite unabashed in holding up regional integration and connectivity. Repeated cross-border terrorist attacks from Pakistan led to the cancellation of the SAARC summit scheduled in Islamabad last year, besides causing a meltdown of Indo-Pakistan relations.

These challenges, however, should not distract New Delhi from pursuing its agenda of greater regional integration and cooperation. The idea of ‘neighbourhood first’ need not include an errant neighbour like Pakistan, which can be dealt with separately. Even though SAARC has hit a roadblock, there are other institutional mechanisms such as the BIMSTEC, Mekong-Ganga cooperation mechanism, etc. where India can engage multilaterally. Even within the SAARC framework, India has been working on a ‘SAARC minus one’ approach. The Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) grouping has been one such example under which connectivity, energy and water management initiatives have been pursued. The common SAARC Satellite, which India has decided to go ahead with despite Pakistan’s objections, is another case in point.

The neighbourhood first policy has been one of India’s key foreign policy goals under the Modi government. It needs to march on, with or without Pakistan. Political engagement with the neighbours must continue to be prioritised in order to accelerate regional cooperation and integration which is the best interest of the region.

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This article was originally published in The Diplomat magazine on Nov 2, 2016 here.

The recently concluded eighth BRICS summit in Goa, India on October 15-16 saw a range of unprecedented outcomes and engagements. One of the biggest highlights among them was the BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit, where the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) leaders met the heads of government of the BIMSTEC countries. In the last two years, BRICS summits have seen engagements with regional players from the host country’s neighborhood. That India chose BIMSTEC over any other regional grouping is indicative of the importance New Delhi attaches to the Bay of Bengal region. BIMSTEC indeed has huge potential to emerge as a grouping that can accelerate the process of regional integration, security cooperation, and inclusive growth in this region. For India in particular, BIMSTEC can be a pivot to the Act East Policy. Through enhanced cross-border connectivity and interlinkages, India’s northeast region can take center stage as the gateway to South East Asia.

BIMSTEC, which stands for Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, is a multilateral grouping of seven countries: India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. In June 1997, the four Bay of Bengal littoral countries of Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand came together to form BIST-EC (Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation). In December the same year, Myanmar joined in to make it “BIMST-EC”, while Nepal received observer status in the organization the following year.

The inauguration of BIMST-EC and the years following it did not see very high profile engagements, as seen in the case of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Instead, the grouping was off to rather a more modest start, which saw only ministerial-level meetings for a long time. The group started off by laying down the principles, scope, and institutional mechanisms of the organization. In the second ministerial meeting, six sectors were identified for cooperation – trade and investment, technology, transport and communication, energy, tourism, and fisheries.

It was in 2004 that organization as we know it today took shape, with Nepal and Bhutan joining in as full members. It was renamed BIMSTEC, standing for the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, rather than initials of the names of member countries. In July 2004, the first BIMSTEC summit took place in Bangkok, attended by then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who had just taken office after the general elections. The subsequent eighth ministerial meeting in 2005 increased the number of sectors for cooperation to eight.

Though it was decided in the Thailand meeting of 2004 to hold the BIMSTEC summit every two years, only three such summits were held prior to the recent one in Goa. The second high level summit was held in New Delhi in 2008, four years after the Thailand summit. However, ministerial meetings have been constantly held over the years, bringing together foreign ministers and commerce/industry ministers to deliberate upon issues of mutual interest. Besides, other operational bodies have interacted regularly, such as the Senior Trade Economic Officials Meetings. The BIMSTEC Working Group is the coordinating body for all of this activity and its chair rotates with the BIMSTEC Chairmanship, which is currently held by Nepal.

The third BIMSTEC summit was held in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar in 2011. Here it was unanimously decided that a permanent Secretariat for BIMSTEC would be set up in Bangladesh and the first secretary general would be appointed from Sri Lanka. Consequently, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the secretariat in Dhaka’s diplomatic enclave of Gulshan in 2014 and Sumith Nakandala from Sri Lanka took charge as the secretary general.

Goa was the fourth high level summit and the first-ever joint summit of the organization with another multilateral grouping. Through the BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach summit, the BIMSTEC countries sought greater exposure to financial investments for the region. The New Development Bank established by the BRICS is of particular interest in this regard. Among the BIMSTEC countries themselves, there was renewed interest to fast track free-trade agreement negotiations to boost trade, pursue the possibilities for a blue economy, and improve connectivity and people-to-people contact.

Most notably, the BIMSTEC leaders, in the outcome document, unequivocally condemned terrorism:

“We condemn in the strongest terms the recent barbaric terror attacks in the region. We strongly believe that our fight against terrorism should not only seek to disrupt and eliminate terrorists, terror organizations and networks, but should also identify, hold accountable and take strong measures against States who encourage, support and finance terrorism, provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups, and falsely extol their virtues. There should be no glorification of terrorists as martyrs.”

After South Asian nations pulled out of the SAARC summit last month, the BIMSTEC summit marked the second time that Pakistan faced strong condemnation for its terrorist designs from leaders in South Asia. Such a condemnation is not only a diplomatic victory for India but also a pertinent stance for all BIMSTEC countries given the grave threat the entire region faces from terrorism.

The BIMSTEC leaders also identified various other areas of cooperation to move forward with concrete action – a BIMSTEC framework agreement on transit, trans-shipment and movement of vehicular traffic; having an annual exercise on disaster management; setting up a BIMSTEC center for technology transfer; initiating talks on a BIMSTEC coastal shipping agreement; information intelligence sharing and an annual meeting of national security chiefs; and so on. It was also decided to form a BIMSTEC eminent persons group to further explore and identify new avenues for collaboration. From the six sectors of cooperation in 1997, BIMSTEC cooperation today spans across 14 sectors, including agriculture, poverty alleviation, climate change, cultural cooperation, counterterrorism, and transnational crimes.

Home to over 1.5 billion people, which constitutes around 22 percent of the world’s population, with strong historical and cultural ties, and a combined GDP of $2.7 trillion, BIMSTEC has immense possibilities for the future. In the last five years, BIMSTEC member states have been able to sustain an average 6.5 percent economic growth rate despite the global financial slowdown. The BIMSTEC region has a huge amount of untapped natural, water, and human resources, from hydropower potential in the Himalayan basin to hydrocarbons in the Bay of Bengal.

There is however a long way to go in establishing satisfactory inter-regional transport connectivity, something that is foundational for several other fields of cooperation. To this end, as many as 100 projects have been identified by the BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistics Study (BTILS), which would be funded by the Asian Development Bank. Also in the works is the Kaladan Multi-Modal Project, which would connect India to ASEAN countries, and the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway. Besides inter-regional cross-border connectivity, it is crucial that BIMSTEC countries simultaneously develop their own internal infrastructures – feeder road connectivity, which would form a major part of the supply chain – in order to fully benefit from the fruits of trade liberalization.

With the fresh lease of energy pumped into the organization, BIMSTEC today has political will backing it like never before. With Pakistan perennially playing spoilsport in SAARC, BIMSTEC can be expected to play a greater role in meeting the objectives of regional integration and cooperation in various sectors. BIMSTEC, unlike SAARC, is an “issue-free relationship” in which all countries are looking for cooperation that can help in their development process. Also unlike SAARC, BIMSTEC has no written charter and thus is more flexible. In each of the 14 priority areas of cooperation, a member country takes the lead.

With five countries that also belong to SAARC and two that belong to ASEAN, BIMSTEC can serve as the bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia. With the lifting of sanctions on Myanmar and a democratic government at its helm, the country can particularly play this bridging role. As BIMSTEC celebrates its 20th anniversary next year, Goa could mark the beginning of a new rise in its trajectory.