So the word is out. The Narendra Modi Government Mark 2.0 Plus — a suitable appellation given its huge majority in a second term — has decided to invite BIMSTEC leaders for the swearing-in ceremony on 30 May. BIMSTEC or 'Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Cooperation' is actually a Neighbourhood-Plus, since it includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and adds Myanmar and Thailand. There's an obvious minus here, but then SAARC has come to a standstill given Pakistani obduracy on almost all issues including the core issue for this government — which is connectivity.
The invite also includes Mauritius and Kyrgyzstan, both of whom are central to India’s ambitions. Modi's vision of Indian Ocean cooperation was after all outlined in Mauritius in 2015 and was followed by some brisk cooperation including the supply of coast guard vessels. As for Bishkek, a long-sought Central Asia Summit is to be held in June.
BIMSTEC numbers are impressive. The grouping includes some 22 percent of the world’s population and more importantly has a combined GDP of more than $3 trillion. Not that this helped much. The grouping was burdened from the start in 1997 with more issues than it could possibly handle, with fourteen working groups and a rather less-than-evident headquarters in Dhaka. With such a heavy burden, it seemed to lose heart altogether and no meeting was held at summit level for nearly 6 years till 2014.
This multiplicity of issues was not accidental but served to underline the very different priority areas of each. Bangladesh is the lead country for trade and investment, but also is trying to introduce climate change. Myanmar is the leader for energy and agriculture, and India is leading in transport and communications, as also counter-terrorism and transnational crime. In recent times, both issues are being highlighted.
The first Modi government (2014-2019) seemed to have looked over this grouping carefully and decided it was after all a useful body provided it got rid of the flab. The BIMSTEC Transport and Connectivity Working Group (BTCWG) was launched in that year, and its terms of reference were finalised. The 2018 summit focused on institutional reform with 13 of its 18 points aimed at strengthening institutional arrangement to actually get the grouping off the ground.
Just one MoU was signed on Grid Interconnection with a ‘resolve’ to go ahead with a Coastal Shipping Agreement and a Motor Vehicles Agreement. These are not yet operationalised, with Thailand objecting to various aspects of the MVA, but it's there. A customs agreement is expected to be signed, and the Asian Development Bank is to provide a new Master Plan for connectivity after an earlier one languished for want of attention. An ambitious military exercise near Pune was also pointedly ignored by Nepal, probably under the influence of another powerful neighbour.
Nepal sent only its Ambassador to the NSA meeting in Dhaka. So, on the face of it, the grouping is still floundering, even while India pushes ahead on a bilateral mode with each, particularly Myanmar and Bangladesh on land corridors, coastal shipping and customs. Myanmar's Sitwe port is vital, as also a series of rail and road links with Bangladesh.
So with this state of BIMSTEC, why invite them at all?
First, with a strong economy which is growing, and common borders with five of six member states, India needs to expand its trade and investment footprint rapidly. Business studies put the trade potential between members at $250 billion, as against the existing figures of about $45 billion. Trade is important to all members, including India, who accounts for about 50 percent of the trade.
This can increase only if connectivity bottlenecks are removed. Look forward to the proposed BIMSTEC Development Fund soon.
Security reasons are obvious. If India doesn’t go the mile, China will. The Bay of Bengal is vital, nothing less, and a cautious engagement in less than central areas — like coastal security — could provide the first rim of a possible security architecture. It's not going to be easy. Countries like Nepal will remain skittish. But the sheer strength of the new government may push tentative engagements forward. After all, politicians like everyone else, like to move quickly when they see a five-year green light. It may not be full speed ahead but expect some cautious hand-clasping.
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Updated Date: May 28, 2019 13:01:10 IST